Community News : TOPANGA : LEARN Plan Under Fire at Grade School

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 program that began 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, whose child is 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. It seeks to give principals, parents and teachers more say in how individual schools are run.

But Topanga parents who are critical of LEARN say the reform program has brought an imbroglio of bureaucracy to their school. Before the program, large, unstructured community meetings and frequent parent visits to the classrooms and the office were the norm. Now, said parent Alison O'Fallon 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 Marlene Frantz, president of the Parent Teacher Organization. "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 growing-pain.

"I think any time you begin a new program, any time 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 a struggle to redefine the curriculum. Others say the reform program's vagueness and its emphasis on procedure have alienated and confused parents who were once closely involved with the school.

A handful of parents say they are thinking of sending their children to private schools, not willing to risk their education while Topanga determines its new character. Others lament the changes.

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