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LA Unified President Steve Zimmer on eradicating the school readiness gap

Sarah Favot | October 5, 2016

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SteveZimmercasualreadingAt a goal-setting meeting last week for LA Unified school board members and Superintendent Michelle King, board President Steve Zimmer said he wanted the district to focus on eradicating the school readiness gap.

Described as the variations in academic performance among children entering kindergarten and first grade who are from low-income and diverse backgrounds compared to their wealthier and white counterparts, Zimmer reiterated in a recent interview with LA School Report that he believes the district can eliminate this gap. California and LA Unified have invested heavily in early childhood education programs like transitional kindergarten and preschool. But ultimately, King and the school board, including Zimmer, coalesced around a singular goal of 100 percent graduation, which King said would trickle down to all grade levels.

Here is the rest of our interview with Zimmer on topics like the school readiness gap, the school calendar and his opinion of King. Read the first part of the interview, which was on credit recovery, here.

Q: Your board office here in East Hollywood seems pretty robust with after-school programs, classes for homeless youth and computer courses for parents through your partnership with Youth Policy Institute. Do other board members run similar operations in their field offices, or is yours unique?

A: I think different board members have different operations. We’re the only one right now. We pay. We invest in this. Most field offices are at school sites. We have an office at Twain and we have an office at Taft. We have a huge district, so it’s important. But they are literally a tiny office or desk. It’s just so when I’m out there I don’t have to ask families to come all the way downtown or to east Hollywood to meet me. Or when we have staff, they can work out of the field. They’re not an office like this. This is the neighborhood I served as a teacher and counselor. This is the neighborhood where I live.

Q: How long have you lived here?

A: I’ve lived here in this area for about nine years. But I worked this area for about 15 years. They actually had me come over for the first week, this was 2007, when they opened Bernstein (high school). This whole area used to be Marshall. It’s hard to imagine now with the building program, what the world was like 10 to 15 years ago. And what the world was like before we built 131 schools. And the whole debate right now over the calendar is a very interesting debate because there’s a whole generation of us who only taught at year-round schools, what were known as Concept 6. 

Q: What is Concept 6?

A: Year-round schools is a misnomer because it implies that there was an academic or instructional reason why we had a year-round calendar. The only reason we had a year-round calendar was we didn’t build adequate facilities for children living in the most economically and racially segregated neighborhoods in the state or in the nation. And so, when we say Concept 6 that was how we designed a calendar so that we could meet, at the bare minimum, the state’s standards, the state’s requirement for days of instruction, while offering less days of instruction.

Q: What were the advantages of a year-round calendar?

A: I think for adults, there were things about that schedule that had advantages. There were even things unintentionally instructionally that had advantages when we had funding. Let’s say you were an immigrant student who came to this country in middle school and you went to a Concept 6 year-round school. You basically could go to school all year round, so you really had a chance actually to not have any gaps in your English language acquisition and your academic acquisition. So there were a few advantages, unintentional. But when you really parsed it out, if you went to a year-round school from kindergarten through 12th grade, you actually missed the equivalent of a year and a half of days of instruction, and that was ultimately what won out in court and I think ultimately what helped folks convince the voters that we should pass these (school construction) bonds.

Q: You are constantly asking Superintendent Michelle King to be bold and to take chances. Do you feel like there needs to be more of that? 

A: I think Superintendent King is genuinely collaborative in her leadership approach, and I think in the long run that’s going to be a good thing for the students of Los Angeles. I think the normative back and forth between a board and the superintendent should have some of that pushing back and forth. And that’s how districts move. It’s a precise nexus between the proper checks and balances in a system, but also the creative tensions in a democratic structure that has separation of powers that actually move an organization. I’m sure that the superintendent and her team will push us a lot on budget issues over the next few months. We may push for some more bold measures in terms of goals or aspirations or things like that. That’s appropriate.

If I didn’t believe that Ms. King has those for our students, I wouldn’t have voted for her to be superintendent. I just think there’s an incredible amount of balancing that takes place. And actually, I couldn’t imagine right now a better relationship between a board and a superintendent. We model in some ways what (former superintendent) Ray Cortines taught us in terms of a true partnership. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without creative tension. That doesn’t mean there is a 100 percent disagreement, nor should there be. We are sleeves rolled up and working on this, both literally and figuratively. 

And I believe it’s within our grasp to eradicate the school readiness gap, and I don’t understand why we would do anything else. If we make this investment on the front end and ensure that we have an equity lens to early childhood education and we invest heavily, all the research indicates that will pay dividends throughout. And so, do I want there to be a more aggressive, faster, bolder initiative around that? Of course. Is the administration really to roll that out tomorrow? Probably not. I think Dr. McKenna feels the same way about zero dropouts, and Dr. Vladovic right now is extremely concerned about re-classification, Ms. Garcia as it relates to graduation and the different things that we need to be doing now to make 100 percent a potential reality. Each board member has urgency about things that are absolutely driven by transforming outcomes for kids.

Q: What is your focus?

A: Today? Today it is eradicating the school readiness gap. Some of this is completely informed by research, some of this is informed by a lot more time spent with 3- and 4-year-olds recently. I’m just convinced that if we could say that for every child living in poverty in Los Angeles County, we are going to make sure they have access to a high-quality early-education program, with high-quality literacy, numeration skills and social emotional learning linked to an early elementary school literacy program. I actually believe it’s within our grasp to eradicate the third-grade reading gap. We saw last spring when we are focused on something, and when we resource it appropriately, and I don’t just mean resource it with funding, there’s the intellectual and emotional heart and mind resources that happens also, otherwise known as focus and mission.

I really believe that our kids can do amazing and remarkable things and I really do have an asset mindset. This has to be personal for each of us, we can’t think of EL as over there, those kids, who don’t know English. For a lot of us, English learners are our grandparents and it has to be that personal. We are very intentional in our office about what we do and how we approach the work to be very conscious and very intentional about making this personal.

And so when I approach the work as a policymaker and people say, ‘Why are you so concerned about labor rights as it relates to the largest public-sector food services contract west of the Mississippi?’ The most important part of it, the folks working in the field picking the vegetables or working in the slaughterhouses that’s someone’s mom or dad, brother or sisters, not mine, but someone’s, and we should approach the work as if it were our own. What labor conditions would we expect for our own parents? We are literally trained to not personalize this. What level of instruction do we expect for our own children? Why would we expect anything less for anyone’s child?

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