Once a nucleus for steadfast parental support and community pride, Topanga Elementary School has become instead a focus of controversy. Some parents say that the LEARN reform begun last year has fueled frustration, confusion and division at the 310-pupil school.
“LEARN came along and it was too much for everyone--too much, too soon,” said Kim Barceloux, who has a fourth-grader at Topanga. “Now that we’re into it, we have more problems than we ever wanted.”
The LEARN program was implemented at 34 elementary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District last year to give principals, parents and teachers more say in how their schools are run.
But Topanga parents critical of LEARN say the reform program introduced an imbroglio of bureaucracy in their school. Once, large unstructured community meetings and frequent parent visits to the classrooms and the office were the norm. Now, parent Alison O’Fallon said in a letter sent April 21 to the school’s staff and Leadership Council: “We have meetings to plan meetings.”
“I don’t know if it’s a result of LEARN, but in our rush to improve our school, we became much more focused on what was negative,” said Parent Teacher Organization President Marlene Frantz. “We ignored the positive things.”
There has been no response to O’Fallon’s letter, and some teachers and the school’s interim principal insist that the reforms at the school are positive. They say any discord is a normal, inevitable growing pain.
“I think anytime you begin a new program, anytime you change the direction of the school, you have to work through some difficulties,” said Cheryl Mueller, the interim principal. “Change is difficult. We don’t always get exactly what we want.”
The former principal transferred to another school this spring, and the Leadership Council is in the process of selecting a new one.
In the meantime, some parents describe the atmosphere on campus as divisive, blaming the bureaucratic structure of LEARN for pitting parents against teachers in the struggle to redefine the curriculum.
A handful of parents say they are thinking of sending their children to private schools. Many others lament the changes at the school.
“It tears me apart that I can’t say in good conscience what I used to say,” O’Fallon said.
“I used to say that this is the most wonderful school in the world. I can’t say that anymore.”