Zoned for Change: A Historical Case Study of the Belmont Zone of Choice
by Ramón Antonio Martínez & Karen Hunter Quartz - 2012
Background/Context: Over the past two decades, scholars have increasingly called for educational leaders to collaborate with community-based organizations in their efforts to bring about school reform. Observing that school reform efforts often fail to include those most impacted by failing policies and practices, these scholars have turned their attention to the role of community organizations that advocate on behalf of parents and students in underserved communities. These scholars have explored the potential of community organizing strategies for transforming public schools, documenting the crucial role of strategic alliances between community-based organizations and school district officials in bringing about greater equity and improved student outcomes.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this study is to explore how educational leaders and community-based organizations collaborated to bring about unprecedented education reform in the nation’s second largest school district.
Research Design: This historical case study is based on in-depth interviews with 11 high-profile school district, union, community, and other educational leaders across seven key partner institutions and organizations that were involved in the development of the Belmont Zone of Choice from 2001 to 2009.
Conclusions/Recommendations: This study reveals the kinds of obstacles facing reformers in large urban school districts, and it illustrates how concerned educators, community-based organizations, and educational reformers can form strategic alliances to fight for meaningful change in underserved communities. Rather than provide a simplistic or idealistic depiction of collaboration, however, this case study illustrates the tensions and struggles that emerged as diverse—and sometimes antagonistic—social actors collaborated to bring about education reform at the local level. It also illustrates that strategic alliances are not necessarily sufficient to ensure successful reform implementation within contexts of political and economic asymmetry. As such, the history of the Belmont Zone of Choice highlights both the promise and challenge of community organizing for school reform.
In September 2007, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) high school students in the Pico Union community attended a school of their choice for the first time. As part of the newly established Belmont Zone of Choice, these students and their parents were encouraged to select the school that they thought would best meet their educational needs. Prior to the creation of the Belmont Zone of Choice, students in this predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood were either bused out of the community or required to attend the severely overcrowded Belmont High School, with over 5,400 students on three year-round tracks. In contrast, current options for students within the Belmont Zone of Choice include 13 small learning communities (SLCs), one small school, and three small autonomous schools called pilot schools. Over the next few years, these small-school choices will be further developed as the result of fundamentally new arrangements among schools, neighborhoods, and organizations that seek to reform public education.
The Belmont Zone of Choice was developed by a coalition of educational institutions and community-based organizations to create a portfolio of neighborhood schools that would share a common set of high expectations for all studentscollege readiness, career preparation, and civic participation. This initiative reflects at least three related and well-documented nationwide trends in education reform: the creation of small schools (Ancess, 2003; Conchas & Rodríguez, 2008; Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Ort, 2002; Raywid, Schmerler, Phillips, & Smith, 2003), the emergence of school choice (Goldhaber & Eide, 2002; Levin & Belfield, 2003; Marlow, 2000; Zanzig, 1997), and the push for local school autonomy (Davies & Hentschke, 1994; Fullan & Watson, 2000; Hansen & Roza, 2005; Tung, Ouimette, & Rugen, 2006). Although these reforms are often viewed and studied discretely as promising new structures and practices for improving schools, we argue in this article that it is also instructive to study their joint implementation as a case of equity-driven community organizing for education reform.
We recognize that our approach diverges from most of the research on school choice, especially research that focuses on issues such as the effect of choice on student achievement or social stratification. In their introduction to the recent Handbook of Research on School Choice, Berends, Springer, Ballou, and Walberg (2009) affirmed the value of a variety of disciplinary perspectives on school choice and included a set of chapters that describe political, economic, social, legal, and international perspectives. Ours is a historical perspective that focuses on multiple actors, new structures, plans, events, and challenges that arose along the way. We examine how the Belmont Zone of Choice was created through a cultural and political lens that acknowledges the role that power, privilege, and the larger struggle for social equity play in school reform efforts. From this perspective, the Belmont Zone of Choice is a fascinating context for understanding complex grassroots social change. As a case of community organizing for school reform, it represents an unprecedented collaboration among diverseand sometimes antagonisticsocial actors in the nations second largest school district. After a brief review of the literature on community organizing for school reform, we describe the methods of our historical case study, introduce the actors and context, recount the chronology of events, and then offer an analysis of the struggle for reform within the Belmont Zone of Choicea struggle that we hope will prove instructive for other urban communities seeking change.
COMMUNITY ORGANIZING FOR EDUCATION REFORM
Over the past two decades, scholars have increasingly argued for the need to link education reform with movements for broader social change (Anyon, 2009; Kozol, 1991; Lipman, 2004; Mediratta, Shah, & McAlister, 2009; Oakes & Rogers, 2006; Noguera, 2003; Rogers & Terriquez, 2009; Shirley, 1997; Warren, 2005). Warren, for example, observed that the fates of urban schools and communities are linked, yet school reformers and community-builders typically act as if they are not (p. 133). He argued that addressing the structural inequality in American education requires building a political constituency for urban public schools (p. 135). Highlighting the critical role of independent community organizations (p. 165) in building such a constituency, Warren suggested that the successful transformation of urban schools depends on whether education reformers engage in multiple collaborations (p. 167) with these organizations. Similarly, Lipman highlighted the role of activism and community organizing in shaping public policy. She described how recent struggles for educational change in Chicago have emerged from broader movements for social and economic justice, asserting that educational projects grounded in critical social theories and democratic participation (especially by those who have been most marginalized) help make the emancipatory visions of social movements concrete (Lipman, p. 191).
Oakes and Rogers (2006) echoed these sentiments in their call for an approach to education reform based on movement organizing informed by public inquiry (p. 158). Building on their collaborative work with students, teachers, parents, and community-based organizations over the past decade, Oakes and Rogers offered a framework for urban school reform that foregrounds the power of community organizing strategies to effect social change. They argued that equity-minded reformers often fail to address issues of power, and they turned to community organizing for lessons on how to more effectively transform public schools. What they proposed is a collaborative dynamic in which educational reformers work with community members and organizations to combine efforts and share respective areas of expertise. Such an approach, they argued, represents our best hope for disrupting the logic of schooling that creates and sustains inequality (p. 158).
Similarly, Mediratta et al. (2009) argued that the promise of community organizing for school reform stems from its central premise that school reform must be conceptualized and pursued within a larger framework of community action and power (p. 54). Drawing on a 6-year mixed-methods study of community organizing for school reform in eight cities across the nation, the authors reported strong and consistent evidence that effective community organizing efforts are helping to increase equity within school districts, build new forms of capacity in schools, and improve student educational outcomes (p. 37). Their findings speak, in part, to the crucial role of strategic alliances between community organizations and school district officials. They noted, for example, that across urban districts, superintendents, school board members, and other education officials assert that organizing groups enhance their ability to address the needs of underserved low-income, African American, Latino, and immigrant communities (p. 39). Moreover, they documented improved student outcomes on standardized tests in schools with sustained organizing. Based on the largest and most comprehensive analysis of its kind to date, the authors found a strong positive correlation between community organizing and improved equity and capacity to support student learning (p. 185).
What emerges from this growing body of scholarship is a call for educational reformers to collaborate with community organizations in their efforts to bring about educational change. The Belmont Zone of Choice is an example of this type of collaboration. The history of this reform initiative provides an instructive case of successful collaboration among various social actors to bring about education reform. It also stands as an example of the successful use of community organizing strategies to pressure those in power to make change. What complicates this particular caseand makes it all the more instructiveis that some of the key educational reformers involved in initiating and sustaining the development of the Belmont Zone of Choice were district administrators working from within the LAUSD bureaucracy itself. The history of this reform initiative illustrates the tensions and struggles that emerged as diverseand sometimes antagonisticsocial actors, including community-based organizations and district administrators, formed strategic alliances to bring about educational change at the local level.
This historical case study is based on in-depth interviews with 11 high-profile school district, union, community, and other educational leaders across seven key partner institutions and organizations that were involved in the development of the Belmont Zone of Choice from 2001 to 2007. These educational leaders were selected using purposive sampling (Merriam, 1998) in order to represent the diversity of organizations and institutions involved in this broad-based reform initiative. We identify these leaders by name because of their high-profile positions and visibility throughout this effort and because their reform work is a matter of public record. These leaders were informed that they would not be guaranteed confidentiality, and they were each given an opportunity to review a draft of this case study. Table 1 lists the participants interviewed, along with their respective positions and institutional affiliations.
Table 1. Interview Participants
DATA COLLECTION AND PROCEDURE
Each of the participants listed in Table 1 was interviewed once. All interviews, which lasted approximately 45 minutes, were conducted by one of the authors and audio-recorded for subsequent transcription. We sought to understand the broader context in which the Belmont Zone of Choice took shape, the assumptions behind it, and its impact on the participants and institutions involved (Merriam, 1998). Interview questions were therefore designed to elicit these participants understandings of and perspectives on the origins and development of the Belmont Zone of Choice, including their roles and the roles played by others, primary obstacles and successes, the current status of this reform initiative, and its prospects for the future. See Table 2 for a list of the questions to which participants responded during the interviews.
Table 2. Interview Questions
Interview transcripts were coded according to key themes that emerged in participants responses to the questions listed in Table 2. The appendix provides samples of transcribed interview responses from three different participants to illustrate how this coding scheme was applied to the data. Also provided in the appendix is a thesaurus that lists, defines, and provides examples of all major codes. Some of the codes were embedded in the interview questions themselves, whereas others emerged subsequently through analytic induction. Once transcribed and coded, interview data were triangulated alongside historical documents and artifacts that span the life of this reform initiative. These included grant proposals, newspaper articles, LAUSD memos, existing timelines, annual reports, press releases, memoranda of understanding, requests for proposals, working papers, meeting notes, trip summaries, and informational brochures. A list of these documents and artifacts is provided in the appendix. Our goal in comparing interview data with these documents and artifacts was to corroborate the general chronology of events that emerged from the accounts elicited from participants. After preliminary data analysis, all participants were asked to review interpretations of the data for accuracy. Data from all 11 interviews were analyzed in this manner.
Finally, we must acknowledge the subjective position that we occupied as researchers during this case study. As university partners with LAUSD, we came to this study as participant-observers. We prepared policy briefs for LAUSD and the Belmont Education Collaborative (BEC), served as members of BEC, and participated in many of the efforts leading up to the development of the Belmont Zone of Choice. One of the authors cofounded the Los Angeles Small Schools Center, which has played an important role in supporting small-school reform in LAUSD. In addition, we led the effort to create UCLA Community School, a UCLA-supported K12 public school that opened in fall 2009 as a pilot school serving students in an adjacent Kennedy Zone of Choice. In multiple ways, then, we have been actively involved in the development of this reform initiative. Without the pretense of objectivity, we present the perspectives of other key players in this reform effort and offer an analysis of its development and relevance for nationwide education reform.
LOCAL REFORM CONTEXT: 30 YEARS OF NEGLECT
Belmont High School is located in the Pico Union community, one of the most densely populated urban areas in the United States. Home to over 350,000 people, this working-class community is an entry port for immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America. Crime rates and gang activity in this community are high, while educational attainment and employment rates are extremely low. For the past three decades, Belmont High School and its feeder schools have experienced extreme overcrowding. At one point, Belmont was the largest high school in the nation. Although Belmont had been on a year-round calendar for nearly 30 years to accommodate the local student population, the demand for seats there and at its feeder schools still required that thousands of students be bused to schools in distant parts of the city, sometimes beginning as early as kindergarten.
Despite dramatic increases in the population of the surrounding community and severe overcrowding at Belmont and its feeder schools, more than 30 years elapsed without the construction of a single new high school. Marvin Andrade, executive director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), refers to this period as 30 years of neglect (personal communication, January 9, 2008). During this time, Belmont High School consistently failed to improve student achievement. Drop-out rates hovered around 60%, while college-going rates failed to rise above 10 % (Oakes et al., 2007). Needless to say, many educators and community members saw a direct correlation between the lack of attention to overcrowding and the persistently low student achievement. There was significant consensus among these parties that the students at Belmont, as well as the neighborhood students bused elsewhere, were being underserved.
In the face of these unjust educational conditions and outcomes, educators and community members have engaged in an ongoing struggle for reform. In the 1980s, a group called the Community Education Network began to demand the construction of new schools to relieve the overcrowding at Belmont and its feeder schools. In fact, this group, which grew out of then school board member Jackie Goldbergs office, led the initial struggle over acquisition of the historic Ambassador Hotel property as a new high school site, and even began having discussions about offering parents a choice as to which school their children would attend. This historical struggle for educational justice continued into the 1990s, when community members fought to open the Belmont Learning Complex, a site near the original Belmont campus that would have significantly relieved overcrowding. When this site was deemed unsafe and construction was halted for nearly a decade, community members persisted in pressuring the school board to address overcrowding in the area. At the beginning of this century, community-based organizations such as Alliance for a Better Community (ABC), CARECEN, Families in Schools, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), along with hundreds of parents and students from the Belmont community, worked tirelessly to advocate for the schools completion. Working closely with school board president Jose Huizar, these groups played a key role in persuading the school board to address environmental concerns at the site and resume construction. Of significance, these organizations emphasized that new facilities were necessary but insufficient to address the needs of the Belmont community. To improve the achievement of students who had historically been underserved, they tied a new instructional program to their demands for a completed Belmont Learning Complex. Now called the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, the site opened in fall 2008 and currently houses one autonomous pilot school and four SLCs. Although community and educational activists were ultimately successful, the length of their struggle underscores the severity of educational neglect suffered by this community. The development of the Belmont Zone of Choice can best be understood within this historical context of neglect and struggle.
BELMONT ZONE OF CHOICE: THE EVOLUTION OF A REFORM INITIATIVE
Although the Belmont Zone of Choice emerges from a 30-year struggle for educational justice in the Pico Union community, it also has more direct origins within the past decade. In the year 2000, at the height of a political battle over whether LAUSD should be broken up, Ramon Cortines was named interim superintendent of the district. In response to mounting pressure from various groups seeking to secede from the district, Cortines decentralized LAUSD by reorganizing it into 11 local districts. Cortines then selected Richard Alonzo as the superintendent of Local District F, which included Belmont, Lincoln, and Wilson high schools. A long-time LAUSD employee and well-respected principal of a Pico Union elementary school, Alonzo would make his mark by envisioning the Belmont Zone of Choice and working collaboratively with community members and other allies to make this vision a reality. From 2001 until his retirement in 2009, Alonzo worked diligently to incorporate community input, gain community support, and provide the leadership necessary to implement this reform initiative. During this 8-year period, which saw changes in leadership at the district level, as well as a major reconfiguration of the local districts, Alonzo worked with community-based organizations and other educators to develop a vision for reform based on three fundamental pillars: choice, small schools, and autonomy. Each of these three components fell into place as the effort to implement this reform initiative became increasingly collaborative.
THE EMERGENCE OF CHOICE
As the superintendent of Local District F, Richard Alonzo was charged with the task of improving instruction and student achievement at approximately 60 schools in an area long known for some of the highest drop-out rates and lowest attendance and performance rates in the entire district. One of his first decisions was to hire Edmundo Rodriguez as the Local District F director of school redesign. Rodriguez, a former LAUSD teacher who had extensive experience working on major reform efforts in Los Angeles and Boston, would become one of the key players in the development of the Belmont Zone of Choice. Alonzo recruited Rodriguez to help develop a plan for supporting the local districts underperforming schools, which included Belmont High School and its feeder schools in the Pico Union community. Then the second largest high school in the nation, Belmont had a total enrollment of approximately 5,400 students. As Alonzo described, overcrowding at Belmont was so severe that the school was crawling with students . . . and teachers were traveling from one classroom to another with shopping carts (personal communication, January 22, 2008). In addition to the overcrowding on campus, Alonzo added, We were also busing out 10,000 to 11,000 high school kidstwice as many kids as we were able to put into Belmont High School. Needless to say, Alonzos plan for instructional improvement at Belmont and its feeder schools would need to address the issue of overcrowding.
In 2001, Alonzo and Rodriguez sat down to look at the districts proposed plan for the construction of new schools in Local District F. At that time, the school board and newly appointed superintendent Roy Romer were taking concrete steps to address overcrowding in LAUSD. The first of several bonds had been passed that would allow for the construction of new schools to relieve overcrowding at the districts largest high schools. The school boards primary goals were to end mandatory busing by bringing all students back to their neighborhood schools and to return all schools to a traditional academic calendar. Not surprisingly, the community surrounding Belmont High School had the largest number of new schools slated for construction, including four proposed high schools. When Alonzo and Rodriguez saw the proposed locations for the new high schools and the proximity of those proposed sites to each other, they recognized that it would make little sense to divide the existing Belmont attendance area into multiple attendance boundaries. Instead, Alonzo proposed keeping the existing Belmont attendance boundaries and creating what he called a Zone of Choice. Rather than assign students to Belmont or one of the new schools based on their home address, he suggested that it might make more sense to allow students and their parents to choose which school they wanted to attend. At around the same time, Maria Casillas, director of the local community-based organization Families in Schools, began to advocate for a school choice policy in the Belmont community. In discussions with LAUSD officials and other community-based organizations, she observed that school choice was typically a middle-class opportunity that was denied to low-income families. Casillas argued that a choice policy for families in the Belmont area would improve educational opportunities by fostering competition. Within this context of choice advocacy, Alonzo asked Rodriguez to develop a plan for how the proposed Zone of Choice might work.
THE PUSH FOR SMALL SCHOOLS
The idea to create smaller, more personalized learning communities at the Belmont communitys new high schools developed in tandem with the idea to provide choice. In fact, when Richard Alonzo came up with the idea of creating a Zone of Choice, he had already been studying small learning communities (SLCs) for 3 years. When Alonzo saw the plans for the proposed high schools, he immediately approached Superintendent Roy Romer to argue in favor of creating SLCs. According to Alonzo, he told Romer,
If were going to be building these schools, we shouldnt be building more comprehensive high schools; we should be building schools that are based on more personalized attributes for kids, and we should look at not building more schools with 4,000, even 3,000. What is the size of a school that will give us the results that we want, which is more kids graduating, fewer dropouts, and higher academic achievement? (personal communication, January 22, 2008)
Essentially, Alonzo asserted that large comprehensive high schools had been failing kids for the past 50 years and that it made little sense to continue this trend. Despite Alonzos plea, however, the facilities planning division of LAUSD went ahead with their normal practice, planning four large comprehensive high schools for the Pico Union community. Upon seeing these plans, Alonzo went back to Romer to reassert his argument in favor of SLCs. In Alonzos words, he told Romer, No, thats not what we want, and thats not what the community wants (personal communication, January 22, 2008). Alonzo was eventually able to persuade Romer to arrange a meeting with the people from the facilities planning division, who agreed to explore options for creating school facilities that would be conducive to the kinds of SLCs that Alonzo and Rodriguez wanted to establish in the Belmont community. Having persuaded the facilities planning division to consider alternatives to comprehensive high schools, Alonzo and Rodriguez began searching for examples of SLCs that might serve as models for future school construction. They pointed to examples in San Diego, Oakland, and Washington state, and even accompanied the facilities planning division on trips to visit these school sites. These trips would have a significant impact on how high schools were redesigned not only within Local District F, but throughout all of LAUSD.
It is important to highlight that Alonzos insistence that the community did not want more large comprehensive high schools was based on meaningful engagement with the community. In late 2001 and early 2002, Alonzo and Rodriguez worked to bring together a collaborative of parents, students, and representatives from several community-based organizations that were already engaged in organizing work around educational justice issues in the Pico Union community. Rodriguez connected with Maria Casillas from Families in Schools and Angela Sanbrano, then executive director of CARECEN, both of whom had long been organizing parents and students to demand the construction of new schools and the creation of quality educational opportunities in the community. Casillas and Sanbrano played an instrumental role in securing the participation of various other community-based organizations, including MALDEF and ABC. Rodriguez also reached out to veteran LAUSD teacher and educational activist Cris Gutierrez, whom he knew through his local work in the Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative. Gutierrez, who had important connections to the small-school reform movement both locally and at the national level, later became the outside organizer for the Belmont Education Task Force. As Alonzo and several others noted, this coalition of community groups and other allies, which would later become the Belmont Education Collaborative, played a key role in developing the concept for the Belmont Zone of Choice and advocating for its implementation.
At around the same time that Alonzo and Rodriguez were soliciting the input of the Belmont community, the United States Department of Education announced that it would be awarding substantial grants to school districts that were considering downsizing their large schools into SLCs. Alonzo and Rodriguez applied for the 3-year grant and were subsequently awarded $3 million to begin downsizing Lincoln, Wilson, and Belmont highs schools from 2001 to 2003. According to Rodriguez, this funding played a pivotal role in enabling them to move forward with their plans for the Belmont Zone of Choice. Among other things, the funding allowed them to support and strengthen the SLCs that had been started several years earlier by former Belmont principal Auggie Herrera. Buoyed by the federal grant money and the support of the newly formed Belmont Education Task Force, Alonzo, Rodriguez, and Gutierrez began having key planning discussions locally while networking with educational reform experts nationwide. They connected with professors at Harvard, UCLA, and Columbia, as well as with Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who headed Stanford Universitys School Redesign Network. This collaboration supported the effort to make small learning environments a primary feature of the Belmont Zone of Choice, particularly in terms of providing access to relevant research and consolidating national support for this local reform effort. The advice and feedback that Alonzo, Rodriguez, and Gutierrez received from their new allies encouraged them to continue with their plan of establishing multiple SLCs within the Zone of Choice. As Rodriguez noted, We knew that we were at the cutting edge of doing something in Los Angeles that was respected and supported by the think tanks around the country that were dealing with school reform (personal communication, November 21, 2007).
With the support of these national reform experts, Alonzo, Rodriguez, Gutierrez, and other allies on the Belmont Education Task Force began to systematically explore existing models of small-school reform across the country. Stanfords School Redesign Network led two separate LAUSD trips to New York Citythe birthplace of the national small schools movementin April and May 2003. Two teams of leaders (including Superintendent Roy Romer, local district superintendents, facilities personnel, union representatives, and teachers) conducted a 2-day visit to successful New York City small schools. Both teams visited several schools, including the acclaimed Julia Richman Educational Complex and Urban Academy, met with local administrators and teachers, and engaged in discussions about the lessons they were learning.
Also in 2003, Cris Gutierrez and Karen Hunter Quartz established the Los Angeles Small Schools Collective as a way of supporting the push for small learning environments in the Belmont Zone of Choice. One of the Collectives first tasks was to prepare a summary of the New York City visits for the Gates Foundation. That summary discussed a few key implications for small-school reform in Los Angeles, highlighting the need for greater professional autonomy at the school site. Alonzo, Rodriguez, and the Belmont Education Task Force then began discussing the possibility of extending existing SLCs alongside a network of autonomous small schools. These initial discussions paved the way for the establishment of a Pilot School Network within the broader Belmont Zone of Choice.
AUTONOMY: THE MISSING PIECE
Although autonomy was never part of the original Belmont Zone of Choice concept, it quickly became apparent to the key players involved that some level of school site autonomy would be necessary to create successful small schools. In 2004, a series of events unfolded that would ultimately facilitate the creation of a network of small autonomous schools within the Belmont Zone of Choice. First, LAUSD underwent a major reconfiguration whereby its 11 local districts were consolidated and reduced to eight local districts. What had once been Local District F was split between the newly created Local Districts 4 and 5. Richard Alonzo became superintendent of Local District 4, which lost Lincoln and Wilson high schools but retained Belmont. Although Local District 4 was considerably larger than Local District F, encompassing six high schools and their feeder schools, its lowest performing and most overcrowded schools continued to be those in the Belmont community. With Lincoln and Wilson no longer under his supervision, Alonzo enlisted the help of Rodriguez, who stayed on as director of school redesign for Local District 4 to focus his small-school reform efforts on the Belmont community.
Next, the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), a nationwide network of small progressive schools based in Oakland, received a grant from the Gates Foundation to support their ongoing school reform efforts. CES, in turn, put out a request for proposals for groups wanting to start small autonomous schools. Seizing the opportunity to secure additional funding, Cris Gutierrez submitted a proposal to start a small autonomous school within the Belmont Zone of Choice. Called Civitas SOL (School of Leadership), this school was intended to serve as a prototype for future small schools within the Zone. CES subsequently awarded Civitas SOL a start-up grant, which enabled Gutierrez to build capacity within the broader Belmont Zone of Choice. Still in its planning stage, Civitas SOL joined with the Los Angeles Small Schools Collective in May 2004 in an effort to secure political support. Lewis Cohen, executive director of CES, recalls that Gutierrez had an enormous struggle trying to get [Civitas SOL] off the ground (personal communication, December 5, 2007) because of significant opposition from the central district. As she struggled to persuade the central district that her school needed significant autonomy, and as Alonzo and Rodriguez sought to make sense of how Civitas SOL would fit into the broader Belmont Zone of Choice, they continued to discuss the idea of creating a larger network of autonomous small schools. Motivated by the successful examples that they had seen during their New York City visits in 2003, the Belmont Education Task Force began searching the country for existing models of small-school reform that emphasized autonomy.
In the summer of 2004, Gutierrez and Rodriguez were invited to attend the Coalition of Essential Schools Summer Institute in Vermont, which was cohosted by the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) in Boston. While attending the institute, they met Dan French, the executive director of CCE, who had helped create the successful Boston Pilot School Network in 1994. Gutierrez, Rodriguez, and French had an informal conversation about the role of autonomy in CCEs Boston Pilot school model and the possibility of implementing a similar model in LAUSD. This serendipitous encounter marked the beginning of what would become a long-term collaboration between CCE and Local District 4. As French recalled, What was a nice give-and-take conversation over lunch in the middle of an institute turned into 2 1/2 years of organizing various forces to get to yes around creating the Belmont Pilot Schools (personal communication, November 19, 2007). Gutierrez and Rodriguez returned to Los Angeles eager to begin exploring how features of CCEs Boston Pilot school model might work within the context of Local District 4.
Before 2004 ended, a final event took place that would further set the stage for developing a network of autonomous schools within the Belmont Zone of Choice. Several of the community-based organizations involved with the Belmont Education Task Force had also been involved with Communities for Educational Equity (CEE), a broad-based, citywide coalition of organizations that was working to make college-prep A-G coursework the default curriculum for all high school students in LAUSD. After successfully pressuring the school board to pass their A-G resolution, CEE decided that it would also be effective to pressure for implementation at the local level in order to demonstrate models of success. Groups of CEE organizations from different parts of Los Angeles would branch off into smaller, local coalitions and organize around implementation in their respective communities, focusing on individual schools or clusters of schools. Representatives from ABC, CARECEN, Families in Schools, and a few other key community-based organizations involved in CEE recognized that they had already laid the foundation for such a coalition in the form of the Belmont Education Task Force. In October 2004, they officially established the Belmont Education Collaborative (BEC), formalizing the existing network of organizations that were working on both the A-G implementation and the Belmont Zone of Choice work. Shortly thereafter, ABC received a grant to fund a staff person to organize and facilitate BEC meetings, which enabled BEC to devote a considerable amount of time and resources to the Belmont Zone of Choice reform effort. Given that BECs overarching goal was to improve pre-K12 education in the Belmont community, the Belmont Zone of Choice became one of its top priorities.
This chain of events in 2004 positioned BEC and their allies in Local District 4 to make small autonomous schools a key component of the Belmont Zone of Choice. The reconfiguration of LAUSDs local districts enabled Alonzo and Rodriguez to focus their small school reform efforts more exclusively on the Belmont community; the support of CES and the Los Angeles Small Schools Collective allowed Gutierrez to begin building capacity and planning Civitas SOL, which would serve as a prototype for future small autonomous schools; Gutierrezs connection with CES led her to meet Dan French, who offered a model of small autonomous schools that seemed promising; and the formal establishment of BEC provided supporters of the Belmont Zone of Choice with the capacity to begin systematically advocating for this reform initiative just as the autonomy component was beginning to take shape. At the beginning of 2005, then, these key players were determined to establish a network of small autonomous schools within the broader Belmont Zone of Choice.
In March 2005, CES convened a historic meeting in Los Angeles between people whose participation would be crucial to establishing a pilot school network in Local District 4. Joining Alonzo, Rodriguez, and Gutierrez at this meeting were Lewis Cohen, executive director of CES, Mara Benitez and Laura Flaxman, codirectors of the CES Small Schools Network, Mike OSullivan, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA), and A. J. Duffy, newly elected president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). Also in attendance were UTLA vice president, Linda Guthrie, who had been serving on the Civitas SOL design team, and Bob Pearlman, who had played an instrumental role in creating the historic union-district agreement that established the Boston Pilot schools and who was now planning his own small autonomous schoolNew Tech Highin Local District 4. Finally, joining them by phone was CCE executive director Dan French, who would go on to play a pivotal role in persuading LAUSD and union leaders that the pilot school model could be feasible in Los Angeles. Although Rodriguez, Gutierrez, and French had begun this conversation informally several months earlier at the CES Summer Institute in Vermont, this meeting marked the first time that all these parties had met formally to discuss the feasibility and logistics of creating a pilot school network in Los Angeles. Lewis Cohen suggested that this was the first time that the notion of trying to follow the Boston approach really took shape (personal communication, December 5, 2007). Cohen and his CES colleagues saw this meeting as an opportunity to broker a formal relationship between different members of their coalition. As Cohen noted, CES was eager to connect the key players in Los Angeles with CCE so that they could take advantage of the experience and expertise represented by our network. As a result of this meeting, Alonzo, Rodriguez, Gutierrez, and BEC decided that the Boston Pilot school model could in fact work in Los Angeles, and they determined to explore more deeply what would be involved in creating a pilot school network within the Belmont Zone of Choice.
OVERCOMING OBSTACLES TO REFORM
Although the three main components of the Belmont Zone of Choice reform initiativechoice, small schools, and autonomywere now in place conceptually, the bulk of the work had yet to be done. Indeed, over the next 2 years, BEC and their allies (both locally and nationally) would engage in the tough and gritty work of politicking, negotiating, and grassroots organizing. During those 2 years, each of the key players involved in this effort played a pivotal role in pushing this reform forward, often in the face of significant obstacles. Early on, one of the key challenges was convincing the school board, Superintendent Romer, and UTLA that the pilot school model was a good idea. As Dan French recalled, We went through times of tension with every single one of those bodies . . . between the school board, the superintendent, and UTLA, we went through wavering commitment, and at those times, we had to strategize about how to get them back on a path (personal communication, December 19, 2007).
Resistance from the top
According to most of the key players involved, Superintendent Romers initial opposition to pilot school autonomy was one of the biggest obstacles to moving ahead with this reform initiative. In early 2005, Romer had asked all the local district superintendents to submit formal restructuring plans for their lowest performing schools. Rather than use the template provided by the central district, Alonzo decided to submit a plan for the Belmont Zone of Choice that included the new pilot school component. Along with BEC, Rodriguez, and Gutierrez, he drafted a proposal entitled the Belmont High School Zone of Choice School Restructuring Plan. At a school board meeting on April 5, 2005, Cris Gutierrez, on behalf of BEC, presented this plan to the board. Accompanied by Angela Sanbrano, Veronica Melvin, Linda Guthrie, Maria Casillas from Families in Schools, and other members of BEC, she explained that their proposal represented a plan that they had developed with Local District 4 to improve their communitys lowest performing schools. With the support of then board president Jose Huizar, whose school board district included the Belmont community, the board approved BECs restructuring plan for Local District 4.
Although the school boards approval gave Alonzo, Rodriguez, and BEC the go-ahead to begin establishing the Belmont Zone of Choice, the creation of a pilot school network would require a great deal more negotiation between the different parties involved. To begin with, although BECs restructuring plan had originally included elementary, middle, and high schools, Romer limited the pilot school plan to high schools only. BECs plan had further specified that the pilot schools within the Zone of Choice, following the Boston Pilot schools model, would have charter school-like autonomy over six key areas: budget, curriculum and assessment, governance, professional development, school calendar and scheduling, and staffing. Romers initial opposition to granting pilot schools autonomy over these six areas continued long after the school boards approval. Linda Guthrie suggested that Romers opposition had to do primarily with his feeling that Richard [Alonzo] was trying to pull away from the district and create a separate district (personal communication, January 9, 2008), adding that Romer was very fearful of people breaking away. Although Alonzo acknowledged that Romer understood the need for personalization and facilitated building schools in new ways (personal communication, January 22, 2008), he emphasized that Romers initial opposition hindered their progress:
Romer didnt like the idea at all. And even though the board said, We like this, pursue it, he really dragged his feet in terms of getting it off the ground and getting it going. He was not in favor of it, so it was always, Yes, were talking about it, were talking about it, but it was always on the back burner, and nothing came of it.
According to many of the key Zone of Choice supporters, Romer effectively stalled progress for over a year. Veronica Melvin noted, Romer didnt want to hear anything about it. We already had a proposal on our Belmont Zone of Choice, then we infused it with the pilot schools, and then I remember Romer not liking it at all for a solid year or so (personal communication, January 11, 2008). Melvin, however, was also quick to note that there was a dramatic change in Romers position by the end of his term in 2006. She suggested, for example, that Romer went from being totally resistant to us to saying, Okay, lets explore it and get it done. Several other key players also emphasized this dramatic shift in Romers opinion, citing it as pivotal in moving the reform effort forward.
To what can Romers change in position be attributed? Attempts to answer this question lead to various explanations. To be sure, Dan French from CCE played a pivotal role in persuading Romer that the pilot school model could be successful. Lewis Cohen suggested that French played the lead role in trying to get Roy Romer to Boston to actually see [the pilot school model] (personal communication, December 5, 2008). Indeed, after the initial meeting in March 2005, French invited Romer and other key players to visit the Boston Pilot schools. Working with the LAUSD School Redesign Office, BEC and Civitas SOL sponsored three separate visits to small autonomous schools in New York City and Boston in June, September, and October of 2005. Representatives from BEC, officials from UTLA and AALA, and personnel from LAUSDs central district participated in these trips, which included visits to the Boston Pilot schools. Romer participated in two trips to Boston, during which he was able to see the pilot school model in action. Although these trips did not appear to entirely convince Romer that a similar approach could work in Los Angeles, his enthusiasm for the pilot school model seemed to increase.
Another key player who helped persuade Romer to embrace the notion of autonomy was UTLA president A. J. Duffy. When Duffy was elected to his first term in February 2005, the discussions around autonomy were just beginning to take place. Duffy accompanied Romer on two of the visits to New York City and Boston, engaging in important discussions with him during those visits and upon their return. Rodriguez recalled, When we convinced Duffy that pilot work was good and it would be an integral part of this plan, thats when we began to see a different mood from Romer (personal communication, November 21, 2007). Duffy suggested that his positive relationship with Romer enabled him to influence the superintendents change of heart, adding that Romer definitely recognized the value of the pilot school model early on. According to Duffy, Romer felt pressured by BEC and others and simply needed time to figure out how autonomy would work in LAUSD. Duffy described his strategy as one that required patient persistence: What I did with Roy was to bring him along as slowly as I possibly could without losing momentum (personal communication, February 7, 2008). This approach seems to have helped push Romer toward accepting the idea of autonomous pilot schools.
In addition to the crucial roles played by French and Duffy, other factors also seem to have contributed to Romers turnaround. BEC, for example, played a significant role in persuading the superintendent to embrace pilot school autonomy. In addition to sponsoring the New York City and Boston visits, during which Romer saw firsthand the success of the pilot schools, BEC also engaged in a more indirect form of persuasion. Recognizing Romers initial opposition, BEC turned its energies toward organizing for support from the school board. According to French, their strategy involved working with individual board members to pressure Romer to express support. Another key piece that helps explain Romers eventual support of the pilot school component is the participation of Kathi Littman, an administrator at the central district office who had experience in both facilities construction and SLC development. On special assignment to the Office of School Redesign, Littman worked as Romers special projects assistant. Knowing that Littman had a reputation for being both well-liked by Romer and effective at getting things done, several members of BEC met with her in early 2006 to make their case for the pilot school model and to ask that she help them persuade Romer. Rodriguez and Gutierrez worked closely with Littman, who was eventually able to make significant inroads with the superintendent. Veronica Melvin recalled how influential Littmans support was:
And so she championed it for us. She kind of got a hold of Romers ear and said, This is something you really need to do, and he listened. And it was after Kathi Littman came on board that we were able to push it through with Romer. She definitely played a key role. (personal communication, January 11, 2008)
Whether it was the involvement of French, Duffy, BEC, Littman, or a combination of all of the above, what remains certain is that Romers position on pilot school autonomy changed before the end of his term as superintendent in late 2006. As Mike OSullivan, president of AALA, stated, Romers understanding of the goals and feasibility of BECs plan for pilot school autonomy seemed to have evolved:
Before [Romer] left and the new superintendent arrived, I think he embraced the concept because he saw that Richard [Alonzo] wasnt about seceding from the district; he wanted to work within the district, and he wanted to create some really new and unique learning environments for kids. And that resonated with Romer. (personal communication, November 14, 2007)
Romers turnaround, then, marked a pivotal moment in the development of the Belmont Zone of Choice. With Romers support, Alonzo, Rodriguez, BEC, and their allies were one step closer to realizing their vision for school reform in the Belmont community.
Superintendent Romers initial opposition to autonomy was not the only obstacle to moving this reform forward. UTLA had its own concerns about certain aspects of the pilot school model. When Duffy began his first term in 2005, UTLA vice president Linda Guthrie had already been involved in the development of the Belmont Zone of Choice through her participation on the Civitas SOL design team. According to Lewis Cohen, it was Guthrie who initially helped create significant leverage at UTLA by persuading union members to view the Belmont Zone of Choice as a teacher-led reform rather than as something imposed by the district. Nonetheless, UTLA leadership and members were concerned about safeguarding teachers rights within the Belmont Pilot School Network. As part of the proposed arrangement, teachers at Belmont Pilot Schools would sign an election-to-work agreement in lieu of the existing UTLA-LAUSD contract. This agreement would essentially amount to a thin contract that eliminated some of the safeguards in the existing work agreement, allowing for teachers to work extra hours. As Guthrie noted, The whole idea of a thin contract is a scary notion (personal communication, January 9, 2008). Because UTLA was adamant about protecting its members rights, reaching an agreement with the district in this regard proved to be no simple task. Guthrie recalled that there were times when the union was ready to sign the agreement, and the district didnt want to sign it. And then the district was ready to sign it, but the union wasnt ready to sign it. This back-and-forth continued for over a year throughout both informal discussions and formal negotiations. At times, it appeared that UTLA and the district had reached an insurmountable impasse.
At this point, the collaboration of key organizations became absolutely crucial to moving the reform effort forward. CCE, CES, the Los Angeles Small Schools Collective, and BEC all played critical roles in moving UTLA and LAUSD beyond their disagreements over the pilot school work agreement. CCEs Dan French, for example, made several trips to Los Angeles to meet personally with UTLA and district leaders. According to Lewis Cohen, French did a great deal of work imagining what an actual contract would look like between the teachers and the district in order to do a Boston Pilot-style project (personal communication, December 5, 2007). It was French who facilitated the formal contract negotiations between December 2006 and February 2007. Similarly, CES used its influence and resources to intercede during the period leading up to the contract negotiations. In addition to continuing its support of Civitas SOL, CES had provided funding for the Los Angeles Small Schools Collective, and it became a CES Affiliate Center. Now called the Los Angeles Small Schools Center, this nonprofit organization used its CES funds to bring CES members to Los Angeles to provide support for the ongoing reform effort. One of those CES members was Deborah Meier, acclaimed New York City teacher and one of the founders of the national small schools movement. Meier led a pivotal workshop for teachers with UTLA, discussing the importance and benefits of working within an autonomous model. Finally, BEC continued its tireless efforts in support of the pilot school model by giving persuasive presentations to UTLAs North Area, board of directors, and house of representatives. Commenting on the approach used by CCE, CES, the Los Angeles Small Schools Center, and BEC during these trying times, French observed that it was basically good old, classic community organizing (personal communication, November 19, 2007). The time and effort that these groups devoted to moving beyond the UTLA-LAUSD stalemate would soon pay off.
During the 2 years leading up to the formal negotiations around the pilot school work agreement, BEC continued to move ahead with its overall planning for the Belmont Zone of Choice. As one of the key players supporting this reform initiative, BEC organized at the grassroots level, mobilizing parents and community members, engaging in media and public relations work, and meeting with individual board members to secure their support. CARECEN, ABC, Families in Schools, and several other BEC organizations repeatedly packed school board meetings to demonstrate community support for the Belmont Zone of Choice initiative. Marvin Andrade, who was then education director for CARECEN, testified before the school board about the history of neglect in the Belmont community and the dire need for this reform effort. Through hard work, patience, and persistence, BEC was able to garner enough support to proceed with its plan despite multiple obstacles.
With the pilot school component still being debated, BEC held a major press conference in November 2005 to make public its commitment to improving educational conditions for students in the Belmont community. In the presence of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and high-ranking city and state officials, BEC announced its plan to create the Belmont Zone of Choice. In the following months, BEC and its allies worked diligently to solidify that plan. Cris Gutierrez, considered by many to be a driving force behind much of this reform effort, continued to provide leadership on multiple levels. As both a representative of BEC and a member of CES, she continued to mobilize key support for the Belmont Zone of Choice from local and national allies while also engaging in the nuts-and-bolts work of planning Civitas SOL, which was scheduled to open in September 2007. CES continued to provide both financial and logistical support. As Cohen noted, CES was heavily involved in bringing in folk who were doing this kind of work [elsewhere] and kind of helping to prime the pump or the imagination of folks in LA . . . just to imagine the possibilities for this kind of work (personal communication, December 5, 2007). In addition to bringing in Deborah Meier, CES also invited Steve Jubb, its center director in Oakland, to address the school board about how they created autonomous schools in that city. In addition, the Los Angeles Small Schools Center established a crucial partnership with the Wildwood School, the only CES mentor school in Los Angeles. Executive director of the Los Angeles Small Schools Center, Jeanne Fauci, who was then the director of the Wildwood School, joined BEC and began providing direct support to teachers, union leaders, and Local District 4 staff. Meanwhile, on the UTLA end, Linda Guthrie and A. J. Duffy continued to secure the support of the union membership. With the help of veteran educational activist and UTLA director of special projects Joel Jordan, Duffy pressed to move forward with the initiative while still informally negotiating the details of the pilot school work agreement.
THE FINAL STRETCH
During the last 6 months of 2006, progress on the Belmont Zone of Choice reform initiative accelerated dramatically, as several important pieces began to fall into place in rapid succession. On June 16, 2006, A. J. Duffy signed a preliminary letter in support of the Belmont Pilot School Network. Then, in early July 2006, Monica Garcia, Jose Huizars former chief of staff, assumed office as school board member for the area encompassing the Belmont Zone of Choice. She immediately moved to create the Belmont Pilot Schools Agreement and endorse the Belmont Zone of Choice. With the support of the school board, LAUSD and UTLA agreed in concept to develop the Belmont Pilot Schools Network on July 21, 2006. Romer and Duffy both signed the agreement, holding a press conference to announce their historic partnership. AALA president Mike OSullivan, school board president Marlene Canter, and BEC leaders Veronica Melvin and Angela Sanbrano also signed the letter in a formal show of support. Next, in August, BEC, Alonzo, Rodriguez, Civitas SOL, and the existing Belmont SLCs began working closely with UTLA to ensure understanding of the Pilot School Network and to secure final approval by the unions governing bodies. After 4 months of hard work, the Pilot School Agreement was approved overwhelmingly by UTLAs North Area, board of directors, and house of representatives. Finally, in December 2006, Alonzo, Rodriguez, and a few key leaders from BEC met with incoming superintendent David Brewer to discuss the Belmont Zone of Choice proposal. According to those present at this meeting, Superintendent Brewer quickly embraced the idea. As Alonzo recalled,
When Superintendent Brewer came in, he said, Where is there innovation in LA Unified? Where are there people who are thinking about how we do schools differently? And so thats when I presented him with the Belmont Zone of Choice proposal. And he read it, and he said, We need to do this. (personal communication, January 22, 2008)
Brewer immediately endorsed the Belmont Zone of Choice plan and formally committed to supporting it. Later that month, LAUSD and UTLA finally agreed to begin formal negotiations around the pilot school work agreement.
As 2007 began, all that remained was for the district and the two unions to finalize arrangements with respect to the election-to-work agreement. The contract negotiations involved key LAUSD and union leaders, as well as teacher representatives from Civitas SOL and Los Angeles School of the Arts, an existing Belmont High School SLC that was converting to pilot school status. One of the key stipulations on which UTLA insisted, and which ultimately became part of the agreement, was that teachers be granted the right to express their concerns about the elect-to-work agreement and, by a two thirds negative vote, send it back to the pilot schools governing board for revision. On January 25, 2007, the Belmont Pilot Schools Agreement was established as a memorandum of understanding between LAUSD, UTLA, and AALA. Exactly one month later, the school board ratified the agreement. On February 27, 2007, Local District 4 and BEC held a press conference at Belmont High School to announce final approval of the Belmont Zone of Choice initiative. What had begun as an innovative idea 6 years earlier was now official LAUSD policy.
DISCUSSION: THE PROMISE AND CHALLENGE OF ORGANIZING FOR SCHOOL REFORM
As a case of community organizing for school reform, the Belmont Zone of Choice illustrates both the promise and challenge inherent in current efforts to improve public schools. Although the history of this reform initiative highlights the promising strategy of building alliances for reform, it also underscores the sobering challenge presented by persistent political and economic asymmetries.
THE PROMISE: BUILDING STRATEGIC ALLIANCES
Education reform is typically the work of professionalsschool district officials, researchers, school administrators, teacher unions, and other reformers who come up with new ways to improve the system, raise the necessary funds, and change failing structures, policies, and practices. These reformers have power and privilege that typically go unchecked, and they often view school reform as their exclusive domain (Mediratta et al., 2009; Oakes & Rogers, 2006; Rogers & Terriquez, 2009; Warren, 2005). As Oakes and Rogers noted, one of the key challenges facing community organizations engaged in education reform is convincing schooling professionals and researchers to abandon their traditional relationships with community members (p. 177). Drawing on the work of John Dewey, they argued that educational reformers stand to benefit from building strategic alliances with community members based on the recognition of their common interests (Oakes & Rogers). It was such an alliance that ultimately enabled the successful implementation of the Belmont Zone of Choice.
The approval of the Belmont Zone of Choice was the result of a sustained collaborative effort among several key players. Although the idea originated with Richard Alonzo and took shape with the work of Edmundo Rodriguez and Cris Gutierrez, it evolved significantly over a period of 6 years, growing to encompass the collective vision of all those who worked to make it a reality. From its early incarnation as the Belmont Education Task Force to its current status as an influential educational reform coalition, BEC played an instrumental role in bringing the Belmont Zone of Choice from the idea stage to the implementation stage. As Dan French observed, I dont think we would have gotten to the [pilot school] agreement if we hadnt had the power of the Belmont Education Collaborative behind us (personal communication, November 19, 2007). Indeed, as a mobilized community force demanding reform from outside the district, BEC significantly strengthened the position of Alonzo and others to push for change from within the district. This is consistent with Mediratta and colleagues (2009) finding that the demands made by organizing groups provide essential political space for school system leaders to act for equity in their districts (p. 39). Without the support of BEC, Alonzos attempts to bring about significant reform in Local District 4 would most likely have been unsuccessful.
At the same time, the Belmont Zone of Choice did not come about solely as a result of BECs community organizing efforts. As we have described in detail earlier, some of the key educational reformers involved in initiating and sustaining the development of the Belmont Zone of Choice were district administrators working from within the LAUSD bureaucracy itself. Alonzo, Rodriguez, and their allies within LAUSD contributed their own expertise and influence in ways that complemented simultaneous efforts on the part of BEC. This nuanced picture of strategic collaboration contrasts sharply with most studies of small autonomous school reform, which, as Honig (2009) noted, tend to depict district-level administrators as impediments to change. The successful collaboration between BEC and Local District 4 administrators illustrates what Honig (2009) called the significant human dimensions of how central offices matter to various change initiatives (p. 390). While Romer initially obstructed this reform initiative, Alonzo, Rodriguez, and others inside the district allied themselves with BEC and worked actively toward its implementation.
Needless to say, the vision, persistence, and leadership of BEC, Alonzo, Rodriguez, and Gutierrez enabled this reform effort to continue despite significant obstacles. Were it not for the tremendous support of their local and national allies, however, these key players would most likely have struggled to move this initiative beyond the planning stage. CCE, CES, the Los Angeles Small Schools Center, and several university partners all contributed to this project in one form or another. This was a strategic alliance of unprecedented proportions in Los Angeles, with each player fulfilling an essential role in bringing this plan to fruition. What the history of this collaboration illustrates, above all else, is the crucial role that strategic alliances can play in achieving reform in large and complex urban districts.
THE CHALLENGE: POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC ASYMMETRIES
Despite the successful implementation of the Belmont Zone of Choice that resulted from the strategic alliance described earlier, persistent political and economic asymmetries raise serious questions about the sustainability of this reform initiative. As an initiative of a local districtnot the central LAUSD district officethe Belmont Zone of Choice lacked access to needed resources. For example, although LAUSDs central office had the political and financial wherewithal to implement various magnet, permit with transfer, and public school choice programs (through the use of their sophisticated e-Choices system), Local District 4 and its allies in BEC initially lacked the infrastructure and capacity to carry out basic logistical functions for the Belmont Zone of Choice. Without direct support from the district, they produced homespun choice brochures and organized their own choice fairs at schools and community-based organizations. As documented in a 2-year participatory action research project involving UCLA researchers and CARECEN youth organizers (UCLA/CARECEN Research Collaborative, 2009), these efforts evolved significantly from 2007 to 2009. For example, during the first choice cycle in 2007, a Local District 4 administrator directed the process with limited staff support. The first round of paper-based applications were processed manually, using a low-tech randomization strategy that involved sorting and resorting applications into school bins in the basement of a community-based organization. The subsequent choice cycle in 2008 used the same paper-based applications, but student assignments were not randomized. Instead, a Local District 4 staff person used the time stamp on the application to assign students to their highest choice possible on a first-come, first-served basis. Finally, in 2009, central office support was secured, and families applied and were assigned to their highest choice possible using a computer-based system. Although this system has provided much needed infrastructure, it could not be tapped into when an adjacent Zone of Choice was created in 2009. Intended to replicate the success of the Belmont Zone of Choice, this new Kennedy Zone of Choice was created with paper-based applications and insufficient personnel to process and assign students by choice. This example highlights the political asymmetries that exist within LAUSD between the central office on the one hand, and the local district and its community partners on the other.
Economic asymmetries have also impeded reform within the Belmont Zone of Choice. As is often the case, grassroots reforms depend on enormous local investments by passionate reformers, often without pay or support. Developing LAUSDs first network of small autonomous pilot schools was no exception. For example, the first pilot school, Civitas SOL, was started with funds from the Coalition of Essential Schools. Other pilot schools, however, lacked start-up resources, and the time needed to plan and develop small-school visions and instructional programs typically came from change-minded teachers and community members working nights and weekends. Moreover, fundraising efforts to support pilot school start-up were often met with skepticism. Prospective funders questioned whether a within-LAUSD, union-friendly reform could truly transform old patterns of educational inequality. Lewis Cohen commented on the serious implications of this lack of funding: Theres a significant barrier there. How are we going to get the resources to really build the capacity to do this right, so its not just reproducing the schools that LA Unified already has, only on a smaller dysfunctional scale? (personal communication, November 5, 2007). The current budget crisis within the district has done little to inspire hope that pilot and other small schools will get the funding they need to succeed. As the charter school movement in Los Angeles grows, supported by the citys wealthiest philanthropists, many questions remain regarding the financial sustainability of the Belmont Zone of Choice and the pilot school movement.
With limited financial support, the goal of providing better educational opportunities for all the students in the Belmont community has yet to be fully met. Indeed, even with increased support from LAUSD, there would be no guarantee of improved educational outcomes. This is true of both the SLCs and the pilot schools, which are arguably better positioned to improve outcomes given their autonomy. As Fullan and Watson (2000) suggested, whether increased autonomy can contribute to improved student achievement will depend on what local teachers do with that autonomy and what type of infrastructure is developed to support their efforts. If the goal is to provide these teachers with the support they need to make the most of pilot school autonomy, the Belmont Zone of Choice is not off to the most promising start.
The Belmont Zone of Choice is now in its fourth year. Although it is too early to measure the long-term success of this reform initiative, and despite the significant challenges noted earlier, there appear to be some promising initial signs. For example, attendance rates have improved dramatically in the Belmont area, while suspension rates have decreased. In addition, rather than cream the highest performing students in the community, as is often the practice at many charter schools, the two prototype pilot schools within the Belmont Zone of Choice are taking up the challenge of educating the students who have been underserved at Belmont High School. Entering freshmen at Los Angeles High School for the Arts and particularly at Civitas SOL had lower than average scores on both the math and English language arts sections of the California Standards Test. In addition to these indicators, many of the key players consider the opening of the two prototype pilot schools within the Zone of Choice, as well as the creation of the Zone of Choice itself, to be a major success. They point to the significance of providing the Belmont community with choice and relieving overcrowding after 30 years of neglect. Jeanne Fauci observed that the idea of offering choice to kids who were the lowest served is absolutely an incredible thing (personal communication, November 13, 2007). Veronica Melvin echoed these sentiments, adding that she feels optimistic about the potential to bring about significant improvement in student achievement.
Despite persistent concerns and challenges, the Belmont Zone of Choice offers important implications for broader reform in LAUSD and beyond. Rodriguez, for example, contended that the pilot school model could very well extend beyond the current proposed network, stating, Eventually, this will grow into the whole Zone and probably all of Local District 4 (personal communication, November 21, 2007). In fact, as Alonzo noted, other high schools throughout LAUSD have already expressed interest in creating pilot schools. In addition, as mentioned previously, the Robert F. Kennedy Zone of Choice, in an adjacent section of Local District 4, offered a portfolio of pilot school options for the 20102011 academic year. It seems, then, that the Belmont Zone of Choice is already serving as a model and a catalyst for change within the district. To be sure, this reform initiative also offers implications for education reform beyond LAUSD. Veronica Melvin echoed the sentiments of other key players when she suggested that the Belmont Zone of Choice, if done right, could potentially serve as a model for urban school districts throughout the state and the nation (personal communication, January 11, 2008). Indeed, there are important lessons to be learned here about the potential for community organizers and educators to collaborate and build strategic alliances on a large scale. Likewise, there are sobering implications with respect to the limitations of such collaborative efforts given the persistence of political and economic asymmetries in districts nationwide. What remains to be seen is whether this change from within LAUSD can actually impact district policies enough to both ensure its own sustainability and extend throughout the entire district.
In 2008, Lewis Cohen called the Belmont Zone of Choice the single most important development in school reform in the country right now (personal communication, December 5, 2008), adding that its final approval was an event of huge national significance. Although many of those involved with the Belmont Zone of Choice agree with Cohens assessment, Richard Alonzo is hesitant to overstate the significance of this reform effort. He suggested that the Belmont Zone of Choice was simply the right thing for the Belmont community:
Its the right work for us, and its work that has evolved over time, and its work that has been owned by a community of people. Whether its the most important thing going on around the country, I have no idea. I just know that its the most important thing for me. (personal communication, January 22, 2008)
In spite of Alonzos humility, what seems certain is that the Belmont Zone of Choice holds extremely important lessons for educational reformers nationwide. This reform effort provides an example of the kinds of obstacles facing reformers in large urban school districts, and it illustrates how educational reformers and community-based organizations can form strategic alliances to fight for meaningful change in underserved communities. Rather than provide a simplistic or idealistic depiction of collaboration, however, the history of the Belmont Zone of Choice illustrates the tensions and struggles that emerged as diverseand sometimes antagonisticsocial actors collaborated to bring about educational change at the local level. It also illustrates that strategic alliances are not necessarily sufficient to ensure successful reform implementation within contexts of political and economic asymmetry. As such, the history of the Belmont Zone of Choice highlights both the promise and challenge of community organizing for school reform.
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Sample Transcription Coding
Note: Definitions and examples of all codes are provided in the thesaurus below.
Interview Question: What challenges/obstacles, if any, have you encountered during the development of this reform initiative? How have you addressed these?
Respondent #1: Yes, there are severalthere have been several challenges. I think the primary challenge, if you go back several years ago, is just really getting the momentum and the commitment from the district to make it happen, rather than just like, Yes, yes, go talk to your local district, you know, just to appease us and to try to get us not to start a charter school. So that the genuine commitment from the district was a big challenge, and just breaking that kind of door down to allow them to work with us was an initial challenge. (CHAL) I think the second challenge that we had was as community members, informing ourselves of what quality education looks like, and thats an ongoing process. But when we started this, Maria Casillas probably knew, but I didnt know the stuff, (inaudible) didnt know the stuff, our parents and students. So we started off having tons of parent forums and inviting different speakers, and I remember when we were at CARECEN, and we had parents build what their ideal school would look like, like out of clay, and then students would write stories about it. So that was another challenge. (CHAL; CO) And just making, you know, are we doing the right thing for kids in terms of pursuing this or rocking this SLC thing and developing as our own choice, because you always want to do whats best for the kids, and since were not experts, you always question yourself, but it just required lots of research. Id say the biggest challenge was just persevering beyond Romers, really Romers negativity, because he just didnt want to have anything to do with it. (CHAL/ROMER) And then, more recently, challenges of implementation, just tons of challenges in implementation. (CHAL)
Interviewer: And anything that youd like to say about how you dealt with these challenges?
Respondent #1: I think its persistence (LONG) and resourcefulness, creativity, but I think that if any one of us tried to do it without the other, it wouldnt have worked. (COL) Like, partnerships were really key to all of this, because we wouldnt have been able to get the MOU if we hadnt had Linda Guthrie on board and the unions on board from the early days. (COL; KP) I think it was. . . Richard probably wouldnt have pushed things to the extent that he did, and wouldnt have been able to push this by himself with Romer if there wasnt community that was banging on Romers door and holding meetings with him. So I think that that shared commitment and the fact that we all used each other to push each others agendas was key and continues to be. (KP; COL)
Respondent #2: Superintendent Romer was the biggest obstacle in the effort, no question about it. (CHAL/ROMER) Consequently, when the superintendent is opposed to something, staff throughout the district is opposed to it too, because their aim is to please the superintendent. So during the time that he was against it, everyone was against this notion. So it was a very lonely path to push an initiative going upstream. And Richard took a lot of hits as a local district sup. And I took a lot of hits as his staff person. (CHAL/ROMER) When Romer left and Brewer came in we made it our business to meet with him. And the coalition of leaders met with him, he quickly embraced the idea and we started to move the whole thing forward. (PM/BREWER; KP) We tried to catch up with all the past 7 years, to try to move it as quickly as we knew how. (LONG)
Interviewer: He jumped on the idea, Brewer did?
Respondent #2: He did. He actually surprised us. Because I remember we met with him on a Wednesday about two oclock in the afternoon, with about seven or eight of us. And . . . and maybe around seven oclock, I get a call from Richard Alonzo. He says, Turn on the TV now, channel 58. Right. Turn it on. Heres Brewer. Well, part of my plan is to take pilot schools all over this district. He took what we had just said an hour before and created policy to tell . . . the entire district. So weve had support from him. And suddenly, all of Beaudrys in support of us. (PM/BREWER; KP)
Respondent #3: Well, you know, first was gaining the support of Roy Romer. (CHAL/ROMER) We dealt with that by bring him out here twice, and me going out there several times to meet with him and showing him the evidence, seeing actual schools. . . talked with multiple different people. (CO) Brewer was much easier. (KP; CONTRA)
Interviewer: Oh, really?
Respondent #3: Then there was Duffy and the same formula, although with him it was even a bit more complicated. (CHAL/DUFFY; KP)
Interviewer: Oh, really?
Respondent #3: Well, just because you had to get. . . one, you had to get the support of the regional board, then the executive board, and then finally the house of representatives, which meant presentations and getting lots of people to come out to those. It involved gaining the support of the majority of the faculty at Belmont High School, to the sign petition, and sending it to Duffy and showing that theres actually support in the high school that would be most impacted. And then he made a . . . well, he submitted legislation to the state. Well, he signed on to the mayors . . . Villaraigosas . . . legislation to take over the school board, the one that ultimately failed. He signed on to that for the union without vetting it with his membership. Yeah, the membership wasnt too pleased. The upshot for . . . the impact for us was it made him more nervous and cautious about taking a risky step of endorsing the pilot schools when he was on shaky terms with his membership. (CHAL/DUFFY) So it took a lot more cajoling and going through all those steps of petition-gathering, going to each of those bodies. There was a key dinner meeting we had between just him, me and a couple of key [BEC] heads of organizations. (CO; KP) So some behind-the-scenes meetings, et cetera. I know there was also at one point, when Romer was on board, where he had initially expressed opposition. So we turned our energies to organizing board support, to pressure Romer to express support. (CHAL/ROMER; CO; PP) And thats where one . . . I remember one board meeting where there was an outpouring of BEC members to pack the hearing around considering pilot schools and the Belmont Zone. (CO; PM) So for . . . getting those key parties to yes were probably the biggest obstacles. (CHAL; KP)
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