District 4 of the Los Angeles Unified School District went through a series of highs and lows last year, as did many school districts throughout California. But perhaps no other area of Los Angeles experienced the same level of controversial events that District 4 did in 2011.
LAUSD Board Member Steven Zimmer represents the area, which includes Westchester, Venice, Mar Vista, Playa del Rey and Del Rey, and in the Jan. 12 issue of The Argonaut he offered his thoughts on some of the most noteworthy events that took place in education locally last year.
This week, in Part II, Zimmer continues his views on his decision to offer a charter school a land lease deal at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista to alleviate the tensions around charters sharing campuses with traditional schools, and addresses some of the more controversial events that happened in Westchester.
Green Dot Public Schools and Ocean Charter School are the only applicants for the Walgrove land, and a decision on which charter is chosen is expected in the spring – the same time that colocation solicitations will be announced.
While a large number of parents in Mar Vista and Venice have signed petitions supporting a Green Dot middle school and families from Ocean Charter back the decision to explore a land lease agreement at Walgrove, a group of homeowners near the elementary school has been very outspoken with their opposition to the plan.
“I’m not sure if we’re doing the right thing at Walgrove,” Zimmer acknowledged. “I have no idea.
“I know it’s not the right thing for the neighbors. If I lived there, I’d be furious. But really, what am I going to do?”
Zimmer said the land lease at Walgrove was not his first choice, but because there is not a great deal of available land on the Westside, he did not have a plethora of options.
There were requests from some parents that he use the unoccupied space at nearby Mark Twain Middle School, but Zimmer said that was never a viable option. “I was not going to go to Twain,” he said.
Mark Twain is in the midst of implementing a world languages magnet at the school, and Zimmer said that was one of the reasons why he decided to use Walgrove instead of the middle school, where some families have long insisted a charter school could occupy a portion of its unused land.
The school board member said in retrospect, that decision has allowed the middle school to plan an expansion of its world languages magnet.
“And as it turns out, it looks like we’re going to need the space at Twain for a successful program, which could be a Mandarin Chinese immersion program. So I stand by that decision,” he asserted.
“Of all of the places where we looked where there was available property that would not have a devastating impact on the existing school, Walgrove was the logical place.”
In Westchester, a community that has been very active in school reform, the five elementary schools continued their steady academic improvement, although there were two incidents near the end of the school year that several residents cheered but left others seething.
Westchester High School was transformed into a fulltime magnet school, now known as Westchester Enriched Magnet Sciences. The high school’s new magnets include sports medicine and health, environmental sciences and natural science engineering, as well as a previously existing areospace magnet.
The brainchild of former LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines and principal Robert Canosa-Carr, the fulltime magnet was created to enhance the school’s academic performance and attract a wide array of students. Magnets can accept students from all areas of the city and often attract high-achieving pupils.
“I think that 10 years from now, the change at Westchester High School will bring the most positive, lasting effect for public education in my board district that I have been a part of,” Zimmer asserted.
Students from Windsor Hills, which is within the Westchester school’s boundaries, as well as students who are currently enrolled in the community’s elementary and middle schools are eligible to attend the high school, according to LAUSD.
View Park students are no longer considered residing within the high school’s boundary.
Students who wish to attend magnet schools typically must fill out applications and are awarded a certain number of points to qualify. Like charter schools, magnets use a lottery to select their pupils.
“What we were able to do in terms of getting the types of exemptions that we got and having a dynamic, high-quality magnet program accessible to every child that comes through that feeder system is almost unprecedented,” Zimmer said. “If the instructional vision is what I think it’s going to be, I think that every family that has a child born in Westchester, Ladera Heights or Windsor Hills is going to have a great secondary education.”
Terry Marcellus, a Westchester High alumnus, agrees with Zimmer that his alma mater required a change in order to remain as a viable institution of learning and credits the school board member with the courage to pursue the magnet program.
“Steve showed a lot of intellectual openness and guts, frankly, to take on something that had not been done in the district,” Marcellus said. “He seems to acknowledge more than others that the district is in competition for students.”
One area where Zimmer admits the district could have done better was with how the retention of some of the teachers was handled. The teachers’ supporters, along with opponents of the move to the fulltime magnet were angered when some of the educators were not brought back initially to teach at the new magnet, which prompted hundreds of students to walk out of their early morning classrooms in June.
“There were real mistakes made,” the school board member conceded. “The failure to communicate with all stakeholders was one, as well as the situation with the teachers.
“I’ll never be okay with the fact that not every teacher wasn’t offered the opportunity to participate in the magnet,” Zimmer, a teacher by training, added.
He also acknowledged that academic data to determine if the change to a magnet is successful is at least two to three years away.
Change also took place at Orville Wright Middle School, but not the kind that many parents and students there expected or wanted.
An incident at the middle school near the end of the school year that spilled over into the fall cast a strobe light on the process for removing principals and provoked an angry backlash against LAUSD after principal Kenneth Pride was demoted.
An alleged sexual assault on a school bus between two students triggered an internal investigation at LAUSD and to many parents and supporters, Pride became the fall guy.
The ex-principal, who is still employed by the school district, was not present when the alleged incident occurred, but LAUSD officials stated Pride was being reassigned because he “couldn’t run a program, was derelict in his duty, failed to carry out his responsibilities and did not adhere to the district’s child abuse and suspension bulletin,” according to a letter that was read by Pride’s wife Lorraine at a Nov. 7 community meeting.
Speaker after speaker at the meeting took turns praising Pride’s leadership and dedication to the school and its students and questioned the district’s handling of his reassignment.
The day after the community forum, dozens of students walked out of their early morning classrooms in protest of Pride’s demotion, much like their peers at Westchester High had done three months earlier.
“The situation at Orville is one of the most difficult things that we’ve had to do as a district,” said Zimmer, who attended the Nov. 7 meeting. “There are no winners and there’s a lot of loss. I supported the selection of Ken Pride and up until the moment that that disciplinary action was taken, I was very supportive of Ken Pride’s leadership.”
Dr. Narbik Manukian, who is the father of a sixth-grader at the middle school, said students walking out of their classrooms to support Pride is not something that the school district should take lightly.
“If ultimately the community and the students are their main interests, an outpouring of concern for Dr. Pride should be something that they pay attention to,” he said.
Zimmer said that there were other considerations that LAUSD must look at besides how much Pride is admired by faculty, parents and students.
“There are moments in any superintendent’s and school board member’s career where we have to weigh issues of students’ safety against your positive feelings for any individual and understanding about their role in the community,” he said. “Tragically, this appears to be one of those occasions.”
Zimmer said he would not comment on how the disciplinary action was handled until the end of the grievance process.
Many of the same challenges – potential colocations, a possible loss of state funding to schools, which charter school will be awarded the Walgrove land lease and the resolution of Pride’s situation, among others – await Zimmer and the families of District 4 in 2012.
“It’s going to be a very, very interesting year, to say the least,” the school board member concluded with a resigned smile.