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EXCLUSIVE: Middle school science teacher enters race for San Fernando Valley seat on LAUSD board

Sarah Favot | October 18, 2016

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Kelly Gonez (Courtesy).

Kelly Gonez (Courtesy).

A teacher who worked as an education policy advisor in President Barack Obama’s administration announced Tuesday she is running for the East San Fernando Valley District 6 seat on the LA Unified school board.

Kelly Gonez, a 7th-grade science teacher at Crown Preparatory School in Los Angeles, joins five others who are seeking to replace board member Monica Ratliff, who is leaving the board to run for City Council. Imelda Padilla, Araz Parseghian, Joanne Baltierrez-Fernandez, Melissa Herrarte and Gwendolyn Posey have also filed an intent to raise money for the race with the city Ethics Commission.

The primary election is March 7.

“I think I have a unique perspective as someone who taught at both the district and charter schools,” Gonez said.

Gonez said she saw firsthand disparities in the education system. Her mother, an immigrant from Peru, faced barriers in education and the workforce, not because of her intelligence or skills, but because she looked different and because she was an English-language learner, she said.

“Fighting for those same opportunities for every child has always been something that’s been important to me,” she said.

At 28, Gonez is now the youngest candidate for school board this election. She lives in Sylmar with her husband, Manuel, who works in politics and policy, and was raised in the Mission Hills area of the Northeast San Fernando Valley. She graduated from Bishop Alemany High School, a Catholic school in Mission Hills, and attended St. Euphrasia Catholic School in Granada Hills for elementary and middle school.

Her mother attended an LA Unified adult school and now works at a hospital in Mission Hills. Gonez’s father works at a small manufacturing business in Van Nuys.

While at UC Berkeley, where she worked three jobs to pay her way through college, Gonez became interested in teaching and worked as a teaching assistant in the Berkeley Unified School District. She said she always had a passion for social justice and public service.

“Teaching is public service,” she said. “It’s the most impactful thing you can do for your community.”

After college, Gonez taught geometry at Dorsey High School in a temporary position and then was hired to teach science at PUC Lakeview Charter Academy, a middle school in Lake View Terrace.

She said she learned that every student, even students who face challenges outside the classroom, can be successful if they have the right supports and opportunities. But she said she saw that decisions were being made at the policy level without the input of teachers.

So she decided to use the experiences she had in the classroom to help shape policy.

In 2014, she went to Washington, D.C., to serve as an education policy advisor in the Obama Administration. She worked on issues involving English-language learners, homeless students, students in foster care and students in the justice system.

She said many of these students are over-represented in LA Unified and in board District 6.

She came back to Los Angeles and started teaching again this school year.

Now Gonez is hoping to take the experience she had in the classroom and at the national policy level to the board room at Beaudry.

“I just felt that I couldn’t stay on the sidelines anymore,” she said. “I have the skills and experience to really make a difference for kids in my community.”

She has never run for public office and plans to run a “grassroots” campaign. She has experience as a community organizer working for Obama’s re-election campaign in East Las Vegas.

Even though she works at a charter school, Gonez doesn’t consider herself “pro-charter.”

If elected, she said she would hold all schools to a high standard for kids. And she said she would evaluate charter school applications based on the needs of the community in a “nuanced and multi-measured” way.

She also believes district schools need more investment since they serve the majority of students in LA Unified.

She supports the board’s recent decision to focus on a 100 percent graduation goal, although she would like to know how the district plans to achieve that.

She doesn’t feel that board members are always putting students first in their decision making and that there is a lack of urgency.

“I would bring in an incredibly strong sense of urgency, being the only teacher that is running for this position,” she said, echoing the campaign of the board member she is seeking to replace. Ratliff ran as “the only teacher.”

She also would bring the community and teachers into the decision-making process.

She has a master’s degree in urban education from Loyola Marymount University and wrote her thesis on supporting English-language learners in STEM education.

The school board on Tuesday approved a material revision to the charter of Crown Preparatory Academy, where Gonez teaches, to add a STEM focus.

According to documents filed with the City Ethics Commission, Parseghian, a Los Angeles Valley College Foundation board member, leads fundraising in the race. He has raised about $25,000 as of Sept. 30 and spent about $10,000. Padilla, who most recently worked as a community organizer for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and has been endorsed by UTLA, the LA teachers union, has raised about $6,000 and spent $1,000 in the same period. The other candidates have not raised or spent any funds.

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