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Officials Outline Shift of Authority to Schools : Education: Administrators seek support for a decentralization program as an alternative to the breakup of the district.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Outlining a decentralization plan that some hope will head off a breakup of the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District, school officials met with nearly 250 parents, teachers and administrators in Van Nuys on Tuesday to explain how local campuses can implement the widely praised LEARN program.

Adopted two weeks ago by the Los Angeles school board, the LEARN proposals aim to change the face of public education by shifting authority from the central bureaucracy to individual campuses. The meeting at Birmingham High School was one of four held throughout the sprawling school system Tuesday night.

“The old paradigm . . . is somebody at the top who made” the decisions, Assistant Supt. Sara A. Coughlin said. Under the LEARN plan, “decisions will be made at the local school sites,” she said, adding: “That’s hard for some of us to live with.”

“Change is hard . . . we are, in a sense, pioneers,” said Assistant Supt. Maria Casillas, who advised listeners how their schools can apply to be among the first to take part in the educational experiment.

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The suggested changes by LEARN--the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now--attempt to radically alter the way the giant school district does business.

Under the plan, principals would have broad powers to run their schools, although teachers and parents could vote to fire them. Teachers would exercise more control over curriculum but would be held directly accountable for student achievement.

And parents would be permitted to choose which schools their children attend.

The Board of Education unanimously approved the proposed changes against a backdrop of growing discontent with the Los Angeles school system, the nation’s second-largest. Many San Fernando Valley residents, contending that the system is too large to respond to their concerns, have thrown their support behind an intensified drive to split up the district.

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At least one major Valley organization, VOICE, formed by congregations of several churches and synagogues, has endorsed the LEARN plan as an alternative to a district breakup, which some believe would harm minority race students by consigning them to inferior schools.

District officials expect about 30 schools--comprising three high schools and their feeder elementary and junior high schools--to inaugurate the LEARN reforms this summer. The group that developed the LEARN plan, a coalition of business leaders, educators and community activists, has promised to find private donors to generate the $3 million needed to implement the plan for that first group of schools.

So far, only Taft High School in Woodland Hills has offered to take part, in a letter also signed by officials from Taft’s feeder campuses.

“We are looking for risk-takers--people who want to collaborate . . . people who are ready to be out there in front,” Coughlin said.

Annie Perez, an Arleta mother of three, said she would like her children’s schools to be in the LEARN vanguard, but that the effort would require commitment. “It needs the cooperation of everyone--of parents, teachers and the community. We have to work together if we want to see our kids get ahead in school,” she said.

Teacher Madeline Brady praised the LEARN proposals as “desperately” needed to rejuvenate the ailing school system.

“Even if every single goal they set isn’t achieved, they’re on the right track,” Brady said. For teachers, she said, “it would give us more of a say in education . . . teachers are pretty cynical right now.”

According to the schedule released Tuesday, interested schools have until April 23 to apply to be one of the flagship LEARN campuses. The district will review the applications, judge support for the change within each school community and announce the first three LEARN high school “complexes” at the beginning of May.

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Principals and so-called lead teachers at each of the Phase 1 schools will receive training throughout the summer. The program is scheduled to begin in a second group of schools in early 1994.

Officials hope to phase in the reforms at the remainder of the cash-strapped district’s 650 campuses within five years, at an estimated cost of $60 million. But skeptics of the movement have questioned whether LEARN will be able to raise enough funds to finance the restructuring effort.


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