By Gary Walker
The state of schools in the Venice and Mar Vista region was the main course on an assorted menu of educational items at Mark Twain Middle School Sept. 12, when many local schools were hosting “Back to School Night.”
While parents outside the school’s auditorium served a variety of different foods to parents, children and visitors, the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Education Committee invited Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Steve Zimmer to serve up his thoughts on different initiatives and policies that could strengthen the academic lives of students who attend schools in Venice and Mar Vista.
Zimmer believes that four initiatives that the school board recently approved can help stabilize and grow existing academic models that local principals have put in place or are creating. They involve plans to increase enrollment, assist existing language programs, build on the arts in schools and create sustainable schools and environmental initiatives.
In a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the state of education in LAUSD but largely focused on how to improve local schools, the school board member wove together the threads of the worldwide financial crisis, the explosion of charter schools and the inability of the school district to plan for a number of different scenarios and talked about the effect these occurrences have had on schools.
Zimmer, who represents District 4 schools, which include Mar Vista, Venice, Del Rey and Westchester said survival had been the watchword for many schools during the last several years.
“The very existence of public education as we know it has been in great peril,” he began.
LAUSD has been unable to invest in programs that could bring families back to public schools, he said, because of what he called a “perfect storm” of unprecedented factors.
“The economic crisis facing our schools has been the biggest single worst public sector crisis since the Great Depression,” Zimmer continued. “The crisis in Los Angeles has had some unique elements to it.”
Against the backdrop of the recession was the proliferation of charter organizations.
“There should be a robust set of choices that best match instructional and academic needs of each child,” Zimmer said. “And several of these initiatives speak to that.
“We don’t criticize the notion of choice; we just recognize that we’ve been in this dual pressure public storm that has caused us to cut, cut and cut more due to the economic crisis, and for the first time really having to face a type of competition that we haven’t seen before.”
In a normal situation, the school board member, who serves as board vice president, said LAUSD would have been able to make investments in initiatives to offer what he called “congruent options” versus independent charter schools.
“Our charter partners could have operated differently, but they chose not to,” he said. “They chose to use the crisis to have a type of expansion and saturation that we haven’t seen before.”
Zeena Pliska, a teacher at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista who is also an education committee member, said what resonated with her is what Zimmer said about the confluence of the financial crisis and the charter movement’s full-steam-ahead approach to expansion.
Zimmer said all the ingredients for a successful educational pipeline are in place in Venice and Mar Vista.
“We have the opportunity to capitalize on the diversity of this community and make the commitment, as a school community, as a Los Angeles community, and say your child can come through our Venice system and be multi-lingual and multi-cultural at a level that upon graduation from Venice High School, they would have a choice to study wherever they wanted,” Zimmer said. “That they would have the choice to study anywhere in the United States or in a country where they speak Spanish or French or Mandarin because they would have that level of competence of fluency.”
Zimmer mentioned some of the language initiatives in Venice and Mar Vista that are succeeding and have in some ways helped reinvigorate their schools.
He spotlighted Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista as a standout school that features a dual language program.
“We have simply the best dual immersion program in LAUSD and I’m sure one of the best in the state,” he asserted. “It has weathered the storm of budget, cuts, of pedagogical changes, and it is battle-tested.”
The Mandarin program at Broadway Elementary School in Venice is another example of success, Zimmer said. “Despite the struggles that we have had with finding the right home for them, you can’t deny that it is an incredible program,” he said. “The first middle school program in district history we’re doing here at Mark Twain.”
Venice High School Principal Dr. Elsa Mendoza also attended the meeting and said she found it to be a very good way to meet parents whom she had not previously known, as well as hear the community’s concerns about education. “I enjoyed hearing and participating in the conversations about what parents would like to see in their locals schools,” she said after the meeting.
After Zimmer addressed the audience, Pliska facilitated a group of parents to ostensibly talk about how the initiatives would work for local schools, but the conversation took an unexpected detour. “We became entangled in a ‘charter-neighborhood schools’ discussion,” the teacher said. “I see that as a reflection of what many neighborhood schools are going through now.”
Local schools have seen an uptick in their Academic Performance Index. Venice High, Grand View and Mar Vista Elementary School, Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey and Broadway increased their API scores for the 2012-13 school year.
The API measures the academic performance and growth of schools on a variety of academic measures.
Test scores of students in the Mandarin program at Broadway were not included in this year’s scores, as the API only factors scores from third grade and above.
At Venice High and Grand View, the jump in test scores has been impressive, the former making a 23-point jump and the latter gaining 29 points on its scores.
“We’ve seen significant academic improvement, even with the budget cuts and the loss of students,” Mendoza said. “It’s been a collective effort by our students, faculty and parents.”
Zimmer implored the audience to consider what they want the future of education to be locally.
“So I ask you to think about what (that future) could look like in and around Venice. Because why not?” he asked. “Why not be the leaders that show that we can have families return to public education without penalizing and devaluing families who have been in the public education system for years?”
Venice: Zimmer outlines education initiatives designed for local schools
By Gary Walker