Saturday, December 06, 2008

WEIGHING IN ON WHETHER WE SHOULD KEEP BREWER AT THE HELM: I REALLY THINK SO

By Diana L. Chapman

I know his days are probably numbered and his ship is probably sunk; I personally wish it weren’t so. We need Superintendent David L. Brewer at the helm of the Los Angeles Unified School District to navigate and cruise us through the continued tumultuous waters.

If nothing else, we need him as a watch dog – a port pilot so to speak – to make sure the district doesn’t run aground into any further muck and continue to flounder.

This is why I rejoiced when the hastily-called meeting to dump Brewer last week failed miserably. We need him. We need him despite what his critics say – that he’s moved at a glacial pace and not done much. But how could he?Two years is not a long time, especially to grapple with nearly 700,000 students, nearly 800 schools, thousands of employees, and a payroll program purchased before Brewer that was nearly defunct on arrival, when it disastrously didn’t pay, overpaid or underpaid employees by thousands of dollars – any bureaucrats’ biggest nightmare.

That’s not to mention the fact that the Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who thinks he can run the district better than the district itself, made a political bid in the state legislature, trying to jam past voter’s rights, to take control of the district. When he lost that bid, he worked to get allies on the school board – who are now claiming Brewer is too slow.

That doesn’t mention that those same allies, who pretty much now saturate the school board, urged Brewer (which probably really means forced) to hire the mayor’s pick, Ramon Cortines, a longtime school administrator, to take over the district’s day-to-day operations.

Forced or not, Brewer hired the 76-year-old Cortines, who once ran New York, San Francisco school districts and pinched hit for Los Angeles, came aboard and in an amazing – and hopefully backfiring moment – as Brewer and Cortines hit it off and work well together. It appears to me we need them both to complement each other.

Under Brewer’s reign, test scores have gained for the past two years in an ailing district who can claim a not so prestigious number – nearly 50 percent of its high school students drop out. And while he’s constantly criticized for not being an educator (and I’m trying to remember when the mayor became one) Brewer can point to being responsible for the education thousands of Navy sailors.

From the moment Brewer joined the district’s head post at about $300,000 a pop, it wasn’t looking too pretty -- and the fact that he’s still here, shows me he’s a survivor.

What I like about him is he immediately assessed the situation quickly and repeatedly told the community that the district cannot fix the city’s schools alone. This is true. With all the issues out there, it truly is time for communities to step up – not just parents, but local businesses, the police, local non-profits and the city. There has to be a joint effort – and a good leader has to bring all these folks together.

Despite his critics, a view that hasn’t come into play is that an-out-of-the-box educator, an ex-Navy Admiral at that, might keep us afloat during the torrential cash cutting rains ahead and spark creative educational tricks that those so entrenched in the system can’t even begin to see.

And believe me – as a long time volunteer within the system – I’ve learned many lessons. The first is that the district and the city have been squabbling for so many years – in particular the city’s Recreation and Parks Department – that the two key players that maintain our children’s fate – can’t seem to get along. So the most important connections are lost, and they are lost daily.

The second truth I discovered is entrenched administrators just seem to lack spark and continue the same track repeatedly, rather than working toward implementing new ideas, that unfortunately, have to be embraced by an entire school – or even if new ideas are launched -- they fail. Team building is a must at schools, but is so rarely done – or done right, so good changes rarely move forward.

Another truth is that schools – all schools – I don’t care where they are -- are like small cities and need a watchdog, because things that should never happen at schools happen every day due to a lack of oversite. I cringe to think of campuses where no parents are active, because that is about the only watchdog the schools have.

This is why I like Brewer. He continually said it’s not up to the district – it’s up to all of us. When my son was enrolled in Dana Middle School, I saw exactly that. People were in shock that I sent my son there as the school had a bad reputation and residents scrambled to get their kids into Dodson Middle School, allegedly the better of the two.

Because it was our home school, I committed to Dana. And because my son was getting a fabulous education in the gifted program there – and those students bonded in their small grouping and fared well – it just made sense that something like that should be done for all the students.

That’s when a small group of parents started many after school programs to help keep the kids off the streets and out of gangs. A Spanish, Art, Newspaper, Swimming, Cooking and Basketball club were all launched over the last three years. The LAPD started a program similar to Explorers.

In the meantime, the principal and staff were having wall murals painted, a teacher started a cheer team, another started a chess club and the parent running the basketball club started tying his program to education. (His students all graduated across the stage, which means they had to have a C or above when they left Dana).

Many other measures were taken by the new principal, including lumping the sixth graders into one area, the 7th into another and the 8th into another – allowing students to bond in small groupings and reducing the intimidation factor that often gets played out on the school yard.

The pay-off of all these changes and many others was the test scores at the end of three years went up dramatically, when they’d barely budged in the past for years. Was it easy? No. Was there fighting? Yes. Was it ugly? Yes. Did people leave? Yes. Did it work? It appears so.

While I can’t say the after school programs were part of the reason things became better, it just seemed with the entire attitude of the school changing toward thinking of the students, the kids were happier.

Many times former students from Dana came down from the high school and couldn’t believe what was going on. Of course, they complained profusely about all the things the new Dana had, but in the end, it appears it’s been a positive for the students.

This is again why I like Brewer. The entire after school program came from what Brewer sparked – that’s it’s up to all of us. Not just the district. And to do that, you need one hell of a good leader. I'm actually thinking Councilwoman Janice Hahn's idea of making this an elected post is not such a bad idea after all -- so this post can remain accountable to us, the voters, and not just what the politicians want.

And given a chance to do so, I believe Brewer is the correct choice. And like he said, it didn’t take just the district to improve a school – it took all of us at Dana.

1 comment:

Russell Jeans said...

Brewer is to resign today, according to the news. No one can apparently run this district with the tools necessary to see not incremental change, but dramatic change. Dramatic change is essential because the aggregate numbers, policies and structure call for it. Too many students continue going through the system while it flounders administratively and politically.
The answer is clear.

Break LAUSD into the 8 districts it is now. But, each district would be completely autonomous with their own school boards. LAUSD as an entity would no longer exist. In District 8, for example, renamed it the Harbor Unified School District. The board might consist of members from each of Pedro, Wilmington, Carson, Lomita, Harbor City, etc. Use a smaller, successful district from within the state to model the administrative structure so you conform with any state regs. If you keep the whole process simple, it is less likely to become an entity with the bureaucratic oppression like exists in the current district. The staff would all be terminated under the old district and then rehired individually. There would be no loss of retirement benefits as the new system should still be under STRS. It can be done.