HUNTINGTON PARK — Everyone agrees that improvements are needed at Gage Junior High School, where students have consistently scored below the national average on tests of reading, writing and mathematics. But agreeing on a solution is a different matter.
The poor achievement record has triggered a heated battle among the principal, teachers and rival parents groups over what to do about it.
One group of parents and City Councilman Luis Hernandez have called for the ouster of David R. Almada, who has been principal at Gage since September, 1988. They are backed by key members of the teaching staff who say they have lost confidence in Almada's ability to improve the school.
"We're looking for leadership," said Sergio Palos, president of Community in Action, which collected about 200 signatures from parents and other residents calling for Almada to be replaced.
"They're creating a whole generation of second-class citizens who can only hope to hold jobs at McDonald's," Palos said.
But another parents group says that instead of the principal, five of the teachers should be fired to restore harmony to the school and its 3,200 students.
The Rev. Horacio Quinones, an East Los Angeles education activist and a member of the Hispanic Parent Coalition, made up of more than 1,000 parents, has accused the Anglo teachers of rebelling against the Latino principal, creating havoc at the school.
"If (Almada) had had the support and help of his staff, there wouldn't have been any difficulty," Quinones said. "But they started cutting him down as soon as he got there because he is Hispanic."
The teachers denied that allegation and filed a defamation lawsuit against Quinones on Aug. 24 in Superior Court.
The dispute reached such proportions that Los Angeles school Supt. William R. Anton recently met with Almada and the teachers and urged them to work out their differences. Anton also assigned four specialists to the school to help improve its educational program.
"We couldn't stand there and let the school fall apart instructionally," Deputy Supt. Sidney A. Thompson said.
The conflict at Gage has been brewing for months. It came to a head in recent weeks during a series of meetings organized by Palos to inform parents about how the school could be improved. Almada, 45, and several teachers spoke at the meetings.
Palos and other parents in his group soon decided that Almada was the problem. They reached that conclusion after a meeting July 26 in which teachers Rhonda B. Nalisnik and Edward J. Zschoche described a disorganized school where teacher morale was low and students were not receiving the instruction they need to succeed, Palos said.
"When the questions came up (about) who was responsible to make the decisions, the conclusion was that the principal was," Zschoche said in an interview. "We can come up with all the ideas in the world, and unless we're permitted to implement those ideas, nothing happens."
In addition to Nalisnik and Zschoche, teachers William T. Higbee, Paul Shapiro and John A. Duhaime have been targeted by Quinones' group.
The five teachers are all Gage veterans who have served on school committees over the years. In addition, Nalisnik is a mentor teacher, and Zschoche and Higbee are union representatives at the school. Palos calls the five teachers some of the best at Gage.
Palos' group and the teachers have the backing of Councilman Hernandez, who has been involved with school affairs as an alternate member of Gage's Shared Decision Making Council, a body of community and school personnel that decides school policy in various areas. Palos is a full member of the council.
"The parents have come to a decision," Hernandez said. "They see what they call a lack of leadership."
But Almada said that academic achievement has been low at Gage for years and that it is unrealistic to expect him to turn things around in the two years he has been principal.
"I've had teachers and parents saying we need more academic programs, and we're moving ahead," said Almada, who noted that he has added several algebra classes.
But Palos said his group's resolve to remove Almada was strengthened by a recent school review performed by Los Angeles Unified School District personnel for the state Department of Education.
The review team found that some Spanish-speaking children at Gage were not receiving adequate instruction in English. It also found that record-keeping for students in the school's bilingual program was poor and that some parents were not being notified that their children had been placed in the program.
Almada said he is working to correct the deficiencies, which he blamed partially on budget constraints. He also noted the school's high transiency rate: About 20% of the students come and go each year.
"We have so many kids coming in that it is difficult," Almada said.
The reviewers also found deficiencies in the school's math program and in its English classes for students who speak little English.