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.
“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.
How Will A Strike Affect LA's Kids?
In recent weeks, talk of a possible strike by LAUSD teachers has been increasing, to the point that Mayor Eric Garcetti offered his help this week to resolve the negotiations.
Last Thursday, just a few weeks after the start of classes, UTLA, the union that represents more than 30,000 teachers, began voting on whether to authorize the first strike in the district since 1989, which would affect more than 480,000 children and their families. The voting ends this Thursday, August 30. The result of this vote does not imply that the strike will start automatically.
The students and their families are involved, albeit unintentionally, in the negotiations between UTLA (United Teachers Los Angeles) and the school district, and many are either unaware of the details of the negotiations or even of the possibility of a strike.
"The truth is that I did not know anything," Nuria Velázquez, mother of a student at Roscoe Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley, confessed in surprise. At dismissal, other parents at that school were also surprised with the news.
Among parent concerns upon learning of a possible strike are the academic performance of the children and the schedules of working parents, since many would have to find childcare and incur an extra expense they had not planned. At the same time, thousands of Los Angeles families depend on the breakfast and lunch offered by LAUSD schools to feed their children which they could lose temporarily if a strike is declared.
"I understand the teachers, and we support them. But the truth is that if there is a strike, things will become complicated for me," Velazquez said.
"What do you mean, a strike? They just started classes," said Celia Méndez, another mother, in surprise. "Children forget enough during the holidays. This will delay them even more. And in the end, how is this their fault? They should let us give our opinion too. They forget that those decisions also affect our children," she observed.
Other parents, on the other hand, were aware of the union negotiations, although they complained that they had not received more information about it.
"As parents, this strike is somewhat confusing. I have many questions and few answers," said Raquel Toscano, whose two children attend the Maywood Center for Enrichment Studies in Maywood. Toscano is a volunteer at her children's school and a member of Speak UP (http://speakupparents.org), an organization that seeks to give parents a greater voice in education policy and in the decisions that affect the education of their children.
"I would like to know if the schools are ready for the strike, if there will be substitute teachers, how it will affect children who do not perform well academically. I also wonder if the teachers can concentrate with everything that is happening, and even what will happen with the preparation for the state exams that are approaching," questioned Toscano.
"As a mother, I'm not against the teachers at all. On the contrary, I hope they reach an agreement. But everyone has to do everything possible to avoid having to go to the extreme of a strike, because that will affect us all. We all lose with a strike. We have to be united for the children if we really want to make a difference in their lives," reflected Toscano.
Esmeralda Rivera started attending the Pacific Boulevard school in Huntington Park when she was 6 years old. But at the end of 5th grade, and despite the fact that the school goes from Kindergarten to 12th grade, the authorities told her she had to change schools.
Pacific Boulevard is a special education school, with facilities specially designed for children with medium and severe disabilities, such as a gym and play area adapted for the use of wheelchairs, large classrooms with bathrooms inside the classroom and beds where they change the children. Years ago, students up to 22 years of age, and with disabilities, could attend up to the 12th grade. But the center began a transitional phase, including other children from the general population to encourage integrated education, and began transferring graduates from 5th grade to other schools.
"My daughter has epilepsy and seizures," shared Aurelia Eraso, mother of 14 year old Esmeralda. "They already knew her at Pacific Boulevard and they had specialized personnel who knew how to act when there were any problems" she noted.
"When Esmeralda had a seizure at the new school [Los Angeles Academy], the teacher and the other kids got scared, they did not know how to act," the mother recalled.
After the incident, the teacher asked Eraso to leave the girl in the house. Currently, Esmeralda no longer attends school and must take classes at home.
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.