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300 students turn out to hear LAUSD school board candidates address college readiness

Sarah Favot | May 8, 2017

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Nick Melvoin, Imelda Padilla and Steve Zimmer at Saturday’s United Way of Greater Los Angeles forum. Kelly Gonez appears via Skype.

It’s difficult to measure whether voters are interested in the Los Angeles school board elections, which could shift the ideological balance of the board. But for those most affected by how well LA Unified delivers education, it was standing room only at a Saturday forum where students heard how the four candidates plan to make sure they are prepared for college.

Never mind that it was in the middle of Advanced Placement testing weeks, or coming into the home stretch of finals, or even that some students had taken SAT tests that morning. About 300 middle and high school students spent their Saturday afternoon at the forum hosted by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles focused on high school graduation requirements and college readiness.

They may not be old enough to vote, but their turnout showed that students are interested in their district’s elected leadership.

The forum was organized through the United Way’s Young Civic Leaders program and led by high schoolers who posed questions from their fellow students to the candidates.

District 4 candidates Nick Melvoin and Steve Zimmer, the school board president, attended as well as District 6’s Imelda Padilla. Kelly Gonez, who faces Padilla in the May 16 runoff, participated via Skype.

Before the forum started, students were treated to tacos and could read materials and watch videos about the fight for equal access to college prep courses dating back to 1968. They also answered questions about what is the highest level of education they want to attain (just one student answered a high school diploma) and if their school is preparing them for their future (35 said yes, 6 said no).

The forum focused on high school graduation requirements and the school board’s vote two years ago to reverse an earlier decision to require that students earn at least a “C” in a set of college preparation courses — the minimum requirement to be eligible for one of the state’s public universities. Last month, LA School Report reported that just 47 percent of the graduating class of 2016 met the eligibility requirements for those “A-G” courses. More than half of the graduates had at least one D, according to the district.

Advocates including the United Way are pushing for a C minimum requirement to graduate high school.

Elmer Roldan, United Way’s director of education programs and policy, said he hopes the event will rally the next wave of students who will be involved in advocating for a more rigorous education.

Karen Calderon, the student member of the LA Unified school board and a senior who will attend UCLA in the fall to study political science, was one of the moderators. She said she felt like her school — Alexander Hamilton High — didn’t have enough resources to help her prepare for college.

“A lot of it is up to the student to find outside resources,” she said.

Zeyna Faucette, a junior at Hamilton who also moderated, said she didn’t even know you couldn’t apply to college if you had a D.

“I want (the candidates) to understand we actually care,” said student moderator Marcia Garcia, who will be attending Cal State LA in the fall.

With all of the questions focused on college readiness, the candidates’ answers were repetitive at times. How the candidates proposed to fund more counselors was a common question from the students.

“Counselors are something I’m going to fight for. It’s my priority,” said Padilla, wearing a sweatshirt from Cal Berkeley that she bought for her mother when she was a freshman there. “I know its importance because I am the only candidate that is an LAUSD product. I know how it feels when your school is not fully funded with the services you need.”

Zimmer, who was a counselor at John Marshall High before he was elected, said counselors need to be trained in trauma-informed practices and that all teachers and school staff need to know how to counsel students.

Melvoin, wearing a T-shirt from his alma mater Harvard, said the candidates agree that more counselors are needed, but the question becomes how the district pays for them. Melvoin would work to make the district’s finances transparent and then go to voters to advocate for a parcel tax to fund positions like counselors, nurses, and special education.

Gonez said while the district has a goal of 100 percent graduation, the district needs to ensure high school diplomas are meaningful. She advocated for examining college entrance and completion rates for LA Unified grads and tracking how many students are required to take remedial courses in college.

“That will give us a true, full picture of whether our students are college and career ready,” she said.

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