School Reformer Yolie Flores Departs LAUSD to Fight From Outside | News | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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School Reformer Yolie Flores Departs LAUSD to Fight From Outside 

She forced through the most radical idea in recent lausd history. So why’s she leaving for a Bill Gates start-up?

Thursday, Mar 10 2011
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To understand the nightmare that comes with trying to fix public education in Los Angeles, consider the situation at Huntington Park Senior High, one of the district's oldest schools. Only 24 percent of its students are meeting California standards in English; just 5 percent are up to par in math.

"If I was a parent at that school, I'd be having a fit," says Beth Fuller, principal at nearby Jaime Escalante Elementary School.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Yolie Flores at Jaime Escalante Elementary School

In fact, many parents at Huntington Park — or HP, as it's known — are very upset. They say some teachers are rude, angry, even racist. One constantly talks on her cell phone while kids are asking for help. Another was caught shouting at mentally disabled children. Some parents say that when they complain to the principal, Al Castillo, he doesn't want to hear it.

"He doesn't want parents involved," says Sonya Espinoza, an HP parent.

Espinoza says that when she tried to volunteer at the high school, Castillo laid down certain conditions. "He said, 'You can participate, but your child is going out of the school if you discover anything bad.' " (Castillo didn't respond to multiple requests from L.A. Weekly for an interview.)

Espinoza was hesitant to give her name or even discuss the school's problems for fear that her child would be punished by administrators. But she's fed up.

Still, no one may be more fed up than Yolie Flores, a Los Angeles Unified School District board member who has made it something of a personal mission to reform HP. Flores graduated there in 1980. She's the child of immigrants, like many at HP, and was the first in her family to attend college. But after being elected to the school board, Flores found out that her alma mater was graduating only 55 percent of its freshmen in four years.

"My heart sank," Flores says. "I was concerned and sad and outraged."

A few months ago, she held a meeting with parents to discuss a few proposals being floated to change how HP was structured — and led. Dozens of kids showed up, along with several teachers.

Before long, Flores found herself on the defensive. The kids, it turned out, saw Flores not as an ally but as the enemy.

One student demanded, "Why are you gonna force us to change if we don't want to? We're here because we want the education to stay the same."

One of the teachers shouted at Flores. The students hollered and applauded.

In this Kafka-esque setting, Flores was being harangued for encouraging change at a failing school, where only 14 percent of the students earn C's or better in their college-prep classes — and that doesn't count the persistent, districtwide practice of grade inflation, in which many teachers mask the fact that B's are C's, or even D's.

Welcome to the forbidding world of education reform in Los Angeles.

Long before data became a prickly buzzword in the national debate over public schools, Flores was examining the numbers. For two decades, while heading several nonprofit and government organizations with the words child, family or education in their names, and during her year studying education systems as a fellow at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, she pored over statistics that measured how much (or, in most cases, how little) kids were actually learning.

"In the world of social services, too often it's just about doing 'good' things and not paying attention to results," explains the 48-year-old Flores, whose small stature belies her toughness.

Appointed in 1993 to the little-known L.A. County Board of Education, which, independent of the LAUSD board, oversees schools for juvenile camps and programs for pregnant teens, Flores took a closer look at LAUSD's success rate.

"I thought, 'No wonder our kids aren't getting out of poverty — they're not even getting out of high school,' " she says.

In 2007, after nearly a decade running the nonprofit Children's Planning Council, Flores ran for an open seat on the LAUSD board. She'd run eight years before but lost to incumbent David Tokofsky. This time she won with the backing of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was eager to find reform-minded players for the school board.

When Flores stepped inside the school district's downtown skyscraper headquarters on Beaudry Avenue, she discovered the situation was worse than she expected. "Nobody was outraged that half our kids are dropping out, or that only 30 percent of our third-graders can read at their grade level. I remember going into Beaudry every day, thinking, 'Why isn't everybody upset about this?' Like meeting every day, strategizing, tying to figure this out?"

After two years of "pure frustration" on the school board, which was and still is led by President Monica Garcia, Flores decided to change the game.

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