Commentary: Why are the billionaires missing in Soulsville?

The Soulsville neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn. has the unpleasant distinction of being the 12th most dangerous in the country. Local residents have a one-in-nine chance of becoming a crime victim there within a year. The Soulsville Charter School is located on College Street, and the joke is that the street name is as close as most of the locals will get to “College.” The ZIP code, 38106, is among the poorest in the nation.

“This is not just the poorest ZIP code in Memphis, or in Tennessee, but in the whole country,” says Calvin Stovall, the CEO of the Soulsvillle Foundation which runs the Stax Museum, the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School — all right next to each other near downtown Memphis. “I like to see us as a little flower blossoming amongst all the concrete.”

I recently visited Soulsville  as a member of the board of the non-profit California Institute of Contemporary Arts, which presented a grant to the Stax Music Academy this month to help it attract more students into its program.

For all the ravages of the charter wars in LA, where I cover LA Unified as a reporter, I was struck by the utter absence of such a struggle in Memphis, where public schools and charter schools co-exist but don’t try to steal students away from each other.

In a world where billionaires are throwing around money to help create education models in underprivileged neighborhoods, the 640 students at Soulsville Charter seem to be forgotten — or for some reason, ignored — by charter groups. The school has a proven track record of academic success, winning multiple awards in just four years of existence, named one of the best schools in the state, getting 100 percent college acceptance of graduates, and their 207 graduates have been offered more than $30 million in scholarships.

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Zimmer, other LA Unified board members offer their thanks

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Steve Zimmer joins a pre-Thanksgiving meal.

Several members of the LA Unified board are using their websites to reflect on what they’re thankful for with the long Thanksgiving weekend just ahead.

Board President Steve Zimmer focused on education in his newsletter.

He writes: “The recent attacks on liberty and peace in Paris, Mali, and across the Middle East shake our hearts and our spirit. Here at home, the violence that has afflicted South Los Angeles also gives us pause and reflect. We remember each young soul lost in the terror that has become so commonplace that it rarely makes the news. But every life is sacred and for the school children who awaken to yellow police tape and altars in the streets the toll is every bit as devastating.

“Even as we remember and as we reflect, we are grateful for the blessings of family, community and of mission. Our children’s dreams demand that we look all around us and recognize the many who support and elevate hope in these difficult times.”

He thanks teachers and the entire LA Unified family, with a special shoutout to the outgoing superintendent, saying his “return to LA Unified at 83 years young is one of the greatest acts of public service this generation has seen.”

Board member Mónica García collected Thanksgiving messages from others for her newsletter, including one from Cortines. “I’m thankful for all of the progress that we at LAUSD have made together over the past year. There is much to celebrate and much to get done,” Cortines said. She collected messages from three Local District superintendents, chief deputy superintendent Michelle King, principals, parents, teachers and even a school bus driver.”

She also includes a message from a district school bus driver Orlando Perez, who said, “As we come to the holidays we tend to realize how life can be so precious. At this time I start realizing on all the matters I should be thankful for, one of these is my family. I can always count on them. Secondly, my job, not only has it provided me with a stable life, it is now giving me the opportunity to get a greater education so I can promote, and last but not least my friends.”

Board member Richard Vladovic has a cartoon of a wise old owl offering a “Happy Thanksgiving” that vaguely resembles him on his Facebook page.


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Rising health benefits have major impact on LAUSD finances


As LA Unified deals with looming deficits that could reach $600 million, a recent independent Financial Report attributes a large share of it to the ever-increasing costs of health benefits for present and retired employees.

The district spends 14 percent of its budget on active and retired employee health benefits — which is more than it spends on instructional books and supplies. It is also more than the entire budget of existing classified employee salaries, which are jobs in the district that don’t require teaching credentials.

In a report for the Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee recently, the district’s Benefits Administration director, Janice Sawyer, said that the district offers a relatively generous health benefits package.

“We want to retain talent in the district; that’s why we have those health benefits,” said Sawyer. But, she notes that the population of retirees is growing, compared with the active employee base, and the district is not putting any money aside to pay for those promised benefits.

To fund retiree obligations, the district would have to sock away $868 million a year, Sawyer said.

Meanwhile, the district is making it tougher to be eligible for lifetime medical benefits. Anyone hired before 1984 needs to work only five years before retiring to get fully-paid individual and family medical benefits. Today, district employees have to work 25 consecutive years before retiring, and the age at retirement added to the number of service years must reach at least 85.

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Cellphones make a comeback in the classroom, with teachers’ support

Logo_LATimesBy Daniela Gerson

Priscilla Farinas, an English teacher at Social Justice Humanitas Academy in San Fernando, faced her 31 students recently and made an announcement that seemingly violates official Los Angeles Unified policy.

“This is the one and only time I will have you take out your cellphones,” she said, instructing the students to share their definitions of “privilege” via text message as part of a lesson on “The Great Gatsby.”

Students immediately grabbed their mobile devices. Their texts populated a screen in the front of the classroom. Every student appeared focused on their schoolwork.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, an official policy mandates confiscating phones used inappropriately in class; students can have their devices if they are off. But schools enforce that rule unevenly. Many teachers take alternative discipline approaches such as placing phones in paper bags on desks, turning a blind eye, and simply asking students to put them away.

Click here for the full story.

Morning Read: School district cafeterias phasing out sporks

The venerable spork’s days are numbered as school cafeterias move on
LA Unified is one of the six major school districts that’s doing away with the flimsy plastic fork-spoon combination after 30 years in school cafeterias.
The Washington Post, by Lyndsey Layton

Commentary: Career, tech education must be integrated with academics
The California superintendent of public instruction gave school districts until Nov. 30 to apply for grants to develop career technical education programs.
EdSource, by Gary Hoachlander and Christopher J. Steinhauser

Sex education lessons ignore gay, lesbian relationships, research says
Researchers said teachers almost always depicted young people as heterosexual – despite claiming their lessons were inclusive of sexual diversities.
Independent, by Richard Garner

School districts can reduce suspensions to increase achievement
California has been at the forefront of a national effort to reduce school suspensions and reform the school discipline process.
San Francisco Chronicle

Cuomo, in shift, is said to back reducing test scores’ role in teacher reviews
Facing a parents’ revolt against testing, New York state is poised to change course and reduce the role of test scores in evaluations.
The New York Times, by Kate Taylor

LA County supervisors ask governor to intercede in Porter Ranch gas leak
The governor is brought in over month-long stench that affects two LAUSD schools and the north San Fernando Valley neighborhood.
Los Angeles Daily News, by Sarah Favot

Petition wants LAUSD to rescind TFA special education contract

Teach for AmericaA group of anti-charter school activists is circulating an online petition that calls for LA Unified to rescind a contract with Teach for America (TFA) intended to fill 25 special education teaching positions.

The petition points out that the teachers from the organization will be trainees but does not acknowledge that the district is allowed by law to hire a small number of special education teachers that are not fully credentialed.

Under the strict guidelines of the Modified Consent Decree (MCD), which oversees the district’s adherence to special education laws, 88 percent of LA Unified’s special education teachers must be credentialed. According to the recent independent monitor’s report, which oversees the MCD, 89.7 percent of the district’s teachers were credentialed as of Oct 15.

The online petition essentially calls on the district to go above and beyond what the MCD calls for and have 100 percent of its special education teachers credentialed. The petition says, “LAUSD senior staff needs to go back to the drawing board to create partnerships with reputable teaching programs to recruit teachers who will be qualified on Day 1 and are likely to remain committed to the teaching profession.”

The petition’s authors include a number of outspoken and well-known critics of charter schools, including Cynthia Liu of the K-12 News Network and Anthony Cody, a co-founder and board member of the Network for Public Education.

The petition points to the high level of Teach For America teachers who do not remain in the profession and the fact that the Broad Foundation, which is at the forefront of a new effort to expand charter schools in the district, has funded TFA. Several LA Unified school board members have voiced opposition to the charter expansion plan, and the board will be considering a resolution at its December meeting to condemn it.

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District makes last push for staff, family input on school calendar


LAUSD is making another strong push for input from families and employees to see what the school schedule should be for the next three years.

And, the district is providing lots of back-up materials to help inform choices, including a comparison of student test scores in traditional school years versus early school calendars, electricity consumption costs for the summer and comparisons to calendars at nearby school districts and colleges.

At issue is whether school should start after Labor Day (a more traditional calendar) or earlier in August, whether elementary and high schools should have different schedules and whether the semesters should be broken up by the winter break. Parents are also asked if they care how long the winter break should be, two weeks or three.

The school board is planning to adopt a final calendar in January, based on recommendations from the superintendent and feedback from the community.

Online surveys are now available through Dec. 6 for parents and guardians as well as for school employees to help hammer out the calendar through 2019. The surveys are also available in Spanish.

“We are always looking for better ways to foster communication between the district and parents, or schools and parents, which is one of our top goals,” said Daryl Strickland, an district spokesman.  “We will look at the results from this effort and others to determine what parents find useful for creating dialogue.”

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LA Unified monitoring gas leak near northern SF Valley schools


LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines said late yesterday the district’s facilities staff plans to monitor methane gas levels near two schools in northern San Fernando Valley.

Cortines said he will post the results of the air quality report right away on the LAUSD website.

Concerns about a smell in the Porter Ranch neighborhood led to a protest that demanded the Southern California Gas Company close an Aliso Canyon storage facility that is leaking methane gas. The leak reportedly accounts for one-fourth of all the methane emissions in California, an amount equal to emissions from 160,000 cars a year.

Some residents in the area have complained about nausea and headaches due to the smells, and some have moved away temporarily. The Los Angeles County Health Department issued a statement saying, “These exposures do not constitute an immediate danger to life, and permanent or long term health effects are not expected. Daily, short-term symptoms are expected to continue, as long as the odors remain.”

The schools are closed this entire week for Thanksgiving holidays, and children will not be allowed to play outside when school resumes next week until the LAUSD investigation is completed, Cortines said.

“We are closely monitoring the natural gas leak in the Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon Storage Field to ensure that our students and employees in the Porter Ranch area are safe,” he said in a release. He cited links to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and its report that the methane gas poses little direct health risk. Methane is odorless, and the smell is caused by a non-toxic additive to help identify a leak.

The schools in the area, Castlebay Lane Charter and Porter Ranch Community schools, will have monitoring started on Nov. 30, Cortines said. He said at this time, the schools will remain open as long as the school can “continue to maintain an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning while the gas leak is repaired.”

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LA Unified losing $100s of millions in mandates unpaid by state, U.S.

Vladovic LA Unified

School board member Richard Vladovic

A major contributor to LA Unified’s pending fiscal crisis is unfunded federal and state mandates that have deprived the district of hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.

The exact number is difficult to calculate because the total not only reflects the amount the district seeks in reimbursement but what percentage the governments return to the district. In some cases, it’s little more than 20 cents on the dollar.

“It’s all very, very complicated,” said school board member Richard Vladovic, who brought the issue to light last week during a budget committee meeting. “The state controls everything; they impose the mandate and we have the responsibility to fulfill them. And the federal government does the same thing.”

The reluctance of the state and federal governments to send dollars into the district and the ever-falling reimbursements rates is nothing new for LA Unified.

But the need for those missing dollars has become more urgent with budget deficits projected within a few years as the number of enrolled students declines and district expenses rise.

A recent report from an independent panel brought in by Superintendent Ramon Cortines warned the school board that under current trends, the district faces a deficit of $333 million in 2017-2018, $450 million in 2018-2019 and $600 million by 2019-2020. And those numbers would erode the district’s credit worthiness, driving the deficits up even higher.

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LA Unified high school puts a focus on computer science and gaming


Jackie Parades, standing center, teaches game design

At a high school called the Critical Design and Gaming School, you’d think every student had a device on and was playing a game all the time. Not so.

In fact, during one recent morning lesson, students opened up boxes of traditional board games to play with each other.

“They find out pretty quickly it’s not about playing games the whole time,” said computer science teacher Nancy Se. But, the students do learn computer coding, build websites and design games on programs that have created their favorite apps and launched games like Assassin’s Creed. “I teach them that computer science equals wealth equals power, and that is what could happen if you become one of the producers making games.”

It’s no secret that computer gaming is a major segment of of the entertainment industry. It’s also no secret that the gaming field is dominated by white and Asian males.

That’s why, if the black and Latino population of south LA can be introduced to the world of computer design and gaming, then principal Andre Hargunani would have accomplished a major goal. Hargunani came out of school with a computer engineering degree, and he programmed games himself. He could pick any job because there was such a high demand. He chose academia.

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Duncan discusses his successes and setbacks as education secretary


By Matt Murray

Arne Duncan has been pushing the cause of education all his career. And as he prepares to step down as education secretary after seven years, he is asking CEOs to join him in the fight.

In today’s global marketplace, it’s critical for the U.S. to develop in young people the skills that will keep America competitive. But across the nation, says Mr. Duncan, businesses continue having trouble finding enough college graduates with those skills.

Mr. Duncan, in discussing the successes and setbacks of his tenure, asked CEOs for help to improve education from top to bottom, and discussed other challenges in an interview with Wall Street Journal Deputy Editor in Chief Matt Murray.

Click here for the full story.

Morning Read: LAUSD announces new arts education funds

New flow of money for arts education heads to LAUSD schools
The Los Angeles Unified School District announced Monday that schools received more than a million dollars in new funding for arts education from the state.
KPCC, by Priska Neely

There’s more to a ‘growth mindset’ than assuming you have it
Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck coined the phrase “growth mindset.” Now she’s worried about its misapplication.
EdSource, by John Fensterwald

Former LAUSD teacher to stand trial for alleged sexual contact with boys
Michelle Yeh could face up to nine years in prison if convicted of four counts of statutory rape, four counts of lewd act on a child and other charges.
Los Angeles Daily News, by Larry Altman

Report: US falls behind other nations in the global knowledge economy
Fewer Americans are going to preschool and college compared to other nations.
Hechinger Report, by Jill Barshay

Goodbye, No Child Left Behind
After a long stalemate, a bipartisan team of congressional negotiators has agreed to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
NPR, by Claudio Sanchez

Combating a new surge of teen overdose and drug abuse
More focus on prevention and early intervention is needed to curb soaring drug-related deaths among teens and young adults, according to a new study.
Cabinet Report, by Alisha Kirby

Poll: What’s the best way for LAUSD to stop declining enrollment?

OPINION.POLL_An independent Financial Review Panel recently dropped some sobering news: LAUSD is headed toward a financial cliff and, without changes in operation, faces a $600 million budget shortfall by 2019.

The reasons for the dark financial clouds ahead are varied, but one often cited is declining enrollment. The district has lost 100,000 students in recent years due to such factors as a declining birth rate in the county and a rise in charter schools.

So . . . If you could make one major change in LA Unified to reverse years of enrollment decline and start attracting more parents and students to the district, which would it be?

Tell us in our poll, which will remain open though the Thanksgiving weekend.

LAUSD scores low in ranking based partly on parent, student feedback

studentsNiche, a company that researches and compiles information on schools, has released its 2016 rankings of the Best Public High Schools in the country, a list that includes charters and magnet schools.

Despite looking at more than 100,000 schools and ranking them in areas like academics, teachers, student culture, diversity, resources and facilities, not a single school from LA Unified, the second largest district in the nation, cracked the top 25. Nor did any school from California.

What makes the methodology of the rankings so unusual is that Niche also considers parent and student opinions in online reviews. So the list doesn’t necessarily mean California’s schools aren’t performing well, but it does indicate that Californians aren’t very happy with their schools.

“We believe that the quality of a school or district should be measured, at least in part, by the parents and students who actually go there,” Niche stated while explaining the methodology of the list.

Perhaps that California’s per-pupil spending is ranked 42nd in the nation or that its student-to-teacher ratio is dead last or that two-thirds of its students cannot meet basic standards in math accounts for why Californians are down on their schools.

Coming in at No. 26 on the list is LA Unified’s very own Granada Hills Charter High School. A handful of other California schools are in the top 100, but no others from LA Unified.

The company also released a list of Best School Districts, and making the top 100 from California was San Marino Unified, Palo Alto UnifiedPalos Verdes Peninsula UnifiedAcalanes Union High School DistrictPiedmont City Unified and Carmel Unified.

There are some other interesting lists also worth checking out, like Best TeachersBest Places to TeachCollege ReadinessMost Diverse and Safest School Districts.


Commentary: For LAUSD, maybe it’s not the time to hire an outsider

superintendent search LAUSDIt’s getting down to crunch time: Thanksgiving . . . Christmas . . . Last day on the job for LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

By next week, names for his replacement will begin to flow with a list of candidates that could include such well-regarded figures from across the county as Rudy Crew, a former Chancellor of New York City schools; Alberto M. Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools;  Valeria Silva, superintendent of St. Paul’s public schools; and Richard Carranza, superintendent of schools in San Francisco.

No doubt all of them have fine resumes.

But in thinking about what awaits the next occupant of Cortines’s 24th floor office, one might wonder if an outsider with little knowledge of the district would necessarily make the best choice for LA Unified, given the issues at hand. Never mind the larger question, why would anyone even want the job. Consider the current state of affairs:

  • An independent financial review panel just reported that the district is facing deficits that could reach $600 million within four years.
  • The district is hemorrhaging students, nearly three percent a year, costing hundreds of thousands in lost state and federal revenues.
  • Pressure is mounting on the district to reduce health care benefits and increase employee pension contribution, already triggering union opposition.
  • Academic performance across the district was abysmal, judging by the most recent statewide tests.
  • The charter war within the district is intensifying, with a plan by outsiders to create hundreds more charter schools to serve as many as half the district enrollment.
  • The seven members of the elected school board, who serve as the superintendent’s bosses, are hard-pressed to agree on what day it is, let alone on how to solve intractable problems.

No doubt, the winning candidate would convince all or most of the board members that the challenges are not insurmountable. Pay and benefits are not likely to be issues. The winner can expect a deal worth upwards of $300,000 a year with lots of perqs.

But here’s the thing. The learning curve to run a district of this size and complexity is long and steep even in normal times, with uncountable numbers of students, teachers, assistants, deputies, administrators, schools, labor leaders, political operatives, state officials —  and issues: Difficult, politically-charged, financially-challenged, board-polarizing issues.

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Shift in practices driving down suspension rates in California

Edsource logo

By Jane Meredith Adams

School suspension rates have fallen in California for students of every ethnicity in the last three years, a sign that a shift in discipline practices in many school districts is starting to have an effect, according to a study released Monday by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project.

The study includes a spreadsheet of the number of suspensions by ethnicity in 901 California school districts.

At the same time, lower rates of suspension were correlated with higher academic achievement for every racial group in the state, the study found. For African-American students, the correlation was the strongest. While some parents and educators expressed concern that suspending fewer students would lead to chaos and lower academic scores, the study found evidence of the opposite.

Click here for the full story.

Morning Read: Racism lawsuit against LAUSD teacher dropped

Suit accusing popular LAUSD teacher of racism dropped
A student had sued her teacher, alleging he made racially charged remarks during a history lesson on civil rights.
City News Service

Commentary: L.A. new front in education war
A big and perhaps decisive charter school battle is brewing in the state’s largest – and in many ways, most troubled – school district, Los Angeles Unified.
Fresno Bee, by Dan Walters

How turning math into a maker workshop can bring calculations to life
By the end of the school year, all of Elizabeth Little’s her math students, not just those needing extra support, were clamoring for more math.
KQED, by Linda Flanagan

Urban charter schools often succeed. Suburban ones often don’t.
Not all charter schools are outstanding: In the suburbs, for example, the evidence is that they do no better than traditional public schools.
New York Times, by Susan Dynarski

The fight over K-12 education appears headed back to the states
Congress is poised to pass a law that would shift power over K-12 public school policy from the federal government back to the states.
Washington Post, by Lyndsey Layton

Massachusetts’s rejection of Common Core test signals shift in U.S.
Across the country, what was once bipartisan consensus around national standards has collapsed into acrimony about the Common Core.
New York Times, by Kate Zernike

LA Unified in final preparations for approaching El Niño

ElNinoSchoolFloodAnd now for the weather forecast:

More than $17 million in roof repairs still need to be completed at LAUSD schools before El Niño arrives in January.

The district also needs to replace aging equipment at the Emergency Operations Center at a cost of $225,000 a year, and it will cost about $5 per student to keep emergency supplies in good condition each year—that’s another $3.5 million.

A simple one-time spend of $56,000 could get a weather alert radio for every school.

Those wether-related needs all came from the district’s Emergency Services and Facilities Services divisions in a presentation this week to the Successful School Climate Committee. Officials said they expect the second worst storm system to hit the area since they tracked El Niño storms.

Deputy superintendent Michelle King introduced the report to the committee as a “timely presentation about El Niño, what it is, and why we should be worried.” After hearing some of the plans and what needed to be done, she suggested that one of the top priorities would be to get the weather alert radios in every school.

Jill Barnes, of LA Unified’s school operations emergency services, said, “It’s hard to imagine in a few months we will be in large deluge of rain. We know that it’s on track to be second largest since recording them in 1950.”

The district has already identified schools that may encounter problems because they are near potential landslide areas or in areas that flood easily. Plans are underway to move some schools to different locations in severe weather.

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Report: With cost of living, CA ranks 42nd in per-pupil spending

California Budget & Policy CenterA new report from the California Budget & Policy Center found that when adjustments are made for cost of living, California ranked 42nd in the nation in per-pupil spending for the 2014-15 school year. The low ranking comes even after a surge in education spending in the state has brought billions more into the K-12 budget.

Without the cost of living adjustment, California ranked 29th in spending, at $10,139 per K-12 student, $1,900 less than the $12,040 national average.

The report found little for the state to celebrate, with California ranked:

  • 36th among all states in K-12 spending as a share of the state economy in 2014-15.
  • Last in the nation in the number of K-12 students per teacher in 2014-15. California’s student-to-teacher ratio was greater than 22-to-1, more than 40 percent higher than the national ratio of 15.5 students per teacher.
  • Last or close to last in the number of students per staff. California’s student-to-librarian ratio was more than 7,500-to-1 (ranking 51st), its student-to-guidance-counselor ratio was 785-to-1 (51st), and its student-to-administrator ratio was 312-to-1 (47th) in 2011-12, the most recent year for which data are available.

The report also noted that since California has the most students in the nation who are English learners and a high level of students from low-income families, and research shows that educating English learners and students from low-income families requires even greater investment.

“California should be spending more per student than other states to allow all of its students to reach state and national academic standards,” the report said.

The report also rings the alarm bell about Prop 30, a tax increase approved by voters that is responsible for the big increase in education spending.

The increases will decline after the 2015-16 school year, with the report pointing out, “This means that unless California voters extend Proposition 30’s tax increases or approve an alternative tax measure, the state’s schools will most likely receive relatively fewer dollars in the years ahead, raising the prospect that California’s school spending would fall even further behind the nation.”

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