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Torpedoing a Top Science Program

Kimberly Merritt
PHOTO BY JOHN SAKATA

Last June, Kimberly Merritt held a dream job as co-coordinator and teacher of a college prep academy that so successfully prepared its inner-city, mostly minority students from Hawthorne, Lennox and Lawndale that they landed spots in some of the nation's most prestigious colleges.

"We take away that stereotype, and we tell them that they are better than that," says Merritt, a six-year employee of the Centinela Valley Unified High School District. She was instrumental in reviving a defunct Marine Science Academy program at Lawndale High School when she arrived at the district.

From the outside, everything about Lawndale High's program looked rosy after that. The Marine Science Academy could point to two of its students, Adrian Castro and Kenny Hoang, being named in 2010 as Gates Millennium Scholars. Their photo was even proudly published in the district newsletter.

Hoang went on to attend UC Berkeley, while Castro went on to attend Williams College in Massachusetts, rated the top liberal arts college in the United States by U.S. News & World Report. Castro gushes with praise for science academy teacher Julie Ichiroku: "People constantly said Ichiroku's seminar courses were AP level. It was so hard, so intense and so full of work."

The program's students and teachers were elated when the Marine Science Academy sent student Erik Tamayo to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology three years ago, and when Melissa Bejarano became the first student in the program to be named a Gates Millennium Scholar two years ago.

"This program has succeeded in empowering young adults to reach for higher education, proving statistics about our district wrong," writes Bejarano, now a sophomore at Amherst University, by email. "I can honestly say I saw the growth in my classmates and in myself change drastically as we drew a close to our four years."

But now, the Marine Science Academy is described by students as a shadow of its former self, and bitterness has taken hold.

A labor grievance filed by the South Bay Union of Teachers is moving toward arbitration, with the union accusing the district of violating the teachers' collective bargaining agreement by undertaking a round of punitive June 2010 teacher transfers. The program's teacher-coordinators and a staff member were among those transferred.

Students and teachers say that Merritt and the other teacher-coordinator, Tali Sherman, along with Ichiroku, were vindictively transferred away from Lawndale High School last year after involving parents in their fight to challenge the district's 2009 decision substantially cutting back the school's marine science curriculum.

Sandra Goins, executive director of South Bay Union of Teachers, which represents teachers at Lawndale High, says the attitude of Centinela Valley Unified administrators was: "If [teachers] ask questions, or if you veer from what I tell you to do, or if I think you do — if the teachers go against [the district], the district will go out to publicly humiliate you. They will try to get you in as much trouble as they can."

Centinela Valley school district officials, led by Superintendent Jose Fernandez, refuse to comment on what went wrong in the once-vaunted marine sciences program. They responded only to formal requests from the Weekly under the California Public Records Act for public documents such as office emails, which they are required to provide.

But teachers and students say things went sideways long before last June, the month that district officials abruptly ordered the involuntary transfers of Merritt, Ichiroku, Sherman and one other staffer who made up the core of the marine science program staff.

Sitting in a small coffee shop, Merritt stares into the distance when asked what led up to June 16, the day, she says, she was approached without warning in her classroom by the principal and informed, as were Ichiroku and Sherman in their own classrooms, that she was being transferred away.

Such involuntary transfers are a form of discipline, typically used against incompetent or problem classroom teachers who, under California laws that have long been shaped by teachers' unions, are all but impossible to fire.

"I try not to think about it, because it makes me so sad," Merritt says. "I wish I had a better word than 'sad.' "

Merritt and Ichiroku knew in early 2009 that their program was facing serious problems with the upper administration, but they never expected to be treated like incompetent or problem teachers. After all, some 90 percent of their 125 students were accepted into four-year universities in 2009.

Merritt, Ichiroku, Sherman and several other employees of the school district, which serves a largely Latino, low-income community, claim that the three educators, known among their students as "the Trio," were pushed out because they challenged the school district's administrators too many times.

Things came to a head after district officials canceled several key science classes, and Sherman and Merritt reacted by informing parents they had no choice but to cancel the entire program, setting off an uproar.

 

Says Sherman: "We couldn't fathom, with all the success we had in the program, and the success we had for the school as a whole" by raising student test-score levels, that "we would be targeted if someone didn't like us."

Ichiroku says she is "sad to see the MSA program crumble as a result of district politics. In the end, it's the students who suffer the most. It takes many years for any program to be successful, and I feel MSA had finally gotten to the point where we were taken seriously and respected as an important institution at Lawndale."

What went wrong? Sherman, Merritt, Ichiroku and the other staffers who ran the Marine Science Academy program were all graduates of the UCLA Center X program, geared to developing top-notch teachers who can jump into poorly performing urban classrooms. The structure of the Marine Science Academy had been good, arguably great. Sherman says the goal was to create "environmentally aware, socially conscious social activists who go out into the world and become successful in college and beyond."

The teachers used a philosophy of tough academic love in which they held students to strict expectations.

"You tell students they can achieve that, and that they have to achieve that," Sherman explains. "I knew some of these kids three years ago — we did not think they would get into high school. Now they will go to college. They know after two years of community college they will transfer. It is ingrained in them. They don't have a choice. Three years ago, they did not think like that."

The program incorporated high expectations, relentless encouragement and prodding from the teachers with a softer side: fun extracurricular activities built around a marine science–themed curriculum.

For Ichiroku's seminar class, she "strongly recommended" her seniors apply to five colleges and seek a minimum of six scholarships. Community service and beach cleanups helped build bonds among the students. Blending disciplines, Sherman and Merritt, English teachers by specialization, had their students read The Old Man and the Sea and Moby Dick.

Meanwhile, Sherman checked the grades of all 125 pupils every other week. If a student's grades slipped, he or she heard about it from one of the academy's teachers.

It was a lot of work for Sherman, but she could see the children changing. As high school juniors, students had the option of going on an overnight bus trip along the California coast to UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz and other colleges. Sherman rented the bus, determined which students were academically eligible to participate, signed up chaperones, notified the students' other teachers and school staff, and purchased insurance for the trips out of the MSA's slim budget.

She did this more than 20 times annually, since each grade level of kids went on five field trips, including one overnight. "It was kids who had never been on an airplane," Sherman explains. "It was kids who had never been outside of L.A. They thought UCLA was it." But after what they had learned in the academy, "Some of the kids then looked at the [college entrance] requirements and said, 'That's it?' "

The three academy coordinators say the problems with district officials began when Stephen Nellman, currently the educational services coordinator at Centinela Valley district, requested the removal of several ocean-based science classes from the academy's curriculum in 2009.

Centinela district officials said Nellman and other staff contacted would not be allowed to comment for this article. Merritt and Sherman say they tried but could not get Nellman to explain to them why he was canceling marine biology, oceanography and marine chemistry.

"What possible reason, after five years of running a program, out of nowhere," would marine biology be dropped, asks Sherman, who notes that Nellman had taught marine biology in the academy three years earlier.

"I am consistently shocked by the arbitrary decisions made," Merritt says. "We have asked for research and statistics for what they are doing, and they never give them to us."

The curriculum cuts were so intrusive that Sherman and Merritt decided on a dramatic response, which ultimately backfired: After talking it over with a Lawndale High School administrator, they announced the phasing out of the academy, beginning with halting the recruitment of a freshman class for the upcoming year.

When the teachers notified the students' parents that the academy would cease before the summer of 2009, not surprisingly, the news elicited an intense response from parents.

In reaction, Superintendent Fernandez threw his support behind the program, offering it 50 laptop computers and increased funding, according to Sherman. The teachers' dramatic threat of closing down the academy initially appeared to have worked, and teacher-coordinators Sherman and Merritt agreed to continue the program.

 

But the divide created between the teachers and the administration during that time was never repaired.

School procedures that had previously been rubber-stamped by the district — such as allowing MSA students to take the same classes together throughout the day, creating a sense of cohesion and support among students, or adding new classes to the MSA curriculum — suddenly became obstacles for the teachers. Planning and running the program presented one new hurdle after another.

Email communications produced by a California Public Records Act request between Merritt and district employees Laurel Fretz and Hatha Parrish, director of federal and state programs, show the tension between district leaders and the teachers.

In one exchange from Feb. 8, 2010, Fretz delivered a startling condemnation that the academy "promises things to students it cannot presently deliver, and the lure of marine biological science is not supported by your curriculum or recent academic history. ... I am extremely concerned about the MSA. There is much we need to discuss before moving on. The budget and other issues are minor compared to the larger issues I am seeing. I look forward to meeting with you to 'start at the beginning' and ask some deeper, more focused questions regarding the MSA and its curricula."

The coordinators took Fretz's claim that there was not "a strong and successful" science curriculum — in the face of clear evidence that it was very strong — as subterfuge to meddle in the program.

The administration made its dramatic move against the three teachers last June. They were informed by then-Principal Damon Dragos — he approached and informed Ichiroku while she was in front of a class of students — that they were being sent to different schools for the fall of 2010.

Hundreds of angry Lawndale students walked out of class and held an on-campus peaceful march after seeing their teachers crying upon hearing of their forced transfers. Merritt says she approached Fretz on campus and angrily asked for an explanation. Instead, she claims, Fretz accused her of encouraging students to walk out of classes. (District personnel said Fretz would not be allowed to comment to L.A. Weekly.)

"She didn't answer my question," Merritt says. "She just started making accusations."

Merritt, who was also the Associated Student Body coordinator at the time, was suspended a week later for encouraging the student march — something students have vocally insisted they did on their own.

"There is one thing for sure: Teachers were not a part of this," says MSA graduate Castro, then–student body president. "This was impromptu. It was a spur-of-the-minute decision. Teachers tried to stop us."

The terms of her suspension even banned Merritt from attending the high school's 2010 graduation, where her last class of Marine Science Academy seniors accepted their diplomas.

Merritt says, "If you become so emotionally attached to it, you can't even get through your days."

Teacher Osvaldo Maldonado now runs the Marine Science Academy program in the wake of the two coordinators' departures. He was named coordinator just a month before the start of the 2010-11 school year, giving the academy little time to recover from the mass faculty transfers.

Three students who spoke to the Weekly say Maldonado has tried to make the best of a difficult situation.

Initially last fall, students like Ruth Miranda, 17, said things were disorganized. "It's kind of like we're guiding the program, because we're telling him how it's supposed to run, because he does not know what to do."

In an email exchange between Fretz and Maldonado from last October, Maldonado explained why he had to postpone work on a cross-curriculum lesson plan: "Our team is just now starting to come together and creating the level of synergy that I feel is essential to the success of our academy. We are really close."

In another email, Maldonado wrote that weekly tutoring sessions were being ended and frequent "grade checks" were being canceled, to be replaced by a different approach. Students say the number of field trips also has been slashed.

For the students, it's been especially hard. What they had until one year ago was about more than rigorous classes and dramatic academic success: It was about the bond between teachers and students.

"All of a sudden [the coordinators] were taken away and there was no answer," says Miranda, who hopes to attend UC Berkeley next year. "It was like the district took our family apart."

Reach the writer at sakata.john@gmail.com.


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