An Activist Teacher, a Struggling School, and the School Closure Movement: A Story from L.A.

In the hallway at Crenshaw High, spring 2011.

On Monday, half the teachers at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles found out they had been dismissed from their jobs as part of a "conversion" process. Among them was Alex Caputo-Pearl, who I first met two years ago when I reported on Crenshaw. Caputo-Pearl was a member of the very first class of Teach for America recruits, in 1990. He has spent two decades teaching in high-poverty L.A.-area schools, first in Compton and then at Crenshaw, where he helped craft a reform plan known as the Extended Learning Cultural Model. ELCM won sizable grants from the Obama administration, the Ford Foundation, and other philanthropies to pursue school improvement driven by the higher expectations of the Common Core, yet built around a curriculum tied to addressing the challenges of the low-income South L.A. neighborhood where Crenshaw resides. Here's an example of some of the work expected from 10th graders enrolled in Crenshaw's Social Justice and Law Academy, the themed small school-within-a-school founded by Caputo-Pearl and some of his colleagues, who have also been dismissed:

For their final project, students had to analyze a data set that included test scores at various schools; neighborhood income levels; school truancy rates; and incarceration rates.

In math, students graphed the relationship between income and social opportunity in various south L.A. neighborhoods. In social studies, they read conservative and liberal proposals for school reform and practiced citing data in their own written arguments about how to improve education. In science, students designed experiments that could test policy hypotheses about how to improve education. And in English class, they read Our America, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago.

In addition, some Crenshaw students were placed in paid community-service internships. Others worked with local colleges to conduct research on South L.A. Click here to read more about the research that backs this reform vision.

Teachers like Caputo-Pearl led the turnaround work at Crenshaw, in part because the school has seen massive management turnover — over 30 different administrators in seven years. Test scores remain below district averages, though they have shown some growth, especially for African American and disabled students. I've reported here on some of the unique demographic challenges Crenshaw faces, including higher-than-average numbers of students living in foster care.

Yet despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and philanthropic support for the Extended Learning Cultural Model, L.A. Superintendent John Deasy announced in November that Crenshaw's work would be halted and the school would be reconstituted as a magnet, with a focus on expanding Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings. Teachers were required to reapply to their jobs. The Social Justice and Law Academy will be done away with; three new magnet programs will be organized around the arts, entrepreneurship, and STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. 

Cresnhaw's union chair, Cathy Garcia, wrote in a letter to supporters that the district seems to have targeted for dismissal Caputo-Pearl and other teachers who led the Social Justice and Law Academy. A district spokesperson responded, "Students, parents, alumni and community members helped to create the criteria used during the selection process for candidates and educational programs. The district, as well as the school’s staff, believe the changes will establish rigorous academics, allowing all Crenshaw students to graduate college- and career-ready.”  

According to Crenshaw sources who have seen a list of dismissed teachers, 21 of the 33 are African American, and 27 have over 10 years of experience. These teachers will be placed into a candidate pool and will be allowed to apply for open positions at other schools. But for educators who have dedicated their careers to improving Crenshaw, and who have deep well-springs of support among parents and students, the dismissals are devastating. 

This isn't the first time the district has attempted to remove Caputo-Pearl, an outspoken activist, from Crenshaw. In 2006, as he was organizing neighborhood parents to fight for better school resources, such as up-to-date computers, he was forcibly transfered to a more affluent school across town. Parents complained and he was eventually reinstated. Caputo-Pearl is part of a dissident, left caucus within the L.A. teachers' union, and he has written in the New York Times about why he has become a critic of Teach for America. He opposes tying teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores, and is critical of the expansion of the charter school sector.

He says his next step is advocating for the Crenshaw students who will be affected by the school's reorganization. Those children will not be automatically re-enrolled in one of the new magnet schools inside the Crenshaw building; instead, they or their parents will need to fill out a "Choices" application, which looks like this. This barrier can be a signfiicant one for children in foster care, or whose parents are not aware of what the process entails. Many students "feel unsure of what school they will be at next year," Caputo-Pearl said. "Our immediate priority has to be ensuring all students have the right to a neighborhood school in the Crenshaw area, and the right to equitable treatment at that school."

What's happening at Crenshaw is representative of the death of the large, urban comprehensive high school all across the country. In New York, research from the New School suggests that Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to break up large, underperforming high schools have, in fact, led to the founding of higher-quality schools. The problem is that students whose schools close may not end up enrolled in those better schools; instead, a significant number of them will be enrolled by default in the nearest large high school that is still open, which itself has extremely low test scores. That school, in turn, will eventually be shut down, creating what the New School researchers call a "domino effect," in which the most disadvantaged teenagers are shuttled from failing school to failing school, while those with more active, involved parents win spots at new schools. 

In Chicago, only 6 percent of students whose schools are shut down end up enrolled in a school within the top achievement quartile, and 40 percent of students from closed schools ended up at schools on academic probation. 

If smaller, themed schools are better for kids — and there is significant evidence they are — the question then becomes, how can districts transition to such a system without leaving behind those students who most need help? Crenshaw was already pursuing a themed school-within-a-school reform plan, and it is discouraging, I think, that the Social Justice and Law Academy, whose work was politically and intellectually challenging, will be discontinued, with its leaders dispersed. 

After the jump, I am posting a statement from Alex Caputo-Pearl, as well as the letter from union reps Cathy Garcia and Joseph Zeccola.

Statement from Alex Caputo-Pearl

It's a sign of the times that a 'turn schools into businesses' superintendent like Deasy uses a bunch of District and corporate resources to crush a successful, student-centered, research-based, social justice-driven model, after being invited for over a year by parents, teachers, and community members to actually partner in deepening that model.  He crushed it over the organized protests of the community because it competed with him philosophically. Deasy violated common sense free speech and labor practices in making sure to remove union leaders and those who advocated for stability at the school — often the same people who were key to building the model.  As the administration now moves to crush important student programs in the context of many youth feeling unsure of what school they will be at next year, our immediate priority has to be ensuring all students have the right to a neighborhood school in the Crenshaw area, and the right to equitable treatment at that school.

Letter from union reps

The last few days have been hard to bear—especially for those of us who want UTLA to become an organizing union, which puts forth our vision for how we can best educate our kids.  Last night, teachers at Crenshaw High School—who, despite the most valiant and strategic fight we’ve seen yet against a reconstitution, had been forced to reapply for their jobs under the district’s “magnet conversion”—began receiving news about whether they’d been rehired for year.   The news has been very bad.

More than 30 teachers at Crenshaw — half the faculty — have been “rejected” by the hiring committee so far, including UTLA Chair Cathy Garcia, West Area UTLA Board member Alex Caputo-Pearl, and multiple veteran African-American teachers, who not only teach at Crenshaw, but make the area their home, and who, now, will not be allowed back to teach the kids at their own “home school.”

In addition to being a part of militant actions against the reconstitution, once the re-application process started, the faculty organized the majority of teachers to re-apply, believing that “that this is our school, we are part of this community, and we won’t be pushed out without going through every piece of this struggle we can, even a re-application process.”  Everyone was clear-eyed about the process – that it would be a kangaroo court, with decisions essentially a forgone conclusion.  But teachers agreed to go through it anyway, and push it into the light of day, because stability was important for the students.  They're why we're all here in the first place.

This news about Crenshaw is devastating, not only because it further destabilizes another inner-city school that serves students of color.  It’s worse because Crenshaw, despite ongoing district neglect, had worked, through years of organizing and investment in instructional innovation, to become a model for bottom-up, genuine reform.  The teachers at Crenshaw, working in partnership with students, parents, community members, and university scholars, had created a nationally-recognized model for educating students of color:  The Extended Learning Cultural Model (ELCM).

The ELCM is the single most groundbreaking, all-encompassing model for genuine education transformation attempted at an urban high school.  The ELCM combines cutting edge instructional pedagogy with community-based internships, leadership opportunities, and activities that connect to the students’ classroom learning.  This “extends learning” out into the community.  The model also included parent workshops to further support student learning and development.  The ELCM was a model to educate the whole child in each and every one of his/her ecosystems:  classroom, home, and community. 

And the model was working!  The work of the students, teachers, parents, and community members at Crenshaw had garnered the attention of the Ford Foundation, who awarded Crenshaw a $250,000.00 grant to pilot their work, with the promise of more money to come.  In addition, WASC, the accrediting board, who threatened to remove Crenshaw’s accreditation just a few years before, praised the work of the faculty and staff, and the newly created stability and “espirit d’corps” of the entire Crenshaw community under this new model.  Test scores rose significantly in 2011-12.  All of this success occurred in spite of years of district neglect, and a virtual revolving door of administrators (more than 30 in the seven years since Crenshaw’s accreditation was threatened).  The ELCM was turning Crenshaw around.  All that was needed was stability, and perhaps (dare we say it) even some district support.

What did LAUSD do instead?  They destroyed it.  Superintendent Deasy went after Crenshaw this past year, ignoring all of the gains recognized by the Ford Foundation, WASC, and the actual data (which spoke for itself).   Deasy HAD to destroy the Extended Learning Cultural Model.  And, he made Crenshaw High School a huge political priority.  The ELCM was a direct threat to him, his top-down philosophy of education, and his authority as superintendent.   The ELCM was not created by him or the District.  It operated largely independently of him and the District (though the school invited him to be involved in a positive manner, several times over the last two years).  Teachers and parents raised their own money for it, which must have been upsetting for our superintendent—to know that peon teachers and parents had direct lines to international foundations over him.  The ELCM is based on education as a tool for critical thinking and contribution to social justice, not education to create more workers for a market and business model, as Deasy promotes.  It had the support of prominent academics of color, with whom Deasy could not stand toe-to-toe.  It was led by progressive unionists, not District hacks.  The ELCM was, pure and simple, a direct threat to Deasy, and he knew he had to destroy it.  So he did.

Deasy blamed the years of inadequate progress not on district ineptitude (as WASC clearly noted), but on the teachers.  He called the school a failure, and decided to institute more of the same: reconstitution.  This time – cleverly, because it brings in more resources and connotes positive change — under the guise of a “magnet conversion.”  He very specifically obliterated the Social Justice and Law Academy, by rejecting ALL of its architect teachers – this was the Academy that had planted the seeds for the ELCM more than any.

The results so far have been the same as at Fremont, Jordan, Manual Arts, and Muir:  teachers were forced to reapply for their jobs, and almost all of the veteran/activist teachers have not been rehired.  And just like all the other reconstitutions that came before it, big UTLA did not have the power or strategy to stop it.  While some officers have provided valuable but limited support in communicating with District officials, the two big things that the Crenshaw community needed UTLA's help with were not able to be put together – help to organize the other 6 schools that are being magnetized so that the relatively strong 7th school, Crenshaw, won’t be left out on a limb; and investment in public relations, community ads, etc., to frame the whole “magnet conversion” city-wide as a destabilizer.  Just like with Public School Choice, teacher evaluations, etc. – when UTLA goes issue by issue, one by one, school by school, we lost. 

The ELC Model at Crenshaw is what the Schools LA Students Deserve Campaign is really about.  This is the kind of work community partners and UTLA can be showcasing.  But as dark as this time has been, the fight is not yet over.  We may have lost a key part of this battle at Crenshaw, but the fight to preserve the ELCM is just beginning.  And, students and parents, again, are finding their footing after this blow.  Again, this is an incredibly innovative, student-centered educational model.  It was attempted by teachers, working in partnership with students, parents, and community members.  And it worked.  Remember that.  Remember what WE can do to counter the fake reform proposed by the district, the billionaire Boys Club, and the neoliberals who want to impose a corporate model on public education.    

More to come on the ELCM soon.

In Unity,

Cathy Garcia

UTLA Chapter Chair, Crenshaw High School

Joseph Zeccola

UTLA Year-Round Director

Design Team Leader, The Social Justice Schools at Maya Angelou Community High School


6 thoughts on “An Activist Teacher, a Struggling School, and the School Closure Movement: A Story from L.A.

  1. Tom Hoffman

    Hi Dana,

    I think you drift off topic a bit in thinking that this is about size. It isn’t. This is exactly what went down at Feinstein in Providence — straight out of the Broad playbook — and we were a small school. It is about destroying schools that develop their own locus of control outside the district model.

    When you go through this, you see how much *work* it is for the district; how focused they are at destroying the community. It is easy to think of this as collateral damage in some way, but this kind of independent district school is very much the target.

  2. Jill Holden

    Dear Dana, (and Cathy and Joseph,

    I am a veteran LAUSD teacher and I had no idea this was happening at Crenshaw but it does not surprise me though it does sicken me. How can we organize to stop this takeover? Deasy is a man on a mission and he is canny. But he must be stopped. It must start with communication. I’m getting the word out. Thank you Dana for posting this letter.

    I will pass it on.

    Jill Holden

  3. Joseph K

    It should be noted that most of the teachers at Crenshaw (and other “reconstituted” schools like it) are more than just “displaced.” Deasy has ordered principals not to hire “displaced” teachers. Currently there are hundreds of openings across the district and hundreds of “displaced” teachers which should fill them. Instead, principals are filling those positions with teachers Deasy laid off using them as long-term subs. He has pitted teacher against teacher. “Displaced” teachers who are not “placed” withing two years will be fired from the district. Deasy will say it is because they are incompetent. “Why else,” he will argue disingenuously, “would no one hire them in two years if not for their ‘incompetence?’” When all the “displaced” teachers are fired, he will then let go of the laid-off teachers. He doesn’t have to fire them. They were fired long ago. He won’t have to fire them twice.

    Deasy will then fill open positions with inexpensive, low-paid rookies and untrained incompetent neophytes with little or no long-term interest in education from Teach for America. Unfortunately for the students, teaching at schools like Crenshaw is not something a French Literature Major from Long Island can master overnight.

    Nor can a school full of them.

    Lives of countless dedicated professional educators who committed their lives to serving our society’s most desperately needy children will be thrown on the scrapheap, their lives, reputations, and careers permanently destroyed by Deasy in the name of money.

    Need proof? Take a look at all the positions Deasy is denying to the hundreds of currently displaced teachers. Why, with so many displaced teachers, are there any vacancies at all?

    link to

  4. LaWanda Eckert

    The exact same model is used in Houston by Terry Grier. A public school superintendent that strives to support market based reforms is clearly involved in a conflict of interest, yet, there is no outcry, and the teaching ranks are continuously watered down with TFA recruits that generally possess no subject area knowledge in the subjects where they are placed. Meanwhile, lives are ruined, students are hurt, and the public is hoodwinked.

  5. SKS

    UTLA does not support, help or guide teachers who are living in LAUSD’s culture of fear. Chapter Chairs or Union representatives live in fear as well. Everyone is afraid of losing his/her job and are afraid to speak up or come forth. If you do so, you will lose your job, your health benefits, your career, your friends and most likely your health.

    The only thing that UTLA knows how to do is support LAUSD’s agenda. They share emails with one another, phone calls, letters and photographs of their grandchildren all the while dismissing innocent teachers for not having committed any egregious acts of child abuse. Innocent teachers are not sent back to the classroom, do not get a fair Skelly hearing and have to pay for their own attorneys at the OAH.


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