Signaling deep discontent and a possible spreading revolt among the city’s public school teachers, faculty at two more Los Angeles high schools met this week with a leading charter school operator to discuss alliances aimed at breaking away from the school district.
The meetings between Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools, and faculty members at Santee Education Complex in South Los Angeles and Taft High in Woodland Hills come after a majority of teachers at Locke High School took steps to convert the deeply troubled campus into a series of Green Dot schools.
Teachers at Santee and Taft said the surprise move by Locke’s teachers tapped into a well of frustration and discontent they also feel over the slow pace of reforms and lack of support from leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“With what happened at Locke, we’ve entered into a new chapter. They’ve instigated reform that all these district hot shots either are unable or unwilling to make happen,” said Santee English teacher Jordan Henry, who arranged the meeting with Barr. “When you see something that looks promising ... it behooves you to have a conversation about it.”
Charter schools are publicly funded but run independently, outside many of the regulations imposed by school districts. In exchange for the freedom to innovate with such things as curricula and budgets, charters must improve student performance.
Most charters in Los Angeles Unified -- and throughout California -- are start-ups, but state law also allows traditional campuses to convert into charters. To launch that process, a majority of tenured teachers at the school must first sign petitions expressing interest in the idea, as occurred at Locke.
About 80 of the roughly 135 teachers at Taft packed a music classroom Thursday for the lunchtime meeting, for which Barr provided pizza.
On Wednesday afternoon, about 15 teachers from Santee, which has struggled mightily with student performance and teacher turnover since it was hurriedly opened two years ago, met Barr after classes at one of Green Dot’s nearby campuses.
Though both meetings were only early steps toward possible partnerships, teachers said they were largely impressed by Barr’s discussion of Green Dot’s model. Green Dot requires a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum at its 10 schools but emphasizes control by teachers and principals over such things as budgets and teaching strategies.
The educators also responded positively to Barr’s claims that the group’s small central staff allows more than 90% of state funds to go directly to instruction and higher teacher salaries. Significantly less money reaches district classrooms, largely because of the L.A. school district’s sizable bureaucracy.
“The increased autonomy is very attractive, and the money too,” said Richard Gibbons, a veteran government teacher at Taft. “We’re frustrated by the district and its bureaucracy. People are eager to try something different. We have to do something.”
Several older teachers expressed concern that Green Dot does not provide the lifetime benefits guaranteed in the district’s contract with teachers.
Perhaps most striking is that Gibbons and Henry reached out to Barr. The two represent the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, at their schools.
Like district officials, union leaders have clashed often with Barr during his push to expand and have much to lose in the way of authority in a wholesale takeover of campuses by Green Dot. Barr’s teachers are unionized but not through UTLA.
Since the Locke announcement, union and district leaders have scrambled to counter Green Dot’s bid with reform plans of their own.
A.J. Duffy, president of the union, and school board President Marlene Canter expressed confidence that collaborative efforts to jump-start reforms in the district would take root soon and ease teachers’ frustrations.
“In the absence of us providing other options, [Green Dot] is starting to look like the only option to teachers,” Canter said. “This is obviously a call to action.... I am still confident that this district can respond.”
There is much to respond to.
Barr said he had received calls of interest from teachers at six other schools. Educators throughout L.A. Unified have long sought a greater voice in how students are taught and how funds are spent on their campuses. District leaders have struggled to balance those calls with the need for strict, district-wide accountability measures.
Most notably, teachers at Taft and Santee expressed deep frustration over widespread problems with the district’s new payroll system and the uneven, ongoing efforts to divide high schools into more personalized, semi-autonomous “small learning communities.”
District officials have been reluctant to grant teachers and principals the freedom to run the schools and unable to provide the support needed to carry out the transformation smoothly.
For Barr, the interest comes from two very different schools. Taft is a racially diverse school with middle-of-the-road test scores and a largely veteran, stable faculty. Santee, by contrast, serves poor minority students in one of the city’s most gang-infested neighborhoods. Student performance is some of the lowest in the district, and at the end of the campus’ first year, roughly 40% of its teachers left -- several of them taking jobs at Green Dot schools.
With his focus on the impoverished neighborhoods of South and East Los Angeles, Barr indicated that a partnership with Santee seemed more plausible, but said he was “going to talk to anyone who wants to talk about Green Dot’s model.”
Board member Monica Garcia spoke bluntly of the risks to the district if other schools pursue conversions to charters.
“Our choice is to move quickly with folks, or folks are going to move without us,” she said.