The Innovation of Pilot Schools | La Opinion

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, is a federation of labor unions that represents over 800,000 workers in every key industry throughout Los Angeles County including janitorial, education and construction workers. Those men and women work hard day in and day out just to be able to provide basic sustenance for their families. Most importantly, they are the working men and women who are exacting a high price during this economic downturn. Many are losing their jobs and retirement security, they can't pay their medical bills and are losing their homes.

As working families and communities feel the crunch of the recent economic recession, education becomes the foremost concern for many hopeful for upward mobility for their children.

For the overwhelming majority of workers, as well as other poor and working class parents like them, education is the ultimate hope to provide their children with the means and options to better endure the type of economic crisis we currently find ourselves in.  They understand that their wages and working conditions will incrementally improve through the efforts of the union, but they expect a quality public education to provide their children with a route out of poverty and prepare them for life long careers. 

Sadly, the promise of economic and social mobility via our public educational system is going unfulfilled for the children of poor and working class parents in the City of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Unified District (LAUSD) whose student body is over 70% Latino and 11% African American must focus on stopping the drop-out crisis and addressing the lack of student preparation for college and the 21st century workforce. Take for instance, East Los Angeles: the poverty rate for students who do not graduate high school exceeds 47%. Immediate intervention is needed to solve these systemic issues and support students' opportunities for success in school, and in turn in life.  This is the end result we should expect for all the youth of our communities.

Given the district's slow progress over the years, it is critical that parents and families work together to expose the inequities and demand better. Similar to unions, we are stronger united than divided. There are some key examples of grassroots efforts to improve our schools, one such movement is building momentum in East Los Angeles where local parents, students and community stakeholders are demanding innovative in-district reform. They are pressing LAUSD to support the creation of the East Los Angeles Education Empowerment Zone (ELAEEZ) encompassing Garfield High School and the new Esteban E. Torres High School set to open in the fall of 2010.  The Empowerment Zone will be a network of innovative Pilot Schools for parents and students to choose from based on academic interest.

Pilot schools are designed to enroll a maximum of 500 students and share a larger campus with other similarly sized schools. Attending schools of this size offers students a personalized instruction necessary to prevent the drop-out crisis the District currently confronts. Students will be retained in significantly greater numbers and motivated to graduate and pursue college or be prepared for the growing high skilled 21st century workforce in our state.

Another important issue to the survival of working families particularly during these times is maintaining unionized jobs- jobs with a secure living wage and benefits. Pilot Schools are part of an in-district reform effort that ensures we maintain good jobs which translates into supporting working families. In addition, Pilot Schools benefit students since they are designed to have greater autonomy over funds, curriculum, and professional development; the Pilot School model has proven to be a successful model of in-district reform that raises student achievement through the Belmont Zone of Choice in the Pico-Union community of Los Angeles. 

The East Los Angeles Education Empowerment Zone is a community driven proposal that is beneficial to all. Through LAUSD's recently passed Public School Choice Resolution, local teachers, administrators, parents and the local district came together in teams to create plans for in district reform. One example of the teacher-parent led proposals is the establishment of Pilot Schools at Esteban E. Torres High School. Teacher teams developed plans for vision-oriented schools that serve a significantly smaller group of students focused on college preparation. The process created by the Resolution provided students and parents, for the first time in East Los Angeles, with the opportunity to vote for a high-caliber network of theme based small schools like The Social Justice Academy and Engineering and Technology Academy, each geared toward an area of their personal interest.  Even more significant, if approved by the Board of Education, this reform will set a long-lasting precedence for changing the structure and culture of LAUSD schools. We pledge that this reform will not remain isolated- we can expect it to grow and must continue to demand that it does.

We all need to stand behind the community in this time of economic crisis and uncertainty.  In particular we need to stand behind the working families and their children who are standing up and challenging the LAUSD leadership to be bold and innovative in altering the current status quo of low expectations, high drop-out rates and generations of lost students. If the current state of our economy tells us anything it is that the ability to endure and bounce back from these economic tough times will depend on how well we prepare the future generations of our society for life after high school.       

Maria Elena Durazo is the Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. Maria Brenes is the Executive Director of InnerCity Struggle.  

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