Updated after the jump: Hundreds of Huntington High students walk the four miles to LAUSD headquarters to fight for their teachers. Here's where the reform debate gets sticky.
Usually, teacher cuts can be blamed on the recession -- but these are more personal.
Just one month into the reign of new Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy, and amid a budget-crisis culture of angry uncertainty for thousands of L.A. teachers with jobs on the line, one high school in Huntington Park is getting a total makeover -- from the inside out. It's the ed-reform war magnified: Teachers and students feel toyed with; en-vogue reformers are thirsty for change.
The Los Angeles Times' Howard Blume calls Huntington Park "the laboratory for just how fast things can go," and ultimately sympathizes with the immediate human pain in the debate -- teachers who vow they're making baby steps, despite their school's abysmal test results.
"I think that they should base the teachers on more than just test scores," one student tells KNX news radio this morning.
According to the Times, "Huntington Park is the first place where the district is requiring that at least 50% of the staff be replaced." Another important figure: Only 5 percent of students are proficient in math; only 24 percent in English.
Huntington Park High is somewhat of a pet project for Board of Education member Yolie Flores, a graduate from the underperforming campus (hey, can't be that bad -- at least there's one success story!). Though Flores is moving on to work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a home base for new-school reformers, she's determined to see her alma mater get the turnaround before she goes.
The board will decide the school's fate at today's meeting.
The Huntington Park campus newspaper infamously ripped into Flores when she began to push for change, very clearly echoing the hurt expressed by their teacher(s), who understandably don't want to shoulder the blame for the high school's terrible standing.
But Flores won't back down in her conviction that enough is enough. Now, she tells the Times: "This school has been waiting for decades, and people say wait a little longer. To me, it's a stall tactic. I'm tired of waiting."
Ultimately, though, reporter Blume's heart seems to go out to what appears to be a tight-knit high-school family:
"The morale of teachers is really low," said veteran English teacher Philip R. Keller, as he walked the calm, leafy, but crowded campus last week.
He waved at one student who mastered his English class less than a year after arriving from Mexico and plans to apply to UC Berkeley. He indicated another to whom he gave a D for lack of effort. Several students praised Keller as a teacher who demanded and encouraged good work.
Keller said he worried that many strong teachers would choose to leave, and a school that needs to improve will decline under a heavy-handed approach that puts too much blame on teachers.
An LA Weekly piece entitled "School Reformer Yolie Flores Departs LAUSD to Fight From Outside" saw a darker side of campus culture:
In fact, many parents at Huntington Park -- or HP, as it's known -- are very upset. They say some teachers are rude, angry, even racist. One constantly talks on her cell phone while kids are asking for help. Another was caught shouting at mentally disabled children. Some parents say that when they complain to the principal, Al Castillo, he doesn't want to hear it.
"He doesn't want parents involved," says Sonya Espinoza, an HP parent.
Espinoza says that when she tried to volunteer at the high school, Castillo laid down certain conditions. "He said, 'You can participate, but your child is going out of the school if you discover anything bad.' "
The Times itself has fanned the flames in a big way, after rolling out a comprehensive database of teacher rankings last summer. The numbers are based on student improvement via -- you guessed it -- test scores. Reformers like Flores have run with the numbers, seeing a small window in the public perception of teacher responsibility and cranking it open full-force. Last month, the Board of Education commissioned similar rankings.
"I think what they want to do is get red of the higher-paid people who have the seniority," another Huntington Park teacher tells KNX. That's becoming more and more of a possibility, thanks to an ACLU lawsuit that does away with "last hired, first fired."
The war is just getting started -- and the student-teacher community Huntington Park High are feeling the weight of a national debate, thanks to one outstanding alumna.
Update: A giant herd of high-schoolers, who spend six hours a day with the largely underperforming teachers of Huntington Park High, have marched all the way to the LAUSD administrative building in downtown Los Angeles to tell a bunch of teacher-bashing board members that they're perfectly happy with the ones they've got.
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Fox11 news reporter @GigiGraciette just Tweeted the following photos of the young protesters, adding "Major traffic jam nr LAUSD 3rd + Beaudry Downtown LA as students continue protest. Streets shut down."
Sweet -- no class, in the name of activism! But in all seriousness, the students seem deeply hurt by the cold, hard decision being made in a removed board room somewhere above them right now, ironically in the declared interest of bettering their futures.
We wouldn't call them brainwashed, exactly; how are they supposed to relate to a bunch of theorizing suits, when they've spent their formative years bonding with the men and women at the head of their classrooms? Test scores seem trivial in comparison -- and we're sure their teachers, at risk of losing their jobs, have told them as much.
But test-score disparity, campus by campus, represents something so much more dire: a lifetime of unequal opportunity. Huntington Park High only only graduates 55 percent of its students in four years. California's taxpayers employ teachers to do their jobs well. If they don't, like in any market, they need to be replaced.
But how hard, when students -- their immediate world in danger of crashing -- are passionate enough to make plans and signs, then march four miles through city streets to contradict a bunch of powerful politicians to their faces.
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Superintendent Deasy handled the issue gingerly, telling KCAL9:
"Hopefully, they will be able to hear the conversation to fundamentally honor their rights to go to a school where every student can graduate college- and workforce-ready; and where more than just five percent of students can be proficient at mathematics. There is absolutely no reason to believe that (these) students cannot
achieve at high levels. We know it happens at other schools; and we have committed to supporting Huntington Park in their redesign so that every student -- not just one in four, but every student -- actually graduates from that school.''
Originally posted at 9:30 a.m.