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Seeking an equal say in schools’ future

Times Staff Writer

After months of controversy, combative rhetoric and threatened litigation over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan to assume substantial control of the Los Angeles Unified School District, a broad-based group of community leaders met Saturday to begin hammering out the details of specific reforms they want the mayor to include in his initiative.

By the end of the day one thing was clear: Parents, teachers and community organizations want an equal say in determining how the district will be remade.

Villaraigosa acknowledged as much in his opening remarks to the group of 100 or so people, who represented church groups, businesses, human services agencies, city and county departments, law enforcement, city councils and numerous schools.

“This issue of ‘mayor control’ is a misnomer,” he told the meeting -- billed as an education retreat -- at the Doheny campus of Mount St. Mary’s College near downtown. “This is the perfect example of a partnership. I don’t need to bring 200 people together if I was just going to do it alone.”

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New legislation -- Assembly Bill 1381 -- gives Villaraigosa broad authority over the district. It also establishes a Council of Mayors from each city within the district’s boundaries and each member of the county Board of Supervisors; that group can ratify or reject the school board’s choice for superintendent. In addition, the law gives the superintendent expanded powers. It is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 but is being challenged in court by the school board.

The focus Saturday was on Villaraigosa’s plan to directly oversee three clusters of low-performing schools, each containing a high school and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it. The mayor’s office has already identified 19 potential clusters in South Los Angeles, on the Eastside, in the San Fernando Valley and in West/Central Los Angeles.

Participants were invited to indicate their top two choices in each region. The final choice will be selected by the mayor and incoming district Supt. David L. Brewer around the end of the year. Two would be established in July and the third in 2008.

The participants also discussed possible criteria to be used in the selection. Options included: greatest social/community need; lowest academic performance; degree of ethnic diversity; highest community acceptance; and receptivity to change. Other issues centered on the curriculum and techniques for instruction, greater family engagement, experimenting with small school models, realigning teacher and principal responsibilities, and integrating community and school social services. Participants said they were generally impressed with the quality of discussion and level of inclusion.

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“I was very apprehensive about coming, because of what I’ve been reading about how the two camps can’t make up their minds,” said Marcos Hernandez, an assistant principal at L.A. Unified’s San Gabriel Avenue Elementary School in South Gate and a member of the group One L.A., which advocates for school reform and parent involvement. “But what I saw here was a totally different picture. There’s a sense of collaboration going on here that gave me a whole new outlook.”

Shirley Ford, whose son attends a charter school in Inglewood, said she too was hopeful -- but cautious as well.

“I’m somewhat encouraged, but I’ll be watchful,” she said. “I’ll be nudging someone if I don’t see [parents] involved all the way. What I’m most interested in is what schools will be chosen. When we choose the major clusters, let’s make sure we create partnerships with all schools. Let’s not leave anybody out.”

Deputy Mayor Ramon C. Cortines, who is heading Villaraigosa’s education initiative, said providing greater support to all schools is a major goal.

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“It’s not just about the mayor’s clusters but about how we create partnerships across the district,” he said. “And it’s a bubbling process. I don’t think when we open the first cluster next July, we’re going to say, ‘We’re open, that’s it.’ It’s an ongoing process, an evolution. It’s democracy in action, not just democratic rhetoric.”

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carla.rivera@latimes.com


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