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Johnson: LAUSD needs more graduates, fewer dropouts

LA School Report | August 7, 2014

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Alex Johnson with kids LAUSD

Photo: Johnson campaign

Since the June 3 primary that produced Alex Johnson and George McKenna as the finalists for LA Unified’s District 1 board seat election on Aug. 12, the candidates have engaged in no public debates that would give voters a better opportunity to learn their views on contemporary issues.

As a result, LA School Report has asked each of them questions about how they view the district, the job ahead and the challenges facing public school education in Los Angeles.

Today, we hear from Johnson, 34, a lawyer and aide to LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Question: What do you consider the biggest challenges facing the school district? If you could address one of those issues now, what would you do?

Answer: The biggest challenge is LAUSD’s inability to turn the corner on achieving higher graduation rates and lowering dropout rates. Yes, LAUSD’s graduation rate has hit 67 percent but that’s still unacceptably low, and in LAUSD District 1 the graduation rate is only 56 percent.

The path forward requires greater investments in early childhood education, development of language and literacy skills, programs to ensure the effectiveness of professional support and development for teachers and school administrators, and smart budgetary decisions that focus more school district dollars toward classroom needs. 

Finally, better leadership is essential. We cannot have strong teaching and learning if we do not end the governance crisis that results in the dysfunction at LAUSD.

Q: What steps would you recommend to forestall a teachers’ strike?

A: A strike would harmful to all concerned, especially students and teachers.

I have been vocal in calling for increased compensation for teachers because I firmly believe you cannot build an effective teaching core if you do not provide teaching staff with adequate compensation and incentives. 

LAUSD teachers have not received a raise or cost of living adjustment in nearly eight years. They are overdue and deserving of a raise. 

As I understand it, LAUSD has offered a 26.3 percent compensation package over three years, including increases in health benefit costs. Given the present pension crisis with CalSTRS, LAUSD will pick up teacher pension costs.  A new deal for teachers cannot be brokered unless both sides have ample opportunities to negotiate at the bargaining table. 

I urge both sides to return to negotiations and bargain in earnest. A teachers’ strike benefits no one, but more importantly, a strike would hurt our children.

 Q: How do you balance the widespread support for you by charter school interests versus the financial impact the increasing number of them has on LA Unified?

A: My campaign is supported by a diverse array of people interested in change, results and improvement in our public school system. I have significant support from labor, but also business community leaders. That’s extremely rare. 

I am not opposed to charter public schools because the majority of students in District 1 who attend charter schools are children of color. And they are graduating at rates significantly higher than the district-wide graduate rate average. 

Every decision I make on the array of education policy issues that come before the board will be made prudently, thoughtfully, and independently based on the perspectives of my constituents, the concerns of parents, and the data that undergirds any policy. While I have received support from the charter public school community, we must still hold charter schools accountable and transparent, just like any entity engaged in the business of educating our children must be.

Q:  The Common Core curriculum has been embraced by LAUSD and the board. But it has generated intense opposition in other states. What do you think about the Common Core as a means to improve academic achievement?

A: One thing is certain: we need to enhance the critical thinking skills of students and dispense with the rote memorization that has become commonplace as a result of No Child Left Behind. 

We will not know for some time whether Common Core is ultimately a better curriculum framework. Certainly, we have significant work to do to ensure that teachers receive enough professional development and training to be comfortable with this shift in pedagogy. 

I am hopeful and optimistic about the import of Common Core, but I want to ensure that we are implementing it in a manner that is more successful than how LAUSD implemented changes in technology. The bottom line is, students should have a rigorous curriculum that prepares them for college or career.

Q:  What have you learned from Sylvia Rousseau as a board liaison for District 1? 

A: Dr. Rousseau deserves to be commended for her thoughtful and steady representation of District 1 over the past few months. I’ve been fortunate to have several meetings with her to hear her ideas for improving our schools and promoting student achievement. She has been very gracious with her time spent with me.

We differ in some policy areas, as any two people would, but we both have a common agenda: improve the quality of educational outcomes for the students in District 1. 

I recently spent time with Dr. Rousseau discussing her tremendous work on the subject of Standard English Learners (SEL). Her policy resolution on the topic was unanimously approved by the board, and if implemented correctly, will provide support for students whose language skills leave them unprepared for the workforce or higher education. 

The challenge will be to ensure the SEL policy is consistently integrated into the ongoing work of the Board. I have committed to Dr. Rousseau that I would make this policy implementation a top priority. 

Q: Parental involvement within LAUSD is at an all-time low.  How would you change that, taking into consideration the significant number of foster children in District 1? 

A: For starters we must look at how we engage working parents. Robust parental engagement should include far more than providing cookies and punch, a short speech and a pamphlet, and calling that parent engagement. 

Parental engagement starts in a child’s earliest years of life, before they enter preschool or during their preschool years. That’s why I worked with the Los Angeles Urban League to fund a parent academy that engages parents of preschool-age children. 

LAUSD is a massive bureaucracy. A majority of parents do not understand how to navigate it. We need to work with organizations such as Urban League, Families in Schools and local PTA’s to engage parents. 

We should consider extending Parent-Teacher Night to a weekend, so working parents have a better opportunity to participate and learn how to be more involved in their children’s education. Let’s innovate and use technology wisely to expand parent involvement. Tele-town halls can provide parents without access to transportation online meeting access to their school’s administrators and teachers. 

Let’s be creative about how we engage parents and provide them with information necessary to help their child succeed in school. We ought to be able to expand our parental engagement bandwidth by making use of parks, faith-based institutions and non-profit organizations through the smart use of online meeting technology. 

Q: On your web site you argue that many LA children don’t have “up-to-date “textbooks, clean classrooms, summer programs, libraries, and well trained teachers.” How do you satisfy all those needs given the district’s budget limitations?  

A: We must have three solid approaches: (1) Thoughtful and strategic stewardship of the LAUSD’s resources, (2) Leveraging public-private partnerships and (3) Decision-making that is focused on the “whole child” and places children’s education needs first in the budgetary process.

Q: Despite your experiences as a lawyer and a policy advisor you’ve never worked in a school. How does that limit your effectiveness as a board member?

A: The statement ‘you’ve never worked in a school’ is not true. I have taught in a classroom at the high school level and served as an adjunct lecturer at the college level. The McKenna campaign and their supporters peddle that falsehood in their campaign mail. They ought to do their homework.

While in law school I participated in a fellowship where I taught elective courses in the D.C. Public School System. I also taught as an adjunct lecturer for three years at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York system (CUNY).

My effectiveness as a board member should be judged by the range and substance of my professional experiences and the diverse skill set that I bring to the education policy process. I am the only candidate in this race who has relevant and recent education policy experience. 

The question voters should be asking of the candidates is: What have you accomplished lately? I am not questioning George McKenna’s commitment to children. But Mr. McKenna’s track record as an administrator over the last 30 years has been marked by falling graduation rates, poor test scores, and financial mismanagement.

In contrast, I have a proven track record of success, improving access to early education, making children safer in school, and helping children do better in the classroom by focusing on the “whole child.”  I understand education policy and leveraging resources to benefit students and schools. 

I’m a fighter and an effective advocate. I understand education is not simply about book learning; it’s also about early childhood education, school based health centers, school safety, mental health, joint-use agreements, infrastructure, school finance, teacher effectiveness, charter public schools, and bringing a 21st century education to students in LAUSD.

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