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Meet an LAUSD school board candidate — District 6’s Kelly Gonez: ‘I would bring in an incredibly strong sense of urgency’

Sarah Favot | February 14, 2017

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LA School Report covers the 2017 LAUSD school board race: See all 13 candidate profiles

Name: Kelly Gonez

Board district: 6

Age: 28

Job: Seventh-grade science teacher at Crown Preparatory Academy in Los Angeles

Lives in: Sylmar

Married to: Manuel, who works in politics and on policy issues related to transportation, housing, homelessness, infrastructure and workforce development

Children: none

LAUSD education: No LAUSD schools. 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.

Education: Undergraduate degree in political science and history from UC Berkeley, master’s degree in urban education from Loyola Marymount University

Platform: Ensuring that all students, especially the most vulnerable, can graduate college and career ready, increasing access to support services through partnerships, supporting teachers so they can provide high-quality instruction, empowering school leaders and making sure the board’s decisions are made with community and family input.

Campaign funding: Gonez has raised $108,364 and spent $34,722 as of Feb. 23. Independent expenditure committees sponsored by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates have spent $539,165 to support her. No IE funds have been spent to oppose her.

Key endorsements: School board member Ref Rodriguez, former LAUSD school board member Yolie Flores, former LA mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan, former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, California Charter Schools Association, San Fernando City Councilmember Sylvia Ballin, San Fernando Vice Mayor Joel Fajardo, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 13, North Valley Democratic Club, Avance Democratic Club.

Campaign site:

(Editor’s note: Portions of this interview were first published in October when Kelly Gonez announced she was running.)

Kelly Gonez is the only teacher running for the East San Fernando Valley District 6 seat on the LA Unified school board now held by Mónica Ratliff, who is leaving the board to run for City Council. Patty López, Imelda Padilla, Araz Parseghian, Gwendolyn Posey and Jose Sandoval are also on the ballot for the March 7 primary election.

Gonez is a seventh-grade science teacher at Crown Preparatory Academy in Los Angeles and worked as an education policy advisor in the Obama Administration.

“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, Gonez 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 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.”

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.

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.

The office in the Department of Education where she worked held primary responsibility for developing the president’s annual budget, and she helped secure $50 million in additional funding to support targeted student populations. 

When asked what she learned in Washington that she wants to bring to LA, she said, “I learned the value of collaboration, coalition-building and the importance of having research and data at the foundation of policy-making and budgetary decisions. I believe that I can find common ground across ideological lines by bringing deep knowledge of the issues our students confront and strong evidence to back up those beliefs.”

She returned 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. This is her first run for public office.

“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.”

Even though she works at a charter school and her campaign is backed by charter supporters, Gonez doesn’t consider herself “pro-charter.”

“I’m running for school board to put the needs of kids and families first. I believe that offering parents high-quality options, including magnets, pilot schools and charters, can help provide the best possible education for their children,” she said. “I’ve also argued since day one that we need to do more to make sure every child receives a great education, and that means improving our district schools as well as our charter schools.”

When asked how LA’s charter oversight could be improved, she said, “We need more transparency on the benchmarks we’re holding charters to in our oversight. We also need to give them a meaningful opportunity to respond to any issues that arise during their renewal process. I’m concerned with making sure that we’re holding all our schools to the same, high standards. … We should also collaborate with charter schools to see if we can improve their practices before denying their charter, given the instability that causes for students and families.”

If elected, she said she would hold all schools to a high standard.

“We must all take responsibility to ensure every child receives a great education, including our students from low-income households, English language learners and students with special needs.”

She would improve training for pre-service and in-service teachers and ensure schools are fully staffed and offering “rigorous and engaging instruction at all schools, including access to arts education, STEM, civics and service learning. And I will preserve and expand families’ options for different high-quality models, including magnets, pilot schools, dual-language programs, career and technical education, effective charter schools and work-based learning, that have been proven to educate all kids well.”

Gonez said the district “needs to do a better job as a facilitator between charter and traditional schools that share a campus. Traditional schools should be informed of any co-location well in advance and should have a voice in making sure that co-locations are developmentally appropriate. There is more we can be doing to help schools build a good working relationship and avoid potential conflicts.”

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.”

Gonez and Lisa Alva, who is running for the District 2 seat, are the only candidates in the three board races currently teaching in a classroom. When asked the importance of being “the only teacher” in her race, Gonez said, “Too often our current school board makes decisions without keeping in mind how those policies are going to have an effect on the classroom. As a teacher, I experienced this firsthand. That perspective is important as the board tries to boost student learning and success.

“One example is the iPad program. Technology is important, and we need to increase access for all students, especially our most vulnerable. But when you ask teachers in the district about the program, many will tell you that they had a lot of concerns about how the program would work on the ground. Such questions were never asked at the board level, but those issues ended up limiting the effectiveness of the initiative in the classroom. I believe I would be a strong voice on the board, asking critical questions and raising issues informed not just by experience as a policymaker but also as a classroom practitioner.”

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

“I want to increase opportunities for parents and families to weigh in on critical decisions. By rotating our board meeting locations, allowing for more frequent feedback through the website or text messages and creating structures to promote parent engagement at school sites, we can come together to improve our schools.”

Gonez called the district’s finances “one of the most serious challenges” for the board, which “needs to take responsibility and confront this issue head on” by looking “at both increasing revenue and decreasing costs. The best way to address declining enrollment is to try to attract students back into our neighborhood schools.”

She noted that “half of our decline is simple demographics. But we need to bring students back to LAUSD. That doesn’t mean we demonize charter schools. Parents are going to charter schools because they are offering high-quality options or innovative models. We have to invest in traditional schools so that we can demonstrate to families that they can provide a great, well-rounded education for all children. We also need to tackle chronic absenteeism head-on, which is good for kids and good for the district’s financial situation. 

“On the cost side, we also need to run our operations more effectively. We must make budgeting decisions based on evidence of what works.

“Finally, there’s no question that we have long-term liabilities that pose a significant challenge. We need to have real conversations with our labor partners about how to deal with that. I am absolutely in favor of meaningful, real compensation for teachers and believe we must keep our promises to the hard-working men and women who have dedicated their lives to our kids. But we do need to reconcile that with budgetary realities, so it’s going to take everyone working together.”

LA School Report covers the 2017 LAUSD school board race: See all 13 candidate profiles

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