Amid the continuing growth of charter schools in Los Angeles, hundreds of teachers and administrators have left the city's school system to take jobs at the independently run campuses.
In the latest wave of departures, dozens of frustrated Los Angeles Unified School District staffers have been courted away by Green Dot Public Schools -- one of the city's leading charter operators.
Green Dot plans to open five campuses this autumn in the South Los Angeles neighborhoods surrounding Jefferson High School, a district school long plagued by poor academics and severe overcrowding. The nonprofit recruited from L.A. Unified all but one of the 10 principals and assistant principals it has hired to run the schools. Those new principals, in turn, have hired district teachers to fill most of the 35 classroom posts.
"My plans had always been to stay at Jefferson," said Yadira Funes, who taught math for four years and also graduated from the school, but has decided to join Green Dot. "I thought it was the best way to help my community. But throughout these years, it's become clear that it is not possible. The school district isn't giving us the support we need."
Others who are choosing to leave the district for Green Dot or other charters echo Funes' concerns. Working within the nation's second-largest school district, with its slow pace of reforms and convoluted layers of authority, they say, has left them disillusioned. Instead, they have turned to the more intimate, freewheeling atmosphere of charters, which are publicly funded but free to innovate and are outside of many of the laws governing public education.
The exodus to Green Dot has infused new tension in the increasingly heated debate over charters in L.A. Unified. The controversy centers on whether charters offer a better education than district schools, and their financial toll as state funds follow students from district schools to charters.
The loss of teaching and administrative talent has angered and worried some members of the district's Board of Education.
"It is not a healthy competition. It's not healthy for us at all," said board member Julie Korenstein, a staunch critic of charters. "We have groomed these teachers and they have risen up with us," and then the charters "come in and harvest them."
It also comes at a politically volatile time for the board members. For months, as part of his campaign to win more control over the district, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has harshly criticized the board as being slow to reform.
Green Dot founder Steve Barr has clashed with district officials over reforms at Jefferson. He initially called on Supt. Roy Romer to hand over control of the campus. When Romer rejected the idea, Barr decided to open charters in the area, promising to draw hundreds of students who would otherwise attend Jefferson. Romer later agreed to lease space on nearby district properties for Green Dot to open two of its five charters.
At a recent meeting, the board voted to approve the lease agreement, but not before Korenstein angrily questioned the district staff after hearing that the teachers from a small, high-performing academy at Jefferson were leaving for Green Dot.
"When they staff these schools, I wish they would bring in fresh talent, but it's a free market," Romer said. "When you lose really good teachers you feel the pain of that, but it's something we need to deal with because we believe in charters."
Barr acknowledges that his team combed Jefferson and other troubled L.A. Unified high schools, saying he wanted people familiar with the challenges of working with poor, mostly immigrant students. He dismissed claims that his recruiting tactics were aimed at hurting the district, but reiterated his hopes that it will pressure the district to approve more reforms.
"This isn't about poaching from a failing school. It was not a strategy to raid the best and the brightest," Barr said. "But these are all people who tried to work within the system and feel they've taken it as far as they can go. They have hit a ceiling.... The board has to look at themselves in the mirror and ask why they are losing teachers, students and families."
Nearly 700 L.A. Unified teachers have taken leaves of absence to teach at the district's 100 charter schools, according to district figures. So far, 176 have returned.
Several board members and district officials said they expect other schools to follow the example set recently by Parkman Middle School in Woodland Hills. Teachers at Parkman agreed to drop plans to convert the school into a charter, but only after district officials granted the faculty charter-like control over curriculum, finances and hiring.
District officials downplayed the effect of the loss of teachers and administrators to charters, saying turnover is expected, especially in the district's low-performing schools.
Carmen Schroeder, the local superintendent who oversees Jefferson, emphasized that unlike teachers and principals who leave to take jobs outside the district's boundaries, those going to Green Dot are remaining nearby.
"We're talking about the same community of children. Everyone's goal is to serve our kids well," she said. "We can look at this as a threat or a collaboration. We're trying to look at it as a collaboration."
But she conceded that the district is losing young teachers such as Funes, 26, whom Schroeder said often think "their voices are not being heard" in L.A. Unified's overcrowded, under-performing high schools. Starting teacher salaries at Green Dot are slightly higher than those in the district, but Funes and others said they were not motivated by money.
Indeed, teachers expressed frustration about the lack of flexibility they have to improvise under the district's strict teaching plans, which are tied closely to the state's academic standards and aim generally at keeping teachers on the same subjects at the same time.
"I felt like a spark trying to ignite that kept sputtering out," said Fred Chapel, who left his district teaching position several years ago for a charter.
Increased freedom in the classroom, however, comes with a price. Charter school teachers often are required to work longer hours and take on additional responsibilities. Turnover and burnout at some charters are high.
But Tom Nichols and Lori Pawinski, who are leaving posts as assistant principals to run Green Dot's charters, said they welcomed Barr's offer to be more creative and accountable for their own schools.
It is far different, they said, from the district's bureaucracy, in which they often felt hampered by top-down decisions and held back by strict promotion rules that may have prevented them from becoming principals for several years.
Pawinski said efforts to divide high schools into smaller, semi-autonomous "learning communities" have been hamstrung by the district's unwillingness to give assistant principals and lead teachers more control over the curriculum and how funds are spent.
Romer has defended the deliberate pace of reforms, saying that it would be disastrous to grant wide-ranging freedom to school leaders in such a large, troubled district without first establishing ways to hold the schools accountable.
That may be true, Pawinski and others said, but they are fed up nonetheless.
"I have an opportunity to set a vision, build a relationship with students and parents. As an educator, how could I turn that down?" she said. "I'm not afraid to have people judge me -- to look and see if I am able to do what I promised."