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A School System is a Terrible Thing to Waste 

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Photo by Ted Soqui

LOW TEST SCORES. DECAYING FACILITIES. Unqualified teachers. Toxic building sites. Infighting between the school board and the superintendent. It's no wonder that the people of Los Angeles have developed a profound cynicism about the city's schools and their ability to educate our youth. But if everyone agrees on the need for reform, concrete strategies to achieve it are elusive. LEARN, the district's high-profile attempt to remake schools through transferring decision-making authority to staff and parents at local schools, is seen by many to be in crisis. And, while a few individual schools are flourishing, most are struggling to find the right course. Last week, we brought together some of the city's most thoughtful educators and policymakers to discuss what needs to happen to achieve true education reform. What follows is an edited transcript of their remarks.

PANELISTS INCLUDED:

JUDIE IVIE BURTON Assistant Superintendent for School Reform, LAUSD

MARIA CASILLAS President, Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project

HOWARD M. LAPPIN Principal, James A. Foshay Learning Center

THEODORE R. MITCHELL President, Occidental College

JEANNIE OAKES Associate Dean, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies

DICK ROBERTS Program Director for After School Learning, LAUSD San Fernando Cluster and Community Liaison, Project GRAD

MIKE ROOS President Mike Roos & Company, Former President of LEARN

DAVID TOKOFSKY Member, Los Angeles City Board of Education

L.A. WEEKLY: We've asked you all here today to talk about school reform, a term on the lips of anyone talking about the LAUSD these days. So let's start with a discussion of what that means. What is school reform?

DAVID TOKOFSKY: Without making too much of a play on words, the idea of reform, to form again, is a troublesome direction. We've seen what hasn't worked in the past, and to form it again will probably lead us back to the same place. There are a couple of fundamental things we simply have to change. One issue I think we really have to look at in this district is the issue of size and scale. You can take a nice, small elementary school like Ivanhoe, that has 360 or so kids, and it has a chance of taking an idea, a vision of building a community, and it can permeate through that entire community and become a model for others to look at. It's much more difficult for that to happen at a huge school. So, to me, changing the size of all operations is fundamental.

The second dramatic change that has to happen is the issue of teacher quality. If you look around today, the vast majority of the most talented women who came into teaching are exiting, or have exited from the profession. It used to be that women who were the best in their class went into teaching. Now those women are not going into teaching.

The third challenge I see is that we have to imbue everyone -- from the parent, to the kid, to the teachers and administrators -- with a sense of responsibility for the educational outcomes.

MARIA CASILLAS: I'd like to raise a couple of other crucial elements of school reform. Middle-class families have criteria that they judge schools by. And if they don't think the neighborhood school is good enough, they take their kids and enroll them someplace else -- in magnet schools, or private schools, or other public schools on permits. They even select neighborhoods to buy homes based on what kind of schooling opportunities are available.

Now, for the vast majority of the students who attend Los Angeles Unified, this is not the case. And so it's important to reinvent that sense of middle-class values about schools, and knowledge about schools in all families, and also to create a situation where educators act as advocates on behalf of the communities in which they teach, on behalf of the students and families. For this to be able to happen, we have to address some critical issues.

The first is time. Most of these educators live far away from where they work, and they want to get on the road before traffic starts at 4 o'clock. Teachers need more time if they are to reinvent themselves in roles as community members. They don't currently have that time. They don't have time to spend time with each other, and they certainly don't have time to spend time with the communities.

A second issue, as David pointed out, is size. Our kids are exposed to these huge places. We tell them that school is important, but we really don't look to find a personalized environment for them. So schools are often these huge places that are very depersonalized and don't allow for sufficient teacher-to-student interaction, and kids get lost.

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