Candidates for principal must balance student equity and achievement

By Gary Walker

Venice High School students walked out of class last June to protest what many perceived as racial bias stemming from administrators’ pursuit of new academic standards
Photo by Christina Campodonico

Three candidates vying to become the new principal of Venice High School made one of their final pitches on Monday before a local constituency that will play a role in determining whether they will lead the 2,000-plus student school next school year.

More than 150 parents, faculty, students and alumni came to the high school’s gymnasium to hear from Gabriel Griego, Marguerette Gladden and Eileen Hiss, who are competing to replace Dr. Oryla Wiedoeft, who retired after suffering a relapse of a previous cancer diagnosis.

A school committee with faculty, students and parent representation will rank the candidates in the order that they would recommend them to Cheryl Hildreth, who heads the LAUSD’s Local West District, a regional office that oversees Westside schools.

Holding a town hall to meet candidates for principal is unique to Venice High, said LAUSD spokesman Samuel Gilstrap.

The search to replace Wiedoeft comes at an important time in the school’s 93-year history. School administrators and teachers say there is more interest now in local families coming to Venice High and having the right person to continue that trend is crucial.

Wiedoeft was a popular school leader with parents who presided over an increase in the number of students taking advanced placement courses during her two years at Venice High. Test scores and enrollment also increased, but Wiedoeft spent her last days at the school under a cloud after a group of students accused her of making racially insensitive comments and firing a popular African-American counselor.

Hiss, an assistant principal at Sun Valley pilot school Francis Polytechnic High School, talked about the challenges facing students when she addressed the audience.

“There has never been a more important time to be a school leader. We’re at a juncture that we’ve never been at before.  Education is the rock-solid bed of equity, and if we can’t get that right we’re in trouble,” she said.

Griego, principal of Bassett High School in La Puente, said he would motivate both parents and students to continue Venice High’s trajectory of academic achievement.

“And especially those students who aren’t achieving the way that they should. That’s going to be my challenge,” he said. “I’m up to it because I have a lot of experience, and I’ve been able to accomplish great things wherever I’ve been.”

Gladden, who is in charge of the freshmen academy at Manual Arts High School in Exposition Park, cited her willingness to work outside her office, interacting with students and faculty on a regular basis.

“I would love to be a part of the Venice High School community. I’ve asked around about Venice, and it’s really great to see such parental involvement. I really hope that I can be a part of your family,” she said.

Venice High alumnus Eli Akiba, whose daughter is a senior, said there was one unasked question he would have liked to have heard answered.

“‘Why Venice?’ … You always hear people say Venice is different, and we are — not just at the high school,” he said. “Our community is different too, so it’s going to take someone who’s the right fit.”

David Kent, a member of the school management council who was part of the selection committee that reviewed the candidates’ resumes, said Hildreth will make the final decision.