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How Change Gets Challenged: A Teacher's Effort to Innovate Within LAUSD

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are teachers from Teach Plus. Guest blogging today is Sujata Bhatt, a National Board Certified teacher with eleven years' experience teaching in Los Angeles Unified School District and the founder of The Incubator School, an innovative LAUSD 6-12 pilot school focused on entrepreneurship and real world learning. She has also developed 'big picture' educational policy as a Teaching Policy Fellow with Teach Plus and with Our Schools, Our Voice and Future is Now Schools. She has written on education reform in The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, and The Washington Post.

The Incubator School, an entrepreneurship-themed learning community, will hopefully open its doors this August, as a unionized Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) pilot school supported in its first two years by the non-profit Future is Now Schools. Should Inc. open, it will be staffed primarily by seasoned union teachers and populated by socioeconomically, racially, and linguistically diverse 6th and 7th graders. During the students' journey through Inc., not only will they master a challenging Common Core-based curriculum, but they'll also learn how to launch a startup, first as 8th grade teams, and then as mentored, networked 12th grade entrepreneurs entering the dynamism of L.A.'s Silicon Beach startup ecosystem. Inc., in short, plans to be a new type of district school aimed at reversing the decline of a system that has lost over 80,000 students in the past six years--more than the total enrollment of most school districts in the nation.

Pilot schools were conceived in 2009 by a joint agreement between the LAUSD and United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). They offer a unionized, teacher-led alternative to both charter and traditional schools. They forge a third path: teachers create an innovative, compelling, thematic vision, and in exchange they get to keep district benefits, seniority, and compensation while simultaneously receiving substantial curricular, budgetary, and scheduling freedom, meaningful leadership roles, and accountability.

In other words, pilot schools offer a way to 'cage-bust' through existing school structures. As a veteran LAUSD teacher, I want to launch Inc. in response to three urgencies: the achievement gap, the opportunity gap, and the deep need for a 21st century model for education. On average, Latino and African American students have significantly fewer opportunities than their more affluent peers to receive high caliber teaching, access college-ready courses, and become networked into cultures of success. And across the board, our education system conforms to a 19th century industrial model, rather than working to nurture the skills that will lead our economy into the future.

To address these urgencies, I designed Inc. with technology built into its DNA. Inc. will embrace complex social-emotional learning, high-tech/low-tech learning, deep inquiry-based learning, and game-based learning, while ensuring that all students receive support to master the fundamentals. Inc. will break down the boundaries between school and the outside world in every way possible, from ensuring that student work applies to and has an effect on the real world to bringing in real world experts to collaborate with students and teachers.

To accomplish its goals, Inc. must be an integrated school. The richness of its curriculum and methodology is designed to attract a diversity of families with different kinds of cultural, economic, and social capital. Inc. will enable all of its students to succeed by bringing together strong, veteran teachers with the drive to build something new with younger, enthusiastic staff with the drive to learn. Inc. will integrate at all levels: diverse students, diverse faculty, diverse learning, diverse community partners.

This vision has sparked a great deal of interest. Parents of all backgrounds have come out to support our quest. A variety of students are excited to join the founding classes. The teacher applicant pool is extremely strong: many with National Board Certification, entrepreneurial or industry experience, and even MBAs. We have multiple outstanding principal candidates.

The one thing we lack, however, is a location. In our search for a space to share with an existing LAUSD school, we have seen the worst the system has to offer. While the LAUSD Superintendent's Office has been very supportive, the multiple intervening layers of bureaucracy have done little to help and sometimes have actively hindered us. More than once, we have been offered sites only to have them rescinded. We have encountered school leaders who hid information about us from their staffs and hid rooms on their campuses from us. Parents who feel our mission may draw students and resources away from their children's schools have launched impassioned and sometimes vicious campaigns against us. Diane Ravitch has weighed in against us three times on her blog, most recently to say of our model, "Ah, innovation. What will they think of next? Day trading in kindergarten?" Last but not least, UTLA is initiating a lawsuit against our very existence.

All of this is intended to block a teacher-led effort to offer one alternative to the status quo. The decline in enrollment in LAUSD is not simply due to underfunding of traditional schools; rather, it also stems from the failures of traditional schools to provide the type of 21st century learning parents want for their children to become active members of the global economy; to have effective teachers in every classroom and effective administrators in every school; and to transparently and efficiently allocate the resources the system has been given.

If the district and union really want to create a third path to innovation, one that grows from within the district's ranks, they both need to take concrete steps to facilitate change. UTLA needs to lead in promoting excellent teaching; push for more effective administration; and rethink its use of the contract as a shield for the status quo and a defense against innovation. The district needs to facilitate pathways for schools with declining enrollment to partner or consolidate, enabling new forms of schooling to find space to experiment and grow; to streamline its bureaucratic layers and communications systems; and to win back the trust of parents who have been betrayed by its inability to deliver on past promises of local school autonomy. Both district bureaucracy and union leadership need to move away from obstructionism and towards problem solving.

Solving problems unleashes something fundamental in the human spirit, something that is all too often missing in schools and large districts. I firmly believe that school systems are in part mired in vision and execution problems because they are unable to tap the creative potential of their employees, as well as their 'customers'--parents and students. Pilot schools were conceived as a sustainable way to unleash the creative energy of those who are closest to the core mission of schools--teachers and parents whose focus is helping students grow. It is time for LAUSD and UTLA to work both internally and cooperatively to allow this happen.

- Sujata Bhatt

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