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School Reformer Yolie Flores Departs LAUSD to Fight From Outside

Yolie Flores at Jaime Escalante Elementary School
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

For the final March 8 Los Angeles City election results, please see laweekly.com.

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.

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.

 

Her chief inspiration was a documentary about a school on Chicago's West Side, which is the equivalent of South L.A.'s roughest neighborhoods. The Providence Effect chronicled an independent, nonprofit high school that for 30 years has miraculously sent to college 100 percent of its graduates — almost all of them poor and African-American.

"I remember asking myself, 'Why aren't we doing this?' " Flores recalls. "It can be done. Poor kids can learn and be successful, so what's our excuse?"

Five key excuses are cited to explain a damaged public school system like the one in Los Angeles. Some blame maddening bureaucracy inside the district worsened by state law. Some cite insufficient funding and resources. Others blame self-interested teachers' unions. Still others blame ineffective teachers. Almost everyone blames apathetic or overwhelmed parents from depressed neighborhoods who don't motivate their kids.

Flores tried to take one of those five excuses — district bureaucracy — out of the equation. Her plan was radical. It created an open competition for all newly built LAUSD schools. Any legitimate group of nonprofit educators — from teachers and principals to charter school operators — could submit a plan to run a new school. The district would select and fund the winner, which would fall under the LAUSD banner.

"If we can't run our schools in ways that bring our students success," Flores argued, "then we should get out of the way and let somebody else do it."

Her idea represented a major threat to the entrenched establishment, but LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines got behind it. To the surprise of Flores and others, he took it a step further, proposing that existing, chronically failing L.A. schools should be fair game, too.

The Public School Choice Resolution — as it came to be known — ignited a firestorm of opposition. And Flores learned what happens when you use the words choice or competition while trying to improve public schools: You get labeled a rich man's pawn. Because "choice," at least in the eyes of the education old guard, is a slippery slope that leads to vouchers, cherry-picking and, ultimately, cushy private schools for some and lawless hovels for others.

"The argument was that I was giving away schools to the private sector," Flores says. Yet her plan explicitly prohibited for-profits. "All the rhetoric was that I was selling the schools to Nabisco. I'm, like, 'Nabisco?' "

It was the first time in her life that Flores — a first-generation Mexican-American who has advocated for the disadvantaged throughout her career — had been tagged a corporate sellout.

It wouldn't be the last.

In 2009, thanks to significant political pressure from Villaraigosa, Flores' plan passed the school board by a vote of 6 to 1. The holdout was teachers union stalwart Marguerite LaMotte.

Beth Fuller, a principal who'd spent three decades struggling to coax better performances out of kids and teachers in LAUSD, seized the moment. She gathered 24 people, mostly teachers, to draft a proposal to run an elementary school being built in the low-income, largely Latino city of Cudahy, which is within LAUSD's sprawling jurisdiction.

Terri Arnold, another LAUSD veteran, was so excited that she came out of retirement — not to get back into the classroom but to apply her insights as Fuller's team crafted the proposal. Arnold offered a strong warning: "I said, 'You need to bring in the unions. Because if you don't have their support, the plan will go nowhere.' "

Fuller agreed. The team worked closely with leaders of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) — which had bitterly fought the Public School Choice Resolution — to create a plan that Cortines later called "the most exemplary" of any he'd seen.

The plan set up two small, separate learning communities inside the school, one for humanities and the other for science. It required students and teachers to take a "multiple intelligences" test to determine their ideal learning and teaching styles. It emphasized project-based learning and student innovation.

"We were creating a dream school," Arnold says.

It wasn't long before the dream led to a pitched battle. The teachers union decided that the plan had a major problem: It didn't respect "seniority" — another thorny buzzword in the schools.

A team of UTLA officials including Julie Washington, who's hoping to win the teachers union presidency in late March and take over from the departing A.J. Duffy, argued that Fuller and Arnold should be forced to follow union contract rules by hiring the area's most senior teachers. The UTLA team and Washington insisted that the Cudahy school follow seniority — regardless of whether the veteran teachers wanted to be involved in the new school.

Principal Fuller vehemently resisted. She and her team wanted teachers who understood their vision and were committed to it. "We wanted the right to interview and select our staff," explains Arnold. "If you don't have the right people on the bus, the bus isn't going to go very far."

 

Then, the group of teachers union leaders verbally ordered Fuller and Arnold to "cease and desist" interviewing teachers for jobs at the new school.

That's when board member Yolie Flores stepped in.

Flores called out union president Duffy in an e-mail: "You want your teachers to have a voice," she wrote. "You want in-district reform. And yet, you obstruct reforms coming from your own members."

Duffy wrote back that he had "no idea what [she was] talking about." His staff was adamantly opposing a school plan they'd collaborated on, yet Duffy insisted he was unaware of the situation.

"It's hard to believe that he was not aware," Flores says. (Duffy, once a frequent face on local nightly news, has come under intensifying fire for fighting change. He didn't respond to the Weekly's request for an interview, and his PR rep responded that teachers union officials are tired of talking to the press.)

In the end, facing Cortines and Flores, the union backed off. Fuller and Arnold won the power to choose their own teachers.

Jaime Escalante Elementary, opened last September, was named for the late Garfield High School calculus teacher depicted in the movie Stand and Deliver. Despite his brilliance at turning hundreds of minority kids into math aces, Escalante also had infuriated UTLA leaders in his day. His crime: He ignored the teachers union's 35-student class-size limit, taking all comers for his wildly popular classes.

Escalante, enduring threats from jealous teachers and fury from the teachers union brass, finally quit his job and fled Garfield. The school's lofty, nationally recognized math achievement scores soon sank to near the bottom.

Now a school named in his honor will try to show younger pupils how to reach high on the rungs.

Some months ago, Flores was asked to head a new nonprofit with $2.5 million in startup funds from billionaire Bill Gates, who has become assertive in trying to fuel school reform. After the strife of trying to fix L.A. schools from the inside, Flores says it sounded "like a dream job."

When her school board term expires at the end of June, Flores will earn a $144,000 salary as CEO of the still-unnamed organization, whose goal is to focus public attention on one of five problems holding back the kids: teacher quality.

Is Flores conflicted about leaving the school board when there's still an infinite amount of progress to be made? "Yes," she says. "I finally feel like four years [on the board] gave me enough to know how it works."

Since accepting the Gates-funded job, Flores has again endured attacks from teachers and students who accuse her of peddling an agenda driven by corporate America. When asked why Flores wants to restructure his school, HP, 17-year-old Joe Ayala suggests, "Maybe she's getting money out of it."

Those who have fought to drag L.A. schools out of the ditch say Flores' critics couldn't be more wrong. "She's an advocate for children first and foremost," Fuller says.

Serious reformers now worry about losing an unusual standout like Yolie Flores, whose allegiance as a school board member has been to the vast LAUSD's 640,000 students. That can't be said for some, and perhaps most, of the candidates who ran for hers and other school board seats on March 8, or the six board members she is leaving behind: Garcia, LaMotte, Tamar Galatzan, Nury Martinez, Richard Vladovic and Steve Zimmer.

"There are very few public officials in California who, behind closed doors, when there are no reporters around, put kids front and center," says Ben Austin, who's embroiled in an effort to help parents take control of a failing elementary school in Compton. "Yolie Flores is one of them. She has been a brave and sometimes lonely warrior."

Correction: The original version erroneously reported that Huntinton Park High School is located in East L.A. It is in Huntington Park.

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