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Los Angeles Teacher's Transfer Is Protested

Ohanian Comment: According to the subhead to this article, Supporters say the popular union activist at Crenshaw High is being punished by the district for butting heads with the principal. But it's more than that. For starters, Caputo-Pearl is more than a "union activist." Alex Caputo-Pearl is the founder of CEJ, the Coalition for Educational Justice, and with this amazing grass roots group has worked to challenge the high stakes tests of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). And then, with less than two weeks before the beginning of the new school year at Crenshaw High School, LAUSD decided to forcibly transfer this elected Chapter Chair and respected teacher away from his chosen school and the school community he has worked in for the past five years.

The Keep Alex Caputo-Pearl at Crenshaw High School website is dedicated to the struggle to return Alex to Crenshaw and to support the High Needs Schools Campaign.

Visit the Coalition for Educational Justice website and you will see why the Standardistos are running scared. CEJ describes itself as

a multi-racial grassroots organization made up of over 350 active parents, students, and teachers fighting racist and class biased educational policies. CEJ has a vision to transform public education and to build an anti-racist social movement, embodied by our 10 Point Program (Go to the website for a description of the program in English and Spanish). As part of this larger vision, CEJ, now beginning its fifth year, has helped to lead a campaign against high-stakes standardized testing including the Stanford 9, the CAT6, and the California High School Exit Exam (aka CAHSEE).
Involuntary transfer is an effective strategy to make teachers toe the line. How many thousands of teachers are silenced when one outspoken activist is treated this way?

By Mitchell Landsberg

A year ago, Crenshaw High School had a new principal and a mandate to dig itself out of a hole so deep it had lost its accreditation.

Principal Charles Didinger, who arrived with a reputation as a problem solver who worked well with teachers, got the school in South Los Angeles back in good standing within six months, but at a price: Months of wrangling with the teachers union left him frustrated and exhausted and contributed to his decision to take early retirement this summer.

On Thursday, in what some saw as an act of revenge, the Los Angeles Unified School District began proceedings to transfer a teachers union activist at Crenshaw who was among those butting heads with Didinger.

Furious union leaders organized a demonstration outside the hearing and promised to throw the full weight of their organization behind the teacher, Alex Caputo-Pearl, the chapter chairman at Crenshaw for United Teachers Los Angeles.

"The district had better pay attention, because we are not going to let this happen," union President A.J. Duffy said in an interview Wednesday. "We are going to rock the very foundations of this district if that is what is necessary to make it clear that they cannot target our leadership."

Caputo-Pearl, 37, and two UTLA officials spent a bit less than half an hour meeting with district officials at offices across the street from Hamilton High School. They emerged to chants from about 150 parents and teachers, most wearing red union T-shirts: "Hey hey, ho ho, attacks on Alex have got to go!"

"Let's be very clear," UTLA Vice President Linda Guthrie told the demonstrators. "If we, UTLA, allow them to take one of our chapter chairs, they'll take all of our chapter chairs…. So the gauntlet has been thrown down today."

District officials said they couldn't comment on specifics of the case because it involved a personnel matter. But they made clear that they considered Caputo-Pearl to be a disruptive influence at Crenshaw who probably played a role in Didinger's decision to leave.

Supt. Roy Romer said the district needed to ensure that there was "an effective, cohesive unit" at Crenshaw that works. He said the transfer was not "retaliation against any cause or individual."

"Look," he said, "the Crenshaw High School issue is a matter of accreditation."

Although the school's accreditation was restored in February by the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, it was only for one year, which district officials say is tantamount to "probationary" status. It will be up for renewal next winter, and district officials hope to win at least a three-year accreditation. Full accreditation is for six years.

Caputo-Pearl and other teachers say the school lost accreditation only because district bureaucrats failed to send in a report on time. Didinger and top district officials countered that it was one of numerous reasons.

More substantively, they said, the school was cited for being insufficiently rigorous academically, having too many students out of class and improperly reporting the campus budget.

The clash at Crenshaw may be about accreditation, as Romer said, but it has many layers and touches some deep nerves in South Los Angeles.

There is the issue of race, which Caputo-Pearl tackled head-on Thursday, calling his transfer from the predominantly African American school "an attack on people of color." Although Caputo-Pearl is white, he was referring to the wider school community that he represents.

There is politics. The transfer comes as UTLA has sided with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his campaign to take partial control of the district. In return, the union would be given more of a voice in curriculum. Caputo-Pearl said he believes Romer is lashing out at him as payback before he leaves his job this fall.

"He, in his last couple of months, is trying to do some damage," Caputo-Pearl said in an interview before his hearing. Romer strongly denied that his anger at the union has anything to do with the teacher's case. But it is true that relations between the district and the union are strained.

Then there is this odd fact: Didinger, the outgoing Crenshaw principal, used to be Duffy's boss. Didinger was principal at Palms Middle School until last year; Duffy, now union chief, was a teacher.

"He was highly regarded as a principal who built collaboration," Duffy said. He added, however, that Palms — one of the highest-achieving middle schools in the city — "practically ran itself" and was a much easier place to administer than Crenshaw.

Caputo-Pearl said he "felt like the relationship we had was all right. Was it great? I didn't think it was great…. But I felt like it was respectful." He seemed surprised that Didinger would have seen him as a problem.

Didinger, 61, a lifelong swimmer and surfer, said he decided to retire in large part because he was told he needed surgery on an ear that had been damaged by frequent exposure to water. Still, he didn't deny that his problems with the faculty at Crenshaw played a role

"They did not trust anybody who was an administrator," he said. "You know, 'Give me this in writing,' or 'Give me that in writing.' I'd never dealt with this before. My word was always good enough…. It kind of wore me out."

In the end, the trouble that engulfed Didinger, and now Caputo-Pearl, may have its roots in misplaced expectations: a failure by each side to understand the history of the other.

Michael Kaplan, the union's chapter chairman at Palms, said of Didinger: "He's the best principal I've ever worked with." Teachers, he said, "just believe in him." But, he added, "At Palms, the administration and the teachers and the parents are all on the same page; we all want the same thing."

It was evident, he said, that at Crenshaw there was a history of mutual mistrust and acrimony.

Eunice Grigsby, a parent who helped start the Crenshaw Cougar Coalition, an organization of parents, teachers and students, said the school "had issues" with previous administrators who made oral promises they didn't keep. As a result, she said, it was natural that the union wanted things in writing.

Several teachers at Crenshaw gave Didinger high marks for improving academics at the school, and some described him as a collaborative principal who sought advice from his faculty.

And they praised Caputo-Pearl as a passionate, dedicated teacher who wanted only the best for his students and colleagues. He was so committed to Crenshaw, several noted, that he recently bought a house a short walk from the school.

"He made learning a fun thing for me," said Eric Redd, a 16-year-old student who spoke at the demonstration. "He's one of those great teachers."

Now, if the district has its way, he will teach at Emerson Middle School. Meanwhile, the new principal at Crenshaw will be Sheilah Sanders, who had been an assistant principal.

Union officials said district officials offered no evidence against Caputo-Pearl at the meeting Thursday but promised to send him a written form containing the reasons for his transfer. The union plans to continue fighting the transfer.

In a speech to supporters, Caputo-Pearl said: "I love Crenshaw. I want to be at Crenshaw. And at this minute, I am not at Crenshaw."

— Mitchell Landsberg
Los Angeles Times



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