March 21, 2012

Pilot School Teachers Speak About Challenges At Evening With Mayor

Original article published on by Tami Abdollah

About 40 educators from dozens of L.A. Unified pilot schools gathered Downtown Monday night for an intimate discussion with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and school board president Monica Garcia that was hosted by Educators 4 Excellence.

For more than an hour, teachers and some principals spoke about their challenges working at pilot schools. Pilot schools have some charter-like autonomy over curriculum, budget and staffing, but participate as full members of the district.

Each educator received a "clicker" and sent in their responses to various multiple-choice poll questions that were then used as discussion points. On the whole teachers were frustrated with the preliminary pink slips and budget cuts, which in most cases affect relatively large porportions of the staffs at these schools that are often theme-based and rely on specialized teacher skills.

Here's what got the most votes, with some bits of the discussion it generated:

1) The most essential autonomy within the pilot school model is staffing (41%), school governance (16%), budget control (16%).

  • Villaraigosa said he would have initially chosen budget as the most essential autonomy. "Now I believe I'm 1,000 percent for staffing," he said. "That drives everything."

2) The best part of teaching at a pilot school is shared decision making (37%), shared sense of mission and culture (30%), being part of a small school community (26%).

  • "You no longer have top down everyone is sitting at the table," one teacher said.
  • "We only have 500 kids at our school, none of them fall through the cracks and they know it...they know they can't fail without us getting on their case," said another teacher, who selected "small school community." "They feel embraced, and that doesn't happen in a school of 2,000 kids."

3) The greatest challenge facing my pilot school is working with budget constraints (36%), retaining talent (24%), navigating bureaucracy (21%).

  • "We're looking at adding 120 kids next year as we become 9-12...and we'll be able to add two more teachers," said one teacher.
  • "Part of the problem we're having at our school with the budgeting is we're part teacher and part coordinator," said another teacher at the talk. "This is posing a huge problem, because you're a full time teacher and also a full coordinator...And with the budget, and with the teachers being dismissed or riffed next year, we're going to be taking on even more responsibilites on top of that, and the budgeting is not allotted appropriately as is."

4) The most essential support needed to strengthen pilot schools is improved funding formulas (73%).

  • "I think that it's a little bit difficult to maintain the themes of the schools, that each unique pilot school has without funding them properly," said one teacher. "What I had in mind was one of the themed schools that had to do with entertainment...If you lose those [specialized] teachers, they are irreplaceable. And what you need is a dedicated staff. I think if our funding formulas were improved or at least operated under a different dynamic than any other schools we would be able to maintain our theme and we would keep going in a way that acknowledges what we set out to do. I think that's difficult to maintain if we don't have the funds for it."

5) It is most essential for any school embarking on a transformation process to build buy-in and support from staff (64%).

  • One teacher talked about his effort to convert his small learning community to a pilot school that "failed miserably." — "It was simply impossible to create the type of reform we wanted to do...we couldn't do it with most of the staff opposed to taking on the autonomy," said the teacher.

Garcia and Villaraigosa wrapped up the event with their thoughts.

"We're in a fight, and you do deserve more," Garcia said. "...This is what reform looks like. What President Obama is talking about, this is what it looks like. I get it and I support this movement among you to help that old system die and help this new system thrive. You are creating an energy at a time when we are ere at an all time low on investment. I'd like to say every pilot school teacher is exempt [from RIFs] and we're working on that."

Villaraigosa said it's important to provide schools with flexibility and to challenge what is broken. 

"I know that ultimately we've got to fund schools at a level that says they are important — 47 is not that level," Villaraigosa said. "We should be where I was in the 1960s we were in the top five in per pupil spending and had the best schools, but we've also got to be at the top in innovation at the top in trying new things when things aren't working."