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Teachers, Parents Seek Role in Making Decisions at Marshall


In the nearly 60-year history of John Marshall High School, its community has rallied to save its elaborate buildings from demolition and its teachers have worked for curriculum improvements.

But not until now, say Marshall's teachers, parents and community members, have they had an opportunity to share in major decision-making about how the school is run.

Tonight, parents of Marshall students may be told that a committee of teachers and parents will ask the Los Angeles Unified School District for permission to overhaul Marshall's decision-making structure.

"Instead of saying, 'Come and be involved in PTA,' we're going to say to parents, 'Come and be involved in the finance committee. Come and be involved in staff development,' " said John Brown, parent of two Marshall students and a member of the school's shared-decision-making council, a group of teachers, parents, community leaders and administrators.

The proposed restructuring is the second part of a process created after May's teachers' strike, which produced contracts that gave more decision-making power in schools to teachers, parents and the community.

In the first stage, Marshall formed a shared-decision-making council that shares responsibility with the school's principal in five areas: continuing education programs for teachers, student discipline, scheduling of final exams and other events, spending of certain funds, such as lottery income, and use of school equipment, such as the photocopy machine. The decisions are made by consensus, with a vote taken only as a last resort.

The second stage of the process--school-based management--will broaden the areas in which the council, teachers, parents and the community may share decisions with top administrators.

The request the council is likely to make tonight is for permission to apply for school-based management. Schools that make the request will learn by April 27 if they will be allowed to submit specific proposals. A district Central Council will review the proposals and by August will name 70 schools where the restructuring will be carried out.

Marshall's 140 teachers were scheduled to vote late Wednesday on whether to approve submission of the request to the district. Teacher representatives indicated that the request was likely to garner the two-thirds approval needed. Parents will be informed tonight about the outcome of the vote.

At Marshall, restructuring of districtwide guidelines into specific, local policies is essential, teachers and parents said. The school is diverse: About half of the students are Latino, with the other half a mixture of Anglos, Armenians, Asians, Koreans and others. About 85% of the students live in homes where English is not the primary language. Some students come from low-income, immigrant families from Silver Lake; others come from affluent neighborhoods in Los Feliz.

Restructuring through school-based management could address the needs of a diverse student body and bring gradual but fundamental changes in the way that the school is run, Brown said.

Marshall's request to apply for school-based management states that it will use its restructuring to address academic achievement, attendance, dropouts and acute student crises.

But the specific proposal, due by June 15, could request permission to overhaul the way that the school is run. Shared-decision-making councils could take over responsibility for such issues as teacher hiring and curriculum. Even decisions dictated by contracts or district policy could be changed if a school's request to do so is approved by the Central Council, said Shel Erlich, a district spokesman.

"It could mean anything," said Deborah Leidner, Marshall's principal. "It's almost a blank check."

Although it is too early to prove that restructuring works, teachers and administrators at Marshall said they are hopeful that power-sharing can curtail the school's most widespread problems:

* Attendance--on an average day, about 300 to 400 of the school's 2,900 students are absent, according to counselor Barbara Knight.

* Dropouts--the rate has been as high as 46%, according to Brown.

* Academic achievement--the school is widely known for winning the national academic decathlon in 1987, and this year won local fame when a mock trial team took second place in a national competition. But those associated with the school said restructuring may allow them to better address the needs of students who speak little or no English, have after-school jobs or are liable to fail or drop out.

It could also affect relationships between those who run the school.

"Teachers want school-based management to give them an equal voice" with administrators and the principal, said Knight, the teachers union representative at the school. "In the end, it should make their lives much easier because they won't have to bear the load alone."

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