Public education boosters plead the case for LAUSD in Westchester

By Gary Walker

With charter schools continuing to expand their footprint throughout the Westside, L.A. Unified School District officials are urging local parents not to allow prejudices about traditional public schools to guide their educational decisions.

And that includes drawing conclusions from standardized test scores.

“Go and see what is actually going on. Go see what’s happening in the classroom and talk to the teachers. It shouldn’t always solely be about a school’s latest score. You will never be able to know a school only by its test score,” LAUSD Board of Education President Steve Zimmer told the roughly 150 people who attended the first Westside Public Education Community Meeting on Oct. 26 at Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester.

In addition to standardized testing, local education initiatives and campus infrastructure were among the primary topics covered during the event, a 90-minute Q&A session featuring Zimmer, LAUSD Deputy Supt. Michelle King and Instructional Area Supt. Cheryl Hildreth taking questions submitted in advance. Event organizer Michele Cooley-Strickland, a member of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester – Playa, moderated the panel.

Though public education can be a heated topic on the Westside  — especially when it comes to charters occupying space on traditional public school campuses — meeting attendees showered Zimmer with applause as he lambasted “an obsession with standardized testing” that he said some parents and school administrators have fueled.

“We cannot go back to that madness again,” Zimmer said. “Children are not about test scores, and schools should not be solely focused on getting that number. Schools are about opening minds and critical thinking. Schools are about relationships and project-based learning.”

As for parents visiting traditional public schools before deciding against enrolling their children, King noted that there are new principals at several Westside schools — including Venice High School, Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets, Mark Twain Middle School and Beethoven Street Elementary School — who represent a change in direction toward academic innovation.

“The leadership is very excited about the programs at their school sites, and the decisions to start these programs have come from suggestions from families and communities,” King said.

While discussing campus infrastructure, Zimmer recalled the tension and animosity that erupted this summer over his proposal to transfer the popular Mandarin Chinese dual language immersion program at Broadway Elementary School to the Mark Twain Middle School campus. LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines stopped the move after a group of Mar Vista homeowners strenuously opposed it, in part due to concerns about traffic congestion and loss of green space.

“I have learned valuable lessons:  No. 1, traffic [is terrible] around here and you have to make sure that if you plan to bring children into a new community, you have to have a comprehensive plan for traffic when you do that,” Zimmer said.

The most contentious topic in Westside education — charter schools operating classrooms and sharing other facilities on traditional public school campuses — didn’t come up during the Oct. 26 panel discussion.

Zimmer did, however, lament that charters initially intended to complement traditional public schools have instead become their rivals.

“The vision back then was not about competition. It was about how charter schools can become laboratories where we could cross new frontiers, try new pedagogies and approaches of how to really work with children. Along the way, things changed and it wasn’t about innovation and creativity. It became about competition and it became the driving force for charters,” Zimmer said.

Hildreth responded to a question about magnet schools and whether they too can foster a sense of competition.

“It’s not about competition,” she said. “It’s about matching the skills and needs of your child with the pathway of a particular school.”

King contemplated a trade apprenticeship program and floated the idea of starting an international baccalaureate program at either of the local high schools.

“If we’re going to break through on the Westside as advocates of public education,” said Zimmer, “we have to start thinking about all kids as our kids.”