Interview: Schoolyard Scuffles
LAUSD Board of Education President Steve Zimmer on the winner-take-all attitudes that are hurting public schools
The new Common Core state standardized test results are in, and they don’t look great for LAUSD.
Nearly a year after the departure of Supt. John Deasy, the school district still awaits new permanent executive leadership.
Traditional public school enrollment is declining as charter schools pick up more students and move into empty LAUSD classrooms, while specialized education programs designed to keep families from leaving the district are encountering resistance from neighborhood schools.
Steve Zimmer, the longtime Westside LAUSD board member who became president of the board in July, has a lot on his plate.
A former high school teacher and counselor, Zimmer says he hopes to chart a different course than past LAUSD board presidents — one less-defined by political friction and internal division. But he does not mince words about his dislike of the California Charter Schools Association, whose independent expenditure committee spent heavily against him during his 2013 reelection bid, a race that drew national attention due to the involvement of billionaire Eli Broad and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Zimmer takes personal responsibility for the failure in June of his plan to transfer the popular Mandarin Chinese dual language immersion program from Broadway Elementary School in Venice to a new, $30-million facility on the Mark Twain Middle School campus in Mar Vista. Believing that most stakeholders would accept the program as part of a larger vision for a Westside language education pipeline was a critical mistake, he says.
“I was broadcasting a perspective that was shared by a very few,” Zimmer says. “I vastly overestimated the reservoir of goodwill, which is completely dry on the Westside. And there is not a first assumption of goodwill.”
— Gary Walker
What went wrong with your plan to move the Mandarin immersion students to Mark Twain?
Change is very hard for people. I don’t think, theoretically, that it was the wrong strategy, and three years ago it had a lot of support at many levels. What I should have understood was how difficult the fight would be to support a program but ensure the support for that program did not cause collateral damage to children in other programs.
I don’t think there will be a revisiting of a large construction project at Mark Twain, at least not in the immediate future. The pain is just too extreme, and without a willingness to do the kind of work that would be necessary to use this space in a different way and not create a major disruption in people’s lives, it cannot work. You have to have an absolute commitment to it at every level. And to force it down people’s throats at this point would have very negative reverberations.
Does this jeopardize your plans for the dual-language immersion pipeline?
I don’t think it will because I think it’s too strong. The challenge for LAUSD is to balance all of these things and approach our role as a district that can embrace, build and promote programs that will grow enrollment. The multi-language future of Venice is not just about Mandarin immersion. We have excellent programs in Spanish immersion at Grand View [Boulevard Elementary School] and an emerging program at Broadway that are also integral components.
Given that they’re back to sharing space at Broadway, what’s the future for the Mandarin program?
It is an outstanding instructional program and it is capable of adjusting. I have mad respect for the families who have endured the struggle with the Mandarin immersion program and who continue to believe that this can be done through the public school system. To say that we would lose the program if it was divided between two schools — I could say that I oppose that, but does that mean that it is a catastrophic end to the program? No, it means that it requires a significant adjustment to the program.
Stoner Avenue Elementary School in Del Rey seems to have an especially acrimonious co-location situation (charter schools sharing facilities with neighborhood campuses) with the Inner City Education Foundation. Why do such battles happen so frequently on the Westside?
The problem is there is no proactive plan, and no one sees anyone doing anything to bring people together. The behavior of the [California] Charter Schools Association as it relates to co-locations is one of the most hostile and aggressive — almost militaristic — approaches that I’ve ever seen. And that has blown apart any credibility that it will ever have with me. They are not an ‘all kids’ establishment. They are a ‘some kids’ organization, and that approach has been extraordinarily detrimental on the ground.
The combat approach that the charter schools association has and that LAUSD has fallen into has hurt public education. Proposition 39 [the 2000 state law that authorized co-locations] both in concept and in policy, has caused enormous and disproportionate injury.
Common Core has become a political litmus test in national politics, but can it help close the achievement gap?
It has not been as controversial in California as it has been in the rest of the country because we’ve already been teaching many of the same types of standards, so the transition to Common Core will not be as problematic here as it might be in other states. I think it has the potential — along with many other things — to help close the achievement gap. It will require a higher level of thinking and problem-solving [from prior standardized tests]. And there has to be a much higher level of expectation from the board.
The breakdowns really are around testing. We are always in danger of reverting to the teach-to-the test, high stress level of standardized testing, and we have to guard against that way of thinking.
Last year you pushed to get immigration law assistance for students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Will that continue?
Absolutely. I really believe that DACA students encapsulate what the role of public education is as a whole. It is incumbent upon us to seize the moment and provide whatever services to these kids that they need, because these are our kids.
What qualities are you looking for in LAUSD’s next superintendent?
The next superintendent has to be an equity champion when it comes to all students — not just some students. Whomever we choose has to be the kind of leader who understands that our equity mission succeeds when we all come together and not when we’re divided.
Did you have that type of leader during the last three to four years?
In the last several years we had someone who was a catalyst for equity, John Deasy. But when you have those types of leaders they can create a lot of fire and heat and division. Deasy chose to lead in a way that intentionally divided people instead of bringing them together.
I think we’re at a critical juncture in public education. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but if we don’t reverse the decline of student enrollment, all progress that we’ve made could be lost.