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A Letter from Los Angeles: How Not to Fix a School

In the past month we have heard a great deal about Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, where the school board voted to fire the entire staff because the school was not raising test scores fast enough. This has focused attention on the challenge of struggling schools. Everyone agrees that change is needed in these schools, but is it really necessary to fire the staff?

One thing that became clear after the initial flood of publicity is that these situations are more complex than the soundbites we get from the media and the politicians. Every school has its own history, and if we want to improve a school we need to start by working with what is there, and develop the leadership capacity needed to drive improvement.

Over the past month I have shared news from a less famous but equally instructive school reconstitution process taking place - Fremont High School in Los Angeles. We are hearing firsthand from teachers about their experience - what it feels like to be told that you are to blame for your students' low performance, and that you must reapply for your job.

Today I am sharing a message from a different voice, from Scott Banks, a teacher who used to teach at Fremont, but left to teach at a school where the students come from wealthier families. His comments reveal some very important subtexts to the reconstitution dilemma. Can we get beyond the soundbites and get a deeper understanding of what is happening in these schools? I think this open letter to Los Angeles Schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines might help.

Dear Dr. Cortines,

You have decided to make Fremont teachers reapply for their own jobs as part of a "reconstitution," implicitly blaming them for the shortcomings of their school. You have also opened the hiring at Fremont to other aspirants.


I am a teacher at Marshall High. I helped our Academic Decathlon team gain top scores in Art for several years, including a second place finish. Several dozen of my English students have succeeded at the challenging AP Literature test. Virtually all of my students pass the English CAHSEE, including many special education students. I have helped my school meet its AYP/API targets with some consistency.

If you are looking for teachers to spearhead success at Fremont, perhaps my record would recommend me as a promising candidate.

If so, you may be curious to learn why I am not still teaching at Fremont. You see, I taught at Fremont for five years before choosing to leave for Marshall.

I left some time after Fremont was assigned a principal unequal to the task of governing it. When we teachers requested an effective leader, our demands ignited an ugly fight that lead to many months of chaos. I wound up a victim of stress and disillusionment. I left the school over ten years ago when I became convinced that LAUSD either couldn't or wouldn't govern it effectively, and when the anxiety of the fight began to damage my home life.

My experience might be instructive for your efforts.

In the first place, it would seem to show that the shortcomings at Fremont cannot be laid at the door of its teachers. If you judge Fremont's current teachers a failure on the basis of their students' test scores, then by the same criteria I was a failing teacher when I left Fremont. Yet when I transferred to Marshall, my new students attained much better test scores. If you imagine this was due to some personal transformation of my teaching, I invite you to transfer me to a high school whose students have a higher average socio-economic status than Marshall, where I suspect yet another personal renaissance awaits me.

Secondly, my experience might lead you to wonder how Fremont loses so many excellent teachers and potentially excellent new teachers each year, and whether administrative efforts to retain these teachers might be more productive than your current attempt to drive teachers away.

If you are inclined to pursue this possibility, my experience suggests that you are uniquely placed to get results. One thing alone would have sufficed to keep me at Fremont: effective leadership. Consistently excellent leadership would retain many more fine teachers at Fremont. The high turnover of principals at Fremont over the last two decades indicates that LAUSD has failed to lead Fremont effectively in the time since I left. It is your responsibility, not that of teachers, to make sure that Fremont never again lacks for sustained excellent leadership.

Finally, if you follow through with your plan to interview current teachers for their own jobs, you might ask yourself what kind of teacher would both volunteer to teach at Fremont in the first place and also remain there for years. I am a creative, intelligent and capable teacher. I was deeply dedicated to Fremont, and especially to its students. I have deep and fond memories of these students to this day. These traits were not enough for long-term success in the environment LAUSD created at Fremont.

It humbles me to consider what personal qualities I would have needed to have remained. I hope you can summon that same sense of humility as you interview veteran Fremont teachers. Perhaps some of these teachers just feel stuck at Fremont. But you need to know that many more of these veteran teachers have special qualities that keep them at Fremont, and that most new teachers will inevitably turn out to lack such qualities. I wonder if you truly have any idea of what a Fremont teacher needs to succeed in the long term.

I understand that over half of the Fremont teachers have decided to leave rather than interview for their jobs. They are clearly upset at being blamed. If you do not reverse course and regain the trust of these teachers, you will do grievous harm to the institution you are trying to help.

You need the best teachers at Fremont. Who else has demonstrated that they can do the job they do?

Best regards,
Scott Banks

What do you think we can learn from this letter? How might districts better approach the improvement of struggling schools?

(photo by Scott Banks, used with permission)

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