By Frank Wells
Parent Jsané Tyler, whose daughter attends thrid grade at Hillcrest Elementary School, speaks in support of UTLA's efforts and the local plan.
On Jan. 11, United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy, Vice President Gregg Solkovits, and West Area Chair Cecily Myart-Cruz joined with teachers at Hillcrest Elementary School for a news conference announcing that school’s innovative plan to improve school performance and student achievement. Hillcrest’s was one of 30 UTLA-sponsored plans submitted on behalf of 12 lower-performing schools and 18 brand-new schools subject to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Public School Choice motion, a measure that put the targeted schools up for management takeover bids by both inside and outside groups.
Duffy said that UTLA members at Hillcrest had developed a quality plan and had the best chance of moving the school forward. “These are people who know this school, these students, and this community like no one else,” he said. Hillcrest teacher and NEA Director Sonia Martin-Solis concurred, stressing the expertise, effort, and strong parent support that had gone into the plan development and how connected the school’s teachers are to the community and to their students’ needs. “The parents here have felt ignored by the district, and they see our plan as the best option for their children,” she said. “They ask us, what can we do to help?”
The LAUSD Board of Education passed the Public School Choice motion in August, sending waves of anxiety throughout the district as the board appeared to be abrogating its responsibility. UTLA strenuously objected to the motion and the rushed timelines imposed on groups vying to run the affected schools. While supporting the
potential opportunity for local teachers to finally have more direct authority over how their students are taught, UTLA members objected to the idea of outside charter school operators moving in to take over schools that could better be run by committed staff members.
With support from CTA, UTLA filed a lawsuit in December alleging the district had violated the Education Code by allowing public schools to convert charters without a petition of 50 percent of the affected staff. It was hoped that a decision on the suit would be rendered before the school board’s final vote in late February on all the submitted plans.
Despite filing the lawsuit, UTLA leaders recognized this was also an opportunity for their members to wrest control away from a failed LAUSD bureaucracy, and they began working closely with the impacted schools on developing local plans customized for their students and their communities. The preliminary plans were reviewed and received input from CTA and NEA staff and other education experts. Recognizing the tight timelines, UTLA members worked on their own time and during winter break to put the final details on plans that they felt would best serve their students.
While still pushing ahead with their own local school plan development, UTLA continued to object to the rushed and disorganized takeover bidding process. Citing the potential disenfranchisement of parents in a scheduled advisory vote, Duffy sent a letter to LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines demanding that voting occur at all affected school sites in order to allow parents with transportation issues to participate.
UTLA also raised serious concerns about charters and their history of excluding some neighborhood students and students with special needs. “Having strong public schools that serve all children in the neighborhood is vital to the future of our students and our community,” said Duffy, a former special education teacher himself. Exemplifying those concerns, the California Charter Schools Association objected strongly as the district added student enrollment acceptance and financial disclosure requirements on potential charter operators.
At Hillcrest and the other sites, UTLA emphasized the teacher-community connection and the opportunity to build a lasting partnership with parents to improve LAUSD schools. Hillcrest was one of the few existing campuses with more than one outside charter competing for control; most of the charter applications focused on new, as yet unstaffed schools, an indication that most had little interest in helping existing schools that are struggling.
NEA and CTA gave additional support to UTLA efforts through radio and print ads that urged the community to call their school board members to support the teacher-led plans. CTA and NEA also joined with UTLA and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in a joint organizing campaign that included direct mail and phone calls to voters in the targeted school neighborhoods.
As the Educator went to press, preliminary advisory voting results showed UTLA plans had overwhelmingly won the parent, teacher, and student vote at all contested schools, and the community vote at all but four (“community” being somewhat ill-defined in the voting process).
The voting results are not binding on the LAUSD board, but were strongly indicative of the high quality of the local teacher-developed plans and the deep support they have from parents. “We are here to defend our children,” said Jsané Tyler, whose daughter attends third grade at Hillcrest. “We deserve the right to reform our own school.”
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