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Fedde Academy in Hawaiian Gardens enacts ambitious change

Like almost every teacher at this Hawaiian Gardens middle school, science instructor John Laird posts his students' standardized test results in the back of his classroom.

But right next to them, Laird also put up his own evaluation. "This is my report card. Read the principal's comments," he wrote next to it. Laird also invited comments from the class, and several students did comment; they asked him to post grades faster and be more interactive.

"I decided if I'm going to hold them accountable, I should be held accountable too," Laird said.

Laird and the other instructors at Fedde International Studies Academy have embarked on an ambitious turnaround program that has embraced some of the most controversial measures in education today: evaluating teachers based, in part, on student test scores; allowing instructors to review administrators; and paying teachers more if test scores rise.

While such measures are becoming more common throughout the nation, they have been staunchly resisted almost everywhere in California.

Although test scores at the 350-student school have not improved significantly, the new practices have drawn the attention and praise of federal education officials and national labor leaders, who say Fedde is an example of what can happen if unions and administrators make an honest effort to collaborate.

"They've shown us a third way that isn't about embarrassing anyone or conflict. It's about moving forward," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Under the new evaluation system, negotiated in just three short, cordial meetings between administrators and teachers, instructors are evaluated on 36 criteria, including the progress — or lack thereof — their students make on standardized tests. That analysis uses raw test score data. Also considered is whether teachers are helping improve the school's overall math and English scores. If the school makes enough progress, the staff will split a $100,000 bonus.

The evaluation supplements an earlier practice in which teachers provided administrators with less detail.

"I've never seen anything like this before," said math teacher Daniel Ramirez, who came to ABC Unified a year ago from another district. "It feels like everyone's on the same team."

It wasn't so long ago that relationships between teachers and administrators at Fedde, and within ABC Unified, were tenuous.

In 1993, teachers in the district, which serves Artesia, parts of Cerritos and Lakewood, and the surrounding area, went on an eight-day strike over cuts to their pay and benefits.

Tensions gradually eased, but the atmosphere at Fedde, located next to a casino in a low-income area, remained "typical," according to Supt. Gary Smuts, and test scores remained stagnant. Fedde's Academic Performance Index score, which measures students' standardized test results, also remained low, hovering between 622 and 650 over the last several years. (California schools are expected to score at least an 800.)

In 2006, district officials decided to replace the three campus administrators and brought in a new team, including then-assistant principal Carol Castro.

Castro said she found that teachers were eager to make changes and work together, but she said the real turning point came during a lengthy meeting in the library shortly after she was named principal two years ago. Teachers aired their grievances and "it felt like the air was cleared," Castro said.

Administrators began using a more detailed checklist when visiting classrooms so they could give teachers better feedback.

And teachers began seriously evaluating Castro. Instructors in the ABC district had been allowed to rate principals on their ability to give teachers the right materials and feedback, but it wasn't very useful at Fedde.

"Teachers would just blast away," said Ken Denman, one of two union representatives at the school. "But it changed into something useful."

In her latest evaluation, 19 of the school's 23 teachers answered questions about Castro and gave her generally high marks, including: "The principal is not giving lip service to the staff's needs but is willing to be creative."

The staff last year applied for — and won — a $4.6-million, three-year federal School Improvement Grant. The school had several options under the grant, including becoming a charter school, something staff members did not want, or replacing its administrators, which had already been done. The school decided to revise its curriculum and teaching methods.

The school also elected to try a bonus pay system. Districts in Houston and Florida have offered cash rewards to staffers whose students improved on standardized tests, an idea endorsed by U.S. Department of Education officials and the previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but fiercely opposed by California's largest teachers union.

The staff will receive the additional pay if 10% of students increase their scores on the California Standards Test.

"It's only a pilot program … so it seemed worth a try," Denman said.

Union President Laura Rico said she doesn't think the bonus program will spread to other campuses in the district. She and others also expect test scores to rise at Fedde as the new system matures. And if Fedde staffers want to keep the bonus program or make other changes, she and other union members would support it.

"There's honor in saying, 'What I'm doing is not working, and I can change,' " she said.

jason.song@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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