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Matter of choice

Cynthia E. Griffin- | 2/24/2010, 8 p.m.

After four hours of conversation from more than 50 speakers (including board members), the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education approved the majority of recommendations made by Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines regarding the public school choice program.
There were a number of changes made to Cortines' recommendations by the board including the governance of Barack Obama Global Preparatory Academy and Florence Joyner-Griffith Elementary School.
Barack Obama School, which is located on 46th Street and Western Avenue and was built in to relieve overcrowding at Foshay Learning Center and John Muir Middle School, will now be totally operated by Local District 7.
The superintendent had recommended that two of the small learning communities proposed for the site be operated by Local District 7, and a third school on the campus be run by the Inner City Educational Foundation (ICEF).
On the other hand, Cortines recommended that a coalition of teachers, administrators and parents from Florence Joyner-Griffith school be given the green light to run the school.
However, board members decided to award the campus to the mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS) because the elementary school is a feeder to Markham Middle School, which is currently a PLAS school.
During the discussion on the choices, Marguerite LaMotte, once again offered a cautionary note to her colleagues about a number of concerns, including the re-segregation of L.A. schools, making sure that plans are in place to clearly spell out the future direction of the choices program and an need to insure that the changes being made really are in the best of children.
"Although I voted in favor of the recommendations as amended during (Tuesday's) board meeting, I am extremely disappointed in the process involving the allocation of schools under the Public School Choice resolution.
"Our stakeholders were subjected to a tainted process in which many of the interested parties had less access to information than those whose interests paralleled the Board majority.
"It is unfortunate that the world has witnessed the second largest school district in the country give schools to outside organizations; some with little experience in educating large segments of our population with special educational needs.
"Community members, parents, teachers and staff have flooded my office with telephone calls and jammed my e-mail account with messages asking me to stand up for their concerns because they feel the board is not listening to them. Many of our employees say they have been treated like step-children. They say the district appears to favor outside providers more than the loyalty and commitment of its employees.
"While this is an historic event for our district, it is historic for the wrong reasons. When this motion was initially introduced, I indicated my reservations, because there was no business plan. I still feel that sense of emptiness. I have heard parents say that charter schools re-establish segregation. We need to think about that statement. We need to slow down and take time to determine what is best for kids.
"Our children have unfortunately become pawns in adult games of empire building, political cronyism and greed."
In the Tuesday board meeting, contrary to what many had hoped, in many cases the LAUSD chose the local district offices as the operator of most of the new and struggling schools, including Local District 7 which is run by George McKenna.
"District 7 (and all the districts) worked very hard preparing their own plans. Even though we have lost one school to the mayor's Partnership, that decision was made by the board members and was not the recommendation of the superintendent or the community," McKenna said.
Selection of the district to turn around the struggling schools and operate new schools is not going to be business as usual, stressed McKenna, because competition has made that impossible.
"(It changes because) by indicating that if schools don't perform, there are consequences. That as a focus school you can be put up for bid or we can restructure it like we're doing at Fremont," added the local superintendent, who is most noted for his turnaround of Washington Preparatory High School in the 1980s.
McKenna said he sees the new choices program as much like what happened at Washington and in other high performing schools in the district, but he cautions that producing top-notch schools will not happen overnight. He predicts it will take three to five years to embed a culture of achievement in the schools.
"It starts with the expectations of the staff, and since the staffs wrote the proposals, they have to hold themselves to a higher standard," said McKenna.
The higher expectations will include providing a standards-based, culturally relevant education; monitoring student attendance, and calling parents when there is a problem; enforcing strict disciplinary codes on campus from behavior to dress to homework; and accepting no excuses from the staff, students or their parents.
All of these changes will be in place for the 2010-11 school year, which official begins July 1.