By Elizabeth Warden
John C. Fremont High School, located in South Los Angeles, recently underwent reconstruction, a process that allows the Los Angeles Unified School District to make teachers at low performing schools, evaluated by a consecutive high dropout rates and low standardized test scores, reapply for their jobs. Some Fremont High teachers, at the time, decided not to reapply for their jobs as a symbol of opposition to the school district.
“It definitely [does not have] a community in mind,” said Joel Vaca, a 10-year Fremont High veteran during an interview in spring 2010 after the school district had approved the reconstruction process in Dec. 2009.
“Every other neighborhood in LA had a voice in their opinion: East LA had a choice with the public school choice initiative, the beach harbor area had a voice when their schools went up for vote, and it’s the disenfranchisement of South Central and neglect of what happens here in South Central,” he said.
Fremont’s reconstruction and the maelstrom that ensued speaks to the politics of culture and change that often make school and community reform exceedingly difficult.
But just around the time reconstruction at Fremont High began happening, the LAUSD public school choice 2.0 options sprouted up in the spring of 2010 and the district announced nine new campuses. The district intended to use one of the campuses – South Region High School #2 – to relieve overcrowding at Fremont High and neighboring Jefferson High. This gave a team of former Fremont High teachers, and some from Jefferson High, the opportunity to send in a letter of intent and draft a proposal for the South Central Region #2 High School campus that the school district had already started constructing.
Some former Fremont High teachers – like Erica Hamilton who taught at the school for six years – had been looking at alternatives for Fremont High students far before this. She had explored the option of charter operators as early back as 2006, which was the only option at the time.
“I left [Fremont High] with the sole purposes of learning how, exploring successful school modes across California and doing my dissertation on that and coming back to South LA,” said Hamilton, who is working on her Ph.D. in urban schooling at the University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education.
And in 2007 Hamilton started talking to other Fremont High teachers who were part of the small learning communities program about jumping on board. Then, as she said, “forces converged” and teachers from the Fremont High magnet program, who decided to not reapply for their jobs, joined the team to work on the public school choice 2.0 option – like Vaca and his wife Riley McDonald – in spring 2010.
The school district passed the public school choice resolution in Aug. 2009 with the purpose of providing educational options to LAUSD students. The resolution allows teachers or outside operators to apply to run new campuses or historically low performing “focus” schools that meet certain criteria.
Teachers were getting fed up with school district choices at Fremont High far before it decided to reconstruct the school, which is what drove Hamilton to start looking at other alternatives in the first place.
Hamilton was the lead teacher of a small learning community at Fremont High – an model that broke the school of around 5,000 students into 12 small learning communities.
“We were promised all this autonomy [from the district],” she said.
“We were promised to schedule our classes, promised to make the budget, promise to make class decisions like intervention classes for our students.”
But she said none of that happened and her and other teachers had no control over anything in the small learning communities for about two years. At the school her team has proposed for South Region High School #2, Gage and Central Community Schools, decisions will be made much closer to students. Teacher’s opinions and input will be more valued because of the structure of the school: a pilot campus.
A pilot school is one of the public school choice options. The model allows teachers, parents, administrators and community partners to design their own autonomous school. Teachers at the school are members of United Teachers of Los Angeles and administrators are members of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles and sign an elect-to-work agreement. The school receives a per-pupil budget based on student enrollment, according to the school district. The school is open to all students – regardless of language-learning, disabilities or economic needs.
The proposal for the new school to take over South Region High School #2 – Gage and Central Community Schools – was approved by the Board of Education for it to move forward on Mar. 15, 2011.
The Gage and Central Community Schools campus has four smaller schools with separate principals that share a larger campus and resources. Each school will not have more than 500 students enrolled. The school – for the 2011-2012 academic year will have 1,600 students and expand to 2,025 the academic years after.
There will be four schools: Public Service Community School, which will have a theme focused on public service, leadership and social entrepreneurism; Communications and Technology School, which will prepare students 21st century careers by using technology in every class, Green Design Community School, which will work on the community’s ecology by planning ‘real-world’ projects that are associated with the curriculum; and Performing Arts Community School because, according to the school’s website, 1 out of 6 jobs in Los Angeles County is related to the arts.
“One of the things I’ve I discovered in my research is if you are a small school by yourself then you are going to struggle. You won’t have enough money, resources,” Hamilton said.
“But if you are a small school that’s part of a complex where everyone’s collaborating, then you’ll be okay.”
Students at the school will have a “learning lab” session that responds to what Hamilton and other former Fremont teachers didn’t get at Fremont High: an intervention program for students who are struggling in certain subjects. For example, Hamilton said some of her former Fremont High students struggled with reading comprehension and would have trouble retaining what they read. Other students who don’t need intervention time will be able to use the time to work on homework.
“Some students will need direct one-on-one attention, they’ll be doing the same assignments that the other kids are doing, but they might get more supplement or individual instruction,” she said.
Then a third group of students will use the learning lab time for supplemental work and take elective or honors credit courses through LAUSD’s Los Angeles Virtual Academy.
“It’s going to be hard to pull off, but once we get it rolling it will be really powerful,” she said.
The campus also proposed to use “project-based learning,” a concept Hamilton has researched during her studies at UCLA.
“We’re going to start small with one or two cross curricular project based lessons or units where all of the subjects are contributing to one massive project, it usually comes together through the elective,” she said.
Hamilton said that project-based learning will give students real products because they won’t just be spitting out what they learned on a test; the students would actually be able to utilize the concepts they’ve learned.
Hamilton and her team spent last spring surveying families in the area held monthly community meetings and did neighborhood walks where they would go from door-to-door and would ask parents what they wanted to see in a community school.
A few Fremont High graduates who graduated in 2006 and 2007 – who were part of the founding of the small learning communities – helped with the process.
“Some students got involved because they really cared about the teachers and the teachers were no longer at Fremont, and they wanted to do everything to support these teachers, because they really believed in them,” Hamilton said.
Liliana Montalv, who graduated from Fremont in 2007 and is currently a student at Cal State Long Beach, said after she was placed in the small learning communities at the high school, these teachers pushed her to do well and were very supportive.
“My parents were never involved in my education, it was my teachers that pushed me … They were always there cheerleading us to do our homework and to not mess up,” she said.
And the fact that seeing these teachers – like Hamilton who she has known since her 10th grade of high school – inspired her to get up and help with the process. She plans to work with some of the kids at this school in history, her college major, in the coming years.
“They take action for doing things in the community for us…and they are taking it upon themselves to create an action,” she said.
Outreach for Gage and Central Community Schools has been grassroots operation, because as Montalvo, who grew up in the community, explained, some families are hard-working immigrant families that are scared to go to get involved in their children’s schooling because they are undocumented.
Because the pilot school is a “community school” it will also work with community partners like OneLA, an organization that will help in staff development and help the school identify and develop a collective of leaders, according to Mary Larkin of OneLA.
“Then once you do that, they begin to look at what are the things we need to be done here [or] whether it’s creating a parent center, changing the way we outreach to the local community,” she said.
Another organization that has been working with the school is the Los Angeles Education Partnership that plans to focus on professional development and student success.
The school district is currently undergoing hiring of principals of the school and next week an interim principal will be at the school, opening its welcome center for students and parents to check out.
During the month of May, the curriculum will be built and teachers will be hired- those who have taught at Fremont High before will have priority – and schedules will be decided.
“It’s going to be pretty intense,” Hamilton said.
Feeder and Sender Schools into Gage and Community Schools:
View Gage and Central Community Schools and Feeder and Sender Schools in a larger map