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L.A. schools chief convenes summit

Business leaders, union members, activists and educators target low- scoring campuses.

September 20, 2007|Joel Rubin and Howard Blume | Times Staff Writers

Seeking to overhaul chronically failing campuses, Los Angeles schools Supt. David L. Brewer quietly convened education and community leaders Wednesday to help him devise a reform plan.

The invitation-only meeting, at Chamber of Commerce headquarters downtown, marked the launch of one of Brewer's most aggressive initiatives since taking the top post at the Los Angeles Unified School District late last year. Tens of thousands of students perform far below grade level at schools that have long failed to meet basic academic standards set by state and federal government.

"It is time to fix these schools once and for all. This is a moral imperative that we get this done," he said. "These schools will not look like they look today. We are going to transform these schools and we will not tolerate them failing anymore. We are literally going to put these schools into intensive care."

Brewer tried to hold Wednesday's meeting out of the public spotlight; his office declined to release a list of those invited, saying that the final task force could be different. The late-afternoon meeting included union leaders representing teachers, administrators and non-teaching employees, neighborhood activists, leaders of the charter school movement, college deans and business leaders, according to some who attended.

Attitudes of those attending were mixed. "There was a fair amount of cynicism in the room," one person said.

Board member Julie Korenstein expressed frustration about how little she and her colleagues knew. "It's important for this Board of Education to have the opportunity to work with the superintendent in making decisions about how to transform the district," she said.

"He wasn't asking for permission," said board member Marlene Canter. "He was telling us. He's been talking about it for awhile. I'm happy it's moving forward."

In an e-mail to the board, Brewer said that low academic achievement at those schools had "gone on long enough. . . . It's time for a change." If the district didn't act, he added, "someone else will."

In a recent interview, before he moved forward with this plan, Brewer indicated that he would push the issue of low-performing schools to the extreme. The district could invoke the federal No Child Left Behind education reform law to close schools and reopen them with different teachers and administrators.

If necessary, he said, "you blow it up. You blow it up. And you make sure you have something to put in its place. . . . But the main thing is you got to have somebody on top of them to help them and give them the resources they need. You don't just go in and throw stuff at people and expect them to be able to do it. If they could do it, they would have done it already."

Brewer said Wednesday that he had yet to identify the additional resources needed to fund the effort. Such details would be part of the planning process for next year's overall district budget. He intends to present the school board with a plan by early November and to roll out the effort in fall 2008.

There are 59 traditional schools in the district that currently score below 600 on the state's 1,000-point performance index -- the main threshold Brewer said he would use. Of those, nearly all are middle and high schools that are among the largest in the nation, such as Washington Preparatory High and Gage Middle. While a focus on elementary schools over the past years has produced significant gains, the district -- like other urban school systems across the country -- has struggled to make improvements in upper grades.

Brewer has talked frequently about how his job is not to invent new ideas but to identify what works and put it in place. The concept of putting schools directly under a superintendent's purview draws from the playbook of Rudy Crew, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Crew created a School Improvement Zone, in which he mandated smaller classes and a standardized curriculum. In New York City, where Crew previously served as superintendent, he made 10 low-performing schools into the "Chancellor's District." The effort was disbanded after Crew's departure.

Crew has become an occasional confidant of Brewer, who came to L.A. Unified as a retired Navy admiral, without direct experience in public education.

Brewer's initiative coincides with other major reform efforts. The most publicized has been Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's "partnership" that will run two high schools and possibly the elementary and middle schools that feed into them. After months of negotiations and discussions, Villaraigosa's plan is still in its early stages as he tries to rally community support and faculty approval at the targeted schools.

While the superintendent's thrust also seeks outside advice from the task-force members, he made clear he is ultimately accountable for whether the high-stakes salvage is successful.

"My job is to basically transform all of my low-performing schools," Brewer said. "To the extent I have partners, that is great, but the scope of this issue is beyond partnership. I've got to fix all of them."

Robert Schiller, a veteran education consultant advising Brewer, echoed the superintendent. Fundamental touchstones, such as hiring practices, instruction strategies and control of a school's budget will all be re-examined, he said.

"We have to go back to basics," Schiller said, "and look at what's being taught, when it's taught, how and why it's taught, and who is teaching it."


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