Continuing Sal's Work: Urgent Need for Educational Reform

His life-long effort to improve the educational opportunities for young people provides us with a rich historical perspective

By Jimmy Franco Sr., Latino POV
Published on LatinoLA: May 28, 2013

Continuing Sal's Work: Urgent Need for Educational Reform

"It's a great day to be a Chicano!"
-Sal Castro, affirming the unity of his community's struggle to effect change

The recent passing of long-time Los Angeles teacher, educational reformer and civil rights activist Sal Castro is a great loss to our community and to the cause of improving the education and lives of young people. He fought with courage and consistency for close to fifty years to expand the educational and civil rights of Chicano-Latino students and to motivate them to continue their education.

His absence from this struggle and his key historical role in it has placed before us a new perspective in regard to viewing our past efforts to improve the educational system and particularly how they have affected the well-being of Latino students.

Sal helped organize and participated in the 1968 "Blowouts" or high school walkouts of Chicano students in East Los Angeles to protest the inferior education that they were receiving. This mass protest that was supported by many community organizations opened the eyes of the public to the segregated and deficient school system that was stunting the learning experience of these students.

The city's politicians, the L.A. School Board and police department eventually responded to these legal protests for reform with a repressive grand jury indictment and jailing of Sal and twelve other community members for conspiracy to disrupt the schools. With strong student and community support and the efforts of the ACLU these bogus charges and illegal frame-up were finally dropped.

However, Sal was removed from his beloved Lincoln High School by the school board and moved around to other school sites in order to isolate him. At this time even many fellow teachers and their union officials turned against him, but this did not discourage Sal, as he knew that they were wrong and that his quest and that of the community for educational equity was just.

The list of issues and demands that were raised by this mass protest movement were firmly enunciated by students and the East L.A. based Educational Issues Coordinating Committee (EICC) which was a community organization comprised of parents, college students and progressive union members that evolved from this struggle.

The platform of this broad-based organization during this period included demands for more college preparatory courses and counselors, Chicano teachers and administrators, courses on Chicano history and culture, smaller class size, programs to decrease the high dropout rate at predominantly Latino schools and new methods of evaluating administrators and teachers that included community input.

These demands along with others were fought for by the EICC with the support of the community at public forums, meetings and even with sit-ins at the L.A. School Board office in order to have them implemented. Sal's passing and his tenacious efforts to enact these changes during all of these years until the last vibrant moments of his life has left us with his courageous legacy and a need for us to continue our forward progress.

An entrenched school district and the 45-year effort to change the system
The original and basic demand of the EICC back in 1968 was for a fundamental change in the educational program of the Los Angeles School District and an improvement in the academic achievement of Chicano/Latino students. These demands were only partially accepted by the school bureaucracy which was not willing to accept a systemic change of the system.

During the following decade of the 1970′s the L.A. District fought against the court-ordered desegregation efforts mandated by the Crawford case which entailed busing students in order to integrate the schools. Organizing to prevent this court-ordered busing of kids was a primarily white organization from the Valley called "Bustop" who won political control of the school board and proceeded to halt this busing program.

This busing program was eventually replaced with new magnet schools which offered special programs to lure white parents and students into attending these "better" schools. From that time forward the District has presented these schools as proof of being in compliance with the pending court order to desegregate even though they have only affected a small portion of the students within the LAUSD.

Over the years this arrangement has now created a two-tier system of magnet schools which provide better educational programs for their students while the majority of pupils attend the other "regular" schools.

A political campaign was organized during the 1990′s by the residents of the still predominantly white San Fernando Valley to break off from the LAUSD and form their own separate school district. In response to this proposed break-up effort numerous reform plans by the L.A. School District were subsequently adopted and then eventually abandoned without any summation or explanation as to why they failed.

Millionaire Richard Riordan, who would later become mayor, financed the election of a new supposedly reform-minded school board to avoid a break-up of the district and initiated the LEARN school reform effort. Related to this LEARN reform effort were School-Based Management, Shared Decision-Making programs, etc. All of these were implemented with much fanfare as an idealistic cure-all for the district's problems and then quietly dropped when they failed and not talked about any more as if they never existed.

The present Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had been an ex-organizer with United Teachers, Los Angeles (UTLA) and during his first term as mayor he attempted to implement reform and change within the school district by exerting political pressure and even attempting to take it over. However, these efforts were resisted by the existing school board who wished to preserve their power and resist change and by UTLA.

In order to counter the pressure of Villaraigosa's reform efforts, the board hired a new superintendent named David Brewer who was an African-American ex-navy admiral with no previous background or expertise in public education. This play at racial politics by the board proved not only divisive for the city but also disastrous to the district's students as the incompetent Brewer was eventually let go and paid a huge sum of money to leave.

Mayor Villaraigosa then enabled the hiring of Ramon Cortines as LAUSD Superintendent to reorganize the affairs of the District. Cortines was an experienced and well-qualified administrator but recently left under the cloud of a sexual harassment suit filed against him by his assistant who was also paid a large settlement by the school board to go away.

The present superintendent John Deasy was appointed by the present school board with the support of Mayor Villaraigosa and has attempted to clean up the existing mess by reducing a large backlog of sex abuse cases related to employees, implement needed reforms within the curriculum and enact measures to increase employee accountability and work quality. His new zero-tolerance policy on administrator-teacher misconduct has resulted in hundreds of administrators and teachers being dismissed from their jobs or resigning while UTLA has oppposed this new policy on preventing employee misconduct and called it a "witch hunt".

There is a strong and entrenched resistance by many within the L.A. School system who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The edifice of this resistance rests primarily upon an economic base of salaries, benefits, promotions, job security and political careers to be protected by adults versus what is best for students who should be the primary focus.

While not all district employees are involved in this obstruction of fundamental and systemic reform, it has resulted in frustration and impatience on the part of many parents and students who have begun to take action to improve their right to a decent education. The failure of past reform efforts and the lack of change particularly within the past twenty years has resulted in the creation and growth of charters which are public schools, but are managed privately.

Some are very good while others are not and there is a need for them to be monitored and regulated closely by the school board and state so that employee and academic standards are maintained along with their financial accountability. For better or for worse, these schools are now here to stay as many parents are choosing to enroll their children in these charters in order to escape their troubled home schools.

Verbal attacks on these charters and their students, parents and teachers does not solve the root cause of their existence which is the lack of serious and fundamental change that has not taken place within the school system. In addition to this, the parent trigger law was enacted in California in 2010 and gives parents with children attending low performing schools the right to pull the so-called trigger and petition to reorganize their school by removing its school district employees and turning it over to new administrators of the parent's choosing.

Past attempts by frustrated parents to utilize this law and to exercise their democratic right have been fiercely resisted and defeated in other areas by an alliance of school district administrators and educator unions. Recently, the parents of 24th Street Elementary School on the L.A. District's Southside voted to invoke this parent trigger law at their low-performing school.

To the credit of Superintendent Deasy, the school board and the teacher's union, this community's democratic vote was not resisted and the parent's decision to reorganize their local school with new administrators was respected. The parents eventually voted for a partnership between a charter school and certain LAUSD teachers to administer the reorganized school. Meanwhile, many other parents are escaping their home schools by enrolling their children in the district's magnet schools. These schools were created in reaction to the 1970′s Crawford desegregation lawsuit against the LAUSD as a means of avoiding mandatory busing of white kids to minority areas and minority children to predominantly white schools.

The present magnet schools in general tend to have better educational programs and are almost similar to private schools except that they are supported by public funding as they handpick their teachers and students who want to escape their neighborhood schools.

In essence, the years of resistance to reform by the bureaucratic school system and those satisfied with the status quo has motivated many impatient parents and students to democratically vote with their feet and flee to charters, magnets or consider using the parent trigger law to effect change at their local schools. This resulting exodus has been caused by the LAUSD being too slow or unwilling to reform itself. Change is inevitable and either the majority within the District becomes a part of the solution and participates in needed reforms or they become an intrinsic part of the problem.

Despite intensive efforts by Superintendent Deasy and his new policies to lower the dropout rate for the district it still hovers around the 40 percent range. Meanwhile, many of the schools that were involved in the 1968 student protest walkouts now have a higher dropout rate than they had back then. Intensive dropout prevention programs need to be implemented as early as elementary school in order to identify and provide assistance and remediation to at-risk students.

Also, many of the mandated state tests that students are presently required to take are not directly aligned with learning standards and the present educational curriculum, which means that they are not a reliable and objective assessment of a child's academic achievement and progress.

New federal Common Core State Standards need to be quickly integrated into the educational curriculum accompanied by intensive training for administrators and teachers on the new instructional methodology along with books which should reflect the content of these Standards. In order to complete this comprehensive alignment, Core-based tests need to be devised that truly assess student mastery of these Standards and instructional material and therefore the job performance of teachers.

The continued use of the present state standardized tests and the pressure applied by the federal "No Child Left Behind" policy to mechanically raise test scores is not an accurate index of student and teacher performance. This has even led to the growing practice of teaching to the test and cheating by many teachers who fear for their jobs. In addition, over half of a century later the same broken and porous Stull procedure was still being utilized to evaluate teachers with its two major and vague rating levels of "meets standards or does not" In derision, this evaluation process is often called a "drive-by" and "evaluating the pulse" by teachers.

This dismal situation in regard to evaluating job performance has unfortunately continued to persist until last year when a successful lawsuit by a parent's group mandated a change. A judge ordered the district to reform its evaluation process and fully comply with the Stull Act by including test scores. The district and UTLA haggled back and forth over the wording of the new evaluation and particularly over the use and weight of student test scores before reaching an agreement whose implementation is still shaky.

A reform of this comprehensive evaluation procedure should set clear standards and expectations for teachers and have multiple evaluation measures. Some of these should include numerous observations of classroom instructional practice and student outcomes, input from peers, parents and students and feedback from administrators if remediation and further training is necessary.

Student scores on new Core-based tests that correlate to new Common Core Standards should eventually be included in an evaluation of teachers, but should not exceed 15-20 percent of the evaluation results which is much less than what was agreed to by the LAUSD and UTLA. Test scores should be just one of multiple measures to determine the educational competency of educators. The probationary period for new teachers should also be extended to 3-4 years before permanent employee status is achieved in order to insure proper classroom observation, training, and job competency as this will reduce the possibility of future problems or costly dismissals.

There must be a more diligent effort to keep and nurture the competent educators and weed out the incompetents. A new and improved evaluation system will take more time and money, however, the valuable minds of children are at stake and are worth the effort. It is also becoming much more difficult to educate students as many services are being dismantled and reduced due to budget cuts. These cuts have negatively affected classes for English learners, adult school high school diploma courses, programs for dropout prevention and early education for preschool kids. A reduction in the number of teachers and college counselors has also led to an increase in class size.

Unfortunately, many of the gains made in the past are now being eroded and eliminated due to the decrease in funds as California has now descended into 49th place nationally in per-pupil funding .

On the positive side, some L.A. District schools are doing well as two of them located in a higher income neighborhood won the national Academic Decathlon with one being a charter school. There has also been a move by the Superintendent Deasy, in cooperation with teachers, to create small learning communities, schools within a school and Pilot schools in order to decentralize and facilitate local decision-making and curriculum design by teachers and administrators so as to improve the local education programs.

A coalition of civil rights groups has recently voiced approval for these reforms by Deasy and demanded a more aggressive approach by him and the LAUSD in improving student achievement. Meanwhile, a majority of UTLA members in a poll have shown disapproval of Deasy. While more Latino students are now attending college there are also more dropping out due to the increase in size of this demographic group.

A fundamental and positive change also needs to be made in regard to the L.A. School Board elections as there are currently two huge financial blocks comprised of the union, United Teacher of Los Angeles (UTLA), and that created by former UTLA employee and present Mayor Villaraigosa. Both rival blocks contend sharply for control of the school board by financing the elections of their hand-chosen candidates with millions of dollars in campaign funds.

The mayor contends that he is trying to utilize his position to empower and side with the community and to counter the money and power of UTLA while simultaneously pressuring the district to reform. Toward this end certain schools have been placed under his direct educational jurisdiction while UTLA believes that their efforts to fund candidates and control the Board are done to defend the interests of teachers. A board seat is only a part-time position, yet on average close to a million dollars is spent on each hand-picked candidate in these campaigns whose votes are then beholden to one of the two political-financial factions.

Generally, most well-finance school board members view this part-time position as a financial stepping-stone to higher office. Left out of this financial battle are active community members and potential board candidates who do not have the millions of dollars to compete with the two huge financial blocks and their army of donors and campaign workers. This money-tainted situation is undemocratic and denies honest community members the right to run for election based upon their qualifications, community activism and long-time residency.

The solution for this distortion of democracy lies in the adoption of public financing for these elections. This will then democratize the process and level the playing field so that honest and competent individuals from the community can have the opportunity to represent their district and its schools.

The loss of Sal Castro and his life-long effort to improve the educational opportunities for young people in our community has provided us with a rich historical perspective that allows us to begin summing-up our progress and continue to proceed forward. Reform and change since the 1968 student Walkouts have not been easy nor have they proceeded in a straight line. Rather, these efforts at change have been cyclical and interspersed with gains and reverses.

Yet, one thing was constant during all of these years of struggle and that was Sal's perseverance and consistency in carrying out the good fight to better the education and lives of students. He was not obligated to any political and financial factions nor unions but was only beholden to the community that he loved and where he spent a great deal of time educating, motivating and organizing students whose futures he cared about.

Sal didn't intellectualize in some academic ivory tower and confine himself to a classroom nor did he brag or talk about himself and his accomplishments in an egotistical manner.

On the contrary, he simply let his life and grassroots actions working with parents and students in the barrios speak for themselves as he was the people's teacher. Many people who talk about giving up and being burned out after years of being involved in social change need to learn from Sal's legacy. The example that he left for us was of someone who truly believed in what was right and he consistently took action to do the right thing, not for financial gain or career interests, but to further the progress of his community and young people. If someone is fighting for what is right, then it is not right to give up and concede defeat to those who attempt to unjustly hold us back. That is what made Sal's life fulfilling and worth living for and his legacy will remain with us as an example for all to emulate.

Salvador Castro: born in 1933 in East Los Angeles, attended Cathedral High in Lincoln Heights and had a life-long commitment to his community: ?íPresente!

Copyright, 2013: Jimmy Franco Sr.

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