Political infighting is a fact of life at all institutions, but at Northridge it was so skillfully practiced that it became stylized to the point of religious ritual.
The Thursday-afternoon UTLA meetings began with Frank Randa rising to deliver remarks and hand down the latest communique from UTLA head Helen Bernstein. The rest of the meeting would frequently be given over to denunciations of the principal.
There was the conflict over the Christmas breakfast, an annual get-together during which Principal Beryl Ward put on an apron and flipped pancakes for the faculty. Ward tried to cancel it after some teachers complained about the arrangements and talked about a boycott. “They’re saying, ‘Why show we get along when we don’t?’ ” Judi Levin reported to Ward.
“I’ll be darned if I’m going to fight people to do something for them,” Ward said. In the end, she relented, but flipped no pancakes.
And there was the faculty meeting when Ward bluntly told the Old Guard that if they didn’t like the modern way of doing things, they should get out. “This is not going to go away,” she said.
Conversation in the teacher’s lounge at lunch often focused on Ward’s perceived anti-teacher bias.
Some teachers began eating elsewhere to keep from upsetting their stomachs. “If this was a family, someone would be getting a divorce,” said Don Betts.
To be fair, Ward had set herself a difficult task. She faced an entrenched faculty with many older teachers who prided themselves on their ability to teach and resented a principal implying that they were old-fashioned.
And there was a small, hard-core group of unionist teachers, informally led by Ronn Yablun, who would have disliked almost anything Ward did because she was an administrator and the nearest representative of the hated L. A. Unified bureaucracy. The pay cut and strike preparations only increased this group’s anger. But they represented a small portion of the faculty, and they were manageable.
As time went on and conflicts over big and little issues grew, however, others were joining them, even those who should have been Ward’s natural allies because they believed in the reforms she was promoting.
Midway through the year, Randa estimated that 40% of the staff had lined up against the principal.
Eventually, things would grow so poisonous that a district executive would visit the campus to see if he could mediate the problems threatening to tear a hole in the hull of L. A.'s pilot ship.
Much of the complaining went on in private, though Ward got reports from a small network of teachers sympathetic to her, whom some UTLA members openly referred to as “spies.”
But the hard feelings spilled into the open during an after-school staff meeting in the library.
The school’s poor standardized-test scores were flashed on a screen. On the reading test, only 12% of the eighth-graders ranked in the highest quarter of the chart.
Then the latest grade distribution was shown, indicating 64% of the grades were A’s and Bs. “We’re looking pretty good,” math teacher Mikie Pearson said, smiling as she delivered the news.
Social studies teacher Mel Ben Zvi couldn’t let this pass.
“How do you reconcile that?” he asked.
Ron Klemp, one of Ward’s staunchest allies, said the reading test was not realistic.
“It had to be at one time,” said Marilyn Hayes, the girls PE teacher. “What’s happened to our world? Do we change so that everyone is successful, or do we try to change the world so that we can be again where we were in 1975?”
“That’s not going to happen,” Klemp responded, his voice tight. “The grades are more accurate than the test.”
The room filled with loud groans. Insurrection was in the air.
“These are the grades your colleagues gave,” Ward said smoothly, entering the fray. “So if you don’t trust the grades, you don’t trust your colleagues.”
“There’s not a teacher in this room who hasn’t felt the pressure to enhance toward A’s and Bs,” responded PE teacher Don Betts.
Klemp jumped in again, comparing education to selling hamburgers, a metaphor he used in the Practitioner Center to show how schools need to make learning more relevant. “You need to get productivity up. How do you do it?” he asked.
“Diminish the quality of the product to get it out?” Betts asked bitterly.
“Yes, if that’s what it takes,” Klemp replied.
“We’re not dealing with hamburgers!” Lynn Norman exclaimed.
As the tide moved against her, Ward persisted in believing that her problems were caused by the core group of “ain’t-it-awfuls.” If the other teachers would Midway through the year, Randa estimated that 40% of the staff had lined up against the principal.
just stand up to the soreheads, everything would be fine.
The problems, however, were deeper than that. A number of teachers felt that Ward’s child-first philosophy translated into a lack of empathy for what teachers faced each day in the classroom.
“Teachers don’t feel she is on their side,” Randa said.
Eventually, things got bad enough that Joe Luskin, one of the top men in the district’s middle schools office, came out for a visit to “see if something can be done to bring a positive climate there.”
Randa said he told Luskin the same thing he told Ward, that she sometimes rubbed people the wrong way by taking a hard line on small things. But he tempered his criticism by making it clear that he felt she was a dynamic leader with a strong vision.
Luskin chose his words carefully speaking about Ward. “She’s well-motivated,” he said. “Some of the most successful people in business have a strong personality. The question is, are some people being unreasonable? Maybe both people are.”
Luskin said he might make some changes at the end of the school year.
“I need to find a way to work things out so next year will be better,” he said.
The clash over grading and test scores did not end with the confrontation at the staff meeting. Ward sent a note requesting a meeting with Betts and Ben Zvi, saying their remarks “indicated serious misunderstanding of the school’s mission statement as well as my statements, philosophy and intent regarding student success.”
The meeting took place in Ward’s office. Betts took a heavy wooden chair opposite Ward and Ben Zvi sat behind him but said little and left early.
“I have no objection to you disagreeing with me,” she began. “But I want to make sure you disagree with me accurately. Let me clarify, in terms of grades, it’s my feeling if we’re being successful, we should have 85% of the kids being successful. If more than 15% are not, something is wrong with the delivery or assessment.
“I don’t want anybody to lower their grades or standards. I want us to teach all of the kids. If grades are very low, look at the material and expectations to see if they are age-appropriate.”
“I don’t feel the impression I expressed was contrary to the majority of the faculty,” Betts replied. He leaned forward tensely, his elbows resting on the arms of the chair, his fingers tightly intertwined.
“Throughout the faculty, there is a feeling of pressure to ease demands and improve grades.”
Betts said the faculty was feeling threatened. He noted that one of the administrators had even warned teachers that they might need additional training.
“We interpret that to mean we would be sent to the Gulag. A lot of people said, ‘To hell with it’ and dropped Fs,” Betts added. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but I had to speak out. What I said is what the majority of the staff feel. Ds and Fs are a way of evaluating. These kids don’t communicate, they can’t put together a lucid sentence.”
Ward interrupted the monologue. “The question becomes, what are we going to do about it?”
“We don’t relax our standards,” he shot back. “We intensify our efforts to get these kids to acquire abilities. Kids are entitled to fail. Failing is not the worst thing that happens to a child. Sometimes it’s the best.”
Ward reminded Betts of the school’s mission statement. “Part of it is a belief that all kids can learn. If we don’t believe all kids can learn, we’re in trouble.”
“Fun and games,” Betts sneered. “To me, they should enjoy what they’re doing, but learning is important. That’s what we’re here for.”
Betts brought up the statement Ward disseminated comparing competition to tooth decay, which rankled him deeply. “I find that a totally offensive description of what competition is. That’s what’s going to make these kids successful.”
“What does performing have to do with competing?” Ward asked, her voice rising. “I’m not competing with anybody.”
“You must have competed to get where you are,” Betts said.
“We are dealing with kids with a 300-year history of non-education,” Betts continued. “If we don’t make demands on them for conduct change, that’s where we get drive-by shootings.”
He said he can walk faster than some students run the mile.
Ward said “it’s not OK” for kids to fail in middle school. Their job is to figure out how to reach the kid with a 300-year history of illiteracy.
Perhaps his standards were too high, she told Betts. “A lot of you guys were here when this was an upper-middle-class school. Are you still teaching that curriculum?”
“No,” he said, sounding weary. “I’m going to retire soon and leave the outcome to you. I don’t think the easy way is going to work.”
Betts also said he was troubled by what he had seen when he observed classes, the chaos and the noise. Cooperative learning was not working, either, he said. “I’ve seen a couple of kids doing all the work and other kids taking advantage.”
“What you perceive as chaos I perceive as a high level of enthusiasm for learning,” Ward responded.
“My mother and father taught for 35 and 37 years,” Betts said. “Kids came out of classes knowing things. That’s where we should be.”
Kids are learning in some classes, Ward replied, adding that she was sure test scores would go up eventually.
“I don’t see that happening,” Betts said. “I don’t think I’m out of touch.”
“I think you are,” Ward shot back.
“Our whole public education system is on the rack right now and we fight among ourselves,” she continued, sounding weary herself.
“What I hope is instead of defending what you’re doing, look at what kids need. You can spend your life making rules and making people meet your expectations.
“So you and I agree to disagree,” she said.*