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Teacher Spotlight: Lokrantz Special Ed Center’s Steven Rude on the critical role school psychologists play, why being recognized is important and starting a community garden for preschoolers and their parents

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | November 6, 2019

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This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

Steven Rude, left, receiving a recognition by Los Angeles City Councilman Bob Blumenfield on September 5, 2019.

Steven Rude has spent nearly 30 years working as a school psychologist for Los Angeles Unified School District, supporting students experiencing severe emotional problems. With tragic events in schools becoming commonplace, he feels more than ever, school psychologists play a major role — one that should be more recognized.

“The sad reality is that you see all of these mass shootings, and districts like L.A. Unified are one day away from something like that happening again, so the district needs to realize what a viable part we are of the school district,” he said.

After two decades of serving high school students, Rude decided to change focus. A few years ago, he transferred to the Lokrantz Special Education Center and Head Start preschool, a non-traditional LAUSD school in Reseda. There he assesses and diagnoses children from ages 2 to 4, who may be autistic or have intellectual disabilities.

Rude was raised in the Southbay area of Los Angeles attending private schools. He says he developed a real interest in working in public education to support kids facing problems or those challenged by disabilities. One of his two children has special needs.

With the support of private donations, Rude opened a community garden this year with the purpose of encouraging his young students to learn about science and healthy eating. He also sees it as a way to get their parents involved.

“Psychologists are a huge part of every school program. We don’t just do special education and IEPs (Individualized Education Plans). We’re there to support kids that might be depressed or suicidal. Kids that are struggling.”

LA School Report asked Rude about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as his goals for 2019-20. His answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What do you think is the biggest misconception from the public about what your role in school?

I think the biggest … is that people just don’t realize that we are even in the school, and they don’t realize that we have a huge impact on the children, a huge impact on the faculty, the staff, and we really have the ability to make a positive impact on school sites.

What do you think is one of the major challenges educators face in Los Angeles? 

Probably just the lack of support administratively at Beaudry (LAUSD’s central office). The pay cuts, how about 10 years ago, I made more money than I do now (because of fewer hours). It’s quite frustrating. As you know, you want to be treated as a professional, but when you’re getting your pay cut and your time cut, but the workload has increased dramatically, it’s a bit frustrating.

How does that directly affect your students? 

I think it affects the students because we have (fewer) psychologists on site. Psychologists have a workload that is pretty intense. I mean I think our numbers are about 600 kids per psychologist. I mean … it’s pretty crazy. So at many school sites you know our job is primarily to do evaluations for special ed kids, but at the same time on any given day, a kid is suicidal or if a kid has been abused and we are called in to be reporters for child abuse. You know, kids that have drug problems, I mean, we’re obviously expected to drop all those things and they forget exactly that we have a lot to do with regards to special education assessment and evaluations and IEP meetings and so forth.

Are you represented by the teachers union (UTLA)? Is the new contract signed this year after the strike you mentioned helping you solve any of those issues?

In this past negotiation, we tried to get more leverage towards seniority, which we don’t have. So, we got nothing in this negotiation. So it’s quite frustrating. Many of my colleagues quit the union because we pay the dues, we’re out there on strike, and we benefit when there’s a raise, but you know beyond that (not a lot). As school psychologists, we don’t (feel) much respect towards the union.

What do you think should change in the education system, either at the district or the state level? 

I think I’ve been doing this for about 30 years now. I think the biggest frustration is that every five or six years, you know, the people in downtown (the central office) talk about district reorganization and it’s always so top-heavy and the amount of money that’s spent on developing bulletins and research when there’s so much work that needs to be done in the classroom every day that is ignored because they’re busy making all these bureaucratic changes. I mean, yesterday we had our first meeting at Beaudry and you see all these commissions for this and that and people that are there and you have no idea exactly what their value is to education. And they’re walking around and it’s a little backwards.

The superintendent has been saying he’s trying to bring decision-making closer to schools rather than in the central offices. Do you think this time the district can actually be decentralized?

No. I mean, that’s why I don’t. I’m pessimistic when it comes to higher administrators at the board, but I’m still an optimist when working with kids. I mean, the moment I become a pessimist in my job, I become ineffective. And I think that’s why, after so many years working with a really difficult population, now that I’m back working with kids just starting out in preschool, it’s kind of reignited the flame inside me.

Why did you decide to create a community garden in your school?

So basically when I was assigned at this location, at this special education center, I was exploring the school and saw a little plot of land, which apparently used to be a garden and all there was was a dead apple tree. And around the same time, they opened up two Head Start classrooms at the school here. And initially my plan was to have the kids that attended school here (use the garden), but they have severe disabilities and they’re in wheelchairs so they could not access the garden. But since there was a Head Start program just established here, I decided to create a community garden there.

I decided to create a community garden to encourage kids in our programs to learn about science, to learn about healthy eating, to get their parents involved. We have parents that want to be involved at an early age. We’re really teaching and encouraging them to be involved all along the process with the kids’ education. So I began begging people, stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s hardware, going to social media (to ask for donations) and I just started digging dirt and it was a very rainy year this past winter, with a few setbacks. But finally Lowe’s and Home Depot stepped up, and we had many in the community step up, and now I have 16 garden beds, and a very flourishing garden. … The whole goal is to get parents and kids involved at an early age to teach kids about science and teach kids and parents about healthy eating.

What would you say is the best way that parents or the community can help you do a better job?

I think having confidence in the educators. I mean, too often we’re on one side of the news. We hear about how bad public schools are and too often in the schools, educators, psychologists, counselors, they don’t get … recognized for the fact that they’re doing so much for so little every day. And I mean if parents would just give us that recognition, that would then empower us to make a huge difference with our kids.

What has been the biggest satisfaction or reward of being a school psychologist?

Many times there are kids who kind of get lost in school. Like when I worked at the high school level, especially at Fremont High School, a school with a few thousand kids, I would always try to look at the kids that are by themselves or lonely or that are struggling. The ability to reach out to those kids, to hear about what’s going on. You know, over the years after talking to kids, I was able to find out that this one girl was being abused by her dad and she was sad and we were really able to solve that problem and make the dad accountable and have him go to jail. And you see kids that are able to recognize that people do care about them and are able to do better and move on to college. So every once in a while, you do get those success stories, which keeps me going.

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