By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Mark Lewis, president of the Los Angeles County Education Association, stands outside Nidorf Juvenille Hall in Los Angeles County.
Ashley is 17, has a gang tattoo on her neck, and has been in trouble with the law. She is spending a few months in a juvenile detention facility called Camp Scudder in northern Los Angeles County. The rural scenery is pretty, but she is hardly a happy camper. She hates just about everything about being in this facility surrounded by 12-foot fences and razor wire. Everything but the teachers, that is.
“I love the teachers here,” says Ashley with a smile. “If Miss Hayward wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be working on my GED. Miss Hayward keeps me focused.”
“The teachers are wonderful,” says Shana, another incarcerated student. “They are here to teach you. Mr. Gitlin is wonderful. He is always telling me how he wants me to learn and how he wants me to make it.”
They may be getting rave reviews from students, but teachers are threatened at Camp Scudder, a detention facility for girls on medication, and the adjacent Camp Scott, which also houses female juvenile offenders. Los Angeles County supervisors are considering converting both Santa Clarita facilities to charter schools, as well as Camp Glenn Rockey in San Dimas for boys, which could mean that teachers at all three sites may lose their jobs.
The idea for charter conversion was one of 35 items in Probation’s Comprehensive Education Reform Report for improving education in the county’s probation camps. Under the agreement, educational responsibilities would be switched from the Los Angeles County Office of Education to the Los Angeles Department of Probation, which presently handles only law enforcement and supervision duties at the facilities — and has no experience in the field of education.
Members of the Los Angeles County Education Association (LACEA) are on board with 34 items in the plan, but not with converting camps into charter schools. They assert that it’s just an excuse for the county to hire cheaper, less experienced, non-union staff. If such a move happens in these three so-called pilot projects, it could pave the way for similar conversions throughout the 19 juvenile “court schools” staffed by LACEA members.
Initially, the move would impact 20 teachers. However, if all court schools were converted to charters, hundreds of LACEA members could potentially lose their jobs. The plan calls for teacher salary cuts, which many believe will force current teachers out and allow the school to hire new teachers at cheaper rates.
“This is politically motivated,” asserts LACEA President Mark Lewis. “This is about internal county politics and about power and control. The Probation Department sees money for our programs and says, ‘We’d like to control it.’ But others don’t see what it will mean in terms of education for these students.”
If charter conversion were to happen, says Lewis, experienced teachers would leave and novice teachers would be hired to work with the most challenging students in the state. That in itself, he says, is a recipe for disaster.
“Everyone wants to see reform and more avenues for students to succeed,” says Lewis. “But we don’t believe charters are the way to go. Some believe that charters are a panacea for solving all the problems in education. Sometimes charters can be successful in the right place and the right time. But this is not the time or place.”
By law, it is school boards — and not county governments — that take responsibility for authorizing charters. And converting a traditional public school into a charter school requires the signatures of at least half the number of teachers working there. Because the proponents won’t get 50 percent of LACEA members on board, Lewis fears they will petition the state for a waiver to start up the schools without teacher support.
“We will fight this,” vows Lewis. “We will explore court action with CTA. We are exploring legal, legislative and political remedies. It’s important to fight this because if it happens here, it can happen anywhere.”
Also unhappy with the plan for charter conversion are administrators at the camps, who say that for the most part, teachers are doing a good job with the challenging female populations at Camp Scott and Scudder, who belong to some of the worst gangs in Los Angeles County. Many have been arrested for prostitution, drugs and worse.
“I really don’t see the benefit of going charter,” says Valerie Martin, principal of Camp Scott High School. “A lot of good ideas have come up in collaboration with others to make this school better, but these things can be accomplished in this setting.”
Another administrator at Camp Scudder who wishes not to be identified agrees. “I wish they could come in here and see what my teachers do. They work so hard. New teachers would not know our environment or the programs that would work best.”
Just the day before, says the Scudder administrator, there was a mini “riot” at the camp with girls rolling in the mud fighting each other. Teachers at Scudder believe that it is no coincidence that discipline has gotten much more lax at the school site, since it is the Probation Department that wants the charter conversion and Probation that is supposed to enforce discipline. When discipline is not enforced, it makes teachers look bad and also makes for a more challenging learning and teaching environment.
“They are setting us up for failure,” says Roger Gitlin, a history and economics teacher at Camp Scudder. “Probation is not doing its job here, and we have a facility that is devoid of rules. It has become borderline dangerous here. Probation is supposed to be providing structure for these kids and providing suitable consequences for their aberrancy — and they are not.”
“The way things have become, the inmates are running the asylum,” says Scudder teacher Susan Hayward. “Teachers have never put up with this kind of disrespect before. There are no rules enforced, no consequences, and kids are walking out of class and doing anything they want to do. If Probation doesn’t do its job, how will it be any different with a charter school? It’s beyond ridiculous.”
Some of the students are well aware of the situation and feel upset that their teachers are being treated badly.
“I think they’re doing a good job,” says a girl known as Bunny, 14. “They think they’ll get better teachers but they won’t. It’s not right.”
“They teach you in a way that you understand it here,” agrees her classmate, Jessica, 15. “I’m at a third-grade level in math, but now I’m starting to understand algebra.”
The girls, who have been at Camp Scott for a few months, are working diligently in math class. The teacher, Pat Kerschner, affectionately known as “coach” by her students, moves constantly from desk to desk to make sure all of the students understand the material.
“It’s a challenge teaching here, because a lot of our students don’t know their multiplication tables, and you are teaching them algebra,” says Kerschner. “But it’s so nice when you see a light bulb going off in their head and they get it. A lot of them have dropped out of school because they think they can’t do the work. But I try to break it down for them so it makes sense.”
No other court schools in the state have become charter schools, with the exception of San Francisco Sheriff’s Five Keys Charter School. However, that site only has students 18 and older, and it’s like comparing apples and oranges, say LACEA members.
“They are trying to compare us to a school for adult criminals in San Francisco,” says Edward Stawser, a counselor at Camp Scudder. “I don’t know how they can compare us. We have such a transient population. We have kids from L.A. County for a period of three to six to nine months. Most of them are here short term and many of them are reading at the second-grade level. Don Knabe [of the Board of Supervisors] says we have been underperforming for years. How did he get that information? What are they comparing us to? I have no idea. That board member has never been out here or ever been out to the camps.”
“They say going charter will give us the flexibility to do innovative things that traditional schools are unable to do under the status quo,” says Gitlin. “Excuse me, but what kind of innovative things are we talking about? Circumnavigating pesky hurdles like unions and collective bargaining agreements?
“I am hopeful that board members will rethink their position on this and give the Los Angeles County Office of Education and its trained staff of teachers the tools necessary to continue to help these children,” adds Gitlin. “Many of these teens will be out and living in our neighborhoods soon. Let’s give them the tools to succeed.”