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LAUSD leaders take questions at ‘Back to School’ forum

Craig Clough | September 23, 2015

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LAUSD board President Steve Zimmer speaks at a public forum, joined by other district leaders (Credit: LAUSD)

Hundreds of LA Unified employees and parents filed into the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center‘s downtown auditorium yesterday for a “Back to School at LAUSD” forum, hosted by Superintendent Ramon Cortines and other key district leaders. The event wasn’t called to unveil a specific agenda, but more for an open panel discussion on issues facing the district, as well as for giving audience members an opportunity to ask questions.

Cortines was joined on stage by board President Steve Zimmer, Chief Deputy Superintendent Michelle King, Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Ruth Perez, Chief Financial Officer Megan Reilly and the event’s moderator, Chief of External Affairs Edgar Zazueta.

Zimmer’s answer to a question from Zazueta turned out to be one of the more compelling. Asked what drove him into education, Zimmer jumped back only a week and a half to the district’s Student Recovery Day, when district and city leaders make a coordinated effort to contact students who have dropped out and try and re-enroll them in school. The effort involved not just phone calls but visits to homes.

Zimmer painted a detailed picture with high drama straight out of a Hollywood movie as he described a home visit that he, King and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti paid to a family in an apartment where two boys who had dropped out live.

“The young men were really, deeply struggling and in deep pain and did not feel — not because they did not care about their education — but because the pain was so intense, because one of them has to work every night until 3 o’clock in the morning in Gardena just to help pay the rent in this one-room apartment — that’s why I do what I do everyday,” Zimmer said. “The idea that we cannot give up on the all-kids mission. That we cannot give up on a single child.”

Zimmer did not share the outcome of the visit, suggesting it was not successful, but he did say the event helped get 5,000 kids back in school. The story was one of the more sobering in what was mostly a light-hearted affair filled with a lot of jokes and laughter. Missing from the event, both in what was volunteered onstage and in the public questions, were some of the larger and more immediate problems facing the district.

There was no mention of LA Unified’s poor performance on the state’s Common Core-alligned Smarter Balanced tests, no mention of the recent report that the district’s use of its 230,000 computer tablets continues to lurch ahead somewhat rudderless, and no mention of the massive charter school expansion being planned by powerful foundations that would fundamentally remake the district in almost every way.

A topic that did come up frequently was Cortines himself, and the event proved to be another chapter in what is becoming an extended and laudatory victory lap for the superintendent, who returned to lead the district last October for the third time. Cortines announced a few months ago his intention to retire by December, and he has been widely praised by district leaders at public meetings for what is almost universally viewed as a successful and stabilizing effort.

Board member Monica Garcia, who did not take questions on stage with the others but spoke to open the event, said, “Mr. Cortines models everyday how to do your absolute best. How to be a learner. How to be compassionate and demanding and overall, how to live life well.”

Zimmer joined in the chorus of praise, calling Cortines’ work over the last 11 months “one of the great acts of public service that we will ever be a part of.”

The second half of the event was dedicated to audience questions, and Cortines fielded some of the more pointed ones, beating back any criticism of the district at every opportunity.

One audience member characterized the district as having increased graduation rates over the last few years — which it has — but not doing much else, producing students that are not “competing” in college and having to take remedial courses.

“I somewhat disagree,” Cortines said. “Last year, 17 students went from Garfield [High School] to UCLA, and there is school after school that that happens… I do not accept that this district and its schools and its teachers and its administrators and the support people are not doing everything possible to help the students.”

One parent asked about a lack of basic supplies like paper and pencils she said was common at many schools, and that many schools do not have the basic funds necessary. Again, Cortines disagreed.

“They do have the minimum funds. And there is money for paper and there is money for pencils. And you need to go to the principal and find out why they don’t have them,” Cortines said.

He also added, to applause, that if there wasn’t basic supplies at a school, “You need to call me, 213-241-7000.”



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