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The Hot Seat 

Ramon Cortines has Promised to Reinvent the City's Schools. But Can He Deliver?

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WEEKLY: And where do you come down in the debate?

CORTINES: Let me compare it to reading. I don't think you can enjoy literature if you don't have some basic skills first, if you don't know how to sound out words. It is ã no different with math. I think that you have to master certain math facts. But just rote memorization of facts doesn't help you solve problems, engage in scientific discovery, do collaborative kinds of projects. I want kids to learn the basics so that they can solve problems, so that they can be employable in any kind of job. And that's the kind of program we'll be rolling out. We've been a little too tolerant, I think, having these math meetings and all of these discussions. I can find good in all of it. I say, let's get on with a math program that teaches our kids mathematics.

WEEKLY: Other priorities?

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CORTINES: Another important thing relative to learning is the whole issue of environment. Is the school clean? Are the restrooms working? Do the teachers feel good about coming to work in the environment? Yesterday, I visited the 93rd Street School. This is a South-Central school, and let me tell you, it's probably one of the cleanest, neatest schools that I've seen in this system. And when I talked to the people, they said, "We believe that we have to create a better environment for children if we expect learning to happen." They had to make a conscious decision. So when I talk about what the priority is, the priority is academic achievement, but there are some other things that are extremely important to support academic achievement.

WEEKLY: In the recent state ratings, where schools were rated from 1 to 10 based on such things as test scores and teaching staff, a lot of L.A. schools didn't fare so well. Why?

CORTINES: Part of the reason is that we really don't believe most of our kids can learn. Because they come from poverty, we don't set high expectations, we don't set standards. And it's not just standards for instruction, it's standards for behavior. It's standards for teachers. It's standards for administrators. It's standards for parents. We put it all on the kids. The problem of learning in L.A. is not about children. It is about adults not seeing that learn- ing happens.

When systems find themselves with the kind of problems this system has, they do whatever is expedient, and politically correct, for the moment. That's not how learning happens. Learning is a sequential process, and it doesn't happen overnight. Merely caring about kids and having good intentions are not the answer. If I've got cancer -- and let me tell you, this system has cancer as it relates to its children being literate -- don't give me an aspirin. I'm not asking that all of the schools become overnight 10s. I'm saying I want to see progress, and I'm saying that teachers and administrators and secretaries and custodians and policemen need to be rewarded for that progress.

I was at George Washington Preparatory High School last Friday, and it's the pits. We've sunk money into it, but nobody was accountable. You wouldn't get away with the kinds of maintenance that we've done at Washington in a school on the Westside or in the Valley. And that's insidious racism. Those kids need the best environment. All of the schools should look like King-Drew, which sits on three and a half acres and was put up in two and a half years. They have students who feel they're getting a good education. There are standards for teachers, standards for the principal, and a lot of community involvement. Magnet schools shouldn't be the exception. They should be the rule of thumb.

WEEKLY: Superintendent Zacarias announced last year that he was eliminating social promotion, the automatic moving of students from one grade to another regardless of whether they had mastered the skills they should have. You've modified that edict. Why?

CORTINES: With social promotion, Superintendent Zacarias had issued a clear statement of intent. In November, when I came, I said, "Show me the plan for social promotion." There was no plan. Not one damn thing. And when I looked at the magnitude of what it would mean to actually carry out the plan mandated by the statement of intent, it was impossible. I believe in the process, but if you look at the reality, at the money, at the number of seats, at the materials required, and at the involvement and understanding by the students themselves, and by their parents, it was too much. And so we'll be rolling it out over a longer period of time.

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