Surprise tribute to Cortines interrupts school board session

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 1.30.47 PM

Curtiss Middle School performs for Ray Cortines.

Outgoing LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines got a series of big surprises this afternoon with a long-planned tribute that included a group of students singing for him and old friends stopping by district headquarters to honor his legacy.

The school board auditorium was packed for the event, which Cortines knew nothing about. The seven school board members sat in the front row, interrupting a closed meeting in which they were discussing who is going to replace him.

The event was not publicized, and apart from the invitees, it might have only been discovered by someone inadvertently stumbling onto the district’s live-stream feed at 1:30. In thanking people, Cortines choked up.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 1.34.54 PMSteven McCarthy, the district’s K-12 arts coordinator, introduced about 40 singers from Curtiss Middle School, who were directed by Wendy Walsh, their new music teacher.

Jackie Padilla, an 8th grader from the school, thanked Cortines for bringing music back to her school and others, adding, “I am more confident and I am more courageous, and I have something to look forward each and every day at school.”

A pre-school class from the Clarity Schools performed, as did members of the Carlos Santana Arts Academy and the school named for the superintendent, the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.19.53 PMFormer school board member, now Los Angeles City Council member Nury Martinez presented a dedication from the city, and a video tribute from students, teachers, former colleagues and national figures was played for the crowd.

Cortines grew emotional in his remarks as he talked about how the school board and all his staff worked to improve the district. (The video will be available online at the LAUSD Daily.)

Cortines recalled his dream of becoming a teacher and said, “This may have been a difficult year, but we fixed so many things and we have miles to go, miles to go.”

It’s not the superintendent’s last day, but only the beginning of what promises to be a lengthy period of tributes and celebrations. He has said that next board meeting Dec. 8 will be his last in his official capacity.


Parent petition urging LAUSD board to ‘Save Our Summer!’

summer* UPDATED

As LA Unified studies several academic calendar options while also reaching out for public input, a group of parents has started an online petition, asking the district not to consider the “extreme” option of shortening summer break to five weeks while extending winter break to seven.

An advisory panel is currently studying six different academic calendars and is expected to recommend one to the LA Unified school board to use for the next three academic years. Some of the options have school starting in mid- or early-August, as it has the last few years, while one option has a post-Labor Day start, which the district had before 2012.

The option that prompted the online petition calls for school to begin in early August, include a five-week winter break and not conclude for summer until late June. The district could then potentially add a four-week winter credit recovery session to its schedule.

While the advisory panel has yet to offer any recommendations, Gerardo Loera, principal of Virgil Middle School and a member of the LAUSD Calendar Committee, wrote an article that highlighted many of the beneficial academic aspects of a shortened summer break. The district is also in the throes of a graduation crisis and is leaning heavily on credit recovery options, making the extended winter break a potentially enticing option for the school board.

Continue reading

New report: CA trans-K helps but still needs improvement


new report from the American Institutes of Research shows that young children have up to five months of learning advantage compared with children who don’t get an extra year of kindergarten.

But the report — Impact of California’s Transitional Kindergarten Program, 2013-14 — also points out that there’s a long way to go in funding the pre-school program evenly throughout the state, finding enough children to enroll and creating enough of a diverse curriculum for the young students.

TK is the first year of a two-year kindergarten program, giving children an additional year of early education.

“Children in transitional kindergarten are getting a significant boost in kindergarten readiness,” said Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California, an early education advocacy group. “Now with new clarity in law about funding for expanded TK, districts are encouraged to offer an additional option to young learners and their families to build a strong foundation for success in school.”

All LAUSD elementary schools now offer TK programs, but as the report points out, many of those classes are mixed with kindergartners because there aren’t enough pre-school-aged children to fill an entire class. The district currently has 117 schools providing TK classes for 4-year-olds, thanks to $14.3 million approved by the school board, with another 173 to follow in the 2016-2017 school year.

The report found that TK improved literacy skills and children who attended TK were significantly better able to identify letters and words in kindergarten than their peers who did not attend. TK also improved math knowledge and problem-solving skills
, such as counting objects, understanding measurement and completing word problems,

Further, being involved in TK helped children regulate their own behavior, remember rules and think flexibly, the report said. The state budget allowed school districts and charter schools to use state money to provide TK to children as soon as they turn 5.

The report also found that more than half of TK teachers said they received no professional development training specifically related to TK, and of the 42 hours of professional development, about 11 hours on average was spent on TK.

Click here to sign up for the LA School Report newsletter, and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


LAUSD launches new system for teachers to request tech help

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 10.25.05 AM

LA Unified teachers should have fewer problems getting their Fall term grades in and their report cards out before the winter break, thanks to a new computer help program launched yesterday. The new service request system has been years in the planning.

Teachers and staff can get technical help with computers, applications, internet and other technology issues at school. It prevents long waiting time over the phone, and it is this time of the year when teachers will be recording grades and when the most problems arise with the MiSiS system and other technological issues.

The school district’s Informational Technology Division posted a video, which provides instructions on how the new system will make it easier to get help.

The service center is in the first phase. The second phase will include questions about payroll, accounts payable, food services and also involve a mobile device. Sam Gilstrap, a district spokesman, said so far the new online help service has not received more calls than usual and that no problems with the system have been reported.

Ultimately, however, LAUSD has also added to its ever-perpetuating alphabet soup. In the new instructions, the new online IT is now referred to as SRS (Service Request System) and is powered by BMC Remedy On Demand that replaces CSS (Customer Self Service).


LA Unified board pledges the flag, then disappears to closed meeting

superintendent searchAfter a public session this morning in which most of the time (3 minutes) was consumed by the Pledge of Allegiance, the LA Unified school board disappeared into a closed meeting to discuss the next steps in the search for a new school superintendent, including who some of the candidates might be.

Joining the members was Hank Gmitro, president of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, who had been scheduled for a presentation in the open session. But it didn’t happen.

The closed discussion was expected to include questions board members would ask candidates and a review of which ones to interview. Shannon Haber, the district communications director, said the interview sessions are expected to be announced in advanced even though they won’t be open to the public, with the first of them scheduled as early as Dec. 6. The content of the interviews and the expected candidates will not be posted.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines said he wanted to retire by the end of this year but would remain in his position until the school board finds his replacement.

The private session was expected to go through late in the afternoon. In anticipation, the district cancelled two committee meetings today, Curriculum, Instruction and Educational Equity Committee and the Early Childhood Education and Parent Engagement.


LIVESTREAM coverage of today’s LA Unified school board meeting

livestreamGrafix250The LA Unified school board is holding a special meeting  at 9 a.m. today to fine-tune the one-page list of “Desired Characteristics” for the superintendent that they hope to hire by the end of the year.

The open session will have representatives of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates reviewing the Leadership Profile Report. Then, the board plans to head into a closed session to discuss the criteria further.

Click here for the live-stream coverage.

Compromise struck on No Child Left Behind rewrite

Washington Post logo

By Emma Brown

Federal lawmakers on Monday released the final text of a compromise bill to rewrite No Child Left Behind, including closely watched language outlining how the nation’s K-12 schools would be judged — and how struggling schools would be improved — if the legislation passes.

The bill, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, would largely shift authority from the federal government to states and districts, giving local officials far more power to define what it means for a school to be successful and to decide how and when to intervene in schools that persistently fail to live up to expectations.

It attempts to thread the needle between conservatives who want to shrink the federal government’s footprint in education and civil rights advocates who worry that some states, left to their own devices, will obfuscate or ignore the poor performance of schools serving low-income and minority students.

Click here for the full story.

Morning Read: CA helps lead nation away from testing focus

California leads drive to reverse focus on standardized tests
California is on course to have a major impact on reshaping the national discourse – and practice – on this issue.
EdSource, by Louis Freedberg

Who’s afraid of Campbell Brown?
Brown’s new endeavor is all about kickstarting her ambitious plans to reshape the education debate in America.
Weekly Standard, by Mark Hemingway

When a 4-day school week might cost more than it saves
All across the country, districts have tried cutting the fifth day to save money on things like gas for buses, heating and cooling bills, and school lunches.
NPR, by Alexandra Olgin

Molotov cocktails burn Monrovia High; potentially $1 million in damages
Officers arrested a 17-year-old Monrovia High School senior for allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails at the high school and setting it on fire early Monday morning.
Los Angeles Daily News, by Ruby Gonzales

Report: Underfunded school facilities in danger of disrepair
A UC Berkeley report finds California school facilities are underfunded, and that’s putting more stress on the budgets of districts serving low-income students.
Capital Public Radio, by Ben Bradford

A robot that allows girl with cancer to attend school
The school-based robot appears to be a first in Maryland public schools, according to state officials, and it has sparked other interest, too.
Washington Post, by Donna St. George

Zimmer makes plea for seniors to apply to state universities


LAUSD School Board President Steve Zimmer has sent out an email reminder that midnight tonight is the deadline for students to apply to the University of California and California State University systems.

“Tonight’s deadline is one of the most important demarcation points in our struggle,” noted Zimmer, whose personal newsletter reaches parents, teachers, counselors and students. He addressed each of those constituents in asking that they help seniors apply for in-state universities. He noted that LAUSD has an equity mission and asks, “How many of our students, 80% of whom live in poverty, will apply, matriculate, persist and graduate? Is our system truly preparing students for success in higher education?”

“Or said differently,” he adds, “is public education in Los Angeles disrupting cycles of poverty? Are our schools eradicating systemic racism and bias? Can public education still help dreams become reality?”

He acknowledged that not all the questions can be answered by midnight but that the schools should reaffirm the district’s mission: Every high school should be concerned about graduation, every third grade class should deal with a reading gap, and the efforts should start at kindergarten.

Zimmer also encouraged students who may get rejections. “To our seniors, especially those of you who are unsure, reluctant or afraid of rejection, I want you to know that your school district, and all of your teachers and counselors believe in you,” he wrote. “I want you to know that seat at the UC and the CSU is your seat. You have worked for it and you have earned it. You have the right to be there, you deserve to be there and Los Angeles (all of us) need you to be there.”

He thanked teachers who work on the applications as if they are their own son’s or daughter’s application, and he urged parents to support their children’s efforts.

And, to those who don’t have a senior applying this year, Zimmer said, “This equity mission is not just about our public schools, it is about our community, our city. For those of us who have grown up in privilege, entitled with the expectation and assumption we would go to college, I ask us to remember most of us are only one or two generations removed from the anxiety our seniors face tonight. Tonight’s seniors may have different names than our parents and grandparents, but their American Dream is the same dream.”


LASR poll results: Readers say stop Broad plan to help enrollment

OPINION.POLL_Most readers responding to the latest LA School Report poll said that stopping the Eli Broad-led plan to expand charter schools in LA Unified was the best way to halt declining district enrollment.

In light of an LA Unified report that projected huge budget shortfalls due in part to declining enrollment, the poll asked readers, what the best fix could be. Close to 29 percent said stopping the Broad plan was the biggest major change the district could make to help enrollment.

Twenty-one percent said subdividing the district into additional local areas while giving local superintendents more control was the best option, while 13 percent had a rather doom-and-gloom outlook and answered, “None of the above. The district’s financial problems are too complex for a silver bullet solution. I think we’re in trouble.”

Ten percent thought expanding the language immersion and magnet schools was the best answer and nine percent thought converting to an all-charter district would best help enrollment. Tied for last at 8 percent was cutting the district in half and getting back to the basics of improving graduation and and test scores.

Report: CA’s public universities turning away more applicants

access deniedCalifornia’s public colleges and universities are turning away a record number of applicants and raising admission standards due to insufficient state funding, a new report has concluded.

The report, “Access Denied: Rising Selectivity at California’s Public Universities,” which was produced by the Campaign for College Opportunity, comes just as LA Unified’s effort to get more of its graduates eligible for the UC system goes into effect with the class of 2016. This school year, all graduates must have taken and passed a series of classes required for acceptance into the UC system called A through G.

The new A through G standards require students to get at least a D grade in all the classes to graduate, even though a C grade in the classes is a minimum requirement for acceptance to the UC system. However, according to the report, a C grade isn’t going to cut it anymore, as the average grade point average of admitted students to six of the nine UC campuses in 2014 was over a 4.0.

The gap between the number of UC applicants and those admitted has more than doubled between 1996 and 2013, the report concluded.

“More Californians are prepared for college and want to go, yet our public universities cannot accommodate all of the eligible students and the state has failed to invest the resources necessary to expand college access to keep pace with demand,” the report states.
Continue reading

School board plans to hammer out more superintendent criteria

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.57.48 AMThe LA Unified school board is holding a special meeting tomorrow to fine-tune the one-page list of “Desired Characteristics” for the superintendent that they hope to hire by the end of the year.

The open session section is planned for 9 a.m. and will have representatives of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates reviewing the Leadership Profile Report. Then, the board plans to head into a closed session to discuss the criteria further.

Two committee meetings scheduled to follow have been cancelled.

Hank Gmitro, president of the search firm, said the Desired Characteristics is merely a guideline for the board members to refer to when interviewing candidates. It also could be a reference point for board members for questions that could be posed to the candidates.

Although it seems as if the school board is foot-dragging over the minutiae of the characteristics, the search firm is well into the recruitment phase of the search, taking applications and seeking potential candidates.

By now, however, according to the firm’s own timeline, the school board should be in the third phase of the process, interviewing the candidates for the first and second rounds of interviews. That’s supposed to happen “late November through mid-December.”

Although the school board has yet to finalize a list of characteristics, the search firm posted its latest version (Draft 3) of the Desired Characteristics on its website, where the firm is also taking applications.

Discussions about the criteria among the seven elected board members have included whether mentioning experience in an “urban environment” limits their choices, and if finding someone who has experience in a district of “similar complexity” is even possible because LA Unified is the second largest school district in the country.

Among the slight changes between the second and third drafts of the characteristics is the insertion of the the phrase “assisting the Board in eradicating bias and eliminating deficit thinking,” which board member  Mónica Garcia proposed.

Board President Steve Zimmer pointed out that the criteria doesn’t exclude any candidates and merely serves as a blueprint of wishes compiled by the students, parents, staff and community members gathered from the two weeks of interviews and focus groups.

Click here to sign up for the LA School Report newsletter, and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


LAUSD cops arresting fewer students with goal of ‘get the kids to school’


By Teresa Watanabe

Just before 8 a.m. at Peary Middle School in Gardena, a boy was refusing to leave his mother’s car. The school police officer on duty could have barked orders at him to get to class. He could have written him up for truancy. He could have forcibly moved him — as a South Carolina police officer did to a student last month, sparking a national uproar.

But Los Angeles Unified School Police Officer Henry Anderson did none of that. Instead, he tried to cajole the boy with friendly persuasion and ever-so-subtle appeals to guilt.

“What’s up, man?” the lean and lanky officer said, greeting the boy. “You’re all dressed up and ready to go. C’mon.”

Anderson told the boy that he’d be bored at home. He told him he would trouble his mother. He called in a school administrator to help. In the end, the mother decided to take her son home and try again later.

“Instead of sending kids to court on tickets, we’re using diversion programs to counsel them and talk about why they’re truant,” said Anderson, a 20-year school police veteran. “We try to work with parents. Our main goal is to get the kids to school.”

Click here for the full story.

Morning Read: Study calls for more school construction bonds

Study: State should increase, overhaul school construction bonds
“California must bolster – not recede from – its role in the state-local funding partnership for K-12 school facilities,” concluded the paper.
EdSource, by John Fensterwald

Rethinking ‘ultra-safe’ playgrounds
Playgrounds have drastically changed over the years. Most no longer offer the same sensory and motor challenges as the playgrounds of yesteryear.
Washington Post, by Angela Hanscom

Police: A daily part of school life
People nationwide were disturbed by a video that went viral of a police officer roughly handling a high school student who wouldn’t put away her cellphone in class.
Los Feliz Ledger, by Sheila Lane

Solving the teacher shortage by keeping graduates home
One rural district has engaged a new strategy to encourage its own graduates to become teachers and return to their hometown to live and work.
Cabinet Report, by Kimberly Beltran

School advocates look to extend tax hike on wealthy
A voter initiative aimed at extending temporary personal income tax hikes to fund schools was cleared for circulation last week.
Cabinet Report, by Kimberly Beltran

Same standards, different tests
Could you answer these Common Core test questions?
Hechinger Report, by Sarah Butrymowicz

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 one of the poorest ZIP codes in Memphis, or in Tennessee, but one of the poorest 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.

Continue reading

Zimmer, other LA Unified board members offer their thanks

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 8.37.41 AM

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.

Click here to sign up for the LA School Report newsletter, and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


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.

Continue reading

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