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Place top teachers in low-performing schools, LA Unified board members suggest as they ‘reimagine’ middle school

Sarah Favot | July 6, 2016

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At the Committee of the Whole meeting on June 28, the board honored Class of 2016 commencement speakers pictured here.

At the Committee of the Whole meeting on June 28, the board honored Class of 2016 commencement speakers.

The district’s best teachers should be teaching at struggling schools, some LA Unified school board members suggested last week, with at least one board member calling for a future discussion on the issue.

The comments were made during a Committee of the Whole meeting last week on how the district can improve and “reimagine” middle school, which officials have acknowledged has historically received less attention than high schools and elementary schools.

Board member Ref Rodriguez, who penned the board resolution in January calling for the board to focus on the district’s nearly 200,000 middle school students, began the discussion on how the board can encourage successful teachers to teach at struggling schools. Board members Richard Vladovic and Monica Ratliff also expressed a willingness to discuss the issue.

“Who are our most talented teachers and are they being utilized in the most efficient and effective way in grades that really matter? … I really call to our partners about how are we more flexible in our bargaining contracts to make sure that the most qualified individuals work with our most needy students, but also in the grades that make tremendous difference, and the middle grades are those grades for me,” Rodriguez said.

“For me, it really comes back down to who is in front of our kids and how are they prepared,” he said.

Ratliff suggested the board discuss it at a future meeting.

The issue is likely to be contentious and will need to be hammered out through collective bargaining with the district’s teachers union, UTLA. It was also a key point in the landmark lawsuit Vergara v. California, which was overturned on appeal in April, in which plaintiff attorneys argued that teacher protection laws perpetuate a cycle of keeping ineffective teachers in low-income classrooms. The state Supreme Court must decide by summer’s end whether to hear the case.

Rodriguez was thanked Wednesday by Steve Zimmer during the Annual Board Meeting for bringing middle schools to the attention of the board. Zimmer was unanimously re-elected as the board’s president for his second one-year term. Recently adopted term limits prevent board members from serving more than two terms. During his remarks Zimmer went around the dais and thanked each board member for specific contributions they made to the board in the last school year.

Also at the meeting, Zimmer chose board member George McKenna as his vice president. McKenna also served as vice president last year. New student board member Karen Calderon, a senior at Hamilton High School, was sworn in to her new post Wednesday. Calderon follows Leon Popa who was chosen in January to be the board’s first student representative in decades. Student board members vote on issues in an advisory capacity and can participate in discussions but do not have access to closed session meetings or confidential materials.

During last week’s Committee of the Whole, the last committee meeting of the 2015-16 school year, board members also discussed expanding accelerated middle school math programs.

District officials explained how middle school is a time of transition for many students.

“It is the most complex time for youth,” other than from birth until about age 2, said Luther Burbank Middle School Principal Christine Moore.

“It’s at this time they’re aware of the changes. … It’s our job to figure out how to cradle them, how to put things in place to protect them while they try to take risks and figure things out,” she said.

Rodriguez pointed out that there are high-performing middle schools in the district. Burbank Middle School in Highland Park was on the state’s “Schools to Watch” list.

“But it’s not at scale and we’re not satisfied because it’s not at scale,” said Rodriguez, who co-founded a middle school 15 years ago.

Superintendent Michelle King, who was a middle school and junior high school teacher and administrator, stressed the importance of engaging students academically so they’ll be motivated.

“How do you get boys who are looking at girls to be engaged in mathematics?” she said, suggesting that middle school teachers should have more training on engagement techniques.

Ratliff discussed a June 27 memo to the board on the number of accelerated math programs offered in each board district that showed some disparities of where the classes are offered.

This graph from a June 27 board informative shows the number of schools by district that offer highly accelerated math courses.

This graph from a June 27 board memo shows the number of schools by district that offer highly accelerated math courses.

She noted there are no highly accelerated math courses offered in her district.

“My feeling is this needs to be remedied immediately,” she said. “So as we are moving into the next school year, I would expect to see more offerings in terms of highly accelerated math courses, certainly so it’s not zero in board District 6 and arguably, I think, in many of our districts, it could be increased.”

McKenna, who chairs the committee, said he thought the emphasis on cognitive skills building in literacy and mathematics was missing from the report.

“What I don’t want, and I’m going to exaggerate with this and then bring it back, I don’t want us to feel good if our students feel better about doing mediocre. … I have seen too many students enter middle school feeling great, but they don’t know what 7 times 6 is,” he said.

The Middle Grades Collaborative, which consisted of researchers, educators, parents, students and district staff, came up with a number of recommendations and prototypes, but requested more time from the board to continue its work in order to present a detailed action plan.

The group found through its research that “it is imperative that middle school become significantly more student-centered.”

One of the suggested prototypes was a social-emotional barometer, by which students can acknowledge to their teachers how they are feeling at the beginning of the day. Another was Harry Potter-style houses that students would be part of throughout their years in middle school. Another suggestion was a student-led school where students would serve in the “legislative branch” of the school’s governance, while the executive branch would be made up of a principal and other staff.

Board member Monica Garcia said she would like the middle school group to have a budget figure attached to their recommendations when they come back to the board.

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