Students on a food break at Huntington Park High School (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Top Los Angeles school officials vowed to move quickly to bring sweeping change to the nation's second-largest school system, and, starting this week, Huntington Park High School is expected to become the laboratory for just how fast things can go.
On Tuesday, the Board of Education is expected to approve a plan to replace at least half the school's staff by July — in about six weeks — the start of school for the year-round campus.
The move arises primarily out of the frustration felt by school board member Yolie Flores over the pace of progress at her alma mater, located in an area she represents. But it's also a signal from freshly installed Supt. John Deasy, who promised that he would move swiftly upon taking the helm of the Los Angeles Unified School District in mid-April.
In all, officials are requiring faculty to reinterview for jobs at five low-performing schools. The other schools are Clay and Muir middle schools in South Los Angeles, Burbank Middle School in Highland Park and Jordan High School in Watts. Those schools will open in the fall, after having six months or more to revamp.
Some insiders expressed concern that the district is taking on more turnarounds than it can handle. They also worry that one result could be that teachers judged ineffective and forced out of one school will be entitled under the union contract to fill positions at other turnaround schools — the only places that will be hiring en masse during a budget crisis that is forcing layoffs.
The series of events has angered the teachers union and already resulted in a legal challenge. United Teachers Los Angeles filed suit last week, alleging that the district is illegally handing over Clay and Jordan to independent charter school operators. (At those two schools, charter operators are deciding who gets to stay.) Under state law, charter conversions can occur with the vote of the faculty or through a parent petition.
The district tested the "reinterview" approach last year at Fremont High, with uncertain results. Huntington Park is the first place where the district is requiring that at least 50% of the staff be replaced.
Last fall, Huntington Park met improvement goals on standardized tests. But Flores remained convinced that a complete shakeup would best serve students. All that should remain is Libra Academy, a new small school on the campus that is outperforming the rest of the school, she said.
Teachers object to the success of Libra being cited as justification for dismantling the rest of the school. They note that Libra has, on the whole, attracted students who were higher performers than their Huntington Park peers even before high school.
Flores first persuaded then-Supt. Ramon Cortines to require that Huntington Park be broken into small schools. Then she prodded his successor, Deasy, to propose a complete staff makeover by July.
"This school has been waiting for decades, and people say wait a little longer," Flores said. "To me, it's a stall tactic. I'm tired of waiting."
About 5% of the school's students tested as proficient or better in math last year; about 24% tested as proficient or better in English. The dropout rate is 26%; only 231 of the school's 542 graduates last year were eligible to apply to a Cal State or University of California campus.
No one is defending those numbers, but less aggressive reforms are being employed at other, lower-performing schools.
"The morale of teachers is really low," said veteran English teacher Philip R. Keller, as he walked the calm, leafy, but crowded campus last week.
He waved at one student who mastered his English class less than a year after arriving from Mexico and plans to apply to UC Berkeley. He indicated another to whom he gave a D for lack of effort. Several students praised Keller as a teacher who demanded and encouraged good work.
Keller said he worried that many strong teachers would choose to leave, and a school that needs to improve will decline under a heavy-handed approach that puts too much blame on teachers.
Flores accuses Keller and others, in turn, of blaming students for a school culture dominated by adult complacency.
Some education research includes examples of forced turnarounds that have worked, and the more aggressive approach may be better, said Justin C. Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education, a Boston-based nonprofit.
"I do think you need a pretty substantial planning period," he said.
The idea of restaffing schools is strongly supported by the Obama administration, which sees it as a key strategy.
Flores is counting on Deasy, who arrived with a formidable reputation, to craft a positive outcome.
"This school needs help," she said.