Far removed from the high-powered political battles over the future of the Los Angeles Unified School District, a group of classroom teachers and principals are charting a radical new course to reform the embattled system, plotting to take control of their campuses in ways never before seen in this city's public schools.
Injected with urgency by a simmering district breakup movement and the upcoming statewide vote on school vouchers, and with their every move scrutinized by skeptical, frustrated peers and parents, leaders of 37 schools have taken their seats in the monthlong LEARN summer academy.
The prime lessons for the 74 principals and teachers who enlisted in this educational equivalent of boot camp are ones that are virtually unheard of in the much-pilloried school district: thinking positively, working in teams and charting custom-made plans for student success.
"What is happening here is serious. It's not a question of whether change is going to happen, it's a question of how," said Theodore R. Mitchell, dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and a chief architect of the training academy at Cal Poly Pomona. "We are creating the Los Angeles Unified School District for the next century."
If the LEARN plan succeeds in raising student achievement, it would offer a national model on how an urban school system can turn itself around. If the experiment fails, it will bolster what critics say is the impossibility of meaningful reform in a giant bureaucracy.
Rarely has such intense and ambitious training been provided to front-line teachers and principals in any of the nation's urban public school systems, education experts across the country said. The LEARN program is teaching participants how to use proven business practices to improve school management, from techniques to build employee morale to how to read a spreadsheet.
The plan by LEARN--Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now--calls for a fundamental power shift in the school district. Decision-making authority is being taken away from the central bureaucracy and turned over to school principals, who must collaborate with the so-called stake-holders--teachers, parents and other school staff.
One of the plan's most significant components turns over 85% of a school's budget to principals, who will decide spending priorities with stake-holders. Schools will be required to set clear standards for student achievement, and teachers and principals will be rewarded--or reprimanded--based on how well their schools perform.
To succeed, teachers and principals must first abandon old ways.
Guided by UCLA education and business professors, the group retreated for the past two weeks to a luxurious conference center at Cal Poly Pomona.
Business professors spent the first week on the big picture.
They advised the educators to forget the entrenched practices that strangle creative school management: allowing complex rules to guide decision-making, issuing directives in terse memos, expecting a downtown bureaucrat to say no to a request, relegating parental help to cupcake baking, giving short shrift to the opinions of clerks and janitors.
Borrowing from the vocabulary of an MBA student, educators learned that "dedicated behavior" is desirable. It is the difference between a school nurse who is merely the keeper of the Band-Aid box and a school nurse who will travel to a student's home for follow-up medical care.
Through lectures, role playing and team-building games such as ranking the most important survival items if they were lost in the desert, the group realized that the most important aspect of school reform will be finding ways to involve and collaborate with all campus factions.
"This is about unlocking people from their old molds of behavior that have locked them in conflict," Mitchell said. "We are allowing them to unlock their professionalism, unlocking the relationship between parents, educators and school staff."
"Believe me, these are new ideas for us," said Ruth Bunyan, principal at Roscoe Elementary School in Sun Valley. "We are being shown how to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to our schools. That spirit is what we are trying to capture here."
Week 2 offered nuts-and-bolts instruction on budgeting and effective meetings.
"We needed the philosophical mushy stuff; schools need to be grounded in their mission and vision," said Howard Lappin, principal of Foshay Middle School near the Coliseum. "But I also need to learn how to do a spreadsheet."
Budgeting is the most awesome responsibility for LEARN schools. The inductees were shown how to use computers to balance their budget, forecast spending and analyze whether they are spending too much money on programs that are not working. The school community, not the district, will decide whether to hire an assistant principal or more counselors, buy computers or textbooks.
"The old way we had no control over anything," said Lappin. "Right now we will have a $6.7 million budget to control. . . . We are going to have some real freedom. Before we got to control $50,000 in special program funds."
When it comes to conducting meetings, the educators were told, passing out printed agendas alone does not guarantee that goals will be met. Parents must be included in all decisions. Time limits must be set. Ideas should be written down for all to see.
At Parkman Middle School in Woodland Hills, which draws students from 55 elementary schools from South-Central Los Angeles to Pacoima, the meetings may have to travel to parents, said Martin Price, who, like most other teachers at the academy, is a union representative.
During training sessions it took little to ignite the educators' enthusiasm, underscoring the dearth of resources and poor morale that typifies school relations--especially in a period of 10% pay cuts.
"My friends, other principals, ask me: 'Are you crazy? All the pressure? All the work?' " said Candida Fernandez, principal of San Fernando Elementary School. But already, she says, her LEARN-issued laptop has enabled her to make a significant dent in her workload by computerizing her enrollment.
"Principals are going to see that I have support that they don't have," she said. "And they are going to want it, too."
For two weeks, the Cal Poly center became a kind of educational spa, rejuvenating the sagging spirits of participants and visitors alike. So unusual was their excitement level that top district officials, board members and teacher union leaders were taking field trips to the conference center to witness the scene.
"It's a real shot in the arm spending time with them. I want to take my board (of directors) down there," said United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein. "What's scary is that we have been in the dark ages for so long. It takes so little to get them out of the rut they are in."
Although LEARN supporters are convinced of the need for intense training, others are not so sure that this costly summer school is the golden key to reform.
"When you have a room full of people with advanced degrees, the training that is needed is minimal. . . . I think some of this is a bit of hype," said Wayne Johnson, a former teachers union president, who led an April vote among union leaders to withhold support of the LEARN plan. He said his biggest concern with the plan--protecting teachers' contractual rights--has been resolved by additional guarantees written into the LEARN document.
"When downtown bureaucrats begin to funnel more power, resources and support to school sites, then reform can stand a chance," Johnson said. "I don't know how you train someone to give up control. . . . I'll believe it when I see it."
Another component of the LEARN academy will bring district bureaucrats and school board members together this summer for an attitude adjustment lesson that board President Leticia Quezada has dubbed "Learning to Say Yes" to schools. Over the next two weeks, training will continue at Loyola Marymount University and include parents and the staffs of the 37 schools.
By all accounts, providing the costly training to every teacher and principal at the district's 650 schools is the one of the tallest obstacles ahead. There is no long-term plan to raise at least $20 million to spread LEARN district-wide over the next five years.
Since the school board approved the LEARN plan in March, LEARN President Mike Roos has been trying to raise $1.2 million in private funds to pay for the first round of training. He describes the fund-raising effort to date as "superb . . . no one has said no." But with the session under way, another $500,000 is still needed.
UCLA Chancellor Charles Young gave about $200,000 from his office's discretionary funds to establish the university's School Management Program, which is running the training and hopes to become a national training center for school officials. Two weeks ago, the Weinberg Foundation donated $500,000.
"The whole plan will fail without intensive training," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of the country's largest urban school districts. "Staff development is critical, particularly when educators are being asked to make decisions in ways they have never done before."