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Commentary: Reflections on my final day of covering LAUSD

Vanessa Romo | July 2, 2015

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Vanessa-RomoOn my last day with LA School Report I’d like to take a minute (or ten) to do some navel gazing — reflect on the things I’ve learned as an education reporter covering this behemoth school district, a job for the most part I have truly enjoyed.

First, the things I won’t be missing about the daily beat: Without a doubt, I will not miss the stuffy, windowless press room at LA Unified headquarters, a room outfitted with a television set made sometime in 1982 and only two electrical outlets. The fact that reporters celebrated when a district consultant (shout out to Sean Rossall) brought in a power strip gives you an idea of how bleak it is in there. Not to mention cockroaches so brazen that they actually crawled up a reporter’s leg. Not this one, thank goodness, although rumor has it a colleague has video of me screaming like a little girl as I squashed one under my shoe.

The endless board meetings that go deep, deep into the night will be also be easy to skip. Sometimes they went on because board members took turns pontificating on the fundamental human right of a good education. A worthwhile exercise, to be sure, but not always appropriate considering the day’s agenda. Other times the board was simply confused over process — is this a vote for the resolution or the amendment to the resolution? And if so, does it change the timing of the original resolution or can we come back to vote on the modified resolution next month? Tick-tock, tick-tock.

Meanwhile, I’d curse myself for not packing a Cliff bar. “Why don’t I just buy a box and put it in the trunk of my car?” I asked myself time and time again. I never remembered.

Finally, the rigmarole involved in getting access to the 24th floor of LA Unified headquarters. Are you on the list? Does so-and-so know you’re coming? What time is your appointment? Are you sure it’s today? What’s your credit score? Perhaps, I’m showing my own hand here, and maybe other reporters had an easier time of it, but I wish it wasn’t complicated to pop-in for quick conversations to catch up on ongoing stories or simply avoid a six-email-exchange on what turned out to be pretty straight forward set of questions.

Still, I will miss it.

Because I’m a softy, I’ll miss the small, simple stories most, which I have to admit, I wish I’d written more often. The types of stories that are about one teacher, one classroom, or one program that is changing the life of students.

I went to public school. Not in LAUSD, but here in LA — Montebello Unified— where the demographics mirror those of the district. Mostly poor, mostly Latino, mostly behind the eight ball. And I remember loving school and all of my teachers, with the exception of Ms. Rita. You know what you did. 

I didn’t know then what I know now: that virtually every student in the schools I attended would today qualify for concentrated and supplemental funds. We were all a combination of low-income, foster youth, English learners or special education students. In other words, we were the very “neediest students” I now write about.

Even through middle school I didn’t know that going to school year-round and going to class in a trailer meant the district was over-crowded and too poor to build new facilities. Or that kids in other districts used actual books not just copied packets of Junior Great Books short stories. (Remember the one about the gun that didn’t make a sound? Spooooooky!)

I was blissfully unaware, and that was probably due to the efforts and dedication of my teachers. School was just school, and I joined math club, the history club, played the violin, acted in school plays, stayed after-school for special GATE programs, and became a cheerleader followed by school president. Each one of those activities was organized and run by an adult who chose to devote extra hours to our growth as future adults.

Students today deserve that, and their success, however small, should be recognized.

While covering the minutia of politics behind the policies is its own sport, it’s only in the classroom that they are put to the test. Are iPads the answer to improving learning? Let’s see what happens when a group of fifth graders is asked to use them. Obvious, I know.

In covering this beat I’ve observed as one education dogma is swapped out for another, a newer (sometimes older) set of tenets now in vogue. It seems to happen every handful of years and each time, those in charge are convinced this is the right solution. Meantime, problematic schools remain problematic, and students are the victims of the revolving policy door. 

For evidence look no further than Jefferson High, Crenshaw High, or any of the Reed schools, most of which have been reconstituted, broken up into smaller schools, reunified as a single campus or re-structured into magnet schools. Lots of change has resulted in little academic improvement.

IMHO, the biggest challenge facing the district is due diligence and follow-through, a dedication to stick with an issue and stay on top of it. A collective amnesia seems to take over. Time and again, the district adopts a new plan to solve a problem, board members call it a priority, a rally is held, and the toasting begins. Then it’s filed away until there’s a flare up or a new scandal arises. 

It’s what happened with MISIS, which is about $70 million over budget. Shortly after the first meltdown exposing MISIS as an utter failure, former school board member Tamar Galatzan, complained, “We were never told about this!” Why not? At some point the board approved the initial $29 million expenditure. Didn’t anyone wonder how the money was being spent?

It’s what has happened with the A through G, a policy adopted 10 years ago. Every couple of years since 2005 a new analysis revealed that middle school students were entering high school under-prepared, schools were not offering the right courses, and many didn’t have the resources to do so. Yet, it appears to have come as a big surprise this year that only 37 percent of the class of 2017 is on track to graduate meeting the “C” standard. Eventually, the board was forced to drop it. 

Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy is another recent example. It is a school embroiled in a legal battle for years because of the teacher and administrator turnover rate, yet vital teaching positions remained unfilled for more than a year. Seriously, no science teacher at a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math school? Somebody pick up the phone.

But I digress and I don’t want to go out as Debbie Downer on a negative note. I’ve enjoyed exploring the district, problems and all, and getting to know teachers, parents and students, even some of the board members. Most of you were nice to me — you know who you are — and I’ll miss you. I hope you miss me.

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