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Can LAUSD learn from Long Beach in addressing teacher performance?

File: Jennifer Garcia, a substitute teacher for the Long Beach Unified School District, instructs a team of mock investigators at a science camp sponsored by Cal State University, Long Beach, in July 2013.
File: Jennifer Garcia, a substitute teacher for the Long Beach Unified School District, instructs a team of mock investigators at a science camp sponsored by Cal State University, Long Beach, in July 2013.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Officials with Long Beach Unified School District, Los Angeles County’s second largest, say their counterparts in L.A. could learn some important lessons from the way they run their schools.

Rather than a contentious relationship with teachers, as was the atmosphere under former LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, Long Beach takes a different approach. The district emphasizes collaboration and teacher training to develop better teachers, its supporters say.

Chris Steinhauser, who stepped in as Long Beach Unified superintendent  in 2002, sets the tone. Deasy supported the ruling in the Vergara vs. California lawsuit that would make it easier to fire ineffective teachers if it stands. Steinhauser doesn't agree with the decision. He believes that more spending on teacher training will produce better teachers.

That’s music to the ears of Chris Callopy, executive director of Long Beach Unified’s teachers union.

"Vergara, I think, blames teachers for the problems that are out of their control. Many teachers on a daily basis go into classrooms where children are hungry, where children do not have a safe place to live, and they are wearing the hat of social worker, nurse, police officer," Callopy said.

Gov. Jerry Brown, state schools superintendent Tom Torlakson and teacher unions all back an appeal of the Vergara ruling.

Lawyers for the student plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit say the decision should stand because it establishes the right of pupils to be taught by good teachers. Education reformers like Deasy and the influential groups who backed him argue teacher tenure protections hurt students by keeping ineffective teachers in the classrooms.

Deasy's adversarial approach differs from the stance taken in Long Beach. Parents and teachers who praise the Long Beach Unified School District say its run like a big small town and they credit Steinhauser.

"We have an open door policy," Steinhauser said. "Parents can see me, teachers can see me, any classified, anybody at any time, and we really do try to see ourselves as one huge family."

Steinhauser has been in the Long Beach Unified family for a long time: 12 years as superintendent, a principal and teacher before that, and a student in Long Beach schools even earlier.

It’s been a long time since LAUSD teachers loved their superintendent. Not so in Long Beach since Steinhauser took over as superintendent, says Mayor Robert Garcia.

"I think that he respects classroom teachers. I think the teachers know that. They’re not going to agree on every issue, but they come into their negotiations and their discussions with a certain level of respect," Garcia said.

It's hard to imagine Steinhauser firing a substitute teacher for poor preparation during a classroom visit, as Deasy did in his first year on the job. 

Maria Ott, USC school of education professor and former schools administrator, says the Long Beach focus on teacher development is a model for other districts to follow.

"That’s not to say that you ignore teachers who are not performing well, but that is a small percentage of a typical district’s teacher force," she said. "And so the main emphasis should be on building the talent of your teachers and supporting them and retaining them so you have a stable teaching force that continues to learn."

Ott suggests school districts use student test scores and teacher longevity to measure their success. By those standards, Long Beach's success is a mixed bag.

Long Beach Unified test scores over 10 years have improved on standardized tests, but they fell short of the state goal of 800 on the Academic Performance Index last year.

However, teachers tend to stay longer with Long Beach Unified than instructors in most other school districts, suggesting the district is doing something right to retain their experience.

Long Beach still has major challenges. There’s a significant gap between the performance of black and Latino students and their white and Asian counterparts.

Thirty-three percent of Hispanic students fail to graduate while about 20 percent of African American students fall short. Truancy is one reason, says City Councilman Al Austin.

"We have to always be mindful of truancy issues," Austin said. "Our dropout rate is lower than other school districts, but it’s still an issue that we need to pay close attention to."

Nonprofits and Long Beach elected officials know the school district needs help.

Christi Wilkins is the founder of the nonprofit Dramatic Results, which recently received a $2 million federal grant to help Long Beach Unified students learn math and arts. She says other school districts can take a page from Long Beach in promoting community ownership of their schools.

"They live here. They’re not commuting here from other bedroom communities. They’re really invested here, and I think that makes a huge difference," Wilkins said.

Long Beach Unified has won multiple recognitions for its achievements since Steinhauser’s been in charge of the district. It received $8 million from the Gates Foundation, was named the best urban school district by the Broad Foundation, and won recognition from the consulting group McKinsey & Company for its innovative work.

School board member John McGinnis believes that kind of improvement is next to impossible when the top leadership rotates every three years.

"Because most of us came out of education, we recognize there are no silver bullets. There are no magic solutions. It’s incremental. You try something, see if it works, you try something else," he said.

Deasy resigned last month after three contentious years on the job, succeeded by Ramon Cortines. Cortines has promised to adopt a more collaborative approach in his dealings as superintendent.