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VOICES

LEARN Brings 'New Energy' to the Schools : South Gate teacher says the program has cut administrative fat, saved money, involved parents and given teachers more autonomy. Pupils, she says, 'feel the buzz' of constructive change.

June 18, 1995

Juana Cortez has been a teacher at Bryson Avenue Elementary School in South Gate for 10 years. Formerly a third-grade teacher, she now teaches the School Readiness Language Development Program, a class that helps preschoolers in this 98% Latino school improve their English skills and be better prepared to enter kindergarten.

Three years ago, Bryson became one of the first area schools to take part in a program called Los Angeles Educational Alliance For Restructuring Now (LEARN). Having taught at Bryson before and after it became a LEARN campus, she describes what the program has done to improve the school, its teachers and its students. Cortez, 33, was interviewed by community correspondent Nancy Slate.

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Most people don't realize it, but we are all stake holders in Los Angeles' children and their futures. What they do after they turn 18 is going to affect us all. That's why having the LEARN program at Bryson is such a great thing. It impacts everyone and starts the kids on the way to a better future.

Before LEARN, I think the school system was too centralized. There were too many people who were part of the Los Angeles Unified School District who were making the decisions for the schools and didn't take into consideration what the children's needs were and what the teachers' needs were. We were allotted a certain amount of money and told what it would be spent for.

Before LEARN, teachers didn't really have a voice. Things were done the traditional way, with the school administrator making the decisions and the teachers in the classrooms. And basically that was it. Teachers would go to staff development meetings and speak, but that's as far as it got--their voices were often unheard.

LEARN is a program that was started in order to restructure the Los Angeles public school system and create a new, decentralized system that would bring about better academic results for the students. One of the most important aspects is parental involvement. What we are focusing on is reality: Most parents work and won't be available between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., so we have evening and Saturday meetings.

I think one reason parents kind of hesitate to become involved is the language barrier, which Bryson is trying to break through. We also try to provide a comfort zone for them. So instead of a traditional sign that says, "Parents must go through the office," we have a big banner saying, "Bryson is a LEARN school, and you are welcome to come and see what your children are doing."

We had 200 parents who participated in a 10-week program where we taught them about everything from child abuse to math, to the importance of reading to their children. Just a whole variety of things. And the kids loved that their parents were involved.

Another major change with LEARN is that we now make many of our own decisions, from hiring teachers and teaching assistants to hiring our own principal and vice principal. Rather than having them appointed, we can find people who meet Bryson's needs.

Another thing we decided was to abolish seniority. Under LAUSD rules, any teacher with seniority is allowed to bump another teacher if she wants her job. When we became a LEARN school, we voted a waiver that said there was no seniority unless there was an opening--no bumping. We wanted consistency for both teachers and children.

Now, if a teacher is building an ongoing program, she has the security of knowing she can keep working on it.

We also govern our budget. We decide what Bryson needs and use our allotted money for that, rather than having a middleman tell us how to spend it. We're finding all this extra money that we never had before, and we're saying, "Where did it come from?" The answer is that Bryson is managing its own money without a middleman, and it's going directly to the school.

We write grant proposals, and a lot of them are successful. We've hired more teacher's assistants, we have a full-time nurse and psychologist, and we renovated our library, which I don't think had been done in 30 years.

All this because of LEARN.

The results here at Bryson have been remarkable. Four other teachers and I were motivated to get our master's degrees in education, as well as our preliminary administrative credentials.

LEARN opened our eyes to other aspects of education and to what the administration of a school can be, not just what it's been in the past. Since science is Bryson's targeted area of improvement, we had a professional staff development class in this area.

I think the kids see this new attitude. They feel the buzz, the new energy, the teachers getting together and doing things.

We just ordered new computers complete with CD-ROMs, and we're putting VCRs in every classroom. We feel this is what our school needs because, unfortunately, kids in our area don't have access to this kind of technology at home.

Homework and attendance have improved, largely because parents went through all that training and can be there to help and support. Our class scores on basic school tests were pretty good compared to others in the area. We don't expect overnight miracles, but the progress is there.

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