Commentary: Reflections on my final day of covering LAUSD

Vanessa-RomoOn my last day with LA School Report I’d like to take a minute (or ten) to do some navel gazing — reflect on the things I’ve learned as an education reporter covering this behemoth school district, a job for the most part I have truly enjoyed.

First, the things I won’t be missing about the daily beat: Without a doubt, I will not miss the stuffy, windowless press room at LA Unified headquarters, a room outfitted with a television set made sometime in 1982 and only two electrical outlets. The fact that reporters celebrated when a district consultant (shout out to Sean Rossall) brought in a power strip gives you an idea of how bleak it is in there. Not to mention cockroaches so brazen that they actually crawled up a reporter’s leg. Not this one, thank goodness, although rumor has it a colleague has video of me screaming like a little girl as I squashed one under my shoe.

The endless board meetings that go deep, deep into the night will be also be easy to skip. Sometimes they went on because board members took turns pontificating on the fundamental human right of a good education. A worthwhile exercise, to be sure, but not always appropriate considering the day’s agenda. Other times the board was simply confused over process — is this a vote for the resolution or the amendment to the resolution? And if so, does it change the timing of the original resolution or can we come back to vote on the modified resolution next month? Tick-tock, tick-tock.

Meanwhile, I’d curse myself for not packing a Cliff bar. “Why don’t I just buy a box and put it in the trunk of my car?” I asked myself time and time again. I never remembered.

Finally, the rigmarole involved in getting access to the 24th floor of LA Unified headquarters. Are you on the list? Does so-and-so know you’re coming? What time is your appointment? Are you sure it’s today? What’s your credit score? Perhaps, I’m showing my own hand here, and maybe other reporters had an easier time of it, but I wish it wasn’t complicated to pop-in for quick conversations to catch up on ongoing stories or simply avoid a six-email-exchange on what turned out to be pretty straight forward set of questions.

Still, I will miss it.

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Whole Child ‘snapshot’ has good news, bad news for California

early childhoodA group that measures how states support students in such key areas as health, safe environments and academic success has released its annual Whole Child “snapshots,” and it has good news and bad news for California.

Each state gets its own snapshot from ASCD, formerly known as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, with a comparison to the national average on many key statistics.

For California, the snapshot found:

  • 23 percent of state students live in poverty; the national average is 22 percent.
  • 30 percent of the state’s students are obese; the national average is 31 percent.
  • 67 percent of the state’s children live in neighborhoods with sidewalks, a library, a recreation center and a park; the national average is 54 percent.
  • The state’s student-to-counselor ration is 826 to 1, which ranks 49th among the 50 states.
  • Only 27 percent of the state’s public school 4th grade students and 28 percent of 8th grade scored proficient or higher on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress; the national average for both is 34 percent.

“The Whole Child Snapshots are intended to highlight how well children are faring, both in and out of school, in each state,” David Griffith, ASCD director of public policy said in a news release. “The nation has mixed results, with some encouraging signs of progress alongside some persistent challenges. We want to work with educators and the public to put in the place the strategies to best meet the comprehensive needs of children.”


Parents of LAUSD children in accelerated programs asked to sign contract

AcceleratedMathAgreementIn the new school year, parents who have children in accelerated math programs at LA Unified will have to sign a “contract” acknowledging that their child must keep a B grade or better to stay in the class.

If the student doesn’t keep at least a B, there will be a parent-teacher meeting to form some plan of action. If at the end of the quarter there is no improvement, the student will be put in the regular Common Core class for that grade level.

The reason for accelerated math for some students is to prevent high achievers from being bored with the Common Core Math 6 in sixth grade that is sometimes repetitive or too rudimentary.

Accelerated math classes in middle and high schools do not skip standards but compress them into a faster learning tract, according to the memo. Three years of math, for example, will be combined into two, requiring that students learn at a faster pace.

The new requirement is included in a memo to teachers, obtained by LA School Report. It explains Common Core math standards and says, “Students who demonstrate advanced skills in mathematics may be eligible for placement into an Accelerated Mathematics Pathway beginning in grade 7, or into an Alternative Accelerated Mathematics Pathway beginning in grade 6.”

The 26-page memo also says, “Misplacement is common, with negative consequences for students when they are unable to keep pace with the incremental difficulty of mathematics content.”

The reason for the contract is to prevent parents with high-achieving students from forcing their children into classes they may not be prepared to handle. It is also to make parents aware that the Accelerated Mathematics Program is a special advanced program offered in middle school and high school that could jump a whole grade level ahead (or more) for students at the same age.

Some parents have become so upset with their children receiving C grades (or even consistent B grades) that they have taken their children out of the program, or even out of school, according to interviews with parents and teachers. Some parents also want their children to get consistent A grades in accelerated math programs to get recommendations into private high schools.

The memo was issued by Ruth Perez, Deputy Superintendent, Division of Instruction and Gerardo Loera, Chief Academy Officer. Teachers with questions were asked to contact Philip Ogbuehi or Laura Cervantes at the Mathematics Branch of the Office of Curriculum, Instruction and School Support.


Next up for LA Unified board: the search for a successor to Cortines

ramon cortines

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines gets emotional at the July 1 school board meeting.

With a recently balanced $7.8 budget in place, two new board members sworn in and Steve Zimmer elected as the new president, the LA Unified board is turning to the hiring of a superintendent to follow Ramon Cortines as, perhaps, its highest priority.

The pronouncement to start the search was among the first orders of business for Zimmer as he won a unanimous vote yesterday to succeed Richard Vladovic. But it opened the door to a host of questions about how he and the board plan to move forward.

Will the district go the traditional route and hire a headhunting firm? Will it be another behind closed doors decision, like drafting Cortines out of retirement after John Deasy stepped down, a deal that was made with zero public discussion?

Or the board look outside to find another big city superintendent, like Richard A. Carranza of San Francisco Unified? Or will it be an internal hire, elevating a senior district official, such as Ruth Perez, Superintendent of Instruction and Curriculum; Michelle King, Chief Deputy Superintendent, or Thelma Melendez, who was recently promoted as Chief Executive Officer of Educational Services by Cortines?

And for all the talk of transparency and community engagement, much of it by Zimmer and his new vice president, George McKenna, it is still unclear how the public is expected to participate. Nearly all the board members emphasized their desire to consider the views of parents, teachers and students, but they left those and other details of the search process to a future meeting.

Only two things are clear at this point: The first is that this board looooooves Cortines and members would most prefer a Cortines 2.0. During a round robin of compliments at yesterday’s meeting to pick a president, McKenna suggested cloning him.

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Note from the Editor: A day of change for LA School Report


Vanessa Romo

This is a bittersweet day for LA School Report.

After two years as our lead reporter, Vanessa Romo is leaving us to pursue a fellowship at Columbia University in New York.

She is among three journalists who were selected as the school’s Spencer Fellows in Education Reporting, for a program that provides participants the time and resources to investigate critical issues in education. Vanessa intends to examine new initiatives for Standard English Learners.

Vanessa came to us from KPCC, where she won a first place award from the Education Writers Association for a series of stories on the Los Angeles school district’s school discipline policies.

For LA School Report, she’s been at the forefront of reporting on all the major issues affecting LA Unified, including budgets, iPads, faulty computer systems, board politics, union issues, instructional changes, charter schools, elections and activities involving the superintendent.

More than that, she’s been a terrific colleague.

Only a seasoned reporter could fill her shoes, and we think we’ve found the right one in Mike Szymanski, whose years as a journalist include working for Studio City Patch, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Daily News, E! Online, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was the Movies Editor for

His freelance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including US Magazine, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly and New York Newsday.

Mike has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers, Valley Press Club, Lambda Literary Awards and Hearst Awards for Newswriting and Investigative Reporting. He also teaches journalism at UCLA Extension and guest lectures at local public and private schools in journalism and writing.

We at LA School Report wish Vanessa all the best as she embarks on this new chapter of her career, and we hope you’ll welcome Mike to our team.

Brutal attack brings focus on Chinese ‘parachute kids’


By Cindy Chang and Frank Shyong

It started as an ordinary spat among high school girls, sparked by an unpaid restaurant bill.

At an ice cream parlor in Rowland Heights, the dispute took a dark turn.

Three girls ganged up on Yiran “Camellia” Liu, forcing her to kneel and use her hands to wipe cigarette butts and ice cream smears off the floor, according to Liu’s court testimony.

More teenagers joined the fray. Liu testified that they took her to a nearby park, where they stripped her naked, kicked her with high-heeled shoes, slapped her hundreds of times and burned her nipples with cigarettes.

They cut off her hair and made her eat it, she testified. Someone snapped cellphone photos of her.

A girl named Helen said to the others, “Just slow it down and don’t hit her so hard, and we can do it a longer stretch of time,” Liu testified at a preliminary hearing.

The March 30 attack has prompted soul-searching not just in Rowland Heights but also in China — the victim and her alleged attackers were “parachute kids,” part of a new wave of Chinese youngsters who live in Southern California and attend local schools while their parents remain back home.

Click here for the full story.

Morning Read: High school exit exam may be exiting quickly

High school exit exam may be suspended immediately
The California High School Exit Exam may be suspended immediately, possibly letting off the hook thousands of seniors who need to pass it to graduate. Ed Source

Beverly Hills Unified will pay $685,000 to settle ex-principal’s suit
The settlement resolves a lawsuit by Carter Paysinger in which he alleged district officials routinely ignored his complaints of racial discrimination. Los Angeles Times

On first day as Boston schools chief, Chang hears student concerns
Chang previously oversaw more than 130 schools in Los Angeles as an instructional superintendent. Boston Globe

San Fernando Valley high school wins top honors for journalism
A small San Fernando Valley magnet’s publication was named the best student newspaper in Southern California. Los Angeles Daily News

Trustee of Inglewood Unified abruptly announces resignation
Brann, the third state-appointed trustee of Inglewood in three years, will remain at the district during the transition process. Daily Breeze

A call to revise how Chicago funds teacher pensions
Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday called for a broad rethinking of how teacher pensions in Illinois are funded. New York Times

Zimmer wins unanimous approval to serve as LAUSD board leader

The LAUSD school board gives Superintendent Ramon Cortines a standing ovation.

The LAUSD school board gives Superintendent Ramon Cortines a standing ovation.

One week after it appeared Richard Vladovic was destined to serve as president of the LA Unified board for a third consecutive term, the members unanimously today elected Steve Zimmer as its new leader, giving the district its most teacher union friendly president in more than a decade.

Zimmer, who began his career with the district as a teacher, has been serving as board vice president for the last two years. Even so, the ease with which he ascended to the throne was a bit surprising.

Just last week, board members Mónica Ratliff and Mónica García had suggested they might seek to waive newly-adopted term limits for the presidency to re-elect Vladovic for a third term, but neither followed through.

However, just before the members were about to entertain nominations for president, Ratliff pressed Zimmer to identify his own successor as vice president. Zimmer said he would appoint George McKenna, who had been sworn in earlier in the day for a new term, along with newly-elected Scott Schmerelson and Ref Rodgriguez and the reelected Vladovic.

McKenna gladly accepted the nomination after Zimmer was elected.

While all seven members were united in their votes for Zimmer, Ratliff was the only one to qualify hers as each member made a choice orally. “I would like nothing more than to vote for a ticket with McKenna on it,” she chirped before voting yes.

Not exactly a resounding vote of confidence for Zimmer.

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Vowing unity, new LA Unified board members sworn into office

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Two new LA Unified board members and two former board members took their oath of office today during a ceremony in which they vowed to bring unity and collaboration to the district and with each other.

For each member, it was the start of a five-and-a-half year term, following a change in the city’s voting schedule to get more people to the polls.

The other three board members _ new president Steve Zimmer, Mónica Ratliff and Mónica García — watched from the stage, along with lame-duck Superintendent Ramon Cortines, as newly-elected Ref Rodriguez and Scott Schmerelson, along with Richard Vladovic and George McKenna were given the oath of office.

In brief remarks after the oath, each member spoke with passion about  hoped-for unity on the new board and their dedication to serving. They also had kind words for Cortines.

Rodriguez, a charter school executive who won a contentious election campaign against Bennett Kayser, angering other board members, said he wanted to talk about the “U” in LAUSD.

“Unified means that we all are welcome, there’s a place for you in our district,” said Rodriguez, who also gave part of his speech in Spanish. “I want to make sure that we put love at the center of everything we do in this district.”

Rodriguez named each fellow board member by name and said, “I know that we will be unified in our quest to make Los Angeles excellent.” He even had a bro-hug for Zimmer, who had criticized him for the ugliness of his campaign.

McKenna, who ran unopposed after serving out the term of the late Marguerite LaMotte, said, “We must work together, but we don’t always have to agree.”

McKenna pointed out: “Our most important constituents didn’t vote for me because they aren’t old enough to vote, and they don’t know our names.”

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Lawsuit: LAUSD depriving high-needs students of $2 billion


A lawsuit filed today accuses the LA Unified school district of planning to deprive low-income, foster youth and English language learners of $2 billion in funds that should be directed to their education.

The lawsuit, filed by ACLU SoCal, Public Advocates and Covington & Burling LLP on behalf of Community Coalition South Los Angeles and LA Unified parent Reyna Frias, says the district is improperly calculating and distributing funds from the Local Control Funding Formula, a 2013 state law intended to direct extra money to high-need students.

While not cited in the lawsuit, it makes similar conclusions to a recent year-long study by UC Berkeley and Communities for Los Angeles Student Success (CLASS) coalition that found that the bulk of the district’s LCFF dollars “has seeped into the district’s base budget with… little apparent regard to the students who generate the new dollars.”

In a statement, the district said: “We are disappointed by the Public Advocates/American Civil Liberties Union’s decision today to file suit against the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“We believe that this group has misinterpreted the Local Control Funding Formula.  The Legislature clearly granted school districts – which serve  predominantly low-income students, foster youth and English language learners – the highest degree of flexibility in determining student program needs.”

According to the lawsuit, the district has already misdirected $400 million in 2014-15 and 2015-16 combined, and if not corrected, will amount to $2 billion in funds misdirected away from high needs students over the next 10 years. Continue reading

JUST IN: LA Unified board votes in Zimmer as new president

Steve ZimmerLA Unified board member Steve Zimmer was unanimously elected today to become the new board president, giving the board its strongest pro-teacher president in more than a decade. Zimmer, vice president for the last two years, succeeds Richard Vladovic, who served as president since 2013.

The vote played out without a motion from any other board member to suspend the two-year rule limiting the years of service as president. Mónica García and Mónica Ratliff had mentioned the possibility last week as a way to keep Vladovic in the chair another year.

Zimmer appointed George McKenna to serve as board vice president.


Commentary: Keep tests, add resource equity in new ed law

student computer testsBy Chris Hofmann

As a fourth grade teacher in East Los Angeles, I know firsthand that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and its Title I provisions aren’t just extra federal dollars. They are those extra “Weird School” books in my classroom library that got Ricky* excited to read. They are the laptops and mathematical programs that made borrowing make sense for Elizabeth*. They are the professional development opportunities that have shaped my practice as a teacher. 

And since the passage in 2002 of ESEA’s most recent reauthorization, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), they are the state tests and the accountability provisions that we use to evaluate and reflect upon Ricky’s, Elizabeth’s and all of my students’ academic success.

Now, 13 years after NCLB’S enactment and eight years after it was to be reauthorized, the Senate is finally debating an updated version of the law. This new version, called Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), offers us a singular opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of the last 13 years and make changes that will impact the next generation of students in Los Angeles.

As a teacher in a Los Angeles school where 96 percent of the students are Latino and 90 percent qualify for free and reduced meals, I know that there is one thing we need to fight to keep, and there is one thing we need to address if this law will live up to ESEA’s legacy as a seminal civil rights law.

First, we must fight to keep the annual tests. While there is still room for these tests to improve, they provide valuable information for schools, educators and ultimately students. This was definitely the case for Alex*, a bright-eyed 4th grader who started the year significantly behind his peers in reading. By the end of the year, Alex had made over two years’ worth of progress and caught up to his classmates.

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Fishburn parents and teachers succeed in ousting principal

FishburnSchoolRallyParents and teachers have succeeded in ousting a principal and assistant principal from Fishburn Avenue Elementary School in Maywood.

“We heard exciting news that the district is going to transfer both the principal and assistant principal,” said Alfonso Flores, an educational consultant and founder of Excellent Educational Solutions. “This is the best possible outcome and it shows what can happen when the teachers and community come together.”

The parents and teachers were among the first to unite to use a Parent Trigger campaign under the Parent Empowerment Act. If more than 50 percent of parents at a low-performing school sign a petition, the parents can then enact change, including removing its leadership or converting it to a charter.

Flores works with former California State Sen. Gloria Romero at the nonprofit California Center for Parent Empowerment. He said the threat of the Parent Trigger campaign caused LA Unified to act despite years of complaints. Romero helped the parents and teachers with their petition campaign.

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California Teacher of the Year says stress a top problem for kids

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By Sarah Tulley

When the nation’s top teachers were asked about the biggest barriers to students’ success, most didn’t point to reasons inside the classroom. Instead, they ranked family stress and poverty as the main issues facing students.

The Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc. sent surveys to the 56 winners of Teacher of the Year awards from all states and jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., and Guam. Of those, 46 winners from 2014-15 responded.

The top answer was “family stress” by 76 percent of respondents, followed by 63 percent stating poverty and 52 percent citing “learning and psychological problems.”

California’s Teacher of the Year, Maggie Mabery, works as a science teacher at Manhattan Beach Middle School in an affluent, beachside community in Los Angeles County, so poverty isn’t a core issue there.

Click here to read the full story.

Morning Read: Gov. Brown signs strict student vaccine law

California mandates vaccines for schoolchildren
California on Tuesday became the largest state in the country to require schoolchildren to receive vaccinations. New York Times

California’s new vaccine law: Questions and answers
Here are some questions and answers about the controversial vaccine law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed on Tuesday. San Jose Mercury News

Labor fears setback as Supreme Court hears case on union dues, fees
If Orange County teacher Rebecca Friedrichs wins her case against the California Teachers Assn., it could prompt an exodus of union members. Los Angeles Times

Tired of hearing about failing schools? Here are four that work.
Here are four new profiles of some of the winners in a pilot project called Schools of Opportunity. Washington Post

Even vocational high schools are pushing kids to go to college
A look at the growing pains for high schools offering career and technical training. Hechinger Report

A phys ed teacher battles tight budgets and childhood obesity
Mindy Przeor founded an after-school program in Mesa, Ariz., to get elementary school kids up and running. NPR

A day of pomp, circumstance and politics awaiting new LAUSD board

New LAUSD school board member Monica Ratliff is sworn into office by her mother Yolanda Asenjo Padilla Ratliff at Monday's school board meeting.   Photo by David Crane/Staff Photographer

LAUSD school board member Monica Ratliff is sworn into office by her mother in 2013

Get ready for some pomp, circumstance — and politics.

The first half of tomorrow’s LA Unified school board meeting, starting at 10 am, will be a swearing in ceremony for four newly elected board members by people or, in some cases, groups of people, of their choice.

Scott Schmerelson, Ref Rodriguez, George McKenna and Richard Vladovic — will be taking an oath, each committing the next five years to the district.

Voters recently approved a measure to align school board elections with other statewide races in order to boost voter turn out. That means the four board members will sit on the board until 2020.


The ceremony and brief reception afterward are taking place at the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center Gymnasium, just a few blocks from LA Unified headquarters.

Following the festivities, the full board will convene at 1 pm for the first meeting of the new fiscal year to elect a new president, a process that in recent years has not provoked much public debate but this year may prove to be different. A lot different.

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Councilman LaBonge honored with square at former high school


Councilman Tom LaBonge honored at his former high school

Outgoing Los Angeles City Council member Tom LaBonge now has a square named after him in front of the school he graduated from, John Marshall High School.

The plaque also names the other public schools that LaBonge attended locally, including Ivanhoe Elementary School in 1963 and Thomas Starr King Middle School in 1968.

The councilman, who is being termed out of office this year after serving from 2001, attended Marshall High in 1971. The school is at Tracy and St. George streets in Los Feliz.

When the high school’s Gothic style main building was slated for demolition after the Sylmar earthquake in 1971, LaBonge fought to save the structure.

LaBonge is also known for helping LA Unified fund and build the school’s new Mike Haynes Stadium and Hugh Boyd Field that are used for football games and track meets.

In-coming LAUSD board members getting their priorities in order

Scott Schmerelson LAUSD

Scott Schmerelson


Ref Rodriguez is in the market for new friends. Specifically, friends on the LA Unified school board, which he’ll officially join tomorrow for a five-year term ending in 2020.

“I know I need to build some relationships with certain communities that may not trust me because of the campaign,” he told LA School Report.

He and the other 2015 board election winners — Scott Schmerelson, George McKenna and Richard Vladovic — will be sworn in at a special ceremony tomorrow, prior to a board meeting to select a board president.

Rodriguez, who trounced Bennett Kayser in the District 5 race, has been accused of being behind one of the nastiest campaigns for a school board seat in LAUSD history. Neighborhoods across the city, from Highland Park down to South Gate, were papered with fliers accusing Kayser of racism and opposing good schools for Latino children. Others intentionally misrepresented Kayser’s voting record on the district’s iPad deal.

And while Rodriguez has always insisted that his team had no involvement with negative ads paid for by the California Charter Schools Association, he now concedes that it’s weighing heavily on his mind as he thinks about the year ahead.

“There is a lot of repair that I have to do and I plan to do that in my first year,” he said, adding that some of that work has already started. Rodriguez had lunch with Steve Zimmer last week, a small gesture that represents a willingness of both men to move past the election and things said over those heated months.

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