Education Opinion

‘Crenshaw’ Offers a Cautionary Tale

By David B. Cohen — October 19, 2014 6 min read
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Imagine - if you don’t know from experience - the challenges of teaching in an urban high school, during a recession, with a student body that is 40% in the foster care system, 30% English language learners, and 20% special education. Your staff is shrinking, your resources are disappearing, and your district has shuffled thirty administrators through your front office in the past seven years. Where is your strength in this situation? What pulls you through?

This situation was not hypothetical for teachers at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. The short documentary film “Crenshaw,” by Lena Jackson, suggests that despite these challenges, and despite test scores that made the school vulnerable to its eventual reconstitution last year, there were strengths in the school and community that were ignored, and then lost. With federal law paving the way for change, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy opted for the most disruptive options available, converting the neighborhood school into three co-located magnet schools, and forcing teachers to reapply for their jobs.

I attended a screening and panel discussion of “Crenshaw” at Stanford University on October 16, coincidentally the day that John Deasy left his post in LAUSD. His actions with regard to Crenshaw teachers are the subject of an unfair labor practices complaint, with the judge’s ruling expected by the end of this year. Deasy’s departure also comes as the district untangles the poor handling of an ambitious iPad program, flawed its financing, bidding process, and suspended rollout. Meanwhile, LAUSD teachers have been working for years without a raise and past the expiration of their prior contract. The district has major ongoing problems with its student data management system. One high school, Jefferson, was recently placed under state oversight due to its inability to schedule students and begin classes on time. The combination of what’s in the film and what’s in the news made Deasy seem a rather ironic figurehead for accountability and reform during the screening and follow-up conversation.

Lena Jackson was present at Stanford to introduce the film and then participate in a discussion, along with former Crenshaw teacher Cathy Garcia, and Stanford professor emeritus Larry Cuban. The film’s message is simple and persuasive: top-down, disruptive reform strategies done to school communities, rather than with and for school communities, have a destructive potential. Allowing test scores alone to trigger such policy actions simply compounds the problem.

Jackson made the film as part of her master’s degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her connection to Crenshaw, she told me prior to the screening, began when she worked in an after-school tutoring program in Los Angeles. She became acquainted with a number of teachers at a time when the traditional public high schools in South Central L.A. were being reconstituted one by one. As she learned more about working conditions and burnout issues faced by teachers at charter schools in the area, Jackson thought her film would focus on charters, but then the battle for Crenshaw came to the fore.

And it was a battle. Despite low test scores and high dropout rates at Crenshaw, teachers and parents were actively meeting to help the school, and students and parents were showing up at school board meetings to speak out against the district’s plans. Crenshaw had begun working on an education model that engaged students in projects that had more relevance to their lives and community, and outside organizations were bringing a variety of logistical and financial support. At one point, Deasy told Crenshaw they could have one more year to show progress, a decision Larry Cuban termed “goofy” in the follow-up conversation - suggesting one year is hardly enough to see a broad systemic reform take hold. However, he changed his mind and pressed ahead with the reconsitution.

Has it worked? Hard to say. Whatever data might be available will be from a very short time period, and not based on the same students since magnet schools draw from all over the district. Apparently the information about the reconstitution and the magnet school application process were only sent out in English, which would skew the resulting applicant pool.

Here’s what’s certain. The community and foundation partnerships are gone, and with them, hundreds of thousands of dollars dedicated to helping students improve their school and community. Students interviewed in the film who did stay at Crenshaw say there’s no improvement in resources or instruction. Garcia also noted that the magnet schools offer special education services only or students who are in “full inclusion” or “mainstreamed” - meaning that former Crenshaw students needing special day classes are no longer served by their no-longer-a-community-school.

What about the teachers? Keeping in mind that, according to testimony in the labor complaint, Deasy publicly stated his desire to move the union troublemakers out of Crenshaw, it’s probably no surprise that the teachers who were not rehired were mostly veteran teachers active in the union. They were also predominantly African-American teachers with ties to the community. The film includes clips from an event where two teachers are receiving awards for their excellence in teaching, while simultaneously telling the community that they have not been rehired. One of those teachers, Alex Caputo-Pearl, has since become the president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

So, think back now to those opening challenges - students in foster care, learning English, high rates of special educational needs. Add on the lack of resources, lack of counselors, libraries, nurses. And yet, teachers and the community are fighting for the school, making progress on the fronts that they can. As Garcia noted, test scores don’t tell the story: moving a child from a fourth-grade level skills to seventh-grade level skills in less than a year won’t register much if at all on high school tests. And sometimes the best you can do for a student at a given moment is to provide a safe place to rest; a student who hasn’t slept at home or changed clothes for days is not prepared to take a test, and Garcia stated firmly that it would be something less than humane to expect otherwise.

“Crenshaw” is a timely film for this moment in education reform. The question of accountability has been too unidirectional for too long. One concerned parent seen in the film, fighting to save Crenshaw, told the school board prior to their final decision that if they reconstituted the school, the parents would reconstitute the school board. That may not have come to pass, but it was the right way to think. Students, teachers, and communities with struggling schools certainly have their own responsibilities to do their best, but they have every right to demand accountability from the leaders and policy makers who only dole out rhetoric and consequences because that’s cheaper and easier than fighting for a better outcome. School boards, state legislators, and ultimately the people who elect them, must commit to providing the necessary resources and supports for schools and communities in dire need.

Photos: Lena Jackson, filmmaker, and Cathy Garcia, former Crenshaw teacher - by David B. Cohen.

In one year, I hope you’ll be able to read my book about my year out of the classroom visiting teachers and schools. To ensure the viability of the overall project - all the way from the first tank of gas to the final step in publishing - I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign. I invite you to visit the Kickstarter page to see a video about the project and read more of the details. Feel free to share widely if you like the idea, too! (Note that Education Week is in no way affiliated with with the Kickstarter campaign.)

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