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Birmingham High could signal a new direction

A winter of discontent at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys has given way to a spring of discord.

Next, it appears, is the summer of dissolution.

The school of 3,200 students is undergoing a fierce struggle over its future and, in a sense, over the destiny of public education in Los Angeles.

On the one side are the principal and perhaps a majority of teachers, who want to leave the Los Angeles Unified School District and open in the fall as an independent charter. On the other: the union representative, teachers in a magnet program and others who say the school should become part of a new district reform branch that gives some campuses more leeway to improve.

Both sides say the other is using hardball tactics -- sabotage, slander, intimidation -- that have shattered civility and strained collegiality.

It seems almost certain that Birmingham High will be a different place in the fall, probably split into more than one school.

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At the urging of Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, teachers who support converting the school to a charter agreed last week to exclude the school’s magnet program from their plans. That removes a major stumbling block to reaching an accord that would allow both the charter and the magnet, and possibly other schools, to coexist on one campus.

Whether they could coexist happily is another matter.

Birmingham in many ways represents the solid middle of Los Angeles Unified, with test scores that are just below the district average, but rising at a faster rate, and an ethnic makeup -- 71% Latino, 12% white, 9% black -- that is close to that of the district overall. What is happening there reflects a near desperation for reform that is seizing many schools.

Although there is clearly disagreement over the future, there are no loud voices in favor of the status quo -- not even from Cortines, who said Friday that the district has been too resistant to charter schools. If it would give schools an economic boost, he said in an interview, “I’ll look at chartering this entire district.”

That, of course, is very unlikely, but the fact that the superintendent would even say such a thing suggests the tenor of a time in which traditional L.A. Unified schools face dire budgetary challenges, a rising dropout rate, deep dissatisfaction over academic performance and growing competition from charters, which are public schools run independently from district management.

“If there’s going to be a movement towards giving more power to the school sites . . . I think that’s a good thing,” said Tamar Galatzan, a Los Angeles school board member whose district includes Birmingham, her alma mater. “But it’s not as easy as some people make it out to be.”

That has certainly been the case in the last six months at Birmingham.

Between Thanksgiving and the beginning of the winter break, 82 of 126 permanent teachers at Birmingham signed a petition, strongly supported by Principal Marcia Coates, to convert to a charter school. Under state law, that compelled the district to consider the charter application. If it converted, Birmingham would be following in the footsteps of Granada Hills Charter High School and Palisades Charter High.

Among those opposing the petition were a number of teachers (how many is in dispute) in the magnet program, the Daniel Pearl Journalism and Communications Magnet, which is a small school-within-a-school at Birmingham.

On a visit to Birmingham earlier this year, Cortines said there could be multiple small schools on the campus -- the district’s largest -- if that’s what the school community wanted. Those remarks fueled efforts to have parts of the school, including the magnet, reorganized under the district’s i-Design division and sponsored by the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

I-Design advocates prepared a formal proposal and argued that it should be approved rather than the charter. They said teachers had been coerced into signing the charter petition, rendering it invalid, and that a majority of teachers no longer supported it.

Charter backers say the district was obligated under California law to give them the entire campus for the charter.

Battle lines were drawn.

“The animosity, the uneasiness on the campus was palpable,” said Steven Shapiro, a banker and school activist who has been spearheading the i-Design plan, and whose wife is a teacher at Birmingham.

Shapiro argues that the charter plan is not economically feasible because the district has reduced how much it offers charters and increased charges. He estimates that Birmingham would get $500 less per pupil than Granada Hills.

The pro-charter group has hired a nonprofit management company, ExEd, to calculate its budget. Executive Director Anita Landecker said that Birmingham would get less than Granada but that it could operate more efficiently than the district. Using private vendors for food and janitorial services, she said, would save the school more than $500,000 annually.

Birmingham teachers who favor the charter say there wasn’t one breaking point that snapped their loyalty to the district, but all seem frustrated by L.A. Unified’s daunting bureaucracy and inefficiencies.

Rick Prizant, the math department chairman and athletic director, said he lost faith about 20 years ago, when a teacher’s strike ended with a promise of more decentralization in which teachers would play a greater role -- a promise that ultimately foundered. Others cited more prosaic frustrations, such as routine repairs that take months or an air conditioning system that had to be reinstalled at enormous cost.

Rancor among those who support the i-Design proposal has focused largely on Coates, who has presided over improvements in the school’s academic performance but has alienated some teachers. Montijo and Shapiro, among others, said she intimidated teachers, implying that their jobs would be secure only if they signed the petition. They also said she has made it difficult for them to get out their message and banned student fliers supporting the i-Design plan.

In response, teacher Myrna Fleming created a free speech wall on her classroom door, where students post fliers about the controversy. Fleming said it was reassuring to students to have a place to speak out. “What’s so terrible about that?” she asked about one.

Coates said she never coerced or intimidated teachers to sign the charter petition and banned fliers only because some contained libelous statements about charter supporters and because she was trying to reduce tensions on campus. “Mr. Cortines told me specifically that I am to calm the waters here,” she said, adding that she is responsible for ensuring that reform discussions do not replace class discussions.

Another issue roiling the campus is whether students in the magnet will still be able to participate in athletics or other activities if they aren’t part of the charter.

The Pearl magnet takes its name from the Wall Street Journal reporter killed by Islamic militants in Pakistan in 2002. Pearl graduated from Birmingham in 1981, when it attracted many middle-class Jewish students from neighborhoods to its south. That is no longer the case, and one goal of the charter advocates is to draw those students in again. But in one example of how much distrust has been sown on the campus, the other side has translated that to mean that low-income students, most of them Latino, will no longer be welcome, in part because of lower test scores.

Wrong, said Chris Monaster, an urban studies teacher and a leader of the charter movement. “We’re advocating that every child that’s in our district, regardless of race or religion or color, come to our school. We want them all.”

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mitchell.landsberg@ latimes.com


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