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A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 9: The Politics : Old vs. New: A Cold War on Campus

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

Political infighting is a fact of life at all institutions, but at Northridge, it was so skillfully practiced that it became stylized to the point of religious ritual.

The Thursday-afternoon UTLA meetings began with Frank Randa rising to deliver remarks and hand down the latest communique from UTLA head Helen Bernstein. The rest of the meeting would frequently be given over to denunciations of the principal.

There was the conflict over the Christmas breakfast, an annual get-together during which the principal put on an apron and flipped pancakes for the faculty. Ward tried to cancel it after some teachers complained about the arrangements and talked about a boycott. "They're saying, 'Why show we get along when we don't?' " Judi Levin reported to Ward.

"I'll be darned if I'm going to fight people to do something for them," Ward said. In the end, she relented, but flipped no pancakes.

And there was the faculty meeting when Ward bluntly told the Old Guard that if they didn't like the modern way of doing things, they should get out. "This is not going to go away," she said.

Conversation in the teacher's lounge at lunch often focused on Ward's perceived anti-teacher bias. One day, Ronn Yablun said he heard about a school where the teachers voted the principal out. "Look into that," said his lunch partner. Yablun assured her that he would.

Some teachers began eating elsewhere to keep from upsetting their stomachs. "If this was a family, someone would be getting a divorce," said Don Betts.

To be sure, Ward had set herself a difficult task. She faced an entrenched faculty with many older teachers who prided themselves on their ability to teach and resented a principal implying that they were old-fashioned.

And there was a small, hard-core group of unionist teachers, informally led by Ronn Yablun, who would have disliked almost anything Ward did because she was an administrator and the nearest representative of the hated L. A. Unified bureaucracy. The pay cut and strike preparations only increased this group's anger. But they represented a small portion of the faculty, and they were manageable.

As time went on and conflicts over big and little issues grew, however, others were joining them, even those who should have been Ward's natural allies because they believed in the reforms she was promoting.

Midway through the year, Randa estimated that 40% of the staff had lined up against the principal.

"Why won't people talk to me?" Ward asked Randa one day.

"They're afraid of you," he replied.

Eventually, things would grow so poisonous that a district executive would visit the campus to see if he could mediate the problems threatening to tear a hole in the hull of L. A.'s pilot ship.

Much of the complaining went on in private, though Ward got reports from a small network of teachers sympathetic to her, whom some UTLA members openly referred to as "spies."

But the hard feelings spilled into the open during an after-school staff meeting in the library.

The school's poor standardized-test scores were flashed on a screen. On the reading test, only 12% of the eighth-graders ranked in the highest quarter of the chart.

Then the latest grade distribution was shown, indicating 64% of the grades for sixth-graders were A's and Bs. "We're looking pretty good," math teacher Mikie Douglas said, smiling as she delivered the news.

Social studies teacher Mel Ben Zvi couldn't let this pass. An unrepentant member of the Old Guard who ate lunch with the PE coaches and shop teachers in a musty, windowless room where you could almost hear past generations of children reciting "Gunga Din" from memory, Ben Zvi pointed out that the grades and test scores contradicted each other.

"How do you reconcile that?" he asked.

Ron Klemp, one of Ward's staunchest allies, said the test was not realistic.

"It had to be at one time," said Marilyn Hayes, the girls PE teacher. "What's happened to our world? Do we change so that everyone is successful, or do we try to change the world so that we can be again where we were in 1975?"

"That's not going to happen," Klemp responded, his voice tight. "The grades are more accurate than the test."

The room filled with loud groans. Insurrection was in the air.

"These are the grades your colleagues gave," Ward said smoothly, entering the fray. "So if you don't trust the grades, you don't trust your colleagues."

"There's not a teacher in this room who hasn't felt the pressure to enhance toward A's and Bs," responded PE teacher Don Betts.

Klemp jumped in again, comparing education to selling hamburgers, a metaphor he used in the Practitioner Center to show how schools need to make learning more relevant. "You need to get productivity up. How do you do it?" he asked.

"Diminish the quality of the product to get it out?" Betts asked bitterly.

"Yes, if that's what it takes," Klemp replied.

"We're not dealing with hamburgers!" Lynn Norman exclaimed.

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