Education Opinion

How does it feel to be “Reconstituted”?

By Anthony Cody — January 14, 2010 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Chuck Olynyk thought he was doing a good job. He was recognized by the Fulfillment Fund with an award for Excellence in Education. But now he must reapply for his job.

From Los Angeles we hear of the cutting edge of school reform -- reconstitution of “failing” schools. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plans to take on the 5000 lowest performing schools in the country as part of his drive for reform, and remake them, using strategies up to and including reconstitution. This, in spite of the fact that his Chicago experiment along these lines yielded few gains. But LA Superintendent Ramon Cortines is ahead of the curve, and plans to reconstitute Fremont High school even sooner.

How does it feel to be a teacher at such a school?

Chuck Olynyk teaches history at Fremont High. He brings his subject to life with his students every day. He explains:

I use historical reenactment, living history as its were, to teach world history, and this appears in the documentary. So I construct and wear armor, costumes, even get down to making the shoes to match; music for the time period is played (a "now playing" board helps the students connect with the music). I've taught them how to start a fire with flint and steel, how to dance medieval and renaissance dances, what goes into making various artifacts, how to use them. Image

You can see more of this at his page here.

Today I received his thoughts upon the news that he, along with the entire staff at his school, will have to reapply for their jobs.

In 168 days my time at Fremont High ends.

It’s been a month since Superintendent Cortines assembled the faculty and staff in the auditorium and told us, with armed school police officers present, that we were responsible for a “culture of failure.” In that month, while people prepared for and celebrated holidays and fellowship and good cheer and we were inundated with stories about homeless shelters and “be good to our fellow man” stories, I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching, sorting out my feelings, looking for answers as to “Why? Why is this happening? Why us? Am I really a bad teacher, lazy, not dedicated to my profession? Is it really just a 7:30-3:04 job?”

Obviously we’re talking, if only in small groups. When I was on campus 1/11, I saw teachers and other staff talking quietly. There was something oddly familiar about it. You see, I used to be a case manager for Federal inmates, before I found what I feel is my true path. What I saw reminded me of what I saw in the yard, inmates passing along information

I’m using this to think out loud, my feelings changing like a compass gone mad at the North Pole while I try to remain true to my course. Often it is easier for me to think on paper. I’d spoken with a couple of you about showing this, allowing the editing to take place before I sent it out like some educational manifesto, but I decided to go naked to the world and show you, a larger audience, how I’m sorting out my feelings, for I feel that many of you are probably doing the same.

Well, not the ones who applauded when the Superintendent spoke... And certainly not some of those administrative types who wander around D7 (that was done for any Trekkies and fans of DS9) debating just how many educators (not teachers--that crowd never calls themselves by such an old school word) can dance on the head of a pin. (Sorry, sometimes, well, actually often, I prove to be my own worst enemy when it comes between sharing--some might call it inflicting--my opinion on the world...)

Superintendent Cortines defined the culture of failure as years of low test scores, of poor attendance rates--he states the average student misses 25 days of school per year; that tallies somewhat with the figures I’ve kept--on the average, my 10th grade students miss 14 days per 74 days of an 81-day semester. Somehow we are responsible for that absenteeism, according the superintendent, NO EXCUSES, and that we are to go out into the streets to find our lost children.

When am I going to do this? I have 178 10th grade students in my five periods of World History (more than the number of days I have left at Fremont), plus another 25 in my advisory period, half of whom wander in twenty minutes late in a 28-minute period. Exactly when am I supposed to track them down? And how am I supposed to achieve this educational search and rescue?

We were told that “Fremont” misspent the vast amounts of money that comes to the school, that he did not know how it was misspent (yeah, right), but the implication is there that we did it. Yeah, that’s why I spend $35/month on paper, buy my own pens, pencils and whiteboard markers and even have to lock up the overhead projector because adult school and Saturday school steals my stuff (We won’t discuss how much I’ve spent on armor and costumes and music for use with my lessons...). I don’t like being called a thief, especially when I see fellow teachers spending their own money to make copies and suchlike in their classes, when so many of us DONATE time--before school, after school, weekends (I’m at school 5:30 every damned morning and usually leave sometime around 4:30, and am damned lucky if I can go the faculty cafeteria to forage and even damned luckier if I find food there). Hey, wasn’t an audit being conducted around the time of
the bombshell being dropped on Fremont? Interesting timing, that, eh? (Since we’re talking money, hey, anybody remember when we became a “Digital High School” and we had 5 computers in every class, 4 for student use?)

Why not find out who signed off on how the money was spent? Someone had to sign off, and that someone had a supervisor who had to approve it. Blame them, not the ones spending their own dwindling money while looking at a 12% pay cut and investing their time. Stop implying that we are thieves feeding at the public trough, when it is others stealing from the future--our students.

And now we have to re-apply for our jobs, come cap in hand and kiss a ring (or something else) in order to stay at this school. I’ve been teaching since 1983, in LAUSD since 1987 (Edison Junior High, then Middle School), and have been a Pathfinder since we reconfigured in July 1994, adding the 9th grade and going year-round all in the same day. I guess that makes me a veteran (or, as some would have it, old).

Of course a veteran at FHS is often defined as someone lasting a year or two, and often they’re gone after that, as are any administrators who trained here. I’d guess, according to some, those who remain are the ones who couldn’t get positions in “better schools.” There is at times a stigma for those of us who choose to remain at “urban schools,” despite what we do.

Some of us like the hard fights. When I make my students stand at the window of Room 225 and look downtown, I point out the buildings to them and we discuss money and power--with education--and how for many that is all that is respected. Then one discriminating student points out, “You don’t care about that stuff.” True enough. I tell them I’m trying to make a change, tell them of a Ukrainian proverb that even a drop of water can wear a hole in a stone; then I point out a number of my former students have been teaching with me. I ask, “Did they come back to the neighborhood and the school because of the big bucks? The tremendous respect we earn from LAUSD and the LA Times and even the students?” They answer no and tell me, “They want to make a change.” And how many others will they in turn influence?

No, I don’t want to leave Fremont. I want to finish the fight here, not because some might label me a screw-up, lazy teacher who settled into an “urban school” because it was “easier” and that “the standards are lower in places like that.” In the war on ignorance, the front line is here. We are changing--in a positive way, despite what some of the D7s (one of our co-workers refers to them as “the empty suits”) think about us; one of them had written in an email that he’d worked with Fremont and this bold move of Superintendent Cortines is just what Fremont needs--I guess he must not be very good at his job if he’s worked with us for years and his own work wasn’t good enough to change us losers, eh? He also said that what is needed is a core, dedicated group (sorry, doing this from memory) of something like twenty teachers, who are willing to do whatever is necessary...

That’s pretty much when I’d stop listening. Dedicated? There’s a bunch of you who show up well before 6:30 every morning and stay after until 4:30 or 5:00 and come here on weekends and throw pizza nights and roller skating nights and talent shows and help pay some of the senior dues, or just don’t go to lunch because some kids need help... Yeah, I can see where you guys need to be more dedicated; that D7 suit must be right about those lazy, untrainable Fremont teachers who get PDs every week and are still burdens to LAUSD... (That last part was a bit of heavy-handed sarcasm, if you don’t know me.)

I know my feelings will change--kind of like the grieving process--but I reached a point where I mulled over the application process. I thought about CST scores (and I’m sure periodic assessments will be a part of that anyway, even though we’ve been told otherwise), even when 50% of my 10th graders are 9+s and not testing at their social studies grade level for CSTs, and how this will be a factor in considering whether I’m good enough for the New Fremont (kinda like, “This is the new Germany”). I’ve thought about the attendance rates and how this, too, is a factor. And “volunteerism,” whatever that is supposed to mean. And a whole host of other factors in the hiring process (maybe I’m supposed to bring copies of weather reports for the past 5 years because, Lord knows, I’m responsible for the weather and my coffee-maker for global warming--oh, wait, I forgot, that one’s a myth, my bad...)

Yeah, I thought about going cap in hand with all this “evidence” that I think I’m not really responsible for and which the powers-that-be can gather easily (you mean to tell me that they don’t have a file on me or copies of previous Stulls?), when I have not received a bad evaluation, wear a vest and a tie that’s not a costume on a daily basis, and ask for my job.

I think that participating in this process only validates the accusations of Cortines. To be a willing participant is to say, “Yes, we as Fremont misspent vast sums of money. No we are not working hard enough. Yes, those fine educators who run PDs are geniuses, but we just are dumb as dirt and barely trainable and have been milking the system for years. Yes, yes, it’s all true, and I’ll do whatever you want and commit to Fremont for 5 years and take whatever you give me in those 5 years and never complain.”

Agree to be treated differently from all the other schools in the district? Sorry, the historian in me just flashed on the Thirteen Colonies after the last French and Indian War (the Seven Years War to o the rest of the world), and how the folk in the Colonies were not treated like the other British subjects, which lit a fire. Sign on for 5 years? Does “indentured servitude” mean anything to anybody?

I don’t think I can re-apply for a job I did not do anything wrong in, to be at a school where I will be treated differently than I would be at other LAUSD schools. I don’t think I can do it and look at myself in the mirror. It’s wrong. To participate validates and perpetuates this. When Superintendent Cortines says he has the right to do this, I’ve often found that when someone says they have the right to do something, it often has nothing to do with right. To aid and abet someone in the act of wrongdoing is itself wrong.

Feel free to share this amongst yourselves, to pass it along, for I’m just throwing ideas out there. We’re still allowed to do that, eh?
--Chuck Olynyk

Update: Further news and perspectives from the author about this ongoing battle can be found here, at savefremont.org.

What do you think of this? Is this a valid way to cure low-performing schools? How would you feel if you were reconstituted?

image by Chuck Olynyk, used by permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.