Education Funding Opinion

Chuck Olynyk: Still Truth-telling about “Failing Schools”

By Anthony Cody — February 03, 2011 7 min read
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As the Department of Education prepares to push for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, there are several “improvements” that will be made. The impossible goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 will be abandoned, as will the concept of Adequate Yearly Progress. The effect of these changes will be that schools attended by middle class children will be safe from the punitive consequences in the law. These consequences, however, will continue to be served to the “bottom 5%" of our schools. If I thought the Department had helpful solutions and useful tools, this would be a boon. However, it looks as if the same four dismal choices will be offered -- close down, become a charter, fire half the staff and/or fire the principal.

Last year veteran teacher Chuck Olynyk gave us a front-row seat as Fremont High in Los Angeles was the subject of “restructuring,” one of the four options from the Department of Education’s very skinny playbook. The history of every battle, it is said, is written by the victors. Chuck was not victorious in the battle to save Fremont High, but he is still alive, and unwilling to let the history be rewritten to suit the master narrative. Here, he offers some inconvenient reminders of what actually took place, in response to a TV news personality’s glib summary.

Eye in the Sky

Today is Wednesday, February 02, 2011 and Day 23 of Year Two. Happy Groundhog Day. The days started off well enough: cursing because I was leaving the house a little later than normal, I looked at the sky from habit, sought out Scorpius, saw Mars in Virgo, let my eyes creep toward the zenith to Arcturus, and from there to the Big Dipper. Then I saw it. Zipping by Mizar (second star in the handle of the Digger) and its companion Alcor was the International Space Station. I’d watched the stars enough to get pretty good at spotting satellites, which were rather magical to me; there they were, man-made objects hurtling across the sky, not as swiftly as the meteors, but maybe because they were visible symbols of mankind’s attempt to leave the cradle of Earth, to see what’s out there, it was the stuff of dreams. Watching an old Soviet satellite break up in the ‘70s took my breath away; as it came down in the atmosphere, I caught it in my telescope and
followed it’s demise, glowing pieces breaking off as this eye in the sky met its death upon returning to Mother Earth. You can never go home, eh?

My dreams were different back then. The goal was to be an astronomer AND that I planned to work aboard a space station (this was pre-Sky Lab) and write on the side. My point in relating that? Dreams change. Sometimes it is because the proved unattainable. Sometimes something else comes to matter more.

That’s where teaching came in. I stumbled into it, but so many people I knew back in high school and college told me over the years, “Yeah, we figured you’d be an English teacher in some rough part of town. That’s so you.” Wish to Hell they’d told me before; it might have saved me some time, but maybe I needed to take the long way before I realized this was what I feel I was meant to do.

So many threads of my life have come together to put me here.

So I have to respond to Kevin Hale, VP/General Manager, MyFoxLA (otherwise known as Fox 11).

Mr. Hale, since I’m planning to send this to you, please consider this an open letter. I realize such letters should be send directly to the person one has the problem with alone, but since you made your statement “POV: Low-Performing Schools”
on Tuesday, February 1, 2011 and you discuss your views on Fremont High, I feel compelled to respond. If you want to respond, you can either label me a nutbar, one of the lunatic fringe whose comments can be either round-filed or ridiculed, or you can respond to me either in your forum (I’d like to know, if you do) or you can go to rememberfremont.webs.com, where this will go up.

Mr. Hale, my name is Chuck Olynyk.
I’ve been a teacher since 1983, in LAUSD since September 11, 1987. For the first seven years, I taught at Thomas Edison Middle School. In 1994, I joined the faculty of John C. Fremont High School, remaining a Pathfinder through 16 years of principals who lasted 23 months on the average. I lasted through a nearly countless series of educational magic bullets in a place where kids showed up smelling like wet laundry, in filth and grime, where vermin ran wild and where we had to endure two weeks of a faculty men’s room without a toilet seat, where we had no hot water in said restroom for months, where we had overcrowded classes, inadequate supplies and shared the overburdened facilities with adult school, leaving many of our rooms in shambles each morning and hunting for our desks, rebuilding our rooms.

You stated,

The school was such a dismal failure, LAUSD made a dramatic decision. Under Federal law, the "No Child Left Behind" act, Superintendent Raymond Cortines announced he was reconstituting the school--in effect, firing its staff and sweeping the whole place clean. Cortines' move was perfectly legal but completely unprecedented in Los Angeles. And it created a firestorm. The teacher's union slammed the district, placing blame on the school's administrators and not its teachers.

We were NOT fired.
We were, however, told to reapply, even though we were considered responsible for a “culture of failure”, as Superintendent Cortines put it. Many of us chose not to. We later were threatened, told we HAD to reapply, that there were standing orders (issued on a pink-colored memo) that NO letters of recommendation were to be written, whether staff had exemplary evaluations or not. There was coercion. There was intimidation. There was also considerable backpedaling when statements which were made proved to be false.

I understand you had a theme, so of course you would not address that.

Yet you dismiss that the average teacher lasts less than three years at Fremont, that the average administrator (an education leader) lasts less than 23 months. And that each and every one of these leaders came in with a SERIES of magic bullets to “fix” Fremont, often contradictory in direction.

Many of us did not reapply. We were not abandoning the school we loved. We were fighting to save it. Many of us maintain contacts amongst current staff and students. This was a community we were deeply invested in.

When we chose not to reapply, it was because many of us felt we had done nothing wrong. In 23 years of teaching in LAUSD, I have never received a negative evaluation. I can say the same for many of my colleagues. Yet we were to blame, at least in the eyes of the media.

When you cite “But by July, Fremont High School had a new direction pushed by famed reformer George McKenna, who was actually played by Denzel Washington in a movie,” you are citing someone who told the staff to reapply for their jobs in a January faculty meeting, telling them that most would get their jobs back. The truth of the matter was, in order to qualify for a grant, 50% of the faculty had to be “removed.” “George McKenna / LAUSD: ‘We did it internally, we didn’t ask for some outside provider on a white horse to come in here and promise things they can’t deliver.’”

Internally? When Fremont “reopened” July 6th, 2010 (an event your station covered), the principal told the Los Angeles Times’ Howard Blume that the school was fully staffed and that he had kept the “cream of the crop.” Yet it turned out, in a December L.A. Times article by the same Howard Blume that the school had serious staffing problems, that many of the new teachers had no educational experience.

These are the same people telling you the test scores went up. By the way, these tests are periodic assessments. They are not true indicators of success or failure.

What is an indicator of failure is honesty--or lack thereof.
On July 6th, your station broadcast a story on the New Fremont In your clip, you showed footage from your “eye in the sky” (I’ll assume it was yours), portraying a riot, with the voice-over that this was a school “plagued by violence.” I wrote on July 6th and I write again, that is the only event of its kind in my 16 years at Fremont, yet by showing this dramatic footage and with your voice-over (meaning the person from your station), your station has sensationalized the violence, not unlike the way gun incidents were portrayed a couple of weeks ago.

I’m a history teacher. Where others see unconnected events, I see patterns. Today, I taught about the French Revolution, specifically about the Reign of Terror. In that tragic time, if one did not slavishly agree with the reformers of the country, one was branded an “Enemy of the Revolution.” Those people were given public trials for show, paraded through the streets and then led to the guillotine.

You write, “I encourage LAUSD to continue to take a hard look at every failing school in the district and to take bold action. And I challenge the teachers union not to stand in the way.” Merely to change direction is wrong. To change without a better course is wrong. To experiment on inner city children is wrong. This is why the union, why teachers of conscience are standing up and speaking out. An atmosphere has been created wherein those who oppose plans, no matter how shoddy, are accused of being “against children.”

That is self-serving nonsense. You speak of challenges. Do you have what it takes to come to my school for one week, to shadow my throughout the day, to teach a series of scaffolded lessons (not even an entire unit) to the mere 125 kids I have at Roosevelt High, as opposed to the 180 I had at Fremont? If you want to come out and follow one of the “loser teachers” who “got fired” from Fremont, please let me know. Or just watch.

Chuck Olynyk
Social Studies teacher
Humanitas Arts School at Roosevelt Senior High

What do you think? How is the press covering education issues in your town? What do you think of Chuck’s response?

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.