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Protests over Fremont High reforms move to school district

May 11, 2010 |  5:47 pm

About 100 Fremont High teachers, students and supporters Tuesday called on district officials to abandon reforms that have left dozens of teachers vowing to leave the campus at the end of the school year.

The threatened resignations came after L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines ordered all Fremont employees to reinterview for their jobs. He has insisted that any employees would have been welcomed back, provided they agreed to be part of a renewed, more rigorous academic culture.

The deadline to reapply was in March; about 60% of the staff interviewed to return, officials said.

Union leaders criticized the Fremont restructuring as “undemocratic,” saying that current staff should have been involved in developing any new reforms from the ground up. At some other targeted low-performing schools, they pointed out, teachers were invited to submit reform plans. Fremont staff members also insisted that their existing school reform plan could work if given a chance and district support.

“We all agree that changes need to be made, but scapegoating teachers is not the way to do it,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

Both the district and union leaders see Fremont as a crucial test case. The union doesn’t want to see such aggressive strategies tried at other schools.

Many teachers who came to district headquarters Tuesday afternoon wore name tags with the message: “We are all Fremont.”

Cortines has said he would not shy away from using the Fremont model elsewhere. Equally important, he said, is sending the message that lagging schools have an opportunity to improve now or face a Fremont-style denouement in the near future.

The resignations are a calculated gamble on the part of teachers. The strategy could, in the end, make it easier for the district to remake the school, a longtime union stronghold, as it wishes.

The pending Fremont departures have led to a difficult year with several demonstrations and a demoralized campus.

“A teacher was throwing up in a faculty meeting” out of anxiety, said Fremont teacher Johnny Jauregui.

Junior Joseph Palacios, 16, said the year has been stressful.

“Our teachers are a major part of our everyday life,” he said. “I have about four teachers who really care about me and how I do in school, and they are always talking to other teachers about how I’m doing and how can I improve my grades.”

The campus tension led to a recent graffiti incident. Tagging spread across several walls on a Sunday in late April singled out Cortines for criticism. Swastikas and obscene references were included, said local area Supt. George McKenna.

The teacher interviews were conducted before panels that included students and parents, with the school’s principal getting the final say, McKenna said.

“We’re moving forward,” McKenna said.

Fremont’s enrollment is 90% Latino and 9% black, and the school embodies challenges that have frustrated strong, consistent academic progress at urban high schools across the country: 80% of students are from low-income families; 38% are learning English.

The school’s test scores remain low but have risen an average of 10 points annually over the last three years -- reasonable progress according to some experts, but inadequate to Cortines. Last year, 13.6% of Fremont students tested as proficient in English language arts. Math was worse: Of 3,226 students tested in 2009, only 45 were proficient. Only two students scored as advanced. And only 2% of algebra students tested as proficient in that subject after taking the class. More than a third of students drop out.

-- Howard Blume