Reshaping Power Dynamics at our School Sites

Malabar EL May 4 Walk-ins
Malabar EL (above at May 4th Walk-ins) successfully fought off co-location and now is organizing for an eco-learning space.

Schools fight co-location, a bad principal and contract violations

At schools across L.A., educators are organizing with parents and the community, putting energy behind issue-focused campaigns to address problems that impact their schools. From taking on dysfunctional administrators to organizing against charter co-location and enforcing the contract, UTLA members are building power to improve working and learning conditions.

Organizing educators, parents, and other stakeholders can not only build pressure to achieve concrete goals, it can also reshape power dynamics at the site to ensure that problems don’t persist and create a force for pushing for larger improvements. Organizing campaigns also pay dividends beyond the original focus: They can strengthen connections for future work, build a new network of leaders, and energize a school community.


Malabar: Fighting off co-location and organizing for green space

Last February, Lucia Hernandez was one week into serving as Malabar Elementary’s new chapter chair when the principal in- formed her that the school’s unused bungalows were being targeted for a possible co- location by an outside charter organization. “We were scrambling,” Hernandez says of the staff, many of whom didn’t know what co-location was (it’s the controversial practice under Prop. 39 of offering so-called unused space on existing District campuses to an outside charter organization).

They reached out to UTLA, and UTLA Area Representative Christopher Arellano was there to offer ongoing guidance as they built a work-site campaign against co-location. The teachers started a series of conversations—with each other, with other school staff, with parents—to educate them- selves about co-location and the impact it could have on their school. They collectively identified their main concerns, including traffic problems, possible loss of the computer lab, and impact on shared spaces such as the cafeteria, library, and resource room. “Once people heard the impact co-location could have, everyone was on board with fighting it, from teachers to cafete- ria workers to parents,” says Hernandez. She found many willing supporters for the push-back, including teachers Kyoko Bristow, Lisa Martinez, and Juan Corona; cafeteria staff Mr. Pablo; and the Castro, Rivas, and Leal families, to name just a few.

Hernandez and the school staff seized on the February 17 National Walk-Ins for Public Schools and organized a positive event to connect with the community, highlighting all the programs going on at the school and the 100-plus years Malabar has been serving Boyle Heights.

“Charters do a great job publicizing their programs, but when we looked at Malabar, we said, ‘Wait — we do those things too,’ ” Hernandez says. “We really started looking at what our school does well and all the pro- grams we offer, like the arts and sciences.”

After the walks-in, parents and teachers planned an escalating series of actions, including sending delegations to meet with LAUSD School Board member Monica Garcia and City Councilman Jose Huizar and holding multiple neighborhood walks to knock on doors and talk to the community about co-location and the special programs Malabar offers. They created a “We Love Malabar” Facebook page, regularly posting photos from College Day, Coffee With the Principal, field trips, and in-class science experiments. Parents took the lead on circulating a petition protesting co-location and mailed the 1,000 signatures they gathered to all the School Board members. Parents also leafleted outside the charter school that wanted to co-locate, telling the parents there that they respected their school but did not want it to co-locate at Malabar.

In June, Malabar  was informed  that their campaign was successful, and the school was not going to be co-located. The unused bungalows are scheduled to be demolished, creating space for a new community garden and eco-learning space that the school wants to build. Hernandez says that the conversations parents and teachers had about the threats of co-location led organically to talking about what they would like to see in their school—the type of “needs assessment” that is part of building a sustainable community school. Creating a green space focused on eco-learning is especially relevant in Boyle Heights, which is grappling with the toxic damage from the Exide Technology pollution scandal.

The school’s proposed plan for the garden includes a hydroponic area where students can learn about sustainable systems, an amphitheater where students can have musical and dramatic performances, and a solar panel interactive area where teachers will be able to enhance their instruction by using virtual reality technology lessons.

“Dreaming big for our school and publicizing the great things happening here — this is all work we should have done before,” Hernandez says. “The support from the community has been overwhelming. Now we’re organized and ready to keep working together with our parents.”


Stanford PC: Organizing with parents against a problematic principal

Stanford Primary Center
Stanford Primary Center parents leaflet outside of the school to share their concerns about the problematic principal.

In August the Stanford Primary Center community started the school year with a positive outlook, upbeat about having a new administrator on board, but it didn’t take long for problems to emerge with the principal’s top-down and intimidating management style.

Without any input from staff or parents, the principal got rid of the school’s popular logo, which had been created by founding members of the center. The principal closed the teachers’ work room and changed the hours of the Parent Center, restricting parents’ access to the school. A student with behavior issues was bounced around with no support or behavior plan, which wasn’t good for the child or for the other students, and parents say that complaints about bullying went unaddressed. The principal also placed new restrictions on having parents and volunteers in the classroom and required long-time volunteers to get re-fingerprinted, creating an unwelcoming environment for the community.

The issues came to a head this month after the principal fired a respected teaching assistant, which parents believe was done in retaliation for his reporting wrongdoing to his union. Parents were outraged about his removal and picketed the school.

After the firing, teachers and parents started  talking  with  each  other  about their concerns, and they were dismayed to learn that this was the administrator ’s third school in three years. With the help of UTLA Area Representative Adrian Lau and South Area UTLA leadership, they began an organizing campaign to bring issues to the District and demand action.

First up was a series of meetings with staff and parents (which the principal tried to interrupt more than once) to talk about their issues and how collective action could get LAUSD to pay attention to their concerns. District officials met with the school, but most teachers and parents don’t feel enough progress is being made. Four months into the school year, and the principal has yet to address behavior policy or hold a behavior assembly. Teachers also say that she has not formed a School Site Council, and money is being spent without accountability.

To raise awareness among other parents, parent leaders have been passing out a “Did You Know?” flyer that they created and have secured more than 120 signature on a petition calling for the administrator’s removal. As part of the tactic to take concerns to people who have the power to affect change, six parents and three teachers spoke to the School Board on November 15, asking the Board to provide the competent leadership that the school deserves. Next up: The group is ready for other actions if LAUSD does not address their concerns.


PLAS schools: Enforcing the contract and addressing shared concerns

UTLA leaders at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS), a private nonprofit group that manages 19 of our LAUSD schools, have been actively organizing to address rampant contract violations and other shared concerns. Working with UTLA Regional Organizer Jollene Levid, UTLA leaders began meeting as a group in the spring of 2016, and the meetings continued through the summer and into the current school year.

UTLA members across the PLAS campuses, supported by their UTLA Area reps, began to host membership meetings to talk about their collective concerns with PLAS’s management of their schools. Schools like 107th Street Elementary School wrote letters outlining their issues and requesting solutions — including ample lesson-planning time, support during one-on-one testing, and additional psychiatric workers — that would enhance their workplace and the learning environments of their students.

Members signed the letter and presented it to PLAS and District leadership. Similar meetings took place in schools in the East, Central, South, and Harbor areas where PLAS manages schools.

Some initial progress and victories emerged from the organizing, including new leaders stepping up at schools like 107th Street, concerted school site actions at Grape Street, Z-time pay for all summer PDs at 20th Street, and a new restorative justice coordinator at Carver Middle School.

Meetings of all the UTLA leaders at PLAS schools followed the school-site meetings. Educators  met to understand  the contracts that impact them — both the UTLA-LAUSD contract and the PLAS contract with LAUSD. They also began to discuss experiences teaching in PLAS schools, and patterns of contract violations emerged. As a response to the common issues discussed and identified, UTLA leaders asked for and won bimonthly labor-management meetings with top decision-makers at PLAS.

In October, UTLA leaders from the PLAS schools met to strategize around organizing and to prepare for the first labor-management meeting. Some main issues at PLAS schools include professional development sessions that extend into staff time and that ignore content proposed by educators. Also identified were heavier workloads, additional testing requirements across PLAS schools, and the lack of Local School Leadership and  School Site Councils. Clear, blanket contract violations were taking place, so school leaders organized, elected representatives, and presented their specific requests at the labor-management meeting with PLAS decision-makers.

The UTLA leaders at PLAS schools will continue to host bimonthly labor-management meetings with PLAS, organize at their respective school site, and strategize across campuses to improve their working conditions and enhance their students’ learning environments.