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New leader of GPS Now says only goal is creating ‘successful schools’

Michael Janofsky | January 15, 2016

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UTLA members protest Great Public Schools Now’s charter expansion plan

The new executive director of Great Public Schools Now says a hostile LA Unified board resolution, angry union leaders or public opinion will not threaten the group’s goal to create successful schools, whoever’s in charge of them.

If anything, said Myrna Castrejón, the widespread opposition to her organization, its plans and founder, Eli Broad, are providing her a megaphone to “change the conversation” about public education in Los Angeles.

“Business as usual is not an option for anybody, charter schools included,” she told LA School Report, referring to district efforts to address the needs of under-performing schools. “It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. We want to define success as students define success, through one successful school at a time.”

Castrejón, a former lobbyist for the California Charter Schools Association, comes to GPS Now at a time of heightened scrutiny, skepticism and outright animus from district officials and parents growing fearful of the financial impact of more charter schools in the district. They’re also not too crazy about any connection to Broad, a philanthropist who has investing heavily in education reform.

Officials of the teachers union, UTLA, have accused the group of attempting to “dismantle” public education in Los Angeles, and just this week, the school board went on record opposing the GPS Now plan, of which few details are actually known. Most criticism is directed toward an early draft, which said it wants to spend $490 million to open 260 new charter schools in the district. 

UTLA has been especially critical among the district’s labor partners, pointing to the number of jobs and programs that could be lost with every new independent charter within the district.

Castrejón said much of the early draft no longer reflects the organization’s goals, which, themselves, are a work in progress.

For one thing, she said, the group is not focusing solely on the creation of more charter schools, pointing out, “This is not a charter-only effort. We’re interested in replicating what works, replicating what’s successful in LAUSD.”

She also said one of her first priorities will be to meet with board members, the new superintendent, Michelle King, and the UTLA president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, to discuss ways the new group could be helpful to the district.

Shannon Haber, the district spokeswoman, said King “is open” to meeting with Castrejón.

“The opportunities to coalesce are there,” Castrejón said. “We are certainly planning to extend our goodwill to listen carefully and craft a path forward together. In the end, we’re all measured by our success, and if it’s a tough conversation, I’m fine with that, but I’m energized by the opportunity.”

In the weeks ahead, Castrejón said the focus of the group will be to create a board of a dozen or so beyond the current members — chairman Bill Siart and a seat reserved for a representative of the Broad Foundation — to finalize a mission statement and to start raising money.

As far as dealing with critics, the plan is to engage them as much as possible to the degree she can.

“I don’t worry about detractors or what people say can’t be done,” she said. “I’ve never organized my life that way, and this is no exception.”

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