Can LAUSD's plan to replicate a successful school in South LA work? Its teachers doubt it

Christopher Downing (center), the top official in L.A. Unified's Local District South speaks with staff members at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School following a public forum in the school's auditorium.
Christopher Downing (center), the top official in L.A. Unified's Local District South speaks with staff members at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School following a public forum in the school's auditorium.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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By many measures, King/Drew Medical Magnet High School in South Los Angeles is a school worth emulating.

King/Drew's graduation rate is almost 99 percent; its test scores are strong. Every year, the school sends around 260 students, many of them from South L.A. and Compton, to shadow doctors, nurses or scientists in hospitals and labs across the city.

But with 1,600 students enrolled, King/Drew has no more room. Its waitlist is 426 students long.

In April, L.A. Unified School District officials won a three-year, $750,000 grant from the non-profit education philanthropy Great Public Schools Now to help open a new medical magnet high school with room for 500 students that essentially replicates King/Drew — all just two miles away in Watts.

The theory behind Great Public Schools Now's grant — and behind L.A. Unified's strategy in applying for it — is simple: "do more of what works."

"Everyone agrees King-Drew is a program that can and should serve more students," said Myrna Castrejón, Great Public Schools Now's executive director.

"We feel this is a huge compliment to [King/Drew's] success and their history of excellence," said Christopher Downing, the superintendent of L.A. Unified's Local District South. "We have so many children that don't get in, so it only makes sense that when given this chance we would replicate the successful school."

But some King/Drew teachers have now said they don't feel honored; they feel slighted and used.

Downing and other higher-ups in L.A. Unified submitted the application for the grant, not King/Drew staff. Downing said school staff were consulted along the way; King/Drew teachers said their interactions with the district-level officials handling the grant were limited. The teachers said they're not certain how district officials could have gained an understanding of what, in the teachers' opinion, makes King/Drew successful.

In short, the most frustrated teachers feel L.A. Unified traded on King/Drew's name and reputation to secure the grant to "do more of works" without asking what's working.

"How do they propose replicating a school by looking from a distance and saying, 'Ah, there's something I would like to replicate,' and imagine that they'd know how to do it?" said another King/Drew teacher, Joel Freedman. "They don't come visit our classrooms, they don't come and talk to us— not that we wanted to, but they don't give us the professional dignity."

The process feels like “taking numbers, copying them down on paper and saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to recreate!’” said King/Drew teacher Rebecca Salen. “And in a way, that’s a little insulting to us that that’s all that it is.”

'If we didn't take the money, charters would have'

Great Public Schools Now's replication grant program for L.A. Unified campuses has been politically fraught from the start.

Leaders of L.A.'s politically powerful teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, think the grants are a publicity stunt by Great Public Schools Now and the well-heeled education-focused philanthropies backing it, like the Broad and Walton Family foundations. Union leaders suspect the grants are a token offering to the school district meant to mask these groups' true aims: aggressive expansion of charter schools.

Castrejón said union leaders are wrong. She said the grants to L.A. Unified fulfill a promise Great Public Schools Now leaders made upon the organization's founding in 2015: to award money to both district-run and charter programs. While Great Public Schools Now's critics often link the organization to a leaked draft of a Broad Foundation roadmap for doubling the size of L.A.'s charter school sector, Castrejón has insisted this is not her organization's strategy — not has it ever been.

The union has been persistent in its criticism. After Great Public Schools Now announced its grant program last fall, teachers union chapters on four L.A. Unified campuses voted on resolutions calling for the district to reject Great Public Schools Now funding. (One of those campuses that passed a resolution was Gompers Middle School, where district officials plan to locate the new medical magnet school.)

Yet even the charter-versus-union political dynamic highlights the stakes for L.A. Unified in turning Great Public Schools Now's replication seed money into a successful, new school.

L.A. Unified faces a decade-long trend of enrollment decline and stiff competition from charter schools, particularly in South L.A., where charters have made significant inroads. The district's superintendent, Michelle King, has identified expanding L.A. Unified's school choice offerings, such as magnet programs, as a key strategy to helping the district compete.

As Downing told attendees at a public forum in King/Drew's auditorium earlier this month, "If we didn’t take advantage of this funding, charters would have. They've said as much, as a matter of fact."

Added Downing: "This kind of confusion— who does this benefit?”

'This kid is serious'

Underneath the political dynamics and the union's questions about the funders' intent, some King/Drew Medical Magnet High School teachers harbor more fundamental doubts about the wisdom of the “do more of what works” approach.

There's little dispute, though, that something is "working" at King/Drew. Community activists pushed for the creation of the school three decades ago, hoping a medical magnet school more students of color on career paths into science or medicine.

The school's all-black medical scrubs are a visible manifestation of this mission. All-black, with the students' name and "King/Drew" stitched on them in gold thread, the scrubs are part of the uniform students in the school's "Medicine and Science Careers Program" are required to wear while working in one of a half-dozen hospitals or labs across L.A.

Junior Zion Walker said the program is a key part of King/Drew's reputation as a strong school in South L.A.

In his neighborhood, "people look at you differently," he said, "because sometimes you’re in your scrubs and they have a respect for you. They know this kid is serious, they’re going places and they’re trying to make it out of the neighborhood.”

Throughout the past year, Walker has spent one day each week shadowing doctors and nurses in the neurological intensive care unit at Ronald Reagan Medical Center. He said he has friends who attend other schools who are also interested in medical careers.

But "they don't have experience or anything and they don't know how to take the next step," Walker said. "This [program] actually helps me like take the next step."

"The careers program actually gives you experience and it shows you what it's like to kind of be in the medical atmosphere," said junior Suzzy Ndiforchu, who spent the year working in the GONDA Observation Unit at UCLA Medical Center. "King/Drew's definitely special."

Programs vs. people

In an interview, Downing said Great Public Schools Now's replication grant gives the district the chance to offer a similar career program to more students — including those who cannot get in to King/Drew for lack of space.

"The medical magnet is part of King/Drew’s strong instructional program," he said. "Given the annual waiting list, there is the capacity to have a second medical magnet in the area. Annually, there are families that aren't getting in and this replication will allow us to serve those students and families as well."

But the most frustrated King/Drew teachers have said they are concerned the "do more of what works" approach will focus on replicating course offerings and programs — like the careers program — and overlook the intangible elements that are key to the school's success.

Denise Espinoza, who has taught at King/Drew for 14 years, said a strong staff culture, in which teachers are afforded a great deal of professional autonomy and a high bar set for all students are the most critical to the school's success.

“But if the district isn’t going to create those environments, they just want to create labels and pretty programs," Espinoza said, "they’re going to continue to lose students, and they’re going to deserve to continue to lose students if that’s what they do.”

"It's not the the careers program," Espinoza said, that makes King/Drew successful. "It's the people who are working with the students. The fact that we will not be silenced … this is us sharing what has made us great."

(Castrejón said school culture and strong leadership are critical to Great Public Schools Now's vision of "doing more of what works."

"We’ve always encouraged the district to look at all the elements that are working inside a school that are making it successful," she said, "and either try to expand their enrollment on that site or to … try to do it again in a new site.")

Community activist and Parents of Watts founder
Community activist and Parents of Watts founder "Sweet Alice" Harris, 83, speaks during a public forum at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School near Watts.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

'God's gonna pay you'

Downing has publicly addressed several of the concerned teachers' fears. At the public forum this month in King/Drew's auditorium, which many skeptical teachers attended, Downing said King/Drew's name would not be attached to the new medical magnet school; teachers or administrators would not be forced to transfer there, either.

Downing also said he invited King/Drew staff to give input on the grant application, but that they declined — though at the forum, King/Drew staff disputed this. In response, Freedman shouted, "That was after the fact!"

Several parents and community members who attended left the forum torn.

"If I wouldn't have heard anything from anyone in this room and just you [Downing], I would think this was a golden opportunity," said Tia Delaney, parent of a King/Drew alum and a current student, during the meeting.

"I would think, 'Wow, everybody's crazy. There must be something wrong with the instructors,'" Delaney added. "But … I know that King/Drew is magnificent, so I know that the instructors here— what they're saying is that they have grave concerns."

But others suggested the concerned teachers are predicting failure before giving the district a chance to succeed.

The attendee at the meeting who made this point most forcefully was 83-year-old "Sweet Alice" Harris, a community activist and founder of the group Parents of Watts. She took the microphone at the forum and said she understood the teachers were arguing from a place of passion. 

"You teachers, y'all aren't only teaching," Harris said. "You're counseling them and making them know they're somebody. Don't worry about nothing else. It's all about the children and God's gonna pay you."

But, Harris argued, it's not up to King/Drew teachers to determine the success or failure of the new medical magnet school.

"You ain't gotta worry about those students over there," she said. "They are somebody's children … But we're here, to help with ours."

"Let it alone," Harris concluded, with mic-drop authority. "It ain't worth it."