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Commentary: Parents want LAUSD school board to support new STEM school

Guest contributor | August 21, 2017

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Rashidah Shakir-Blackshere and her son. (Courtesy: Speak Up)

By Jenny Hontz

The LAUSD Board votes Tuesday on a resolution to oppose the creation of an innovative new state-authorized STEM middle and high school intended to increase the pipeline of qualified under-represented students of color and women attending elite STEM universities and entering science, technology, engineering and math professions.

The resolution against this proposed school, which would be located in Los Angeles and operated in partnership with UCLA, demonstrates a reflexive opposition to innovation and ignores the desperate need for underserved kids to have more high-quality school options in math and science.

District 1 Board Member George McKenna and District 3 Board Member Scott Schmerelson are sponsoring the resolution opposing AB 1217, the state bill that would create the new school. The resolution claims that with 97 existing STEM magnet programs, Los Angeles is “already addressing the need for STEM education.”

There’s just one glaring problem: McKenna and Schmerelson fail to address the quality of those programs. Speak UP asked McKenna’s office to share the percentage of students that are meeting state proficiency standards in math at LAUSD’s STEM schools that admit all students – not just those serving kids chosen to attend because of high test scores.

“That would not be relevant,” said Sharon Robinson, McKenna’s chief of staff.    

We beg to differ. A quick look at the data suggests that Los Angeles has a serious need for higher-quality options. Right now, 75 percent of LAUSD 11th grade students are failing to meet or exceed state standards in math.

LA’s existing STEM schools are also underperforming in science. The average number of proficient students in schools that have “science” in their name was 51 percent, which is below the LAUSD average of 53 percent and the county average of 60 percent, according to analysis published last November by LAUSD math teacher Benjamin Feinberg on his School Data Nerd blog.

California is the fifth worst state in the nation in terms of 8th-grade science performance, according to a report card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

And while Latino and black students represent 56 percent of total secondary enrollment in California, they only represent 28 percent of those enrolled in a calculus course, which is considered the gateway to university-level STEM degrees.

Part of the problem is the shortage of teachers qualified to teach high-level math and science.

This new STEM school proposes to address that problem by tapping university professors and science and tech professionals to teach alongside credentialed teachers – something magnet and charter schools are not able to do in the large numbers this school envisions. Universities such as Caltech and MIT have signed letters supporting the creation of this school.

Parents also see this as an incredible opportunity for kids. Speak UP member Rashidah Shakir-Blackshere, who lives in Board District 1, has a third-grade African-American son interested in studying aerospace.

“STEM education is not just about technical aptitude. It’s about building confidence in problem solving and critical thinking,” she said. “What better way to foster that confidence, especially in underserved, largely minority communities, than by hands-on collaboration with scientists and engineers?”

Shakir-Blackshere teaches at LA Trade Technical College and sees first-hand how much her community needs better high school math instruction. Eighty percent of the new students test in at a remedial 6th-8th-grade level in math and have a hard time catching up. “If they’re coming in at an 8th-grade level, something is missing in their formative years,” she said. “They’re stunted.”

As for a new public STEM school run in partnership with UCLA: “I only see good things coming out of it,” she said.

The entire tone of the opposition to the school suggests a hidebound mentality that puts bureaucratic rules before the needs of kids.

“It’s not a matter of not wanting to try something new,” Robinson said. “It’s a matter of the process and procedure of doing it. And there are guidelines in the state of California.”

The McKenna-Schmerelson resolution makes the tired argument that a state-run school will siphon dollars away from the district and existing LAUSD STEM schools. “If we have 100 kids in the building or 300 kids, we still have to turn on the lights,” Robinson said.

It’s high time that LAUSD reexamined that assumption and its stubborn adherence to a failed status quo. If a program is losing enrollment because it’s not successfully educating students, perhaps it’s time to consider turning off the lights and creating something new and better instead. 

Improve failing programs, expand the seats available at more successful programs or cut bureaucratic staff when enrollment declines. But please don’t limit quality choices for parents and kids. That’s not a kids-first solution to LAUSD’s fiscal problems.

In fact, opponents of this bill may be squandering an opportunity to help all of LA’s kids. The visionaries behind this new STEM school hope to have university professors and industry experts conducting teacher trainings to increase the pipeline of qualified STEM teachers in LA, benefitting all kids.

Fourteen other states, including Illinois, North Carolina and Texas, have established similar state-run STEM high schools that have trained thousands of teachers and produced graduates who attend the nation’s best STEM universities and who go on to be leaders in STEM fields.

Los Angeles currently has no public schools serving under-represented populations that are considered regular feeder schools to top STEM universities. This is a chance to change that.

Because the school would require a new state-authorizing model, lawmakers may have legitimate questions about transparency, accountability and local control. But that’s no reason to reject this plan out of hand, especially given the auspices behind it and the fact that other states have similar models that are successful. 

As for fears about oversight quality because of the distance between LA and Sacramento, let’s not forget that we already have schools authorized and overseen by the state, such as New West Charter, which is successful and in demand.

The bottom line: California has the country’s largest tech workforce, and its largest city should be producing graduates who are qualified to enter the field. And as Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach struggle to create a more diverse workforce, this new school, if allowed to succeed, could be part of the solution.

We urge board members not to stand in the way of progress. 

Jenny Hontz is in charge of content and communications for Speak UP, which is launching Speak UP Board Watch this week, a digital hub for parents to track LAUSD Board decisions and take action on behalf of a kids-first agenda.


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