Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Villaraigosa and school reform

Villaraigosa pushes school partnership as vote nears
Parents and teachers at three L.A. high schools and their feeder middle schools will decide whether to join the L.A.'s mayor plan or stick with LAUSD's model.
By Howard Blume and Duke Helfand
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

December 10, 2007

Teachers and parents at seven low-performing middle and high schools will decide Tuesday whether to join Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his effort to dramatically remake their schools. Those campuses are in line for what the mayor said are historic infusions of money and more authority.

This week's balloting will culminate months of hard-charging organizing in neighborhoods and schools by the mayor, his allies and staff. Villaraigosa tried to close the deal himself last week by repeatedly visiting Eastside and South Los Angeles schools, meeting separately with teachers and parents at Roosevelt High, Jordan High and the Santee Education Complex. He and his staff also have made multiple visits to four middle schools that feed into those high schools.

"I want to ensure that teachers have a voice," he told instructors at Jordan. "We want to create a partnership with teachers, classified [non-teaching employees] and parents."

The mayor's overtures received a mix of enthusiasm, skepticism and uncertainty. Villaraigosa made his entreaties even as Los Angeles Unified School District officials develop their own strategy for low-achieving schools, including those courted by the mayor. The school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a plan proposed by Supt. David L. Brewer.

The mayor has said that the partnership would operate only in communities and schools that invite it. For schools to participate, a majority of teachers on each campus must vote yes as well as a majority of parents who choose to vote.

Specifics of how schools will operate under Villaraigosa's partnership will be worked out on individual campuses, the mayor said. Responding to numerous questions from teachers, he said repeatedly that he wants schools to come up with their own solutions and make decisions on curriculum and budgets independent of the central bureaucracy.

"The specific plan," Villaraigosa said to parents at Roosevelt, "is going to be developed and created by you in the schools."

Villaraigosa's tack is strategic as well as philosophical because the veteran politician knows he has an election to win. He's emphasizing local control and funding, while speaking generically about possibly contentious issues, such as what would happen to ineffective teachers or exactly how much progress schools would need to make.

"We've got to have the vote first," he said in an interview Friday. "You can't put the cart before the horse."

Part of his message was to characterize Brewer's reform plan as "status quo" and "top down." The mayor said he meant no disrespect, only to set his initiative apart from the latest "imposed plan."

District officials have suggested that Villaraigosa is exaggerating that distinction, but the mayor frequently scored points with crowds by comparing his pledges to L.A. Unified's track record.

At every stop, teachers peppered Villaraigosa with questions: Who would manage the schools? What would he do about classroom discipline? Why should teachers choose his approach when other promises of help have withered away?

Veteran Jordan teacher Miranda Manners questioned whether he understood large urban high schools and called the mayor's presentation fuzzy. "I want to go with the district because this partnership is vague," she said in an interview.

At nearby Gompers Middle School, nine teachers, including the school's two union representatives, signed a letter last week that praised the partnership for offering more money and autonomy. Joining the mayor, the teachers said, is "a risk worth taking."

Villaraigosa repeatedly insisted that the issue of money plays in favor of his team.

"You saw the way I raised 50 million bucks like that," he said at Roosevelt, referring to the largest single private pledge to the nonprofit that will manage his schools project.

"And I've got two big healthcare providers lined up -- but you can't write about that yet," he said, waving his microphone at a reporter.

A huge source of funding for both Villaraigosa and Brewer will be the state's Quality Education Investment Act, which for seven years will give dozens of low-achieving Los Angeles schools up to $1,000 per student per year.

Schools qualified for this funding -- and the attention from the mayor and Brewer -- by scoring among the lowest on standardized tests. But they have other problems as well. Santee, although only in its third year, also has been marred by ethnically tinged student fights and administrative turnover. Because of overcrowding, it has to operate year-round. Parents and students at Roosevelt, one of the nation's largest high schools, have complained about lack of access to college-prep classes. Jordan is adjacent to the gang-plagued Jordan Downs low-income housing project. One anti-gang activist at the mayor's forum had lost two of her sons to the violence and instability -- one shot by gang members, the other by police.

At the meetings, Villaraigosa had to overcome residual skepticism related to his failed effort to gain authority over the school system, which critics called divisive and undemocratic. The mayor had better luck recently securing a majority of allies on the school board.

"After helping to elect a reform board, I could have easily checked out, but I'm too committed to this," Villaraigosa said in the interview. "It's essential that the mayor partner with the school district."

For veteran teachers, some misgivings stem from seeing one wave after another of purported reforms sweep through schools with great fanfare, only to be ineffective or quickly abandoned.

"I want to make sure these promises are kept for our kids," Jordan history teacher Walter Rich told Villaraigosa.

School board member Richard Vladovic stood by the mayor's side during his Jordan visits.

"You're lucky if you are part of this partnership because you're going to have more of a say," Vladovic told the teachers. "There are a lot of 'must-do's' in [Brewer's plan]. You've got a choice here because you can opt in."

In a later interview, Vladovic said he, too, didn't mean to castigate Brewer, but called Villaraigosa's team more complete.

The superintendent, a retired admiral who lacks a background in public education, is still seeking a chief academic officer. For his effort, Villaraigosa has tapped Ramon C. Cortines, the former head of the Los Angeles and New York public schools, as chair of the board. The acting executive director is Marshall Tuck, who was chief operating officer for Green Dot Public Schools, which runs charter schools in the Los Angeles area.

Villaraigosa received one of his warmest receptions at Roosevelt in Boyle Heights, where about 150 teachers turned out one recent afternoon. A meeting that night for parents attracted 750.

At Roosevelt, the turnout and support resulted from six years of organizing to advocate for better schools, said Board of Education President Monica Garcia, a Villaraigosa ally who represents that area.

On the Eastside and elsewhere, the partnership has paid or recruited community groups to promote his plan, draw people to meetings and circulate petitions -- supporters claim more than 5,000 parent signatures. The $200,000 organizing effort is funded by grants from Verizon, the Hewlett Foundation, the Gates Foundation and the California Community Foundation, according to the mayor's office.

Most of those same community groups also receive funding for various purposes from the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, whose leaders are working closely with the mayor's team.

Even at Roosevelt, some critics made their opposition plain, wearing yellow shirts or carrying signs with messages such as "Roosevelt No! To Villaraigosa's partnership," "Our kids are not for sale," and "Can we trust you?"

Villaraigosa responded with charm as much as logic. He frequently stayed longer than promised, hamming it up with a little quickstep as he drew winning raffle tickets at Jordan -- organizers had put together a giveaway of a $50 Target certificate, a camera and a color TV to attract Jordan parents.

During the parents session at Roosevelt, which was conducted in Spanish, one woman virtually accused Villaraigosa of thievery. Villaraigosa addressed her by name and added: "One thing: Give me a hug."

She did.

A rodent that scurried across the floor became a Villaraigosa prop. "Is that a mouse?" he said. "We're going to get rid of the mice."

At Jordan, the mayor was unequivocal about his effort: "If you think things are fine at Jordan, then the partnership isn't for you," the mayor said. "When so many of our kids can't read and write, I say it's time for change."

howard.blume@latimes.com

duke.helfand@latimes.com
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