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The Devil in the Details: Hard Lessons from a School That Turned Around

Congress is currently considering reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, with some modifications put forward by the Obama administration. This law was originally enacted with little input from educators, and our students and schools have paid the price. Over at Teachers' Letters to Obama, we are seeking letters from teachers expressing our firsthand understanding about what works and what does not, as a means of informing those who make policy. Los Angeles teacher Chuck Olynyk has offered such a letter.

From: Charles V. Olynyk
Social Studies teacher
Los Angeles Unified School District
[email protected]

Dear President Obama, Secretary Duncan and Members of Congress:

Several members of our Teachers' Letters to Obama (TLO) group of educators recently had the honor of sharing with Secretary Duncan our concerns with the direction of federal education reform's Race to the Top initiative. I was one of them--or rather, was scheduled to be, as the conversation was cut short.

Following that, in various publications were reports of Department of Education assertions that teachers support RTTT. This claim is expressly contrary to the position statement we issued, nor does it reflect the sentiments of thousands of teachers who have reported corresponding with you, Mr. President.

Some clarification is in order.

Improvement or "turn-around" programs for struggling schools must be flexible and participatory. Teachers, students, and community members need to be involved in discussions and problem-solving. Moreover, we do not believe the current four options are adequate and recommend instead the strategies in the Strengthening Our Schools proposal now before Congress.

I will speak directly to one attempt to "improve" a struggling school.

Until June 25 of this year, I taught World History at John C. Fremont High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. While we were a school with a checkered past, (including having principals lasting an average of 23 months) we were a school on the move. Our test scores were on the rise, in fact had been for a number of years. We were not on the California list of worst schools because of said rise.

It can be attributed to dividing the 4600 students on a year-round calendar into thirteen Small Learning Communities, each with one counselor seeing to the needs of 400 students. Teachers shared the same kids. Problems could be spotted. Help could be given.

Additionally, from October through December, the Fremont faculty voted to collaborate with the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP) to strengthen the SLCs and improve instruction and support for students. At the same time, Fremont finally developed a Single Plan created by teachers, parents and students. This was the first time that teachers wrote the single plan document rather than an administrator. It was the first time that the parent advisory councils at Fremont wrote out their recommendations and these were embedded in the single plan. The plan called for clear action steps to address the key focus areas such as ELA, Math, Graduation, Parent Engagement, and Attendance.

Yet, on December 9th, 2009, Superintendent Ramon Cortines designated us for "reconstitution". That later became "restructuring.". What I do know is that the principal did not have to reapply (because it was his first year), but the entire staff was told to reapply or be moved elsewhere; they were also reassured that most would have their jobs, as long as signed and agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding, which would assign additional duties to the returning staff. Teachers were also "invited" to joined "committees" to advise the restructuring/reconfiguration of Fremont High. You will please make note that the teacher input was to be of a purely "advisory" nature. Parents were to be informed and made a part of the process, as were students.

Yet a new structure for the school was developed without teacher input. The thirteen learning communities or SLCs were to become six Academies of 500 each, and three 9th Grade Centers of 600 students, served by a single counselor. I cannot stress enough that to increase the counselors' caseloads by such percentages will prove detrimental to the students, whose education is to be improved by this folly. Add to this, in a school where the average 10th grade student misses 25-30 days out of a 162 day school year (year-round schools on our schedule have longer but fewer days than traditional schools), a block schedule, which was voted down by the faculty, is now being instituted; for those not involved in education professionally, each day missed by a student will actually impact them all the more severely.

In addition, the Superintendent said the parents and students would be informed. Yet a group of teachers were able to collect over 700 signatures of parents who lived nearby and who were not informed at all of changes at the school, nor input solicited.

Another factor has to be tossed in: while teachers were reassured by Superintendent Ramon Cortines, the Local District 7 Superintendent Dr. George McKenna III and the principal that most teachers would retain their jobs if only they were to reapply, it turns out that in order to obtain a School Improvement Grant (SIG), that Fremont could retain no more than 50% of the original faculty. Aside from the issue of just being plain underhanded, you will now have a faculty at a "struggling school" (which did not make the California worst schools list because of improvements in test scores), which has had the average teacher last less than three years and the average principal last 23 months, with 50% new staff. It should also be noted than many of the positions for Fremont, which begins the school year on July 6th, remain unfilled or will be filled by long-term substitute teachers.

Getting rid of all the teachers or even half the teachers does little to address the deeper problems. The key is to personalize the learning, to develop relationships. I keep thinking of an anthropology book called "Small Is Beautiful," by Schumaker, which can be applied to those struggling schools. Isn't this the concept behind Small Learning Communities, to personalize education, the village raising a child, to cite the West African proverb? To be able to have (besides the smaller class sizes we all long for but will probably never appear) a group of teachers sharing a group of students (at the Mont, each SLC is about 400, which works for US) so that we know the problems of the kids and are able to plan for grade-level and vertical teaming, lowering the number of students who "slip through the cracks." One of the successes we had in the use of SLCs is what I call the Legacy Effect. Brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and cousins learn to look
forward to being in the same program, which builds success.

Extending the year won't do it, nor will an introduction of block scheduling, because these students already have a bad track record for attendance; the block schedule looks like a quick-fix to recover lost credits. Our faculty has also voted against it. So, short of reducing class sizes, I think this might be the best path. Growth and progress seem slow, but do you want to build quick and shoddy or for long-term? At this point, not only will there be a shortage of qualified teachers (isn't that what NCLB was about, to begin with?), but now I personally know juniors who have decided that they do not wish to sacrifice their educations to this grand experiment--and they have brothers and sisters... Many sophomores I know are following suit. The New Fremont will not only bleed qualified teachers, but the students we entered this profession to serve.

It is my hope that I put a human face on what is happening in the name of RTTT and school improvement. The "turn-around" program for Fremont High School has been neither flexible nor participatory. Teachers, students, and community members were not involved in discussions nor problem-solving. Let this travesty not repeat itself in other schools. Learn the lesson of Fremont High. I recommend you closely examine the strategies in the Strengthening Our Schools proposal now before Congress.

The future of our schools is in your hands.

Charles V. Olynyk

The subject of "turn-around schools" was the focus of the Teachers' Letters to Obama teach-in Tuesday, July 13. We heard from Congresswoman Judy Chu, who has introduced legislation in Congress called Strengthening Our Schools, which offers a much sounder framework for school improvement. We also spoke with Diane Ravitch, who has been a vocal critic of NCLB and its step-children, Race to the Top and the ESEA Blueprint. The recording of the dynamic session can be heard HERE.

What do you think of Chuck's experiences at Fremont High? How could we do a better job supporting teachers and students at struggling schools?

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