Cortines unveils plan to dismantle and rebuild Fremont High

L.A.'s top school official on Thursday unveiled his plan to shut down Fremont High and start over from scratch -- a move denounced by the teachers union but applauded by city leaders and the nation’s secretary of education.

After quietly alerting the Fremont staff Wednesday afternoon, Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines spoke separately with students, parents, city leaders and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was in town to promote such school turnarounds.

Fremont, Cortines said, has shown “some promise, with some of the finest teachers and the right principal . . . but it needed to be given a nudge because the status quo is not acceptable.

“There has to be a sense of urgency,” he said.

The plan for Fremont, located in Florence south of downtown, includes dismissing the entire staff as of June 30. Those interested in returning would be interviewed before then by hiring committees that will probably include parents, instructional specialists, skilled teachers and Principal Rafael L. Balderas, in his first year at Fremont. Cortines himself would help develop an “elect to work” agreement for all hires. Under the union contract, Fremont’s displaced teachers have the right to a district job elsewhere.

Such reconstitutions are new to the nation’s second-largest school system.

A similar effort was undertaken by an outside entity last year at Locke High, near Watts. Green Dot Public Schools, a charter organization, dismissed the staff -- and rehired a small percentage -- when it converted the campus into small charter schools that are operated independently of the district. Fremont, jampacked with 4,500 students, is substantially larger than Locke.

Boston College education professor Dennis Shirley called the reconstitutions harmfully “disruptive,” and said “policymakers seem to think there’s this limitless pool of people who want to work in the most impoverished and struggling communities.”

In Chicago -- where Duncan served as superintendent -- reconstitutions were neither uniformly successful nor easy to replicate, said Dorothy Shipps, an associate education professor at the City University of New York.

In an interview, Duncan said that Chicago gradually learned from its experiences in turnarounds. The effort requires substantial advance planning and a complete, wide-ranging revamp of school culture and resources as well as an influx of teaching and administrative talent, he said.

Duncan’s stay included an education roundtable at Gompers Middle School, near Watts. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presided and joined a chorus of community leaders who backed Cortines’ Fremont initiative.

Less enthusiastic was A.J. Duffy, the L.A. teachers union president who, in a statement, expressed “outrage” at Cortines’ plan. He handed Duncan a manila envelope containing the union’s preferred method of reform -- school-based management in which teachers exercise substantial authority and retain job protections.

Duncan accepted Duffy’s offering but sided with Cortines. L.A. Unified “is a place that everyone here knows has a long way to go,” Duncan said. “But I’m very hopeful. . . . I couldn’t be more impressed with the commitment, the sense of urgency, and the lack of complacency or acceptance of the status quo.”

He said he wants to see 1,000 turnarounds every year, targeting the lowest 1% of schools nationwide. The Obama administration is supporting that effort with $3.5 billion in school-improvement grants.

At Fremont, distressed students refused to go to class during an afternoon sit-in.

“Why do you say Fremont High is a bad school?” senior Cristal Guizar asked during Cortines’ visit.

“The data shows this school is not successful academically,” Cortines responded.

Only 1.5% of students are proficient in math; 13.9% are proficient in English.

Talking to parents, Cortines also laid out plans for accelerating what students learn before getting to Fremont. He talked of shared accountability that would include imposing a dress code.

“I don’t want the pants hanging down around the ass of the young men on this campus and I don’t want the midriff showing,” he said as some parents nodded their approval.

Parent Naomi Haywood said she was hopeful.

“Everything he’s saying,” she said, “we’ve been screaming from the lungs at the school district for the past 20 years.”

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this article.