A Tale of Two Back to School Nights

Excitement and enthusiasm were in the air as teachers in my new high school in a middle class neighborhood prepared their classrooms by decorating their bulletin boards, displaying student work, and straightening desks. Welcome messages abounded, Remind.com messages were sent, and we opened our doors to meet the parents.
I have done these events for 24 years, four times a year at my former school in South Central L.A. But this year’s Back to School Night left me reflecting, and perhaps shedding a tear.
First, my new parents were fantastic. They were friendly, enthusiastic, and supportive of the new ideas I bring to the school. I knew in them I would have allies to incorporate my findings from my Fulbright exchange in Finland earlier this year. Parent after parent nodded their heads and strongly affirmed that break time was important to students, teachers, and workers in general. They were excited to hear about the summer travel programs I had prepared.
As I looked at their warm and s…

Race to the Top and South Central L.A.

 The big news this summer is the speed and ferocity of the federal governments new education reform plans that fall under the umbrella of Race to the Top.  RTTT is a competition for federal funding that will be awarded to winning states who adopt the reforms espoused by the President Obama and the Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  Some of these reforms include merit pay for teachers, reforming teacher evaluation, increasing testing in all subjects, imposing sanctions to the lowest performing 5% of schools, and lifting the cap on charter schools.

As we have said before in this blog, the ideas and policies of those in power always present themselves in a different iteration at the school level, and in South Central L.A., even more so.

For example, take the idea of reconstitution.  The idea is that if a school has very low test scores, and has had them for a long time, then it must be the fault of the faculty.  If you fire the faculty and only retain the best teachers (who have to reapply for their jobs), you can start over by changing the culture of the school.  Sounds logical, even exciting, because something is finally being done about those so-called "dropout factories."

But what if the "best teachers" choose not to reapply?  The reality is that low performing schools are likely located in centers of poverty and crime and many teachers with families may not want to take the extra risk that comes along with working in such schools.  L.A. Academy, for example, is located in an industrial area south of Downtown L.A. and has undergone 2 lockdowns in 6 weeks due to massive explosions at factories near the school.  If you are a talented Math or Science teacher (of which there are such drastic shortages that the district has to import teachers from the Phillipines) and you have the choice between working near the beach or in the 'hood, then the beach will almost always win.

Reconstitution, in theory, would work if you would replace the fired teachers with notably more talented teachers.  Replacing them with the same old tired LAUSD teachers would not yield a different result.  Which is why the reconstitution, or turnaround, of Fremont HS (a high school in South Central L.A.) is so troubling.  As of this week, sources inside the school and on LAUSD's own Human Resources page indicate that not all teaching positions have been staffed.  It is the fifth week of school, and countless numbers of classes are being taught by substitutes.  The truth is, you are going to have to make it very worth the while of an able teacher to take on the challenges of teaching at a school forsaken by all, and which is now the focus of sanctions.

Teachers have concerns about the soundness and viability of RTTT.  We also have ideas and solutions.  But we have not been asked for them.  And when we speak of our concerns we are accused of standing for the status quo (see comments by Mike Piscal, CEO of ICEF charter schools), having low expectations, or just being plain lazy and greedy.  No fear; teachers are educators, and we have voices and words.  We will continue to speak the truth from schools and classrooms of America, and we will continue fighting for quality education for all students.


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