Teachers seek control at up-for-bid L.A. Unified schools


A plan to let outside groups bid for control of dozens of long-struggling and new local campuses has unleashed a formidable competitor: Groups of teachers from inside the Los Angeles Unified School District are vying to take charge of their schools.

At every location up for bid -- 12 existing schools and 18 new campuses -- teams of teachers and the L.A. teachers union are working nights and weekends to decide what to offer students and parents and what they would require of them and of themselves.

They are trying to take advantage of a reform strategy, approved in August, that envisioned bringing in privately operated charter schools to set the standard for a school system widely seen as dysfunctional.


The union, United Teachers Los Angeles, also is trying to block charter takeovers through litigation. But rank-and-file teachers, with backing from the union and, in some cases, from the school district, are planning to compete with the charters, and they plan to win.

“For the first time we’re trying to show that we can, as teacher-educators, build a school that will benefit our children because we know our children best,” said Hillcrest first-grade teacher Josephine Miller. “That’s what makes this exciting.”

Room 12 at Hillcrest Drive Elementary School in the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw neighborhood, has become an unofficial command post for the effort there, a mini-Pentagon of academic mobilization. Oversized white flip-chart sheets are affixed to cabinets, walls and whiteboards.

On one sheet, a giant to-do list includes “investigate playground and lunch procedures.” On another, a brainstormed list for parent and community involvement includes opening the library and computer lab to the public, holding literacy classes for parents and appointing room mothers.

In the center of the room, six double desks of various heights are pushed together to form a makeshift conference table. Down the middle are packages of Fritos and Doritos, mini Kit Kat bars, and a box of supermarket Christmas cookies. A case of bottled water sits on a nearby table.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a group of Hillcrest teachers reported to one another about arts programs they are considering for their proposal -- what they cost and what they offer. The teachers hope to offer enrichment programs as well as rigorous, enlivened academics.

They also talked about how to instill a new attitude among students who stop trying early on in their educations.

“I’m trying all my tricks, and it’s working for seven or eight students,” said third-grade teacher Tonya Boyd.

“We need a shift in culture so the kids know we all care about them,” said Amanda Kiehle, who also teaches third grade, “and that we’re all holding them accountable.”

More than a third of students at Hillcrest speak limited English and virtually all are poor. Last year, nearly half the school’s students either moved out of the neighborhood or arrived during the school year, making academic continuity difficult. Fewer than a fourth of students outside the school’s magnet program test as proficient in either math or English.

The Hillcrest teachers, even though they have been part of a school deemed “failing,” insist that they know best how to turn things around. And they worry that their home-grown proposals might not get a fair hearing against charter schools with well-regarded track records, in-house data analysts, legal support and public relations professionals.

Full proposals are due to the district by Jan. 11 and will be reviewed internally and externally, including by parents and, at the high school level, by students. In February, L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines will make a single recommendation for each school to the Board of Education, which will have the final say.

Cortines said he applauds the teachers’ initiatives. But he urged the groups to “show some sort of evidence or I will not recommend them -- evidence of some academic improvement, evidence that they have been dealing with English language learners, evidence that special education students are being taken care of, evidence that parents are involved.”

At SchoolJefferson High , social studies teacher Nicolle Fefferman said her team is addressing long-standing problems, including what she described as a lack of urgency about the school’s problems by some colleagues at the campus in Central-Alameda, south of downtown.

“This resolution has, in fact, re-energized our faculty, forcing us to turn inwards, reevaluate what we are doing and how we can make things better for our students,” she said.

In addition to charters, the Jefferson team is competing with a nonprofit controlled by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who can often persuade a majority of the school board, whom he helped elect, to vote his way.

At Garfield High School, a team of teachers is addressing strategic considerations. Participants are collecting endorsements and pledges of collaboration from nonprofits. They want to develop Garfield’s social justice program into an autonomous “pilot school” at the Esteban Torres campus, which is to open soon nearby. Pilots offer increased local control, and this structure also is endorsed by Cortines and some school board members.

The planners have met nearly every day of the holiday break at the Monterey Park home of English teacher Patricia Jauregui, who grew up in the East Los Angeles community Garfield serves.

She soldiered on last week even after her husband was involved in a serious car accident. Another teacher taking part in the planning over the holidays also has had to care for two hospitalized grandfathers at once.

Still, “every time we’ve gotten together, all this positive energy comes out,” Jauregui said. “This is the power that teachers have always been asking for, the authority to choose what is happening in our school.”

She added: “With power comes responsibility. We are accountable for the results, and I don’t mind that.”