Magnet schools are the shining stars in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)–a district so large it dwarfs many small towns and as the second-largest school district in the nation after New York City’s, is intimidating in its size and bureaucracy. Parents go to great lengths to figure out a complicated and byzantine system that often has families applying strategically to schools that are not their first choice so they can accumulate points to send their children to a desired magnet. This is one Los Angeles-area mom’s record of a recent anxiety-filled school meeting where school officials and parents discussed the fate of the high-performing public school given the need to lay off teachers due to drastic impending budget cuts. The writer tells me quotes are a reasonable approximation of what was said. Wonder what’s prolonging this mess? Meet 5 GOP state senators who could defy over 50,000 Californians who simply want to vote on extending current taxes.
LAUSD’s “crisis budget” adopted on February 11 would eliminate 90% of the funding for the magnet program – removing the position of magnet coordinator. At the beginning of the meeting, our dynamic coordinator, Gabriel Lemmon, reassured the parents that even if his position is eliminated, he would be re-classified as a classroom teacher and he would continue directing the magnet activities (although he did not specify how to keep it up with added teaching responsibilities).
Lemmon and Cleveland’s Magnet Parent Association President Bonnie Goodman addressed the rumor that LAUSD wants to get rid of magnets. They do not think that is the case, but the funding issue may make it so anyway.
More on fallout from the “crisis budget” below – first part of the meeting was about the immediate danger to magnet funding and the coordinator, who is essential to the success of Cleveland’s pioneering Humanitas program (description of the program here, Cleveland was the original high school to implement it in 1981).
A coalition of parents from the Valley’s Highly Gifted Magnets (North Hollywood High, Portola Middle School, San Jose Elementary) organized early and met with District 3 Board member Tamar Galatzan to plead the case to save their programs. According to Magnet Goodman, then “They started to reach out in a little way (about a month ago) saying that they wanted to expand. But clearly their agenda is to defend their turf as high performance magnets serving highly gifted kids. They’re saying if you’re going to touch the magnets, don’t touch the HGMs. Then they realized they needed to widen their net and they started liaising with us.”
Goodman has also met with Galatzan. She says she knows Galatzan has good feelings about Cleveland but is not how clued in she is about the magnet program in particular. Tamar said whether or not it goes to a vote in Sacramento, her first priority is to restore classroom personnel (and magnet coordinators are technically not classroom –but they would be a high priority).
One of the things the HGM group proposes in term of coordinators – if funding were removed – is addressing Tamar’s belief and the others is that they’re not that important. Well, why don’t you create something like an RFP where we can fill it out and prove how valuable the coordinators are. She thought that was a good idea.
The bottom line is that Galatzan “does not believe magnets will be destroyed; does not believe they will be allowed to disappear. And she does understand that many magnets need to have a coordinator.”
Goodman was looking for parent volunteers for a second meeting with Galatzan (Goodman herself, while president of the association, no longer has children attending the school – she just believes in the program so much and was so effective as MPA President that she was asked — and agreed — to stay on).
The HGM group is also planning to present their case next week with incoming LAUSD Superintendent Dr. John Deasy (background here — he came to LAUSD from the Gates Foundation). We know that he supported breaking up large campuses into smaller learning academies when he was superintendent in Malibu; we don’t know his feelings on the magnet programs at LAUSD.
Talk turned to Wednesday’s LA Times column by Steve Lopez, describing in detail how the proposed cuts are affecting Hamilton High School’s two magnet programs (one for Humanities, the other a much-touted magnet for musicians). Students at Hamilton organized a letter writing campaign, which is what got Lopez’ attention.
Some of the students at Cleveland High Magnet have also organized a group to rally against cuts to the program. Three of their representatives at the parents’ meeting wondered if they should also write to Lopez.
“That ship has probably sailed,” Goodman said, adding that it couldn’t hurt. But she thought it would be most effective for all the stakeholders — parents, students and staff — to coordinate a strategy to communicate the issue to both the board… and to Cleveland families — especially those who are thinking of coming to the school.
Lemmon indicated that a bigger danger than the looming budget cut is the uncertainty it is causing among current families and parents of prospective students. The delicate balance of teachers and class size is incumbent upon maintaining a certain level of enrollment; he needs to enroll a class of at least 220 Freshman to keep the number of teachers they currently have; if it goes under 220 on “norm day” (about four weeks into the Fall 2011 school year), he will lose teachers and class sizes will get larger. (This is apart from the two magnet teachers who have been ‘RIF’ed – informed that they will be laid off if Brown doesn’t get his tax extensions).
Both Lemmon and Goodman have been hearing from families who wanted to go to Cleveland that they have signed up for private schools instead, because they have heard the program will be gutted. Lemmon, who has been conducting parent tours of the school, said instead of talking up the program, he is spending 90% of his time just reassuring the parents that the program will still be there when school starts in August.
The word has to go out to the Superintendent and the District that cutting magnet funding will hurt the program. At the same time, parents and prospective students need to hear that regardless of the budget, after 30 years at Cleveland, the Humanities program isn’t going anywhere.
A three-pronged strategy was laid out, involving further meetings with the District, communications with parents, and more one-on-one with prospective students, such as a Big Brother and Sister program and giving incoming freshmen a sense of pride (one idea was to give them Cleveland sweatshirts they can wear NOW at their middle schools). They also discussed giving incoming freshmen free tickets to next month’s COREchella music show (a fundraiser that will be hosted by Rainn Wilson of TV’s “The Office.”)
Principal Herm Clay noted that many of the ideas the group was proposing echoed statements that Deasy had made that day at a Principals’ meeting.
“He would like groups to organize to get out the vote in a positive manner. If that happens, that’s one of the two major items the district is looking for to close the budget gap that’s created the cuts the district is looking at now.”
Clay described two separate battles: one with the state, to get the tax extensions and the second is how money is distributed on the district level.
“We have to be so careful about the messaging,” said Lemmon. “The only thing that hurts this program isn’t what the district does, it’s if we don’t pull in 200 students; the spiraling effect of lowered enrollment. We lose 220 kids, we lose a teacher. All this other noise is bad, but it’s something we can manage. We have to figure out a way to say the end is coming on one side, but that it’s all ok on the other side.”
“Despite what we think may or may not happen, we WILL survive,” Lemmon said.