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L.A. school officials will shut down Fremont High and start over [Updated]

December 9, 2009 |  7:21 pm

School officials will shut down low-performing Fremont High in the Florence neighborhood of L.A., dismiss its staff and reopen the school starting from scratch, the district confirmed today.

The controversial strategy, called "reconstitution," has never before been tried by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In the works for weeks, the move was announced Wednesday afternoon to the Fremont staff by Supt. Ramon C. Cortines. He moved up a scheduled Thursday meeting at the school when he found out The Times had learned of his plans for Fremont.

The news comes on the eve of a Los Angeles visit by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is expected to talk about acting aggressively to address high school “dropout factories.”

Turnaround models endorsed by Duncan closely mirror Cortines’ intended strategy for Fremont. In an interview, Cortines said that he’ll invite Fremont teachers to reapply for their jobs but that they won’t necessarily return. And if they do, they will have to sign an “elect-to-work” agreement that will establish special rules. Displaced Fremont teachers would be allowed to remain with L.A. Unified at other schools, he added.

Cortines insisted that the timing of his move was unrelated to Duncan’s visit.

“I had this in mind long before,” he said.

Fremont has long endured high dropout rates and low standardized test scores.  The superintendent said he was following through with his earlier vow not to tolerate poorly performing schools. Fremont will not be the last reconstitution if other schools don’t show marked improvement, he said.

The move opened another front of conflict with United Teachers Los Angeles. On Tuesday, a UTLA rally in front of L.A. Unified headquarters brought out 700 demonstrators to protest impending budget cuts.

The union is also threatening to sue over a school-control resolution passed by the Board of Education in August. Under the measure, 12 low-performing existing schools and 18 new campuses are up for bid to be operated by groups inside and outside the district.

Fremont escaped the resolution’s reach because the school’s scores rose last year. But they didn't increase enough to satisfy Cortines, for whom the campus will become a personal project, remaining directly under district control.

Union officials learned of the Fremont strategy today, said Mat Taylor, a Fremont English teacher who is a UTLA representative for schools in that area.

“I feel really bad for the students of Fremont because reconstitution doesn’t even begin to work,” Taylor said. “It’s just grandstanding, Cortines grabbing headlines, making it look like the district is doing something but just blaming the people at the school.”

He added: “The reason why Fremont isn’t as successful as it could be is the way Fremont has been run by the district and the issues of poverty. Reconstitution says it’s the teachers’ fault, and we completely reject that.”

Reconstitutions have been tried elsewhere, including in Chicago, where Duncan served as superintendent before joining the Obama administration. The closest example is Muir High in Pasadena. Locke High, near Watts, is the most similar effort in L.A. Unified. But that makeover was handled by a charter school company, which took over the campus.

[Update: An earlier version of this item incorrectly identified the name of the Pasadena high school that has been reconstituted.]

-- Howard Blume

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