Antonio Villaraigosa dominated the outcome of this week’s runoff school board election, yet the biggest question is unanswered: whether the mayor of Los Angeles, whose influence over the board is far from certain, will have any say in a district that is already going through a catharsis without him.
In the pricey war for the Los Angeles Unified school board seat in the San Fernando Valley, Villaraigosa pick Tamar Galatzan whipped incumbent Jon Lauritzen into submission, grabbing 58 percent of the vote for a place on the seven-member school board. Yet her wan 21,563 votes, in a city of 4 million souls, came with a massive price tag — $131 per vote based on the $2.83 million Galatzan raised (more than $2 million from the mayor’s campaign committee).
The Valley battle was bitter, as were remarks by reform-resistant Lauritzen to reporters on election night as his hopes dwindled.
“I think she’s going to find herself taking orders from the mayor, and they’re going to be trying to change the district in a way that is not possible at this time because she doesn’t understand how the district works,” sniped Lauritzen, a retired teacher known for resisting reform, whose run was largely funded by his associates at the teachers union.
Galatzan isn’t so sure. At one debate in Granada Hills between the city prosecutor and Lauritzen representative Donna Smith, a local teacher asked if a vote for Galatzan was a vote for the mayor’s school-takeover agenda, an effort which was deemed unconstitutional by the courts.
“I’m not the kind of person to whom you say ‘Jump’ and I ask ‘How high?’” replied Galatzan, who says she told the mayor point-blank, if he wanted a board member whom “he would call up and say ‘do x, y and z’ — and they do x, y and z — I didn’t think I was his gal.”
She was equally independently minded about the mayor’s school-takeover bill, which he convinced Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign into law, only to have it challenged by the LAUSD and trashed in court. Galatzan, who has worked as a Los Angeles deputy city attorney in the Neighborhood Prosecutor Program since 2002, admits, “I’m not surprised about how it ended up in court.”
Villaraigosa’s other candidate of choice, retired West Covina Unified School District Superintendent Richard Vladovic, won with 54 percent — beating a strong challenge by retired principal Neil Kleiner.
It was never clear what Vladovic was offering in the way of “reform” over the schoolhouse veteran Kleiner, but the mayor’s committee poured $511,536 into Vladovic’s campaign. Vladovic’s total war chest, to win a seat representing the strip of Los Angeles from Watts to the harbor, hit $757,404, meaning his 8,552 votes on Tuesday cost him $89 a pop.
Along with the recently elected Yolie Flores Aguilar and Villaraigosa supporter Monica Garcia (elected just last year), neither of whom has articulated a clear plan for ending the high-school-dropout crisis and other pressing problems, Galatzan and Vladovic now comprise a purported Tony Majority.
So, well, he won. He can drop the balloons and confetti, now that his multimillion-dollar mission to get his handpicked minions into LAUSD’s Beaudry Avenue headquarters is over. After his failed attempts in the courts, not to mention those pesky plane rides to lobby Sacramento, success must be intoxicating.
But was it a Pyrrhic victory for the mayor? Or a victory at all? Superintendent David Brewer tells the L.A. Weekly it doesn’t matter if the school board is dominated by the teachers union or mayoral allies: Their mammoth task remains the same.
At the top of the supe’s long list of problems is the structure of the district, which he says suffers from poor delegating by its leaders, and departments that “operate within a vacuum,” with some divisions failing to communicate with others. Yes, LAUSD is concerned about instruction-based reform, which worked in the much-improved elementary schools. But first, Brewer says, he must improve basics like routine communications.
A glaring reminder of the communication problems played out at Locke High School in Watts a week before the election, when chaos erupted after the faculty and staff decided they’d had enough of L.A. Unified.
Students ditched classes and pressed their noses against gates and windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of Principal Frank Wells, who stood across the street from the school he’d tried desperately to turn around, declaring to a group of reporters, “I’m a fallen soldier today, but I’m standing tomorrow.”
Days earlier, the district had stripped Wells of his duties and — in what officials believe was an unprecedented moment in the Education Wars — hauled him off campus, accusing him of taking teachers out of classes to sign a petition to let Locke High become an independent charter school, free of the district’s rules.
More than half the tenured teachers at Locke signed the petition to convert the 2,800-student school into 10 small, Green Dot schools. It was a stunning move by teachers, whose United Teachers Los Angeles union has long deemed the city’s rapidly spreading charter-school movement an attack on public schools.
Many observers probably saw it as fitting that the badly failing high school — which earned the lowest possible score, a 1 out of 10, in last year’s Academic Performance Index (API) statewide ranking — should be ground zero for a revolution.
Locke isn’t the first large L.A. school to seek a conversion to independent charter. In 2003, Granada Hills High School broke L.A. Unified’s hold. It now earns an impressive 9 out of 10 on the statewide test-score rankings, and was recently named one of California’s 39 certified charters — a designation of excellence.
California Charter Schools Association President Caprice Young says Granada officials got tired of being told “you can’t have that discipline plan, you can’t have the teachers staying after school, you can’t have a longer school year — Granada said, ‘Forget it. We know what the kids need.’”
Young and Green Dot Public Schools demigod Steve Barr want other huge schools in L.A. broken into smaller schools, and Barr recently said he was looking at Marshall High in Los Feliz — outgoing school board member and longtime teacher David Tokofsky’s old haunt — for possible takeover.
In the midst of this revolt, which is moving forward with or without Villaraigosa, some folks worry that the mayor’s reform plans are a little simplistic, idealistic, doe-eyed — and that his 52-idea “Schoolhouse” reform outline wasn’t exactly revolutionary.
So what is reform anyway? To “form again,” technically speaking? Reinventing the wheel year after year on the heads of the kids?
Kathleen Cooper, a former Sacramento Unified associate superintendent who now works with the Reading Lions Center, a group of Sacramento-based educators with a track record in school turnarounds, says, “Medicine is governed by standards of care. The legal profession is governed by precedent. . . . Education’s protocol seems to be change — change for change.”
Classroom fads come in, mess with teachers’ minds and magically fade out when the next piece of software or a new teaching method comes a-calling. That’s why, when the word reform is suggested to board member Tokofsky, it makes the colorful guy a tad battier than usual.
“There are transformers, reformers, some I would call deformers, and an awful lot of school conformers. Reform, deform, conform, transform,” mutters Tokofsky. “We should be focusing on fundamentals [and] what turns a kid’s mind on.”
A few weeks back, the L.A. Weekly embarked on a quest to find out if any particular reform works in high schools — the place where Villaraigosa has focused his nearly two years of intense criticism of L.A.’s public schools.
The Weekly’s key question was: Does real “high school reform” even exist? That is, reform that’s being replicated elsewhere, proving it isn’t just a fluke?
Sure, we’d heard about charismatic superstar principals busting into piss-poor schools and mopping up the mess, lifting test scores and morale. But what about a real reform phenomenon?
We asked a bunch of people, including one superstar principal, the now-retired Nancy Ichinaga. She dragged Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood up from the virtual bottom, where it festered at the third percentile out of 100. She raised her mostly minority and poor students’ test scores to the 78th percentile — a level generally seen only in wealthy schools.
Does Ichinaga think a set of solid policies can be applied to more than one school — high schools targeted by Villaraigosa, for example — and come out triumphant?
Her answer was a big, fat “No!” After four years on the powerful California State Board of Education, where Ichinaga sat on panels with non-educators who liked to listen to their own voices, she believes, “Widespread reforms don’t mean a thing. It comes down to individual schools and the leadership at them. I always ran a tight school. So my school was very successful.”
When Ichinaga walked into Bennett-Kew Elementary in 1974, it was filled with illiterate children.
“It either meant that all the kids were retarded, or something else was wrong,” says the plainspoken Ichinaga. So she challenged her teachers to take on a strict and rigorous curriculum. It took only a year, she says — not several years — to teach students to read. No fads, no nonsense, zip, zero.
Neither Ichinaga nor Tokofsky think the mayor’s newly configured board will make a difference. L.A. has 95 high schools, and in recent years charter schools have lured away about 43,000 of the district’s children — shrinking the student body to about 704,417. Charter schools, not bound by district restrictions and regulations, enjoy a much lower dropout rate.
Why? For starters, kids are treated like people, says former LAUSD board president Young. And teachers and counselors personally know the teens, so they can directly address their personal needs.
“Small works,” says Barr. “High expectations for all kids work.”
Young cites two top reasons why students drop out, from a study by the National Education Association, an influential body representing teachers. According to the NEA, teenagers drop out because no one really notices if they aren’t in class, and they are bored stupid.
So how do you fix high schools packed with bored students (often bored, teachers say, because they arrive from middle school so behind that they can’t follow high school math, history, science or languages)?
The key, says Tokofsky, is to focus on kids in fourth and fifth grade — giving them more of the math and English they need to survive the “huge, impersonal pubescent hellholes” of middle school.
By the time L.A. kids reach sixth grade or so, he says, they aren’t reading or critically thinking as they should be, and are instead involved in faddish classroom games designed to get them “engaged.”
“Then,” says Tokofsky, “you hand them a big, fat biology book in ninth grade and expect them to read 30 pages a week? It’s just not gonna happen.”
Parent Christie Hind’s eldest son isn’t even close to approaching middle school yet, but already she’s preparing for the battle.
Her Silver Lake neighborhood is full of good-to-great elementary schools. But the thought of sending her kid to Thomas Starr King Middle School — which ranks in the bottom 30 percent in California — has her anxious. So Hind and concerned parent Joe Lightfoot founded SELF, the Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Echo Park chapter of L.A.’s Parents Union.
Their goal? To transform King inside and out. For starters, the poor facilities — exploding gas heaters, leaking ceilings and terrible drainage problems — have to go. And the school’s floundering test scores have got to be buoyed up. Or else.
If not, Lightfoot says his group is not beyond threatening the district with Locke High’s situation: angry adults moving to turn a public school into an independent charter conversion school.
But first, the parent group is trying other fixes. They want to move the youngest children now at King Middle School — the sixth-graders — back to local elementary schools, thus alleviating the crowding at King, which brims over with 2,766 students. Hind says Silver Lake grade schools have enough space to take back sixth-graders who have been stuck on campuses with older middle-school students.
Days before the election, as the media cameras rolled, ousted Locke High principal Wells said this is just the beginning of the battle — with or without the mayor.
“I’m tired of going to funerals. I want to go to more graduations,” he said amid amens from parents and tears from students — who wish he could be the one handing them their diplomas several days from now.
Behind him, Steve Barr, leader of the charter-school revolution in Los Angeles, stood with a knowing smile on his face.