LEARN Offers the Last Best Hope for Schools : Troubled Program Is Still a Viable Option for Reform

The LEARN program for educational reform in the Los Angeles Unified School District is proceeding apace, but with significant shortcomings. Some 37 schools have been welcomed into the school-based management portion of the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, for example. The problem is that the schools in the program are widely dispersed in the district, with few if any connections to each other.

It was hoped that the effort to shift authority from the central bureaucracy to local school sites would involve clusters or complexes, such as a senior high school and many of the elementary and middle schools that feed into it. The idea was to offer consistency to students so that they would not have to move from a middle school with site-based management to a high school still laboring fitfully under the old style. These clusters of schools could also share programs and resources, such as a parents center that might offer classes or social service programs. It was also hoped that there would be a greater amount of collaboration among these schools, perhaps on ways to deal with specific types of students.

Unfortunately, there is not one cluster among the LEARN schools. In fact, there are no LEARN high schools, and only three middle schools are involved with the program.

But there is still a chance to get the site-based management plan off the ground in the proper way, with clusters of schools--and two such opportunities exist right here in the Valley. In the Birmingham High School complex in Van Nuys, for example, Anatola Avenue Elementary, the Lemay Children's Center, and Lemay Street Elementary joined the LEARN program with resounding votes of support from teachers. More than 60% of the instructors at Mulholland Middle School also voted to join, but they fell short of the requirement of 75% teacher support. Birmingham High's school-based management council strongly supported LEARN. Both of those schools should be urged to reconsider their position. They ought to join LEARN.

The situation is similar in the Taft High School complex, where Topanga and Woodland Hills elementaries and Parkman Middle School are in the LEARN program, while Taft and other schools are not. About 60% of Taft's teachers wanted to join, and they should be urged to redouble their efforts in gaining the support of their colleagues.

At first blush, it might sound silly to expect Valley schools and parents to jump onto a Los Angeles Unified School District bandwagon. Indeed, the Valley is home to many who want to see a breakup of the school district, perhaps in the form of a San Fernando-only system. But while a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed strong support for those alternatives, Valley residents were even more strongly in favor of site-based management as an option for change.

According to the poll, 73% of the Valley respondents believed that site-based management would be an effective way to improve education in the district. In contrast, 58% thought that breaking up the district into smaller school districts would be effective. That suggests that there may be far more support among Valley residents for the LEARN program than previously suspected.

The LEARN program was adopted during an unfortunate period in the history of the school district. It was a time of rancor and divisiveness over everything from pay cuts to calls for a break-up of the district. It was a time when some teachers might have cast ballots for reasons that had less to do with LEARN and more to do with expressing dismay with their overall plight. But the fact of the matter is that LEARN stands as the last best hope for the success of students in the district. They deserve the chance to benefit from it.

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