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Teachers Lead the Way To Better Schools In Los Angeles

School board picks faculty plans for dozens of schools

By Alain Jehlen

Test scores are often very low at schools that have mostly low-income, minority students. What to do?

Teachers held a vigil before the board vote

That question got two very different answers last month from opposite ends of the country.

In Rhode Island, on Feb. 23, the superintendent and school board of Central Falls, the poorest city in the state, fired the entire staff of the city's only high school. That same day, the Los Angeles school board gave teachers a vote of confidence, adopting their plans for running dozens of schools.

The LA board had put dozens of schools up for bid last summer, some already in the system and some brand new buildings. The board invited proposals for who should run these schools and how. The smart money was on charter operators to walk away with the lion's share. But the board awarded 29 schools to groups of LA teachers, parents, and administrators, who crafted their plans with help from United Teachers Los Angeles, a joint affiliate of NEA and the American Federation of Teachers. The remaining seven schools were split between charter operators and a non-profit group associated with LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

UTLA President A. J. Duffy was disappointed to lose any schools, but he said the decision to turn over direction of so many schools to staff-community partnerships is an important opportunity. “Teachers have been blamed for everything that's wrong in public education,” he said. “And yet we have never had the ability to partner with parents and administrators, without bureaucrats on our backs, and actually craft the education program to drive a world class education.”

The people who made it happen

Fifth-grade teacher Grace Marroquin and high school social studies teacher Nicole Fefferman were among hundreds of LA teachers whose hard work led to the surprise school board decision.

Grace Marroquin

Marroquin was recruited for the planning effort last fall by a UTLA staff member who came to a meeting at her school, which was not one of those put up for bid. She joined a team that was writing the proposal for a newlybuilt elementary school nearby. The core group was about a dozen people, about half of them teachers along with parents and administrators.

Marroquin's focus was on curriculum and governance for the new school. The group did extensive research before writing their own proposal. Their plan features democratic decision-making inside the school and deep community partnerships outside. The school is planned for 800 students, but Marroquin's group proposed dividing it into three smaller learning communities.

“I'm optimistic by nature, and I knew we had a solid plan,” says Marroquin. “But part of me was wondering-the school board seemed to be looking for an outside source to make change. If it came from within, that might not be acceptable to them.”

Once the plan was written, they presented it to the community, holding meetings in schools and knocking on doors. Marroquin was familiar with the neighborhood because she's made many home visits there, and she grew up in a similar community. But it was exhausting work. “It was like having two careers, teaching in the classroom and then being a community organizer, too,” she says. “But I would do it again. I will do it again, because they're going to put more schools up for grabs.”

Blueprint for a better high school

Fefferman, the social studies teacher, is UTLA's chapter chair at Jefferson High School, one of the existing LAUSD schools that the school board offered up for proposals. Fefferman had actually moved across the country to work there. She grew up in LA, but was in her first year teaching in New Haven, Connecticut, when she read in the newspaper about a student riot at Jefferson High and decided to come home. “I wanted to be a part of fixing the problems of our schools in low-income communities of color,” she says. “I figured I'd get in, work hard, and join up with like-minded people to make positive changes.”

So that's what she did.

And when UTLA offered assistance to Jefferson teachers if they wanted to write their own proposal for the school, Fefferman grabbed it. “We knew we'd have to scrape together the time and scramble to teach and still have our families. We'd have to move, move, move and come up with something good, good, good!”

Roughly 25 people-about 15 teachers plus administrators and parents-put together the plan. Jefferson is already divided into five small learning communities, and the proposal was to make them even more autonomous while still sharing one building. The new small schools would make their own decisions about school culture, how to spend their money, and many other areas. The staff will be able to respond flexibly and quickly to the needs of their particular students.

Once all the plans were in, the LA school board invited parents to vote on them, although it reserved the final decision to itself. Locally-written plans won the parent endorsement at every school.

When the school board finally made its decisions last month, Marroquin and Fefferman were excited, proud-and exhausted. “I'm so tired!” says Fefferman. “But now we have to start the work. We can't just talk any more. This is it!”

Marroquin also has another worry looking at next year: She doesn't know whether she'll be around to even try to carry out her plan. A slashed school budget will likely mean thousands of teacher layoffs, and the word is out that they will land mostly on elementary schools. Even though she's in her seventh year, her efforts for the children of Los Angeles may be rewarded with a pink slip.


The United Teachers Los Angeles newspaper has covered this story in depth since the school board's decision last summer to invite proposals for running schools.

There has also been extensive coverage in Los Angeles media. The UTLA website has links.

The NEA Priority Schools website has information on other schools where the union is taking the lead to improve hard-pressed schools.