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In Classrooms, Mayor's Plan Faces Opposition

Some teachers back the proposal, but many say more local autonomy could undo recent gains.

June 23, 2006|Duke Helfand and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

The teachers of Cahuenga Elementary near downtown Los Angeles had a message Thursday for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: No thank you.

In South Los Angeles, staffers at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary shook their heads in disbelief.

But in more affluent Hancock Park, teachers at 3rd Street Elementary gave the mayor a thumbs-up for injecting himself into the schools.

Villaraigosa's elaborate plan to take control of the Los Angeles Unified School District grabbed the attention of rank-and-file teachers Thursday, the day after it was announced. While some applauded it, many disagreed with him -- and their own union leadership.

In close consultation with teachers unions, the mayor agreed this week as part of a sweeping reform plan to let schools choose their own instructional methods and effectively do away with top-down centralized programs.

Villaraigosa said this week that his plan, which the Legislature is expected to consider soon, would spawn "the kind of environment that really can be an incubator for great ideas and success."

United Teachers Los Angeles has long chafed under what it considers overly rigid mandates from the district's top officials, and the union has wanted more leeway for teachers to decide what works best at their schools.

But teachers and principals at several L.A. Unified campuses said the mayor's proposal could ravage districtwide reading and math programs that they say have brought continuity to thousands of classrooms and helped drive up standardized test scores over the last six years.

Uniformity is important, the educators said, because 28% of the district's 727,000 students leave L.A. Unified schools at least once during a school year, with many of them going to other district campuses. Requiring schools to use the same programs enables students who move to keep up with lessons, the educators said.

"We need to put the children first," Cahuenga Elementary teacher Grace Blanc said. "I think the consistency is what the children need."

Such resistance to Villaraigosa's plan echoed warnings by school district leaders this week about what they perceived as a threat to the district's progress and revealed deep divisions between some classroom teachers and their union leaders, who forged the agreement with the mayor.

The skepticism extended to administrators, some of whom argued that their schools have flexibility despite the district's mandates.

"We have to be very careful when it comes to our kids being affected by adult decisions," said King Elementary Principal David Bell, a 16-year district veteran. "I don't like it when our children are used."

Villaraigosa's top attorney, Thomas Saenz, said the mayor wants to give campuses freedom to innovate and says they could continue to use their existing programs if they deemed that best for their students. Schools would be required to show progress and abide by state curriculum guidelines.

But Saenz also said the school board and the superintendent would continue to play a role in overseeing instruction and curriculum. Details are still being worked out.

"This is not a situation where there will be completely unguided, unfettered authority for anyone at the local school site to make decisions," he said.

The roots of the current conflict over school-site authority stem from a change in policy by the Board of Education in 2000.

To accommodate student mobility and help growing numbers of inexperienced teachers, the board adopted a rigidly structured reading program -- Open Court -- for nearly all district elementary schools.

Open Court combined direct, systematic phonics lessons in the early grades with literature as children matured. It came with thick guides that told instructors what to teach and when. The school district hired reading coaches to coordinate lessons and guide new teachers, and introduced "pacing plans" to literally keep teachers on the same page on the same day. Students' progress was checked every six weeks.

Many teachers initially resisted, saying that they felt like test-prep automatons stripped of their classroom creativity. But test scores rose at many schools, particularly those serving large numbers of students for whom English is a second language.

The teachers union's long-standing complaints about the top-down dictums played a pivotal role in the legislative deal the union negotiated with Villaraigosa. Union President A.J. Duffy said that allowing schools to determine curriculum was a "critical piece" of the reform puzzle.

On Thursday, Duffy said his union was not trying to eliminate Open Court but to modify its use so that teachers have more flexibility. "This idea of one size fitting all, we do not agree with," Duffy said.

But Supt. Roy Romer said the district should stay the course.

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