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SECOND OPINIONS : Breakup or No, LAUSD Students Must Come 1st : Reform attempts too often are sabotaged by administrators, support personnel and even teachers. An ideal district makes children’s education its top priority.

<i> Adrienne Mack is a teacher at Birmingham High School Journalism Magnet in Van Nuys</i>

In the current “breaking up the district” frenzy, while running from Valley task force meetings to round-table discussion groups, I’ve been fantasizing about an ideal school district.

An ideal district would have “How may we assist you?” as its mantra. It would be non-intrusive, allowing creativity to flourish, not burying it beneath mounds of unnecessary rules and regulations. Every employee contract would consider education first. And students would be at the top of the hierarchy, not the bottom.

While Supt. Sid Thompson calls for reform, the L.A. Unified School District stands in its own way, and it has plenty of help. Administrators, clerical and service personnel, and even teachers, block best educational practices every day.

The administrators union, AALA, tried to block the board’s promotion of a Sun Valley assistant principal the school community wanted. Only after considerable pressure from the community, and a lot of help from the press, did the board give the OK.

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Why does AALA care if a community selects its principal, a right granted under the LEARN charter? Because if schools can select, then principals will be hired on merit and many of AALA’s members would never get hired. Incompetent principals would be replaced. AALA’s first mission is to protect its dues-paying members.

AALA isn’t alone in ignoring students. District gardeners think nothing of running lawn mowers while class is in session. Students and teachers wait until the noise subsides. Supply warehouse personnel don’t lose sleep over delivery delays. Office Depot delivers in 24 hours; the district warehouse takes months and charges more. A new policy assures three-day delivery, if schools pay an additional fee. District rules require most purchases be made through their warehouse. Meanwhile, students do without.

Los Angeles teachers, and their union, get in the way of best education practices also. While the Alhambra teachers union bargained for, and won, a maximum of 32 students to a class, UTLA leaders and members argued over who gets reserved parking spaces.

The teachers union supports mediocrity and protects incompetence. Every person who has ever been held captive in a classroom with a teacher who shouldn’t have been one knows the impossibility of firing tenured teachers.

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An English department chair I once worked with spoke for many when asked to reform: “I’m not going to change and you can’t make me.”

For too many teachers, “been there, done that” is the excuse for not re-examining how they conduct classes. And, because the district’s favorite reform of the week is often a rehash from the last decade, waiting it out has not been such a bad strategy.

Teachers who want to initiate new programs--such as Humanitas, International Baccalaureate, alternative scheduling, magnet schools, SWAS (School Within a School), writing across the curriculum, challenging all students to Advanced Placement classes, heterogenous groupings and the attainment of higher standards--frequently have to fight other teachers as well as the bureaucracy.

Battling one’s colleagues is the most anti-student battle of all. And there are teacher vs. teacher wars raging all over town. Advanced Placement teachers attempt to discredit International Baccalaureate teachers. LEARN discussions end in anger. Humanitas teachers are called “humanitoids” and other derogatory names, not by students, but by fellow teachers.

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I don’t think there’s a single high school campus in Los Angeles where teachers all work together to make an impossible job a little more possible. If there is a high school where English teachers don’t hide books from one another, I would love to hear about it.

“If you’re innovative,” the naysayers think, “and your students are successful, or your department more efficient, then we will be expected to change also.” So they keep the walls up.

The district could open its supply warehouse doors. The board could continue to say no to AALA and yes to school communities. Gardeners could mow lawns on Saturdays. And teachers could encourage one another.

Any reform movement, breakup or no, has to start with the student and must include masses of teachers in the discussion. The many task forces meeting throughout the Valley discuss how to create a new district, but they’re asking the wrong questions.

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What does a student need? A home and school environment conducive to learning; competent, enthusiastic teachers; access to books, technology, and other resources, and not much else.

Do we have the courage to build a new district, or rebuild the one we have, with students at its foundation? Where each person, every regulation, and all programs have to justify their existence by how they contribute to student achievement? Where every dollar spent must foster education or it doesn’t get spent? Where every person on the payroll contributes or gets a pink slip?

That’s the challenge for Los Angeles--the district, administrators, clerical and service personnel, and teachers.


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