Officials attempt drastic break with failure at Huntington Park High, Manual Arts

I felt oddly inspired this week watching Los Angeles Unified School District leaders rebuff the demands of student protesters from Huntington Park High.

After years of shamefully poor student performance, the campus has been ordered to restructure and replace at least half of its teachers before its new school year begins in six weeks.

That’s considered a draconian option in the panoply of school reforms. So on Tuesday morning, hundreds of students — upset by the timing, the loss of teachers and the anticipated upheaval at their school — left campus and marched seven miles to make their case at the School Board meeting in downtown Los Angeles.


That led to an uncommon scenario: Grownups pushing for radical change, against teenagers guarding the status quo.

“My greatest problem with this is the time limit,” 11th-grader Julian Zatarain told district leaders, speaking in Spanish, on behalf of his classmates.

Supt. John Deasy countered with an observation from his generation’s civil rights battles: “Wait has almost always meant never,” Martin Luther King’s declaration in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Then the board voted unanimously to dismantle the high school’s program.

And I was struck by the irony: The students were trying to save an entrenched regime, one that shackles them to failure.

If you’re going to fight, fight for something beyond mediocrity.


It’s great to see young people trying to shape the terms of their education. But the Huntington Park High protestors were also trying to protect a school where only one in four students tests proficient in English and only one in 20 meets state math standards.

Huntington Park is on a short list of campuses being forced to remake their programs after years of failure to meet test score goals.

School board member Yolie Flores — a 1980 graduate of Huntington Park High — has been pushing for change at her alma mater. This week it became the first school in the district being required to let go at least half of its staff members and replace them with new bodies.

“Am I surprised that the students walked out and are worried about their teachers? Of course not,” Flores told me when I asked about the protest. “They have relationships with these teachers.

“But I think we need to move beyond relationships and ask, ‘Do we have the right teachers who are preparing our kids for the future?’”

The right teachers, she said, don’t make excuses: The kids are poor immigrants from broken homes, where nobody speaks English or cares about homework. “They ask instead ‘What are we going to do to turn things around?’”

When she visits her old high school campus, “what I see is a lot of apathy, kids who aren’t even aware of what it takes to have a job today,” she said. “These kids don’t have another year to waste.”

That spirit of urgency seems to be spreading across the Los Angeles Unified district. The nation’s second largest, with more than 678,000 students, has been forced into wholesale reform by federal mandates, outside investment and competition from charter schools that operate unfettered by district and union rules.

Staff reconstitution — forcing teachers to reapply for jobs they’ve held for years — has become a heated battleground.

“What’s about to happen now will be an absolute disaster, and we all know it,” said Huntington Park High computer teacher Stephen Scanlan. “Yolie thinks that we don’t care, we just come in here for a paycheck. That’s not true.

“We’ve tried over and over again and keep trying. We want these kids to do the best they can. But that depends on what you have coming in the door,” said Scanlan, a former UTLA chapter chairman who has taught at the school for 12 years. “You have to really, really, really have something special to work when the kids don’t want to learn.”

Like Scanlan, many of the teachers I spoke with see the flood of reforms as less about lifting student performance than about stifling workers’ rights.

“Is this more of an anti-union thing or do they really have the best interest of the kids at heart?” asked Dave Sievers, a special education teacher at Huntington Park High.

Reform proponents have their own version of that question: Are students being used as foot soldiers by teachers aimed at derailing changes they don’t like?

“Is it the kids, or are they mouthpieces for the teachers?” wonders Mike McGalliard, president of L.A.'s Promise, a nonprofit group that runs two South Los Angeles high schools, including Manual Arts, which will move from year-round operation to a traditional calendar this year.

That will put more students on campus and scramble schedules for scores of teachers. The change had been planned for 2012, when a new school will open nearby to handle some of Manual Arts’ 4,000 pupils, who now attend on rotating schedules. Dismal test scores convinced McGalliard to fast-track the change; research shows that year-round schedules depress student achievement.

The switch has sparked complaints like this, in an email message I received from Manual Arts 11th-grader Destiny Penall: “This is a catastrophe, and what make us students and our teachers more enraged is that fifty teachers will be fired, classroom capacity will be raised to forty-four … and campus security will be reduced.”

McGalliard counters that “there’s no time to wait.... The students are getting a lot of their rumors and messages from teachers, and I find that upsetting.”

“I’ve seen teachers using kids to create their UTLA protest posters,” he said. “When I bring it up, I’m told it’s a lesson plan — a lesson on civil disobedience, a lesson on social justice. You’re taking class time to walk these kids outside for a protest, and their skills are still way below basic.”

Too many teachers, he complained, are about “protecting people, protecting jobs, protecting the old way that’s failed.”


I understand the students’ concerns and the teachers’ consternation. Both sides are being painted with a broad brush: incompetent teachers and student failures.

The protesting students tend to be the “leadership kids” — hard-working, with good attitudes, good grades and strong relationships with caring teachers. They are students who judge their school not on its stats, but on its opportunities.

We need to look beyond villain-and-victim, to the reality these students see: unmotivated classmates with failing grades who don’t put forth the effort to succeed and teachers who give up or buy in to the low expectations that learned helplessness breeds.

Destiny told me and McGalliard she wishes the powers that be would wait one more year — until after she graduates — to make the change at Manual Arts.

“I explained that even though she’s doing well, the vast majority of kids are not,” McGalliard said. " What we’re doing may impact her, but we’re doing it for the benefit of the whole.

“This is not a magic bullet. It’s an admission that we’ve waited too long.”