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Renowned educator warns that LA Unified’s future is ‘dire’

Mike Szymanski | April 28, 2016

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Pedro Noguera presents his recommendations to LA Unified board members and superintendent.

Internationally renowned education expert Pedro Noguera warned members of the LA Unified school board and superintendent that unless more serious measures are taken, the nation’s second-largest school district is destined to lose more students.

“The future is dire,” Noguera told the Committee of the Whole on Tuesday afternoon. He pointed to entire neighborhoods in Philadelphia with abandoned schools. “It’s not there aren’t enough kids, they lost the commitment to education. I hope that doesn’t happen in this city.”

The challenges LA Unified is facing, he said, include declining enrollment because of the growth of charters and demographic shifts, chronically under-performing schools, structural budget deficits and the need to increase public support for schools.

Noguera has written 11 books and more than 200 articles about education and focuses his research on how economic conditions impact schools. He served as a school board member at Berkeley Unified and is now a Distinguished Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences at UCLA.

Committee chairman George McKenna invited the professor to make a presentation to offer advice and give examples of what other schools do.

“I appreciate you coming to tell us the truth, even though we may not want to hear it,” McKenna said. “We have to take this situation seriously, really seriously.”

School board president Steve Zimmer attended the committee meeting although he was on his way to Washington, D.C., for the rest of the week to help lobby for the district. He told Noguera, “There is no more important city in this world for you to be in, and I’m glad that you’re here and work with us.”

Zimmer noted that Noguera discussed the district’s concerns about competition for students between traditional and charter schools. “As you spoke,” Zimmer said, “it was actually quite emotional because I think we have been through a time where we have misunderstood the role of competition and in that misunderstanding have caused some injury and caused it to be potentially more difficult to build the foundation of trust.”

Nearly 16 percent of LA Unified’s students are enrolled in 211 charter schools, and that number would grow significantly under a plan to increase charter enrollment in the district, which the school board unanimously opposed in January.

Noguera said, “Like it or not, schools are competing for kids, and public schools don’t even realize it. Like it or not, that’s the set-up.”

He pointed out his granddaughter goes to a traditional LA Unified school where the parents are only allowed to drop children off between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m., while the charter school around the corner allows drop-offs as early as 7 a.m.

“For a busy working parent, like her mom is, and in a city like this where transportation is a big issue, that is not a small factor,” Noguera said. That alone could be a reason for a family to choose a charter school over a traditional school.

“Public and charter schools are collaborating, but that is not happening enough,” Noguera said. “It has to be OK for principals to say, ‘I need help,’ and not have that being used against them. Otherwise, they will just hope that no one knows what the situation is.”

He called for “collaborative problem solving,” which must come from the central office. “They must let everyone know they are not here to scrutinize, but want to help you and show you how to figure it out and solve the problem.”

That includes the charter school and traditional school situation, he said. “Trust comes from collaboration,” he said.


Noguera on a visit to Hollenbeck Middle School.

Superintendent Michelle King asked how to replicate what is successful at schools, and he described a program in San Diego where leaders visit schools once a quarter and offer support to principals and teachers about best practices.

Noguera cited a 90-minute math class he had visited at Hollenbeck Middle School
whose teacher had complete control of her class and allowed students to help each other. Meanwhile, a class across the hallway had students who were unable to focus and were being disruptive.

“It took a while for that teacher to establish the class,” he said, pointing out that many of the students were English-language learners living in East Los Angeles. “She had to determine which kids could work together and which ones can’t work together.”

He recommended that the district structure time so teachers can learn from other good teachers. McKenna brought up celebrated teacher Jaime Escalante whose rough approach with students was highly criticized. His story was told in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver.”

“Why is it so difficult to replicate good work?” asked McKenna, who like Escalante taught math in LA Unified. “Jaime Escalante’s work was frowned upon. What makes it difficult to go across the hall and learn from each other?”

Noguera answered, “That is a common problem, because of the isolation of teachers.”

Among Noguera’s suggestions for the school board were:

• Support and recognize high-quality teaching.

• Focus on morale.

• Provide incentives for teachers and administrators with a track record of effectiveness to work in “high need” schools and communities.

• Publicize your success.

• Prevent educational issues from becoming overly publicized.

Monica Ratliff asked about the bonuses and incentives given some teachers to work in more challenging schools. Noguera said the incentives don’t even have to be monetary but could include more planning periods or other bonuses.

“We should look into this,” Ratliff said.

Noguera pointed out that some answers are within the district already but aren’t being shared. He said some schools might be very good at converting English-language students into the general school population, but the district doesn’t have a way of tracking which schools are better at it.

He and other university education experts are visiting schools throughout the LA Unified district.

“I hope this will be an ongoing collaboration with the district,” Noguera said.

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