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Goals, Questions on School Reforms Aired : Education: Talk is mostly upbeat at meeting of educators, parents who will pioneer LEARN program.

May 07, 1993|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

They said they hoped for schools that could raise achievement by 50%, where they can create an "open, creative learning environment." But they questioned whether they will get paid for extra work and worried about whether their actions would be fairly judged.

Those were among the many issues raised Thursday by 150 representatives from 39 Los Angeles Unified School District campuses that have overwhelmingly endorsed the LEARN reform plan. Before the schools are formally inducted into the program May 17, principals, teachers and parents came together for a final briefing to double-check their commitment.

They were praised as the "risk takers," the pioneers who will be charged with leading the way as the nation's second-largest school district undertakes one of the most ambitious public school reform movements ever attempted.

"There are all kinds of reasons that we shouldn't be here, but I want to tell you how very proud I am that you are here," said Supt. Sid Thompson. "You are going to cause change in this district, you are going to change the behavior in your schools. And I am guaranteeing you changes in the central office structure."

The 39 schools are among 100 that initially applied to test the first phase of the LEARN reforms, which call for shifting more authority to local schools and principals while strengthening accountability. Most of the schools withdrew because of weak support by teachers. Last week, leaders of United Teachers-Los Angeles, the powerful teachers union, voted to oppose the reform plan unless it is modified to strengthen teacher power.

Officials of LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now), a civic and business-backed group, had sought to launch the program in several clusters of schools, each including a high school and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it. The list of 39 finalists has 29 elementary schools, no high schools and few South-Central or East Los Angeles campuses.

The vote by the teachers union's House of Representatives represented the first significant obstacle to the LEARN plan and was symbolic of the deep animosity between many teachers and administrators in the district.

But Thursday's meeting was dominated by upbeat talk and a determination to succeed.

"We are ready for change, we will be better with change and we are tired of the old antiquated ideas in this district," said Faye Armstrong, a teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School. "It was important for us to get in on the ground floor. We didn't want to miss out on anything for our kids."

Virgil Roberts, a LEARN executive board member and businessman, acknowledged that the reform plan purposely lacks details to leave room for schools to tailor changes to their needs.

"Just as the Constitution of the United States does not contain all the rules and laws of the country, LEARN does not contain all the answers to your questions today," Roberts said.

It was the plan's vagueness that troubled many of the teachers union leaders who voted against the reforms. Having just received final ratification of a bitterly negotiated contract that included a cumulative 10% pay cut and several significant teacher empowerment issues, most were wary of endorsing a reform plan that gives principals more authority.

Union President Helen Bernstein had asked that schools not be allowed to participate in LEARN unless 75% of teachers at the campus agreed, contending that anything less would undermine their chances of success. At the request of LEARN officials, she visited many schools in the days before the April 23 application deadline to answer questions about the program.

Union Vice President Day Higuchi, who helped devise the LEARN plan, told the group Thursday that he believes the concern raised over the potential erosion of teachers' contract rights in the reform plan "is a non-issue. . . . The contract is signed."

Higuchi said that teachers can waive certain provisions of the contract if they follow a detailed union process.

The official union position against LEARN has caused a significant public relations problem for the plan. Leaders are concerned that the public will see it as another example of the mammoth district's inability to solve problems.

Roberts, however, pointed out that fewer than 200 of the union leaders opposed the plan, and there are more than 27,000 union members. He said launching the program with fully committed schools is the top priority and the only way to persuade naysayers that the district can be successfully overhauled.

Officials said that persuading teachers and parents from urban campuses will be the long-term challenge for LEARN.

In those schools already burdened by overcrowded classrooms, needy students and the most deteriorated campus facilities, there is often little energy to take on a new challenge, educators said.

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