Participants at LA Unified’s summit on best practices suggest an arbiter for co-located schools
Mike Szymanski | July 25, 2016
At the final panel of the “Promising Practices” forum held all day Saturday, participants called for an arbiter at the district level who could step in to help solve disputes at schools sharing campuses.
The panel discussion was titled “Leading the Way with Collaboration and Sharing of Promising Practices: Perspectives from the Field” and included three sets of principals at co-located sites that share the same buildings, gyms and libraries. Sometimes the relationships are strained at first, as in the case of when Narbonne High School found its staff and students separating into a pilot school.
“Call it an amicable divorce, it wasn’t easy,” said Gregory Fisher, the principal of the Humanities and Arts Academy (HArts) pilot school that is co-located at Narbonne. A former teacher at the traditional district school, Fisher saw his pilot school competing for the same students and teachers. “We tried to be as sensitive as possible. Of course we had some common goals, but some of our goals were divergent.”
HArts and the traditional school were going through struggles that were similar to the five stages of death, Fisher said. Narbonne High School Principal Gerald Kobata agreed, saying: “That first year was not easy. It was difficult for me and my staff and why those teachers were leaving Narbonne. We experienced every conceivable problem.”
Now co-located for their third year, the principals agree things are going smoothly based on the mutual respect they have for each other and their regular communication.
“We had to get our staff to see that this is good for the students and we’re not competing with the other school,” Kobata said.
Both Narbonne schools shared professional development training such as active shooter training and a seminar on economics. Narbonne’s schools have common state championship sports teams, which is part of the glue that holds the school together, but they still have problems that the district could step in to help.
“The students are fine, they don’t see a difference,” Kobata said.
Fisher suggested that district administrators help settle disputes rather than simply letting the principals haggle it out. “Emotions can take over, and that needs to be addressed in a way to show there’s nothing personal,” Fisher said.
Yvette King-Berg, executive director of the Youth Policy Institute that runs the Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School on the campus of Berendo Middle School, warned that charter programs shouldn’t use Prop. 39 to co-locate at a district school and then come in with a bad attitude.
“Do not be the bratty younger brother or sister that was born second and you come in like you are entitled and have the right of access of resources from mom and dad,” King-Berg said. “You have the right for it all being equitable, but the older sibling was already there. You have to make it easier for the older sibling too.”
King-Berg said, “Prop 39 is not going away, it is what is best for kids. I make sure that me and my staff never engage in negative talk.”
She added, “We hear in LA School Report and the Los Angeles Times the negative stories about co-locations that are not working, but we need to show the partnerships that are working.”
King-Berg said she often has coffee every week with the Berendo principal, and they collaborate on grant proposals for both schools and share best practices.
“The community and parents all come together in the Pico-Union area and we treat them all like they are all our students,” said Berendo Assistant Principal Justin Howard.
The Sonia Sotomayor Learning Academies, where the conference was taking place, is a complex of 1,900 students with four high schools and one middle school, and two of the principals discussed their co-location issues.
“We all meet every week without exception,” said Kristine Puich, principal of the Los Angeles River School that specializes in environmental-related studies. “If we have a disagreement, we hash it out.”
Also on the Sotomayor campus, Alliance Tennenbaum Technology Principal Abigail Nunez said, “We have to accept and embrace that we sink or swim together, or we are going to tumble together. Once a school achieves success, it is success for the whole campus.”
Despite the mix of independent charter and traditional pilot school programs at the Sotomayor campus, the schools coordinate Advanced Placement and college testings, share costs for the librarian and athletic director and open after-school events to everyone.
But sometimes they are at odds and “some things need to be hammered out that are beyond a conversation between principals,” Puich said.
Nunez added that “over the past five years we have had some very, very heated discussions and some of them got very ugly because that’s how passionate they are.” She was also asking for someone from the district to help them come up with solutions when conflicts arise.
Superintendent Michelle King said she and her staff are gathering suggestions and solutions offered during the nearly three dozen sessions held Saturday. Although more than 350 people signed up for the event, about 200 turned out. Some didn’t show because of the fires in the northern part of Los Angeles, said a district spokeswoman.
King and school board members Monica Ratliff and Ref Rodriguez attended, and board President Steve Zimmer gave a rousing speech before he had to leave for a family issue. The seminars were equally mixed with charter and LA Unified district officials as well as parents and experts in this first-ever forum of sharing best practices.
Representatives from the teachers union, UTLA, and administrators union, AALA, attended the free seminars as did representatives from Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the California Community Foundation and many other groups. Also in attendance was Marcia S. Reed, principal of 186th Street Elementary School in Gardena, who was just selected as California’s 2016 National Distinguished Principal.
King opened and closed the session. “I was impressed with the openness and giving,” King said at the end of the seven-hour summit. “We now have to go back and tell somebody what we learned today and spread it across the district to help change the narrative.”
King said she hopes to double the numbers of the sessions and hold a similar collaboration next spring.