Our mission is to engage, educate, and activate public school parents to advocate for excellent, equitable public education at their schools, in their communities, with elected representatives, and at the ballot box.
By Michael Sweeney
“The charter school situation is a mess…self-serving individuals finance policies that don’t serve our children in the long run…It isn’t just about protecting your charter school, at least not if you care about other peoples’ children…I sure hope charter school parents will march and support UTLA…”
I came across that posting on social media the other night, and after my eyes were done rolling back to their proper place, I collected my thoughts. My first impression was that it seemed an awfully big ask. How could charter parents wholeheartedly support a union that actively seeks to shut down their children’s schools, habitually rallies against and creates a hostile environment for any co-location efforts and continually vilifies them with half-truths untruths and divisive rhetoric at every turn? After being painted as the bad guy for so long, even in these very same strike negotiations, how is turning around and asking those same families for help not supposed to feel like a slap in the face? Isn’t it a bit like the photo negative of the old adage about biting the hand that feeds you…perhaps, in this case, feeding the mouth that bites you?
But as I thought more about it, it also occurred to me that maybe this could be an opportunity. At some point, if we are ever to get to the perfect world of collaboration and mutually beneficial relationships between all types of schools, particularly traditional public and charter, someone needs to be the proverbial bigger person and start extending some olive branches. Maybe somewhere in this ongoing strike, there could be a chance to foster some goodwill between the two sides. Of course, it would have to come with some assurances that once the picket signs were laid down and everyone returned to their respective classrooms, that the union wouldn’t turn right back around and continue to fight against the schools of the parents that had just provided support.
Full disclosure. I grew up attending an Inglewood public school for elementary school and junior high. I am now a parent of a child attending an LAUSD magnet school with teachers that are striking, teachers that I love and support and care about. But prior to this academic year, my daughter attended a wonderful, progressive independent charter school full of outstanding parents, teachers and administrators. I, myself, am also a former elementary school teacher, working first as a Kindergarten teacher at an independent charter school in Leimert Park for six years, then for four more years as a fifth grade math, science and writing teacher at an independent charter school in Boston. Having seen both sides -- as a teacher and parent -- I have both great concern for the well-being of traditional neighborhood schools, as well as much respect for the work being done at charters. And, frankly, it baffles and saddens me that the two are so often pitted against one another.
In my experience, it seems to be largely a one-sided war. Both as a teacher and a parent at charter schools, I really don’t ever remember there being much urge to compare themselves to, compete with or denigrate any surrounding schools public, private, charter or otherwise. The focus was almost entirely on the school itself, how to improve instruction and opportunity for the students there, and how to remain in compliance and the good graces of the always-watchful powers-that-be so that renewals would continue to be granted, and the schools could continue their work.
David Moreno* was a great student. In fact, he was one of my favorites. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but we do.
David had been a student in my classes for three of his four years of high school. As a freshman in my 9th grade English class, he had perfect attendance, always did his homework, and came to class with insightful questions about the books we read. As a junior in my AP US History class, he was dedicated to understanding as much as he could about how this country worked. He attended every after-school tutoring session and every Saturday test prep opportunity that I provided.
As a senior in my AP Literature class, he was a voracious reader who took to the internet to read scholarly writings about the novels we were reading and asked for reading recommendations for the summer so that he could be better prepared for the challenges of college literature seminars.
David was the kind of student that teachers dream of having. So it was heartbreaking when David returned to school last December to tell me in person that he would be dropping out of college because the academic challenges were too much for him to handle, and he felt like he was wasting his money.
My experience with David was neither new nor unique. Every year, former graduates would come back to the high school to experience the nostalgia that comes with returning to such places after experiencing the challenges of the adult world. But they would also return to explain to the teachers who had worked so hard to prepare them for college that they would no longer be pursuing higher education because of a self-perceived lack of basic education.
This was, of course, always frustrating to hear, and I would always try to talk each student out of making this unfortunate choice, to little avail. For me, David was the wake-up call. And I knew that I was not alone. For several years, I have worked outside of the classroom doing community organizing with teachers from other schools throughout Los Angeles, and every year I hear stories that echoed my own. Why does this happen?
The election is less than one week away. California voters will be choosing a new governor and a new state superintendent of public instruction, as well as control of Congress. In other words, it’s a biggie, and the results will significantly impact families. Unfortunately, parents of young children have historically been among the lowest in terms of voter turnout. Figuring out childcare so you can do your civic duty can be challenging. But here’s the good news: You can bring your children along.
According to California voting law, “A voter who is accompanied by children below the age of 18 may take the children into the voting booth.” Some parents allow their kids to help mark the ballots. (Obviously you’ll want to closely supervise this process.) You may even be encouraging lifelong civic engagement by letting your kids tag along.
“There’s some evidence to indicate that voting habits are just that, habits, shaped in part by the practices and routines of our parents when we’re still too young to vote,” pediatrician Perri Klass wrote in The New York Times.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” -- R. Buckminster Fuller
By Wendy Zacuto
The Los Angeles Unified School District is in trouble. As a California educator, parent, and now grandparent, I have seen the same problems for over 50 years, despite attempts at reform. Today the rising number of independent charter schools and magnet schools provide alternatives for parents seeking higher performing schools, which is great for those who manage to get in but can also exacerbate the problems of already challenged neighborhood schools. Adversarial union leadership and the LAUSD Board push against one another in an environment of insufficient and mismanaged resources, with no solutions in sight.
It seems apparent that our district needs a new model. In his short book, Wildflowers: A School Superintendent’s Challenge to America, Jonathan Raymond, who headed Sacramento City Unified, explains an approach that “puts children first” and provides strategies for leadership, community voices and partnerships among stakeholders with the hope of facilitating lasting and effective change.
In the center of Raymond’s model is “The Whole Child.” Putting children first means true support for all children. It means listening to their voices and helping them to find real power in their ideas. In other words, as we view the intricacies of district policy, curriculum, data collection and decision-making, our first question should be: “How does this affect children?” Raymond articulates that the “Whole Child approach...is about beliefs… Whole Child educators view each child as unique, gifted, and deserving of the opportunity to reach her fullest potential.”
As a district teacher, I saw firsthand what a non-Whole Child view entailed. For example, I was directed to focus my instruction on the second quartile of students in my class. If those students improved, the school scores would rise the most. I was told to leave the highest quartile of students and the lowest two quartiles of students aside in my planning. Of course, I did not do that. What teacher would? In another situation, a parent whose child had just received an IEP requested that her child repeat 5th grade so she would have skills developed before attending middle school. I supported this logical request, especially since the child was quite young for the grade level, but was told by my principal that current district policy only allowed retentions in 2nd and 8th grade.
With a Whole Child view, testing and data analysis result in children feeling optimism rather than defeat, regardless of current academic levels. In today’s district schools, children often see success targets as unattainable and become discouraged. Raymond advocates “honest reporting,” but he is right in saying that unless children feel encouraged about succeeding, we have failed them. We should shift the definition of success from meeting specific raw test score targets to an emphasis on growth. Social and emotional skills are also as important as academic skills in Raymond’s approach, a concept that is supported by current brain research about learning. Additionally, as student success improves, teacher efficacy is heightened. While teacher pay and benefits will continue to be issues throughout the change process, increased teacher efficacy strengthens teacher morale. “In general, helping teachers feel a greater sense of control over their professional lives in schools will increase their sense of teacher efficacy and make for greater effort, persistence, and resilience.”
By Lisa Stevens, special education teacher at LAUSD’s Sotomayor Center for Arts and Sciences
I recently had the honor of facilitating a working group of parents and teachers that Speak UP convened to collaborate on a vision for a new teachers contract that values our teachers and also puts kids first.
When we first came together, we didn’t know if that would be possible. Parents and teachers came to the table with a variety of perspectives and experiences shaping their priorities and views. And our group was diverse. The parents have children from across the district of every race, socioeconomic level and ability, including English learners and students with special needs. Nearly all of the teachers in our group have taught in traditional LAUSD schools, while some have taught in pilots or charters. One teacher also taught in Oakland Unified and New York before teaching in Los Angeles.
We reached across these lines that so often divide us, and what we found was surprising and encouraging. There was a remarkable degree of mutual respect and common ground. Despite tackling some tricky issues, there was very little conflict because it was clear that we all share the same good intentions: to help our children succeed. That’s why teachers teach. That’s what parents most want for their children. We all agree that schools and school districts function best when there is a sense of community and that community is fostered when all stakeholders are valued, involved and working side by side.
In order to create a safe space for all viewpoints, teachers and parents met both separately and together on multiple occasions over the course of a month. This week we shared our preliminary findings with the LAUSD Board and Superintendent Austin Beutner. We are also grateful to LAUSD’s senior executive director of finance and policy, Pedro Salcido; chief of staff to Board President Monica Garcia, Lizette Patron, and Allison Holdorff, senior advisor and director of community engagement to Board Vice President Nick Melvoin, for joining us Monday night for our initial presentation of our findings at a meeting in Boyle Heights. We are also grateful to Moms In Action for providing space for our group to meet and to its members for attending the event.
So what would it look like to have a teacher contract that values teachers and puts kids first? It’s very different from what we have now. We will present a more formal report in coming weeks, but we’d like to highlight some preliminary findings while contract talks between LAUSD and its teachers continue.
We limited our work to non-fiscal portions of the contract that affect teaching quality, focusing on the following five contract components:
1. Teacher Evaluations
3. Teacher Compensation Policies
4. Teacher Assignments
5. Teacher Leadership Roles
What we discovered is that the first item, the process for and frequency of teacher evaluations, is integral to the other four. Teachers and parents agreed that seniority alone should not be the single most important factor that determines teacher compensation scales, displacements and layoffs, school and classroom assignments, or leadership roles. Below are a few of our key findings.
No. 1: Both parents and teachers in our group believe that LAUSD teachers should be evaluated and given constructive and meaningful feedback more frequently and consistently. There is a misperception that teachers find observations and evaluations onerous and unwelcome. Several of the teachers in our group said they crave constructive feedback more often so they can improve their teaching practices and better help their students. They want those evaluations to be tailored to their specialty area. Parents and teachers want evaluations to incorporate both stakeholder feedback and also student growth, which does not necessarily have to be measured by test scores alone.
No. 2: Parents and teachers in our working group agree that teacher compensation should be tied at least in part to performance, and that excellent teachers should be rewarded for their excellence. Teachers who are doing a great job should be able to move up the pay scale more quickly without having to pay for classes that have nothing to do with the subjects they teach. We’d like to see professional development focus more on helping our most vulnerable students, such as English learners and students with special needs.
No. 3: We’d like to see less of a focus on seniority and more of a focus on teacher quality in teacher assignments and layoffs. And teacher leadership roles should also reflect performance evaluations and leadership abilities rather than be tied to teacher votes.
In sum, we all believe that quality teaching is one of the most important factors in a child’s success, and the teacher contract should be designed to ensure that every child receives the highest-quality teaching possible. We also believe that parents, principals and teachers should all have a voice in education policy, and we should all work together as a community on behalf of what’s best for kids. We hope this is just the first of many issues that our collaborative working group tackles. When we work together, we can accomplish a lot.
The mission of Speak UP is to engage, educate and activate parents and community members to advocate for excellent, equitable public education at their children’s schools, in their communities, with elected representatives and at the ballot box.
La misión de Speak UP es involucrar, educar y activar a los padres y miembros de la comunidad para abogar en las escuelas de sus hijos, en sus comunidades, con representantes electos y en las urnas por una educación pública excelente y equitativa.