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District fights to retain Locke

May 15, 2007|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

In response to a surprise plan launched by a leading charter school organization to take control of one of Los Angeles' most troubled high schools, school district and teacher union officials are hurriedly trying to counter with reform plans of their own.

At back-to-back meetings scheduled for today with the faculty of Locke High School, leaders from the Los Angeles Unified School District and the union hope to persuade teachers to consider other options to the takeover proposed by Green Dot Public Schools.

Last week, Green Dot sent shock waves through the district when it announced it had quietly collected signatures of interest from a majority of the tenured teachers at Locke, clearing the major legal hurdle toward converting the low-performing Watts campus into 10 small charter schools beginning in 2008.

If the signatures are verified, the Board of Education would appear to have little choice but to approve the charter proposal because state laws make it difficult to reject operators such as Green Dot, which has posted promising results at its schools.

Charters are publicly funded but independently run. In exchange for the expectation that they will boost student achievement, they are free of many of the instructional and financial restrictions placed on traditional schools.

Faced with the prospect of losing wholesale control of a campus to Green Dot -- a group that has clashed frequently with the district throughout its aggressive push to expand -- district officials were still scrambling Monday evening to pull together the details of what they would present to Locke teachers.

Kathi Littmann, a senior district official, said the proposal focuses on giving Locke teachers and administrators charter-like autonomy from the mammoth district's central bureaucracy.

But Zeus Cubias, a math teacher at Locke, chafed at word of the district's attempt to assuage the faculty. "It's too little, too late," he said. "And not just now, but years too little, too late."

Cubias said that although many teachers who signed the Green Dot petition were still dubious of the charter conversion plan, they "feel like there isn't any other option" for the school, which for years has languished as one of the worst in the district.

Like dozens of other high schools throughout the district, Locke, in theory, is already divided into seven so-called small learning communities. But the reform effort has faltered as district officials have been slow to grant the mini-schools real authority over budget and instruction decisions.

Along with addressing that shortcoming, Littmann and regional Supt. Carol Truscott said the district's proposal would raise the prospect of Locke partnering with a local university on teacher training programs. It would also propose that teachers bring in an outside consulting group to help implement reform.

Green Dot founder Steve Barr dismissed the district's effort, saying, "Teachers would see through it as an attempt to dilute the idea of real autonomy at small schools that are led by teachers."

Truscott emphasized that the decision to meet with Locke's teachers was not a knee-jerk reaction to Green Dot's move. The meeting was scheduled several weeks ago, she said, to discuss a compromise over Locke that at the time Supt. David L. Brewer was trying to negotiate with Barr. Those talks broke down over Barr's rejection of Brewer's demand that teachers be district employees subject to the extensive union contract.

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said he would present Locke teachers with a plan similar to the district's, in which teachers would have "absolute control" over hiring, curriculum, budgets and other decisions. Duffy and other union leaders have long been critical of Green Dot, whose teachers belong to a separate union, and of the fast-growing charter movement as a whole.

"I'm not trying to convince them of anything, other than to slow down," Duffy said. The move by Green Dot "does not serve the Locke faculty or the school's community. The best thing would be for the teachers to know all of the options before them and then make a decision."

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