The nation's largest charter conversion school weathered the first storm of its transition this month when parents and teachers healed a rift in their coalition and prepared to ask the Los Angeles Unified School District to extend their school's independent status. The dispute illuminates how good intentions can go awry when a school is left alone to stew in the pressure cooker of charter reform.
The feud began just eight weeks into the first semester at Granada Hills High in the San Fernando Valley when a straw poll at a faculty meeting indicated that a quarter of the 146 teachers wanted the school to rejoin the LAUSD. The vote incensed parents on the school governing board, who responded with an e-mail blitz that singled out three teachers as ringleaders. Teachers bristled; each side teed off on the other in an emotional meeting in the school library.
Parents felt betrayed by the teacher vote. How could a faculty that had supported the charter application unanimously last spring lose faith so quickly? But teachers considered the poll not a gauge of their commitment to professional reform but a measure of personal worries. Their union's contract with the LAUSD provides generous benefits, including a lifetime of fully paid medical coverage. No one at the school or the district seemed able to answer teacher questions about what the charter's temporary status meant to their health-care plan. That frustrated and roiled the faculty.
Voices were raised and tears flowed when teachers met with parents last week. Then, Sonja Brown, Granada's governing board president, apologized to teachers whom she had offended. Parents reaffirmed their commitment to the charter. Teachers pleaded with one another not to let fear block cooperation. It was painful but conciliatory, one teacher said.
The drama might have been avoided had the district or the union responded to teachers' concerns quickly. But neither is particularly invested in Granada's success. Both the district and the union worry that a success by Granada might spark a trend among other suburban campuses, siphoning off middle-class students and union veterans. Leaders of both groups should recognize that neglecting the needs of charters won't stop a train that's left the station.
This charter was born in a burst of enthusiasm after years of hard work by parents, teachers and staff seeking freedom from district bureaucracy. The dust-up presents a reality check. Some challenges they will face stem not from malevolence or incompetence but from competing needs of demanding constituencies -- the same conflicts that keep LAUSD embroiled in controversy.
Granada Hills is in a tough position, with just one year to prove it can do better on its own before the district yanks its leash. The parents and teachers governing the school got over this hurdle by cooperating and putting egos aside. The LAUSD and the union could take a lesson.