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Los Angeles Teachers Shine Under Intense Pressure

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AFT president Randi Weingarten saw superlative work during visits with United Teachers Los Angeles members Oct. 13-14. A highlight of her trip was a visit to Cochran Middle School in the heart of Los Angeles, where about 40 teachers met with her at 7 a.m. to show her around and discuss the fate of their school.

Under the city's public school choice program, "underperforming" schools can be awarded to charter operators, so Cochran's current staff have banded together and applied to keep their school.

Last school year, says chapter leader Don Luong, a seventh-grade world history teacher, Cochran far exceeded its requirements for improvement—gaining 30 points on the state academic performance index when only 8 points were required—"yet we're still on the brink of losing our school." Over the past 10 years, he added, the school's performance has risen by 200 points. "We can win it back," he said, "or it will go to one of about five charters vying for us right now." The school board will make that decision in January.

Weingarten expressed surprise that educators who have made such great strides using teacher-driven programs and teacher-administrator collaboration might have their success snatched from them. "Cochran is an amazing collaborative," she said. "I wonder, given the progress the school has made, why the L.A. superintendent and board have it on the public school choice list."

On the first afternoon of her visit, Weingarten got a big welcome at Leo Politi Elementary School from LA's BEST (Better Educated Students for Tomorrow), an outstanding after-school program. She also visited with radio and TV host Tavis Smiley, whose work in combating high school dropout rates—not only in Los Angeles but also in Chicago, Oakland, Calif., and Philadelphia—has yielded a television program and book, Too Important to Fail. In addition, Weingarten met with other members of the media, UTLA officers and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor during her visit.

California has cut K-12 spending per student by 23 percent since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Although the state established a number of innovative training and support programs for teachers, these initiatives have withered under slashed budgets. What's worse, a budget trigger passed earlier this year is likely to be pulled in January, leading to another $4 billion in cuts to K-12 education and an additional $1.6 billion in cuts to higher education.

The California Federation of Teachers, working with the Progressive Revenue Coalition, is developing a ballot proposition that would raise taxes on the wealthiest Californians. The state federation also has engaged with community organizations and parent networks to advocate for education. [Annette Licitra]

October 18, 2011