L.A. Proceeds With Plans to Open ‘Pilot Schools’ in Belmont Area

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Los Angeles officials are hoping a school improvement model that has shown promise on the opposite coast will help turn around secondary education in the school system’s Belmont attendance area.

The 727,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District announced last month that it is working with the local teachers’ union and community groups on a plan to open as many as 10 secondary schools patterned after the Boston “pilot school” program. The model, in which schools have autonomy in hiring, spending, curriculum, and scheduling, has been linked to rising test scores and improvements on other measures.

“This is real education reform,” Superintendent Roy Romer said in a statement. In 2003, Mr. Romer led a delegation of union officials, school board members, and parents to Boston to learn more about the program. “It creates high-caliber schools for downtown students,” he said.

The Los Angeles district announced the agreement last month with United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, to begin work on establishing small college-preparatory high schools, which would be offered as an option for students eligible to attend Belmont High School.

Boston’s pilot-school program, which has grown to 19 schools since 1994—including several high schools—was set up through a partnership between the 145-school district and the Boston Teachers Union.

A study released in January found that students in the schools in the program outperformed their counterparts in the city’s regular public schools on several measures of student engagement and achievement, including state test scores in reading and mathematics, graduation rates, and the percentage of students going on to college.

The growth of the network, however, was stalled for several years in a dispute over overtime pay for the extra time teachers in the pilot schools work beyond what the union contract requires. After reaching a compromise earlier this year, the network is set to open as many as seven new schools over the next three years. ("Boston District and Union Agree on Adding ‘Pilot Schools’," Feb. 22, 2006.)

A Signal for Progress?

After two years of discussion, Los Angeles officials hope to reach a final agreement and begin work on designing five to 10 such schools in time to open for the 2007-08 school year. UTLA has not committed to a time frame, but has agreed to enter into “meaningful dialogue” about the plan, according to President A.J. Duffy.

“There are a lot of aspects [of the model] that are very attractive to teachers: lower class sizes; teachers have a meaningful and central role in curriculum and professional-development decisions; and the creation of a model of an administrator that isn’t a top-down autocrat, but a bottom-up, collaborative consensus builder,” he said. “These are things that UTLA has fought for for years.”

The Belmont Education Collaborative, a group of more than three dozen community and business organizations, and universities, many of them serving the large Latino population in the Belmont attendance area, has also pushed for the new program.

The pilot schools often have longer school days and an extended school year. Principals control their budgeting decisions and choice of instructional programs. They can also choose teachers who agree to longer hours and extended planning and collaboration with colleagues.

Advocates say that adapting the Boston program to other cities will help promote the need for districts, unions, and communities to work together to foster more innovative school models.

“We have enough longitudinal data that suggests that when you grant urban public schools maximum autonomy over resources in exchange for accountability, it improves engagement and achievement outcomes for their students,” said Dan French, the executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, a Boston-based group that promotes small schools. “Hopefully, having Los Angeles join will signal to districts and unions … that until [they] find ways to collaborate in the creation of dynamic public schools, we won’t make the progress we need.”

Vol. 25, Issue 44, Page 8

Published in Print: August 9, 2006, as L.A. Proceeds With Plans to Open ‘Pilot Schools’ in Belmont Area
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