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How does a school succeed in LAUSD? By getting around the bureaucracy, principals say

Mike Szymanski | November 30, 2016

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Carpenter’s entire faculty dressed up as Harry Potter characters recently. (Courtesy: Carpenter Community Charter School)

LA Unified success stories from a raft of school models were on display Tuesday, and the unifying theme was how school leaders had to get around district bureaucracy in order to succeed.

Principals from affiliated charters, magnets, pilots and choice schools touted their successes at the Curriculum, Instruction and Educational Equity Committee. All of them emphasized that they could not have achieved what they did without the special autonomies granted in their school models. No traditional school without a specialized program was represented at the committee meeting.

“LAUSD is not one-size-fits-all, it’s about personalizing and equity,” Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson said. “We have open invitations and great practices to share these successes.”

The agenda was filled with model schools, including those labeled as Schools to Watch by the state, those run by Distinguished Educators (who were named last month) and those picked for an accreditation pilot program.

School board President Steve Zimmer, who is on the committee along with four other board members, district staff and union representatives, acknowledged the extraordinary work of the schools but said a “school can highlight what needs to be changed and refocused and readjusted, and this district has not always encouraged that honesty. We haven’t discouraged it, but we haven’t encouraged it.”

Zimmer referred to accreditation from the Western Association of Schools (WASC), which has been done with 54 district high schools for the past six years and is now being piloted by middle schools for the first time. The independent evaluation by a private nonprofit accrediting association looks at all school programs to identify action plans that can help students, especially with improving A-G graduation requirements, involving the entire school community in decisions and dividing the school into focus groups that delve into specific issues.

WASC accredits schools in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands and assures a school is “trustworthy” for student learning by analyzing curriculum and school atmosphere through site visits and professional development. It validates transcripts for university acceptance, offers suggestions and evaluates students’ feelings about the school environment.

“I’m a big believer in the WASC process, when schools use them in the right way, it can accelerate school transformation and can validate and highlight what works if schools have the courage to be honest,” Zimmer said.

Arzie Galvez, director of the district’s Advanced Learning Options, said WASC is one of six regional accreditation programs in the country and the six pilot schools were identified by Superintendent Michelle King in July to prepare for a school site evaluation in 2017.

As the schools prepared for WASC evaluations “staff was shocked to discover that they were not preparing for high school, and some innovation programs were being detrimental to student progress,” Galvez said.


Committee chairperson Richard Vladovic

The six middle schools preparing for accreditation visits are Dodson, Frost, Irving, Oak Kim Academy, Nightingale and White middle schools. King will decide whether to continue the pilot program next year or expand it to all middle schools.

Galvez said the WASC evaluations encourage collaboration with parents, community, staff and students and they realized “you cannot just collect reports and do nothing, you must take immediate action. Over and over research says you can’t just admire the problem, you must do something now.”

Committee chairperson Richard Vladovic praised Dodson Middle School, which is in his school board district. He said the staff stepped up to the WASC pilot program and “had a loving commitment to bring kids up to standards and not lower them. They have an instructional program that is second to none.”

Dodson’s assistant principal Agnes Pitlik said she spent Thanksgiving vacation going over the more than 100 pages that her 78-teacher staff created for the WASC evaluation of the school of 1,886 students in Rancho Palos Verdes.

“We really asked hard questions and were really honest on what we needed to improve on,” said teacher Lovelyn Marquez-Prueher, who led some of the focus groups of the teachers at Dodson. The focus groups are centered on how to present answers during the WASC evaluations, which are planned for next year, and how to revamp educational curriculum accordingly.

Zimmer said one of the problems with the district overall is, “We remain addicted to standardized tests.” He said the WASC evaluations look at the entire school climate, not just test scores.

“I tried for five years to elevate the school report card with minimal success because I’m dealing with an addiction that is very purposeful,” Zimmer said. “If we have an honest process we shouldn’t ask people to hide and allow people to acknowledge we are not breaking through and we are struggling and need help.”

Vladovic said this is part of a decentralization of school bureaucracy and control, and that it is coming from King and started with former Superintendent Ramon Cortines.


Carpenter Principal Joe Martinez flanked by Maria Nichols, a director for Local District Northeast, and Frances Gipson. (Courtesy

Among the other successes touted Tuesday was Carpenter Community Charter School, whose Principal Joe Martinez was recently honored as a Distinguished Educator by the Charter College of Education at Cal State LA. Celebrating 25 years at LAUSD, Martinez explained how he helped the school that at one point was on the verge of closing in the 1980s because of low attendance. Now it is so popular that parents routinely fake their addresses to get in.

“None of this would have been possible without the affiliated charter model,” said Martinez, describing the hybrid model that allows for autonomy from the district but retains union contracts. He said that at one point he worried about some of the classrooms they were using for dance, art and music being taken away and shared by a charter school through Prop. 39. “On paper it looked like a dark classroom, but these were programs funded by the parents.”

Martinez didn’t have Title 1 funding but did have a lot of active parents who got them an additional $1.5 million in extra money after the school in 2009 became the second affiliated charter in the San Fernando Valley.

He used the money to bring a social-emotional learning program MindUp to calm students down and get them into a learning mindset. He also brought in Singapore math to the school.

“We are shifting away from the district-issued textbooks, and three grade levels have not shifted to Singapore math,” Martinez said. The school has 74 percent performing at or above grade level in math, 80 percent in English and 91 percent in science. They also have a dance teacher, a science lab, a media room and two former soccer professionals teaching PE.

“Learning should be fun, and I have a team that believes like I do,” Martinez said, displaying a photograph of a recent Harry Potter Day where all of the faculty dressed as characters from the books.


Veronica Vega from Nava Learning Academy.

Another Distinguished Educator, instructional coach Veronica Vega from the Julian Nava Learning Academy, said her pilot school has 1,000 students and one-third are English learners. The school has achieved a 44 percent redesignation rate.

“She is a miracle maker,” Vladovic said about Vega, who talked about meeting with teachers regularly through professional development training as a big reason for her success.

Luther Burbank Middle School, with its Math Science Technology Magnet and Police Academy Magnet, was highlighted as a School to Watch and has had dozens of officials from other schools visiting over the past year to learn from what they’re doing.

Burbank Principal Christine Moore noted that “the community got up in arms and took a stand for the need of a good middle school in the area when it reached a boiling point.”

She said they didn’t rush when deciding who to hire for the Highland Park school and asked prospective teachers, “Do you like middle school kids?”

Moore pointed out successes in lower-income schools and said, “everyone else above us is a charter school.”

Board member Ref Rodriguez pointed out that Burbank Middle School is still a Public Choice School, which requires an annual self-evaluation but receives no extra money. He said the school board should look into changing that.

Another successful school highlighted Tuesday was Millikan Middle School Affiliated Charter and Performing Arts Magnet, where Principal John Plevack shared some of the students’ successes in the math academy and cinema program.

The school brings in screenwriters, actors and broadcast engineers to explain how the arts can be a profession and not just an after-work hobby. Some Millikan students spend up to three hours a day on a bus in order to attend the Sherman Oaks school.

“We have highlighted some great things in our schools throughout the district today,” Vladovic said at the end of Tuesday’s committee meeting. “You are a shining group.”

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