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Community- What It Is And What It Isn’t

January 17, 2011

“You poisoned my sweet waters,  you cut down my green trees and the food you fed my children was the cause of their disease.

My world is slowly falling down and the air is not good to breathe and those of us who care enough, we have to do something.”

In talking to my relatives who work in at least semi-sane school districts,  none of their administrators seem to bear any resemblance to the ones we have suffered through.  None have had a movie made about them and then tried to parlay that into a career of demonizing teachers and destroying improving schools.  None publicly bash teachers and none seem to  enjoy firing competent educators.   And certainly none would give teachers this sage advice,  “Just open the book and teach…. that’s all there is to it, just open the book.”   Damn,  I knew I got ripped off by Cal State Long Beach! Dr. McKenna had all the answers and I could have saved myself about 1500 dollars a semester plus books!

I feel like  a stranger in the land where I was born, and I live like an outlaw – I’m always on the run.”

How is it that LAUSD ended up with the bottom of the barrel, incompetent administrators in some of their highest needs schools who make some of the top wages in Los Angeles County, while driving out those actual human being administrators to other local school districts?

Exhibit A (from District 4) Dale Vigil

The above link is an older blog dedicated to saving Suzanne Blake’s job. She was the principal who was dubiously fired from the Performing Arts High School CLHS #9, even though most parents and students were against it and in violation of the schools “Memorandum of Understanding” with the district. Hmm.  A competent, well – liked principal removed and replaced  by a district crony with little knowledge of the performing arts and if recent reports are accurate, spends little time on campus.

“Your newspapers, they’re just putting you on, they never tell you the whole story. “

What’s interesting is that in other areas of LAUSD particularly the Valley, you won’t find the same level of vilification. In fact I picked up my community newspaper The Voice of the Village and featured on its front page was a glowing story about the band teacher at Verdugo Hills High, Victoria Lopez

The Leader of the Band

I checked the next section and in fact they have a whole section devoted to school news- no, not VAM or charters but TEACHERS – real teachers and their accomplishments.  On page 17 there was a huge picture of Mr. Gary Ireland, science teacher at Mt Gleason Middle School (yes, it’s LAUSD) standing next to his smart board  and a quote from him stating “I’m a rebel teacher.”  (Wouldn’t have made it past the purge at the Mont) I was in shock.  Was I working in the same district- the one that couldn’t wait to tell me I wasn’t a “good fit” at a school I devoted 7 1/2 years of my life to?  I went on to read the article.  Apparently this wonderful teacher is a Solar Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Lab, he streams live footage from the International Space Station and hosts a magic club at lunch in his classroom.  He also created and designed his own curriculum and LAUSD approved it.  Would that ever happen in South LA? It’s strictly “scriptsville” now.   For the record, the article was a full page  with three beautiful color pictures.  It’s kind of obvious why the Valley was the only area  of Los Angeles to not have a majority of votes for the mayor in the last election.  No PLAS schools here.

Monster Guitar Store which recently closed taking a big part of Tujunga history with it

Meanwhile I and my fellow colleagues have been dodging bullets in the war on public education.  Anything we obtained was from Donor’s Choose  or other community based partnerships or funding.  I was once grilled by a principal about my annual field trip to Animal Acres, “I’ll approve it this time, but it doesn’t seem to be standards based.”

“If you stand up for what you do believe, be prepared to be shot down.”

I turned the page and found a second article entitled, “Lunchtime Poets and Authors at Mt. Gleason,” featuring Ms. Harpreet Hans, a writing teacher and her students who meet for their creative writing club.  I scratched my head.  Mt. Gleason isn’t on the westside or in Woodland Hills. It’s in Tujunga, a 2. 8 mile long X 5 mile wide hippie and biker town sandwiched between Sunland and La Crescenta.   It has a higher that usual proportion of single mothers and Vietnam vets than the rest of LA County and a homeless population that is tolerated.   It is dotted with empty storefronts and there would be more had the community not strongly fought against a Home Depot store.  Home Depot built the store, but it never opened.  It sits, painted all white surrounded  on a huge lot with a “for lease” sign like a prop from some dystopian movie.

Bolton Hall where the history of Sunland-Tujunga is preserved

The fight over Home Depot, though, says a lot about this community’s values, which are down home and tied to its history which is tenderly kept at Bolton Hall.  They want to save Main Street and the independent hardware, tile, window and machine shops which have managed to hang on. If Home Depot had opened,  Foothill from Mt. Gleason Ave to Tujunga Canyon would have become a ghost town.  Our community sacrificed low prices and convenience to save its soul.   I don’t have to pretend I am not a teacher here.

Partially finished Home Depot which will never open - a testament to the successful fight to keep our community intact

Parents are involved in their children’s educations and don’t seem to equate API with quality.   They are proud of their schools, which include Verdugo High, Mt. Gleason Middle School and  Apperson elementary and a very highly regarded continuation school, Mt. Lukens.   The neighborhoods to the south of Foothill Blvd  are firmly working class to middle class with a diverse population.  My neighborhood is made up of LAUSD employees, plumbers, city workers and Cal Trans employees.   City workers are not resented here and it is considered a necessity to get involved with city government.

In fact the other local paper,  The Voice of the Foothills: The Paper With An Attitude takes our new Los Angeles  councilman, Paul Krekorian to task for his poor treatment of the homeless.  “Homeless Evicted At Christmas”, the headline screams.  We are still hurting from losing Wendy Gruel who was termed out after helping us fight Home Depot.  Politics is close to the people here, not like in the urban core where if you want to have any say about your schools you have to fight downtown traffic to make it to Beaudry hours before the school board meeting,  go through CIA- like security, wait more hours and hope you will be able to speak, then when you do get to speak, your board member will likely be checking their Blackberry or sharing a joke.  What’s so funny?  I guess the joke’s on us.

So I wonder, as we go through the Public School Choice process, what it really takes to make schools successful.   The design team members for the four schools have worked their tails off trying to create a community to fill a vaccuum in the community,  yet the district goals of “accountability” and”pacing” are a harder fit in such schools although they have been written into some of the elect-to-work agreements.  After all this work creating a model that supports and recognizes teachers, will the district do what it did at Fremont and is doing at HPHS and Jordan and claim that no matter what the successes, we don’t “have a sense of urgency?”

VAM doesn’t work, neither does firing teachers or shoving scripted curriculum in their faces.  Pilot school success is not guaranteed and has been dependent on the  staff chemistry in the schools.   In the articles about the teachers in Sunland -Tujunga, I read not one word about API, CST’s, VAM, periodic assessments or firing teachers. I did read about celebrating teachers,  education, poetry, teachers creating and teaching their own astronomy curriculum to middle schoolers.  Hmm.  I wonder if there’s a connection.   I doubt any administrator will pick up my local papers, thinking it beneath them to read about teachers, especially self -proclaimed “rebel” ones.  That’s why no matter how good and noble the teachers are who staff the new schools,  when you have administrators intent on destroying community and continuity by erasing the history of schools in Los Angeles , education  can never improve- and they know that.   The question is, if improving education isn’t the goal- and it can’t be- then what is the goal?

Illinois teachers weren’t going to wait around to find out.  Because they fought- and fought hard, they turned back all of the punitive legislation including the toxic Performance Counts initiative but more importantly countered it with their own legislation Accountability for All. They were also able to block the continuation of reduced pension funding, ensure continued pension payments and blocked a bill that would have removed union rights from any teacher in a “leadership role” at a school site.  They also prevented the passage of a voucher bill.   All in one session.

“I believe the revolution must be mighty close at hand”


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