The Hot Seat
Photo by Debra DiPaoloLAST SPRING, LOS ANGELES VOTERS MADE CLEAR WHAT they wanted from their school board: change. Three incumbent board members were defeated at the polls in favor of candidates running on a reform ticket endorsed by the mayor. And while it's too early to tell if its actions will produce the desired transformation of the massive district, the new board has certainly shaken things up.
In a highly controversial action last fall, board members bought out the contract of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. They then brought in interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines with a mandate to rethink every aspect of how the schools function.
From the beginning, Cortines has made clear that despite his limited tenure -- he will remain on the job through June -- he plans to act quickly and decisively. Calling the district "dysfunctional," he has moved to completely restructure the massive system, to institute districtwide reading and math programs aimed at improving student performance, and to relieve student overcrowding with an ambitious building program.
As he neared the end of his first month at the helm, Cortines spoke to the Weekly about what he hopes to accomplish.
L.A. WEEKLY: You've been interim superintendent for a little more than a month now. You've made clear that you think the district has some serious problems. How do you prioritize them? What do you fix first?
RAMON CORTINES: After looking at the data, I see what the focus should be. And that's on reading and math. This is especially true at the primary level, where 70 percent of the district's Latino students are scoring below the 20th percentile. For me, that's not literacy. Most urban school districts are trying to buy painkillers and so get caught up in the gimmicks of the year. We have to remain focused on the mission. That's the reason I've been very insistent on a reading program for the children. The reading program, Open Court [a heavily phonics-based system for teaching reading], wasn't picked out of the air. Sacramento has had good results with Open Court. Several of Inglewood's schools have had [good] results.
WEEKLY: This sounds like a real departure from the LEARN model of reform that goes from the bottom up. This seems like a very top-down kind of approach, imposing from above how all the schools will teach reading.
CORTINES: I don't believe one size fits all. I want to celebrate what's working. But the district has allowed schools just to do their thing. I think that because too many of our elementary schools are failing, we have to be benevolently dictatorial. I'm not telling teachers or administrators to throw out what works, but I am asking if they have evidence of improved test scores with what they have been doing. If so, they can fold that into the Open Court process. In other words, I am saying, "This is the reading program, but if you've been a teacher for 20 years and you've had some success with kids, and there is evidence of that, I expect you to use, not discount, the strategies with which you have created that success."
And you're wrong about Open Court. If you were to talk to the union, which is made up of teachers, they would say this is the right thing. I believe it is time that we take what we know from research and from evidence of what works, and say, "Hey, this is what we're going to do." And let me tell you that a new superintendent should not come in here and say, "Okay, but I have my own ideas." Open Court needs to be given a chance of three years at a minimum to make it work. What does that mean? That means ongoing training of teachers.
WEEKLY: You say this isn't top-down. On the other hand, it is getting away from site-based management.
CORTINES: I don't think so. All I'm doing is setting the parameters. How a school carries that out is based on the people there -- teachers and administrators. I'm just saying you have to do it. And I'm saying to the central staff, "You need to provide [the teachers] with the tools that they need to do the job." So don't see this as big daddy telling them what to do.
WEEKLY: And with math -- do you have a program in mind, the way you have Open Court for reading?
CORTINES: I'm not ready yet. I will be in a month. You know, there is a great philosophical divide in this system and this nation between proponents of traditional basic math versus integrated math. If we put as much effort into teaching kids as into arguing ideology, we wouldn't be at the stage we are, because we're at the bottom of the barrel in math, too.
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?
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.
WEEKLY: How do you attract good teachers to inner- city schools?
CORTINES: I don't know how to answer that question yet, but I'm trying to find out what attracts and keeps people at these schools. I think incentives and extra money are part of it. But it's not just more money. At 93rd Street Elementary School, they have very little turnover. One of the things they said to me is that they like to come to work in a clean, inviting environment.
I also think we don't merchandise ourselves well. A teacher can transfer into L.A. Unified from another district and receive credit for up to nine years of experience and training and make more than $50,000. They can't make that in some of the smaller school districts around us. What are we doing in outlying areas to say, "Hey, want to make more money?"
WEEKLY: Are kids getting enough schooling to learn what they need to learn?
CORTINES: No. I believe you change that in a variety of ways. You do it through extended day sessions that connect directly to the reading and math programs. You do it with Saturday school that is attached to, not supplementary to, the weekday program. Children need more time in school. Do you know that this district doesn't have mandatory kindergarten, much less full-day kindergarten. I'm going to fix it. The research shows that even very young children can handle more hours of school. It has been a union issue, but I don't want to put it all on the union, because there hasn't been the leadership at the district office to say, "Look, the research says that we need to have full-day kindergarten." Our preschool programs are not tied to kindergarten. The two don't meet. They don't have a curriculum that connects. And I'm dealing with that too. I'm not backing away from the word I used about this district on the first day I came -- dysfunctional. But it is fixable.
WEEKLY: You say that kindergarten is, to some extent, a union issue. Are there other things in the union contract you'd like to see changed?
CORTINES: The principals in this district will usually say, "Well, in the contract they gave away my rights to the teachers' union." And indeed, there was some of that. We're going to get part of that back in the negotiating process.
WEEKLY: Like what?
CORTINES: I think principals should be able to appoint their own department chairs. These people work directly for the principal. I also don't think teachers should be able to pick their own grade-level assignments based on seniority. I do believe that there should be protection against capricious administrators who do things to people without reason. I don't see it as black and white. I see it as a collaborative area. Remember, I've been a principal at every level. And I don't believe you can run a school well if you don't engage your teachers. Many of our people don't understand that leadership doesn't happen just because you're out front and you're a rah-rah person. Sometimes leadership is a kick in the butt, and usually it's walking side-by-side with arms linked.
WEEKLY: Can you talk about your reorganization of the district? You are moving to break up the district into smaller units. Will this just be the same people doing the same jobs but with new titles?
CORTINES: I look at the reorganization as focusing the district's mission, which has been lost for years. And that mission is to improve academic achievement for all children. Yes, we have children of poverty, children with disabilities, children of single parents. All of those are issues. But they do not mean that those kids can't learn.
All of the jobs, including the [regional] superintendents, will be advertised and go through a screening process. There will be no automatic incumbent appointments of anybody. Now, that has everybody upset. I signed a letter yesterday, to go out on March 15, that sends all of the administrators, both centrally and at the building level, notices that they may not have that job next year.
WEEKLY: How far down in the chain will that letter be sent?
CORTINES: I don't have that in my head yet, but it will be a ways down.
WEEKLY: It sounds like you're using a wrecking ball on the bureaucracy.
CORTINES: The answer is yes, and the answer is no. You cannot move this place educationally if you don't also try to carry out the demolition-ball process in a humane way. It's true that some people in the bureaucracy are the problem. Many of them are the problem. But many of them are not the problem intentionally. They've lost sight of the mission, because the board and the superintendent did not keep them focused. And another thing, and I'm going to say it the way I feel it -- ethnic politics took precedent over competence, and skill, and dealing with the needs of children.
WEEKLY: Let's talk about buildings. How did we get to the point where we don't have enough schools for our kids?
CORTINES: This is a long-term issue. Some board members and some community people would say, "Well, we never had any money to build buildings." That shouldn't have stopped them from laying out a plan to show the public that we had a burgeoning enrollment that needed to be dealt with. Whether we had the money or not. The district didn't gather the facts and figures to show, in an analytical way, where the bulge would come. The bulge that you now have in this district is at about the ninth-grade level. There are more students there.
WEEKLY: And after that, it tapers off because of the drop- out rate?
CORTINES: Yes, and that's also the reason that our test scores look better in high school. So many students drop out. I talk about that. Others in the district won't talk about it. They say to me, "Oh look, Mr. Cortines, look at how much better the high school test scores are." I say, "Come on, I've been around the block. It's the drop-out rate." We don't really track the drop-out rate. The majority of schools will tell you they don't have drop-outs. That is just b.s.
WEEKLY: And why are we still having trouble build- ing schools?
CORTINES: The district put good people into the facilities jobs, but they did not have the skills and the competency to do their jobs. Most of them should be in the classroom. We need the best real estate people in the city. And that's the reason you've seen, this week, that I've made some changes. I'm not going to get into an argument over whether the outside people [hired by the district as consultants on school building and renovation projects] have charged too much, but there has been an attitude of "How can we get money from the cash cow?" And I'm saying, "Hey, you work in a collaborative way with the staff, but you are not in the driver's seat." So we have this tension that is going on. They want to take the thing over.
WEEKLY: Have there been other problems with getting schools built?
CORTINES: I feel like the school district has thumbed its nose at all sorts of applications it should be making. The district has been an arrogant collaborator in looking at communities. I believe a school district should be looking at the quality of life in a community. A school district should be looking at how the building can be used beyond the teaching of children. When I went to San Francisco [as superintendent of schools], we got the first bond issue in nine years passed. It passed because of the senior citizens. I went to them and helped them understand how new facilities would be of value to them, made clear that they could also use the facilities in various ways. So I'm going to move L.A. Unified to be more collaborative. In the next three months, I think you will see some signs of that process. I think city politicians will believe that the school district is in a more collaborative kind of mode. The system has always looked just at building large high ã schools, and I don't think there is the land in L.A. to build large high schools any more. Belmont is the focus now, but the issue of space is all over the system. We cannot convert all of the middle schools to high schools and all of the elementary to middle schools and build primary centers. We cannot afford to. There are some where it is natural, and it could be done. But I think King-Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science and Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School are perfect examples of how you can provide the best kind of facility. They're high-tech on smaller pieces of land. I think we should be doing more of those. For example, at Belmont I'd like to take the academies out of the main school and place them in spaces that are small.
WEEKLY: Given the space difficulties in the district, why wouldn't you let the state's toxic agency complete its review of the Belmont site, and come up with a detailed breakdown of the advantages and drawbacks of finishing that project?
CORTINES: I don't know that I've stopped that, so don't ask me. Ask Howard Miller [LAUSD's chief operating officer]. I have not said no to anything. Now remember, the board did say no. So the big issue right now is to find seats for the Belmont students in a realistic time. Let me just tell you how difficult that has been in this district. Jefferson High School was promised bungalows almost six months ago. They were to arrive in December, and then they were to arrive in January. They still haven't gotten there. I've said to the person now in charge, "I want a realistic time line for when they can be up, and let me tell you, I don't want to hear later that the buildings didn't get there by that date, or you're out of here." There has not been any urgency. Our staff doesn't get it. They've gotten it now. And there may be some more changes. But what I'm looking for now is the best expert -- who doesn't have political ties, if that's possible -- to bring in for the next six months or so to deal with the facilities issues.
WEEKLY: And is Belmont really something we should just walk away from?
CORTINES: Well, I put my name on the memo [written by Howard Miller, and recommending that the project be abandoned as a school but considered for other district purposes], and I'm not going to take my name off it. You know, though, that from the day I arrived I said Belmont should be finished. I guess what was so frustrating for me is that you can find evidence on one side about how dangerous it is, and evidence on the other side about how it's okay to go ahead if you mitigate certain things. In the end, I made the decision on a judgment call, because I did not see that we were going to get Belmont as a usable site for students in the next five years. I am not against a resolution that says that the school district and the city will collaboratively work to find the best uses for Belmont. That leaves in my mind the possibility that someday there could be a school there. But that doesn't deal with the immediate issue of getting seats for those children. I am hopeful about the progress that we're making on being able to build a school on the Ambassador Hotel site. In the end, the board's decision on Belmont was good, from the standpoint that now everybody is willing to work collaboratively to help find seats for the Belmont children.
WEEKLY: Has it been difficult working with this school board?
CORTINES: Let me tell you, I don't get caught up in boards. I respect the role of the democratic process and the role of the board, right or wrong. I've told people in other cities that if they don't like the school board, vote them out. But don't complain about them. Remember, the board voted against me on Belmont. I asked for 60 more days. Did you see me get upset? Did you see me flip them off, or put my thumb in my mouth and go in the corner and pout? I will fight for what I believe until they take the vote, and once they take the vote, it is my responsibility to carry it out or walk out. They are the policymakers. Now, there are blurry lines, as you're working together. I defend my point of view very strongly, but once the board has voted -- and you can look at my history -- I carry it out as if it were my own.
This system has in the past been so focused on politics -- ethnic politics, personality politics -- that it has never been focused on making the school system work on behalf of children. If I can contribute to that, that's what I'm about.
WEEKLY: And is there any hope?
CORTINES: I believe that this system has hope. I wouldn't have come if I didn't believe that. There are many good things happening in schools -- not enough, but they are happening. There are teachers working hard. There are principals providing leadership. Sure, there are a lot of people standing in the corner, bellyaching and blaming somebody else. But there is definitely hope out there.
WEEKLY: You're not talking like a man who's only going to be in this job through June. A lot of the things you're talking about would take years to accomplish.
CORTINES: It doesn't take years.
WEEKLY: But how can this possibly be resolved in any permanently meaningful way by June?
CORTINES: It can be. The structures can be put in place. And the board has said that they are going to hire somebody who will carry that out to completion.
WEEKLY: How would you have felt if the board had ordered you to stay the course of your predecessor? Will that be a limitation in who they can hire?
CORTINES: The board has made that decision, and that is a policy issue. I said to the board, "I don't want to spend from early in the morning until late at night, six days a week, trying to improve things, if you are not going to carry it out to completion."
WEEKLY: Things are certainly moving forward, but they won't be finished by June. Why not stay on?
CORTINES: I didn't come on to do that. Remember that I came here at Dr. Zacarias' invitation to help him. I was happily retired on my ranch. I said to the people who were trying to recruit me that if the superintendent called, I would talk to him. He called. I came down on a Monday. And we worked things through. He was not dealt with as a professional and in a humane way. And I just don't like that. Remember, I was fired in Pasadena. I know how it feels. Anyway, that's how it all happened. When I came in, I was asked to slim the administration and reorganize the district. I found the school district was not about learning at all. The central-office culture was about perpetuating itself.
WEEKLY: If you were asked . . . if you were begged by the board, would you stay two more years?
CORTINES: Never. No way.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.