The Argonaut: What are the top characteristics parents should look for in a school?
Nick Melvoin: Thinking back to my time as a student and a teacher and now as a board member talking to parents, I think the quality of the people is the first thing I would look for — a strong principal, great faculty. I’m pleased to say we’re opening the school year with really dynamic adults at our schools. Also, the diversity of programs … looking at what the school has to offer besides just the basics, and afterschool programs as well.
Why should LAUSD rank its neighborhood schools and charter schools?
This was passed by the board 6 to 1 over a year ago, and now that we’re about to roll it out there’s been some opposition in the news. But I wouldn’t start with the rankings. There are two things I was trying to solve when I came into office.
One is that we had no internal evaluation system to look at where we should put more support and which schools were doing well. If you were to ask me which five schools were the fastest-growing in middle-school math, there was no tool the district had to answer that question.
Another is that parents were going to websites like greatschools.com and telling me they wouldn’t go to a school because it has a 2- or 3-out-of-10 ranking, and when I looked at those systems I could see they were flawed. They weren’t looking at growth; they weren’t looking at demographics as much as they should.
We took it upon ourselves to create a tool geared toward improvement — internal-facing so we know which schools need more resources, and external-facing so parents don’t have to look at what in many cases is flawed information.
I think there are some people opposed to this because they’re fine with the status quo; I’m not. … I get that some of the schools are going to feel like they’re working really hard and still not improving, but that’s the point — we need to focus on results and figure out how to help our schools that are struggling.
What’s going on with early childhood education?
This has been a priority. Kentwood Elementary School in Westchester has had a closed early childhood facility for a few years now. That’s a double-bad situation, because not only are you missing those seats but it’s also been kind of a blight. When people walk by and see this dilapidated building it reflects poorly on the school. That facility is going to be reopening soon, which means we’ll be able to serve more kids and beautify the neighborhood.
At Westminster Avenue Elementary in Venice, we’re going to be expanding that early childhood program and trying some innovative ways to attract families, including maybe a sliding-scale fee-based program. One of the challenges with early childhood programs is we don’t get the money from the state that we need, so we’re looking at charging parents a nominal fee that’s much cheaper than private school but helps us run the program. My hope is that families going to private preschool will come back to LAUSD, and once they’re on campus they’ll stay for elementary school.
What are you most excited about for the school year ahead?
I think we’re really making progress in expanding opportunities and looking at how we go from good to great — not just graduate kids, but graduate them for college. When I came to the district, only 40% of 11th graders were taking the SAT. We decided to give it to them in school for free, and last year over 80% took the SAT. … I’m excited about expanding our dual language immersion programs through high school. … And I’m excited also to figure out how the district can be a good community partner. We have a pilot program to keep our schools open on nights and weekends as parks. We want to be a focal point in the community.
Interview conducted by Managing Editor Joe Piasecki.