Michelle King on charters: ‘It’s not us versus them’
Mike Szymanski | March 2, 2016
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At her first community town hall as LA Unified’s superintendent, Michelle King received the most applause when she called for a healing between charter and district school factions. Seven weeks into her job, she met Tuesday morning with more than 700 parents, teachers, principals and local residents in a relatively low-income area in the north San Fernando Valley where many of those in attendance had strong feelings about charter schools.
“We are all LA Unified school students,” King said in response to a charter school parent who was asking about the district’s perceived bias against charters. “It is unfortunate we have labels, saying that this one is better than that one. It’s not us versus them.”
King then shared a plan she is developing. “One of the things we are looking at, and I’m meeting with charter leaders, is to have some sort of forum or event and bring those traditional schools, magnets, pilots, charters all together and share what is working best.”
She added, “I can’t do it alone, we need your help. We need all of us breaking down walls and barriers on behalf of kids and be working together. It doesn’t help to have battles over property.”
She told the audience how she became a teacher and discussed a diverse range of topics that came from parent questions including students cutting themselves, school calendars, teacher firings and campus bullying.
The town hall was so successful that officials hope to replicate it in other parts of the district and hold them regularly. Although she has met with civic groups, teachers, principals and other specific groups so far since she was named in January, this was King’s first meeting that encouraged all community members to attend.
King was treated like a rock star. The audience almost exceeded the capacity of the performing arts auditorium at Pacoima Middle School, with many standing in the back. People greeted her and hugged her, some took selfies with her, a half dozen media outlets came to cover the event, and she received a standing ovation at least twice. Babies were crying in the audience and audio translations were available in Armenian and Spanish.
“The way this town hall came about is that I was at a community meeting and I was bragging about how great our superintendent was, and they asked, ‘When is she coming out to the Valley?’” said board member Monica Ratliff, who represents the area and moderated the town hall. “I said I would see what I could do, and then I thought, ‘That’s a lame answer, I’m going to make it happen.’”
And so she did, and it may well become a model for more town halls for the superintendent, and a way to respond to parents directly with their issues. Both King and Ratliff were delighted with the response and turnout for the two-and-a-half-hour question-answer session, which began with informal schmoozing outside where community members were served apples, bananas, coffeecake, coffee and water with cucumbers. District Northeast Superintendent Byron Maltez, District Northwest Superintendent Vivian Ekchian and many staff members from various LA Unified departments were in attendance in case parents had specific concerns about certain schools. Attendees were handed informational brochures and given sheets to write down questions which would get answered by email or telephone if they weren’t answered at the meeting. Ratliff said the answers would also be posted on her LAUSD website.
The charter school issue that has been so divisive in the community seemed to be on a lot of people’s minds. One Spanish-speaking parent was concerned that charter schools did not follow certain laws and were not properly monitored, to which King explained how the district monitors all independent and affiliated charter schools and offers recommendations and guidance if there are violations or complaints.
Sarah Angel, managing director of regional advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, said, “Charter school leaders have been very public about seeking opportunities to share best practices with the district and learn from successful district schools, so Superintendent King’s comments are a great sign of hope. The charter community remains eager to work with Superintendent King to implement concrete policies that will make collaboration a reality.”
Angel added, “We all want an end to the divisive rhetoric, including the parents who just want the opportunity to choose the school that best fits their children’s needs. Many of those parents attended today’s event and they emphasized that the issue is not charter schools versus traditional schools — the issue is how do we work together to improve all public schools for our students? Pacoima is a great example of a community that has rallied behind its public schools, both charter and traditional, thanks in part to board member Ratliff’s thoughtful leadership. The rest of LA can certainly learn from that community’s collaboration and unity.”
Great Public Schools Now, an Eli Broad-affiliated nonprofit focused on accelerating the growth of high-quality LA public schools including charters, emailed a statement after King’s remarks. The group’s plan was denounced in a unanimous vote in January by the LA Unified school board one day after King was named superintendent.
“We applaud Superintendent Michelle King’s remarks during [Tuesday’s] town hall, particularly her plan to bring all types of schools together to share best practices. We share her desire to identify what’s working best to educate our students and help ensure every child has access to that high-quality public education,” the email stated. “We share Superintendent King’s perspective that all students, whether they attend district or charter schools, are LAUSD students. We know that working together we can accomplish much more than working at odds, and we are eager to do our part to ensure every student in Los Angeles gets a high-quality education.”
The morning started off with the middle school cadets marching in with the U.S. and California flags and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the Pacoima Singers from the Television, Theatre and Performing Arts Magnet on campus performed a few timely numbers, especially one dealing with a faux election, as it was Super Tuesday.
Among the issues that came up was from a distressed father who said his daughter was wearing long sleeves to hide the fact that she was cutting herself, and he then discovered her friends were doing the same.
King responded, “We are aware that children cutting themselves is a growing issue and we are going to start a campaign of awareness, showing where it comes from and what it means. I also want the training to speak to the whole cyber, flash chat and social media issue and all that they’ve got going on and look for training so that we as parents know what to do, and what to look for.”
One parent asked why bad teachers are not fired and whether the teachers union was to blame. King answered, “We don’t want to fire folks, period. We hope to train teachers and get them to perform at a high level,” she said. If that doesn’t work, they’re fired. “Every single board meeting we dismiss teachers and other employees who do not fulfill their jobs to the best of their ability.”
A mother from Colfax Charter Elementary School complained that other districts start school after Labor Day and wondered why the district spends $1.4 million in taxpayer money to run air conditioners in order to hold classes in August. King laid some of the blame on the Board of Education supervisors because her office suggested a three-year calendar, but they only approved it for one year and are looking into the issue.
King said the district had a study for nearly nine months asking for input and said in her more than three decades at LA Unified, “I never saw such an action where so much input was sought trying to get information to make a decision.” She said the biggest issues about the schedule are starting school before Labor Day, having a week off for Thanksgiving and having three weeks off over winter break, as the district now has.
“We decided to take more time and more examination and gather more input to come up with a different recommendation,” King said.
One mother said through a Spanish translator that her 11-year-old son was shot and killed on his way to school and that she was concerned about the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries in the area.
King said, “I’m sorry for your loss, and let me say that our first priority is the safety of your children at all our schools.” She said that includes bullying and cyber-bulling.
King discussed the issues she is working on, including the budget situation, how to bring arts and music to all schools in the district, getting more parents involved in schools, and bringing back summer school not just for remediation but for students who are interested in getting ahead and becoming more prepared for college.
One of the community members, North Hills West Neighborhood Council member Garry Fordyce, suggested to King that she coordinate more with the councils, which are advisory groups for the Los Angeles City Council. King said she hoped to reach out to stakeholders like the neighborhood councils more and include them in a community strategic plan.
At the end of the meeting, Ratliff said, “I’d be happy to do this all day if we could.” She said she felt the questions and reactions from the audience were very positive.
“They were clearly being honest about what is going on in our schools, and I appreciated that,” Ratliff said after the meeting.
King added, “I think some of you see the ‘I love LAUSD’ buttons we have on, and that’s what it’s about for me, it’s about being united.”