Reflections from San Diego and Los Angeles

In mid-December, I spent some time in San Diego and LA, visiting schools and speaking with educators. One of the most gratifying parts of this trip was reconnecting with a former graduate student of mine from the first year I ever taught my class, “Building A Democratic School” at Harvard. Agustin Vecino now works for the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) in Los Angeles as a coach for the pilot schools. He and Rachel Bonkovsky (a former Boston principal), along with George Simpson and Assistant Principal Cara Livermore (formerly of BAA and now of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA)) arranged all of my stops on the trip.

San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts (SDSCPA)

Principal Mitzi Lizarraga showed me around her school (http://www.sandi.net/scpa) of 1400 students in grades 6-12. Entrance to the middle school is lottery based, and high school admission is through audition. The motto of the school is, “Where arts and academics share center stage.” Mitzi shared that her charge is to intensify the arts experiences and exposure of her students; she also must raise funds for much needed arts residencies and adjunct teachers. [Note: SDSCPA vocal arts major Victoria Matthews recently received a 2012 YoungArts Merit Award in Voice- congratulations to Victoria and to SDSCPA!]

Like many schools in San Diego, the campus seemed quite sprawling to my urban Northeastern eyes!

On this lucky day for me, choreographer and dance professor Donald McKayle was in residence to audition students for his piece “House of Tears,” based on the “desaparecidos” from Argentina. The high school dancers crowded onto the dance studio floor and listened with rapt attention to McKayle. He spoke about his experiences in Buenos Aires watching the “madres de los desaparecidos” march around the Plaza Mayor with photographs of their disappeared children, who had been murdered or stolen by the junta.

SDSCPA dancers

Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA)

From San Diego, I headed for Los Angeles and LACHSA, where George Simpson is principal. (George was formerly the director of music at BAA!)  The same excitement I felt at San Diego’s school was evident here. Students were hanging a juried show about Arts and Engagement in the visual arts wing. Music students had just finished their jazz series. Theatre students had just done “Preview Night,” which is like our informal showing at BAA. Dancers were gearing up for their winter performances. Exhaustion and elation were on everyone’s faces. “Passion with balance” seemed in short supply.

LACHSA is located on the CalState LA campus. Also on the campus are the LA Principal Residency Network and the LA Urban Teacher Residency program. (These are both programs of the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), an organization that I co-founded with Larry Myatt in Boston over fifteen years ago.) George had organized an event for me at CalState called “Transformative Leadership,” where I talked with members of both networks as well as other educators from surrounding schools and not-for-profits. We shared ideas about our perspective realities and reacquainted ourselves with the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) 10 common principles, considering where we did/didn’t see these principles in our work.

George Simpson, Agustin Vecino, Carolyn McNight, Debbie Thompson

East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy

The next day, I visited the East LA Performing Acts Academy, headed by Principal Carolyn McKnight. The faculty of this pilot school was joined by the Humanitas Academy of Arts and Technology faculty and principal Debbie Thompson, as well as district folks and a superintendent. Both of these schools have converted to pilot status in the past two years. Later I met with the faculty and principal Rosie Martinez from the Academic Leadership Community (ALC), another pilot school in the throes of trying to attain the autonomies that are promised to Pilot Schools (much like those of charter schools), which include: budget, governance, curriculum and assessment, hiring and scheduling, and calendar.

The theme for all three pilot schools was the autonomies and how to ensure they were being met. These are familiar themes for us in Boston. While districts, especially urban districts, are often initially open to pilot schools, the intricacies of actually devolving power and control away from central office and central mandates and into the hands of principals and teachers is always more challenging. If LA and Boston could do more collaborative work, we might strengthen all of our schools and create a system of trust around pilot schools.

UCLA

From ALC I traveled to UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies to give a talk to their Teacher Education Program and Principal Leadership Institute. A lively group of about 30 of us talked about what makes good schools, how the CES principles can help guide schools, and the struggles of each of us in sustaining good schools.

In this whirlwind tour of schools, talks, and intense conversations with committed educators, I came away grateful for the opportunity to learn from educators on the other side of the country. I reconnected with friends and re-charged myself to return to the work we are doing in Boston and beyond.

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