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FREMONT HIGH: RADICAL CHANGE OR JUST A FACE LIFT?
Restructuring, reconstituting, reorganizing-all have been used to describe the changes planned for long-suffering, low-performing Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles. Last December, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent Ramon Cortines announced that radical change was necessary to improve academic achievement at the school.
Designed for 1500, Fremont now has 4,500 students and embodies practically all of the problems and challenges of a chronically, low-performing inner-city high school. It also reflects the huge demographic shifts throughout Los Angeles; Fremont's student population is over 90% Latino but their sheer numbers should not further disadvantage Black students, LAUSD's lowest achievers.
Superintendent Cortines's Fremont restructuring plan triggered consternation and strong pushback from some teachers who were understandably threatened by the proposed changes. They believe they were treated unfairly, which raises important questions about school governance, especially in low-income, low-performing schools.
As a life-long union member, I sympathize with the teachers, but understand that the need to provide a quality education for all students trumps all other issues, including teacher seniority. The primary purpose of any union is to protect the interest of its members. However, public education's purpose is to provide a proper education for all students and at times, when teachers' interests and those of students are at odds, students' needs must come first. Teachers legitimately cite LAUSD's failure to meet its responsibility, not only to students, but to them, as well. The bottom line is that teachers and school districts must compromise in order to serve the best interests of students who suffer because of their perennial stalemates. In Fremont's case, the need for intervention could not be clearer or more compelling. The District's own data condemns its failure to properly educate Black and Latino students.
Those teachers who rejected restructuring at Fremont were undoubtedly concerned about future stability and many cited contractual agreements in support of their position. Fremont embodies the barriers to Black and Latino children's education, not only in Los Angeles, but throughout the nation. The question is how to change the paradigm and reverse the cycle of public education's failure to properly educate all students.
A survey released last April by South Central Youth Empowerment through Action (SCYEA) included 6,800 students in seven high schools in South Central Los Angeles and was conducted by students themselves. Among other concerns, it found that many students believe their schools sell them short by setting the bar for success too low and steer students below that standard. They preferred "push-out" to "drop-out" because they feel LAUSD is pushing students to fail.
The Community Coalition recently invited Cortines to a meeting about Fremont's restructuring. (The Community Coalition has a 20-year history of working with students and parents to improve the quality of education throughout South Central Los Angeles.) Facing a packed audience of Fremont students and parents, Cortines backed the Coalition's recommendations for restructuring. They include: (1) Creation of Comprehensive Mental Wellness programs that have peer health promoters, peer-to-peer counseling, after-school arts and recreation activities and group therapy, as well as student and parent support groups.
(2) Establishment of a School of Health and Science as part of its theme-based academies to include career and A-G linked curriculum, hands-on experience and certification and partnerships with unions and universities; (3) A Drop-Out Prevention Intervention and Recovery Program that provides immediate student accessibility, parent intervention and plan of action, on-going phone calls and home visits and personalized wraparound services.
In a recent Op-Ed piece, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president and CEO of the Community Coalition, said the teachers are rightly concerned over the decision to restructure Fremont that forced them to re-interview for their positions, giving many the impression that they were unfairly blamed for the failures of the school. He said Cortines was equally right in contending that incremental changes are not going to be enough to alter the culture of low expectations and standards that have become the acceptable norm for everyone--including teachers, administrators and even parents and students for whom Fremont is the only kind of school they know.
Transforming Fremont requires radical change based on strong community and political support that has not existed for a long time. A major potential barrier for lasting reform is LAUSD itself, its sincere intentions for Fremont, notwithstanding. The community must hold the superintendent and district accountable for implementing transformative programs and practices at Fremont. It is a monumental task, but the students deserve no less.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail