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.