Nicholas Melvoin. Photo from

Can Nick Melvoin bring more Jews to LAUSD schools?

One of the many items on Nick Melvoin’s agenda as a new member of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board is whether he can help make the L.A. public schools more attractive to middle-class Jewish parents and their children.

As I prepared to interview him recently, I knew this might not be the most pressing issue facing an enormous, financially troubled school district confronted with the many problems of urban America. But I thought it was important given that this group’s support had been significant to the public schools before it started to desert them in recent years. I had discussed the matter often with the man Melvoin defeated at the polls in May, school board President Steve Zimmer, and I wanted to know his successor’s views.

But, like I said, there’s so much else at play. Melvoin and the other new school board member, Kelly Gonez, are committed to a larger remodeling of the district, which often has proved to be ungovernable. They were backed in the election by rich supporters of charter schools who long have criticized LAUSD. These contributors want more charter schools, which are public schools not bound by union contracts and other district rules and regulations. The charter school backers say they provide a better education for students.

The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, see the charters as a union-busting device. Complicating the matter, because of the intricacies of school finance, some state funds go to the charters, which reduces the money available to regular public schools.

Charter school supporters and their opponents, the unions, spent $15 million on the election between Melvoin and Zimmer, with the charter supporters donating twice as much as their foes. The result was the most expensive school board election in U.S. history.

No doubt, Melvoin, 31, and Gonez, 28, got an idea of how hard remaking the district would be when they were schooled in the district’s byzantine ways by veteran staff members at a three-day session from June 21-23. I met Melvoin in his campaign manager’s Mid-Wilshire office after one of the sessions. I could imagine the scene: Veteran educators, resistant to change, assuring the young newcomers, “Kids, listen to us. We know the ropes. This is how we’ve always done it.”

I could see that he needed a shot of energy, and he immediately steered me to a Starbucks, where we talked about the importance of keeping white, middle-class students in LAUSD, including Jews.

First, though, a bit of context: The district in 2015 reported that 74 percent of its students were Latino, 9.8 percent white, 8.8 percent African-American, 3.8 percent Asian and 3.5 percent Native American and other ethnicities. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, along with USC’s Richard Flory and Diane Winston, found that about half of the white students in LAUSD are Jewish. That’s based on figures from 2000; Phillips said newer information is badly needed.

The school district reports that 84 percent of students attending the most recent academic year qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, the federal definition of poverty.

Melvoin said he thinks it’s important to increase the number of middle-class students in the Los Angeles schools. The additional middle-class parents, who vote more than the poor, would increase political influence on board members, maybe resulting in improved policies and administration. More middle-class students would make Los Angeles schools more economically and ethnically diverse, which studies show improves education and civic involvement. And more students would increase the amount of state aid — allocated by enrollment size — going to LAUSD.

Melvoin said he saw the importance of middle-class involvement in his campaign. “When you have a group of parent advocates engaged in a way that they haven’t been in the past, you have this advocacy base, this group of politically aware parents with political and social capital,” he said.

Melvoin said his involvement in the Jewish community and interaction with other young Jews showed that more Jewish students would bring to the schools a more diverse cultural experience when Jews, Latinos, African-Americans and other ethnicities mingle in classrooms, the theater, bands and in social life.

“I’m on the board of the Union for Reform Judaism and involved with The Jewish Federation and some of the young professional cohorts, so I think having a diverse school setting is an important value. … For our community, being in integrated schools and having our kids being in school with kids from a lot of diverse communities will strengthen the education our kids will receive,” he said.

Melvoin said that more Jewish students would bring to the schools a more diverse cultural experience.

But Melvoin, who was a middle school teacher in Los Angeles for two years, conceded it will be a tough sell, especially at poor schools where many students have limited English skills and test scores are lower.

“Parents first look at test scores,” Melvoin said. “Until they see academic improvement, they won’t send their kids. … Until you improve the core instruction, I don’t think some of these middle-class parents will be interested.”

I asked him about what it will take to improve the schools. “Great teachers, great principals, engaged parents, rigorous curriculum, deeper dives into content,” he said.

I don’t think any of previous board members would disagree with those generalities. But his predecessors have been stymied by obstacles big and small of which Melvoin still is unaware.

He will have to deal with hostile unions, especially when the board tries to reduce pension and benefit costs that administrators have warned are driving the district into bankruptcy. Charter school advocates will demand action from Melvoin after they financed his campaign. Parents will besiege him with complaints.

All this for a salary of $45,637 a year.

Charles Taylor Kerchner, a professor and research scholar at Claremont Graduate University, described the new school board member’s challenge well on the Education Week website: “Remember the little dog you used to have: the one that chased cars but was smart enough not to ever catch one? Nick Melvoin caught the car. Now, he and his big money backers have to figure out what to do with the nation’s second largest school district.”

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Gregory Martayan (right) meets Deputy Knesset Speaker Yoel Hasson of the Zionist Union at the Knesset during a trip to Israel in December. Photo courtesy of Gregory Martayan for Los Angeles Unified School Board

Meet the non-Jew who wants Hebrew and kosher food in LAUSD schools

The most Jew-ish candidate for a local office in Los Angeles right now, it turns out, is not a Jew at all.

Gregory Martayan is Armenian. But the contender for the Los Angeles Unified School District board District 4 seat has a robust slate of campaign promises geared toward the Jewish community.

If elected, Martayan, 33, a public relations consultant, has promised to install Hebrew education in L.A. Unified schools, deliver kosher food to campuses that request it and institute a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-Semitism — all within six months. He professes stalwart support for Israel, having traveled there in December with a pair of campaign aides.

“Sometimes a goy like Greg can be more helpful to Jewish causes than a Jew,” said Andrew Friedman, Martayan’s campaign co-chair and a well-connected attorney in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Martayan’s candidacy pits him against two candidates who are Jewish: incumbent board President Steve Zimmer and Nicholas Melvoin. Both have better funding and name recognition. A fourth contender, Allison Holdorff Polhill, is not Jewish, but she also has raised more money than Martayan.

Yet Martayan is bullish about his chances. A mustachioed man who’s partial to pinstripe suits, he sells himself as a back-to-basics candidate, with three major issues: accountability, transparency and school safety. He makes frequent references to “the people,” specifically to people he says are underrepresented in LAUSD, not least among them Orthodox Jews.

“The Orthodox Jewish community has not been getting support under Steve Zimmer,” he said. “This is just a fact. And they’re not going to get services or support under any of the other candidates.”

Why tailor a campaign message to Orthodox families when many will choose to send their children to religious schools anyway?

“Our platform is to provide services to all communities of the city of Los Angeles,” he said. “And it’s up to them whether they want to utilize those services or not.”

Martayan said he supports school choice, another popular view among Orthodox Jews. “Parent choice is not a right that any government official has the ability to strip away,” he said.

But he’d like to see it get easier for Jewish families to enroll their kids in L.A. Unified. He asserts Jewish enrollment would go up if not for certain barriers, such as a lack of kosher food and a discriminatory atmosphere that he promises to reverse.

Martayan contends that bias against Jews — kids who wear yarmulkes, for instance — is rampant on L.A. Unified campuses. He says these incidents go unreported because of a lack of official channels for dealing with it.

“We have whistleblowers who have given us information,” he said. “However, in terms of documented, archived reports, there is no system in which those are being documented and archived.”

Martayan didn’t provide examples of anti-Semitic incidents in the school district. He said information is hard to come by under “an administration that likes to keep the truth out of the light,” and vowed to seek it out as a board member.

But he said his own campaign has become the target of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks in person and on social media. Recently, someone on the web accused him of being a “traitor and a hypocrite” because of his support for Israel, he said.

Martayan’s affiliation with the Jewish community goes back generations, to his grandfather’s time in New York City, newly arrived from Armenia, sleeping on the floors of butcher shops in immigrant neighborhoods where he worked.

Martayan’s father ran a printing press in downtown L.A., where many of his clients and associates were Jews. And Martayan himself grew up among Orthodox Jews in Hancock Park.

“I grew up eating latkes and applesauce,” he said. “I grew up spinning dreidels.”

Friedman said he met Martayan about five years ago at Congregation Bais Naftali on La Brea Avenue, where Martayan invited him and his wife to a banquet dinner. Friedman responded he would be able to eat only if the food were kosher. Martayan persisted.

“He made the entire dinner kosher rather than just serving me from paper plates, as many times they do,” Friedman said.

Originally, he said, Martayan had planned to campaign on installing kosher kitchens at LAUSD schools, but Friedman persuaded him to scale that plan back. Now, Martayan’s campaign promise is to make pre-packaged kosher food available to students wherever there is enough demand.

“There are more Jewish students in public schools than in parochial schools, and so at least making kosher food available for them would be great,” Friedman said.

His opponents have staked their run on education backgrounds: Melvoin is a former teacher and education activist, Zimmer spent 17 years as a high school teacher and counselor before his 2009 election to the school board, and Holdorff Polhill served as board president for Palisades Charter High School. By contrast, Martayan has had a diverse career outside the classroom.

He started a public relations and local issues firm shortly after graduating from Pepperdine University and later served as an ambassador for the National Crime Prevention Council and a member of the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families. But to fuel his hoped-for victory, he cited his support in communities he says are traditionally underrepresented at the school board level — Orthodox, Asian American and Black.

Martayan may be betting on long odds in a sprawling district of mostly white neighborhoods, from Marina del Rey and Venice to Woodland Hills and back east to North Hollywood. Missing from that swath are large concentrations of Orthodox voters — in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Pico-Robertson and most of Hancock Park are parts of another L.A. Unified district.

Well aware of these demographics, Martayan nonetheless insisted, “We’re going to win.”

“We have a strong coalition, because we’re the only ones who represent the community,” he said. “No amount of outside money is going to be able to buy the race.”

For their part, Martayan’s opponents challenge the notion that he is the only candidate who cares about Jewish constituents.

“As a member of the board, I would support all communities, including, of course, our Jewish community,” Melvoin wrote in an email, citing his many ties to local Jewish organizations, including a Hebrew school education and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ New Leaders Project.

In a phone interview, Holdorff Polhill said she would be open to instituting Hebrew language education and kosher food at LAUSD schools. She said she wasn’t aware of rampant anti-Semitism on L.A. Unified campuses, but that the schools already take a zero-tolerance policy toward hate speech. Additionally, she suggested convening a stakeholder group to better address the needs of Orthodox Jews.

Zimmer, the incumbent, wrote in an email that he works “regularly with the Orthodox community on issues that touch our school system.”

“I have stood against all forms of anti-Semitism and hate every day of my career as a teacher and have been proud to stand even stronger as a district leader,” he wrote. “To suggest anything less is inconsistent with my record and wholly ignorant of fact.”

Yet only Martayan repeatedly presses his pro-Jewish platform at campaign events. In Israel, he ignored warnings from his campaign staff and walked through a minefield near a school at the Syrian border. He did it, he said, “to show the world about how dangerous this region of the world is and what kind of fear these children live in.”

“I will always be pro-Israel,” he said. “I will always stand and fight for the Jewish community, and I will always protect the rights of the Orthodox community in the city of Los Angeles, come hell or high water.”

Nicholas Melvoin. Photo from

Melvoin: ‘New blood, new ideas’ and charter schools

Nicholas Melvoin, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate running for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) District 4 board seat, has a law degree, social justice credentials and Southern California good looks. He is also ambitious, charming and, at present, unattached.

“On the campaign trail, I meet a lot of grandmothers that want to set me up with their Jewish granddaughters,” Melvoin confessed with a sly smile. “Until they realize what the school board pays” — a modest $45,000 a year — “and then they’re like, ‘Nope. Sorry.’ ”

Melvoin is one of three challengers fighting to oust school board President Steve Zimmer, 46, a two-term incumbent, to represent a wide swath of Angelenos from the Westside to the San Fernando Valley. The others are public relations specialist Gregory Martayan and Allison Holdorff Polhill, an attorney who has taught on the high school level. The primary is March 7, and if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers compete in a May 16 runoff.

[Zimmer: District headed in the right direction]

With spiky blonde hair and blue eyes, Melvoin looks more like an actor or agent than a guy who started his career teaching at a middle school in Watts. On the day we met in Beverly Hills, he wore a sport coat accented with a red pocket square and left the top buttons of his shirt undone in the calculated style of Bernard Henri-Levy. Melvoin’s image is an accessory to his political ethos; he presents himself as the suave, idealistic change-maker who will reanimate the financially struggling school district with new ideas and needed reforms.   

Part of his challenge is to unseat an incumbent with whom he has much in common: Melvoin and Zimmer are Jewish, Democrats and adjunct college professors, and both got their start in public education working for the nonprofit Teach for America.

“Me and Steve could be brothers,” Melvoin said. “We’re both these bleeding hearts.”

Yet, despite his professed admiration for Zimmer, Melvoin doesn’t hesitate to argue that Zimmer has failed to improve the district.

“Steve’s weakness is that he’s had eight years,” Melvoin said. “District finances are in shambles, student achievement is not improving, and charter schools keep cropping up. Despite what I think are very good intentions on Steve’s part, there just haven’t been results.”

Through the most recent reporting period, Melvoin has raised more than $296,000 to Zimmer’s $93,000; he’s also won endorsements from the Los Angeles Times, former Los Angeles Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan and the California Charter Schools Association.

Zimmer has received strong financial support from two of the city’s most powerful unions: United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.      

Although Melvoin and Zimmer hold some shared values, there is a sharp contrast in their approach to dealing with LAUSD’s most pressing issues: a potential $1.5 billion budget deficit, with an additional $13.6 billion in unfunded pension liabilities; the exodus of 100,000 students from public schools to charter schools over the past decade; and ever-sensitive issues regarding teacher tenure and accountability. 

In fact, they sharply disagree on just how much they disagree.

“I’m torn,” Melvoin admitted, “because I like Steve a lot as a person.

“Do Steve and I want the same thing at the end of the day? Yes. My thing is not anti-Steve at all. It’s new blood, new ideas.”

“I appreciate the compliment,” Zimmer said in response, when reached by phone. “But you know, when you make the decision to challenge a reasonably well-liked and reasonably successful incumbent, the only way to do that is to unleash a ferociously negative campaign. [Nick] made the decision to do this, and that just raises some questions about how deep that respect really runs.”

At play in the struggle between them is nothing less than a debate about the state of LAUSD itself: Is it a flawed agency getting incrementally better under Zimmer? Or a broken institution, owing to years of failed leadership? To win, Melvoin will have to prove that youthful idealism is enough to surmount an entrenched bureaucracy.

“One of the reasons I’m so passionate about education is that the whole promise of America, which was true for my family and lots of Jewish immigrant families, is that in spite of where you started, you will succeed — because we have free public education,” Melvoin said.

Melvoin considers himself a beneficiary of public education even though he only briefly attended public school growing up in Brentwood. With two successful, working parents — his father is a television writer and producer; his mother, a photojournalist —  Melvoin attended elite prep school Harvard-Westlake then earned his undergraduate degree in government and English at Harvard University.

After graduating, he was hired by Teach for America for a two-year fellowship at Markham Middle School in Watts. The disparity between his background and that of his students’ was stark: “When I got there, there had been five principals in 3 1/2 years; only 4 percent of eighth graders were proficient in algebra and 6 percent in English. I thought, ‘How are they supposed to succeed?’ ”

Melvoin was laid off twice in the two years he taught at Markham, both times due to budget cuts. The district’s policy of seniority — known as “Last In, First Out”— protects teachers who have tenure, which means that new, young hires are generally the first to lose their jobs. When nearly 70 percent of Markham’s teaching staff was laid off, Melvoin felt the layoffs disproportionately affected low-income population schools such as Markham, so he partnered with the ACLU in 2010 to bring a lawsuit, Reed v. California and L.A. Unified.

“We argued that it was unconstitutional that these layoffs disproportionately impacted poor students of color and violated their right to a quality education,” Melvoin said. The case was settled in 2014, with the promise of new investment into 37 LAUSD schools.

Zimmer, a teacher for 17 years, and Melvoin sharply disagree on issues of teacher tenure and accountability. Melvoin asserts Zimmer is so beholden to the teachers union that he is reluctant to enforce performance measures that could weed out underperforming teachers. Zimmer paints a more complicated picture.

“We have dismissed more ineffective teachers in the last five years than in the previous 25 years combined,” Zimmer said.

Melvoin decided after the ACLU lawsuit that he could have a greater impact on education through policy than teaching in a classroom. He received a full scholarship to study civil rights law at New York University and spent the next three summers burnishing his credentials with various internships — including with the ACLU, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and finally, the Obama White House.

But his friendly disposition toward charter schools — something he shares with new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — has led some to compare Melvoin with Trump’s White House. And not in a good way: Zimmer criticized Melvoin for supporting a 2015 plan from philanthropist Eli Broad that some regarded as an effort to privatize public education. “That would be the end of the LAUSD school district,” Zimmer said.   

Melvoin said the financially troubled district has no business turning away philanthropic investment. “It’s not like Eli Broad, an 87-year-old with $6 billion, is making money off his investments in public schools. That is just a conspiracy theory that doesn’t hold,” Melvoin said of Broad, who has contributed to his campaign. “The negative motive the union and Steve ascribe to these people is really toxic. It’s kind of like Trump-like.”

Melvoin said he supports charters “as long as they’re outperforming district schools and parents want them.” He points to 107,000 kids in LAUSD charter schools, 16 percent of total enrollment — with another 40,000 on a wait list — as the clearest “indictment of a failed school district.”

But even though charters provide a better option for some students in the district, it remains the province of the district’s public schools to protect the integrity of a public educational system that is often the only path forward for countless students, especially those from low-income or minority communities.

At Markham, Melvoin said he saw firsthand what happens when schools do not adequately prepare students for their future. “The one chance [some of these kids have] to get on their feet is a good school,” Melvoin said. “We [can’t mess] that up.”

Steve Zimmer is president of the Los Angeles Unified School District board and the incumbent in the race to represent LAUSD District 4. Photo courtesy of Steve Zimmer for School Board

Zimmer: District headed in the right direction

The Los Angeles Unified School District is facing a potential budget deficit in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Charter schools are drawing kids out of the district, taking state and federal money with them.

Such is the landscape in which Steve Zimmer, president of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education since 2015 and a board member since 2009, is fighting to keep his District 4 seat in the March 7 primary.

And that’s not all: Three other candidates are pushing hard to oust him —  Nick Melvoin, Gregory Martayan and Allison Holdorff Polhill — and the Los Angeles Times endorsed Melvoin in an editorial under the headline “New Voices Needed on Los Angeles Unified School Board.” Melvoin, who, like Zimmer, is Jewish, is the leading challenger.

[Melvoin: ‘New blood, new ideas’ and charter schools]

“Nick is an incredibly smart guy, but he is at ideological extremes in terms of the issues facing the school district,” Zimmer said. “I’m not saying we’re doing well enough, but we are doing better. An honest narrative is: This is a district that is improving.”

Zimmer, 46, said he is prepared to tackle all the current challenges facing the district, including the potential deficit and keeping children in public schools despite the proliferation of charter schools. A strong proponent for bringing quality education to a district in which nearly 80 percent of students come from low-income families and three quarters are Latino, Zimmer also hews closely to his Jewish faith and background.

A frequent critic of charter schools, he nevertheless supported Lashon Academy Charter School when the board approved it in 2013. He said the dual-language school in Van Nuys, which offers classes in English and Hebrew, is “innovative” and “creative.”

“I thought they were innovative, I thought they were legit, and they had a very creative idea and we’ll see how that plays out after five years. That’s what charters are supposed to be, they’re supposed to be incubators for change, supposed to be engines of innovation and some still are, but a lot are just about market share at this point and that’s very disappointing to me,” he said during a recent interview at the Family Source Center in East Hollywood, which provides tutoring, computer access and fresh produce to families and students in need.

Raised in Bridgeport, Conn., and a graduate of Goucher College in Baltimore, Zimmer said he speaks “liturgy Hebrew” and that his Hebrew skills are inferior to his Spanish-speaking abilities. Still, he is modest about his Spanish.

“I just did an hour of a parent conference in Spanish, but I would never consider myself fluent. I couldn’t talk to you about, like, buying a house in Spanish, right?” he said. “I could talk to you about your kids’ counseling situation in Spanish.”

Zimmer attends services regularly at Temple Beth Am and spends the High Holy Days at B’nai David Judea. Unlike other elected officials who shul-hop during the High Holy Days and show up as an elected official, Zimmer said he prefers to keep a low profile during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“Sometimes I see other elected [officials], I won’t mention them by name, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I was at eight shuls on Rosh Hashanah.’ I’m like, ‘What? What do you mean?’ ” he said.

Zimmer’s excitement about Judaism extends into his professional life. In 2010, he led an effort to name a Canoga Park school after Stanley Mosk, the late Jewish California Supreme Court justice who became the first Jew to hold statewide office as state attorney general.

“That was a great moment of being a board member,” Zimmer said. “There’s a lot of not-so-great moments. That was a great moment.”

Before his election to the school board, Zimmer was a Teach for America corps member and taught English as a Second Language at John Marshall High School in Los Feliz. After a few years there, he became more involved in working with at-risk students. This introduced him to the world of counseling. Eventually, he became involved with community organizing and, finally, he opted to run for office.

“I have very little formal training in anything I’ve done,” he said. “I came into teaching before I knew how to teach; I started counseling before I knew how to counsel. I did community organizing before I knew what community organizing was. I certainly was elected to the school board before I had any idea what that was really about.”

Some of his achievements as a board member include authoring a school board resolution in support of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants, and developing a program to dispatch district staff members to find dropouts and bring them back into the LAUSD system.

He is known for committing himself to poverty-stricken and at-risk students, sometimes to the neglect of students living in wealthier neighborhoods, and has strong support from United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s teachers union. He denounced making teachers’ jobs tied to students’ test scores and teacher evaluations and said he is interested in a more holistic approach when determining who is and who is not an effective educator.

“The bottom line is: People I don’t want in front of my kids are the people who don’t believe in our kids,” he said. “If you have a deficit of will, I can’t address that. If you have a deficit of skill, we can address that.”

He represents a district that includes Fairfax Senior High School, Lanai Road Elementary, Palisades Charter High School, University High School and Venice High School. There are more than 660,000 students currently enrolled in LAUSD’s approximately 1,300 schools. District 4 has about 150 of them.

With Latino students composing such a disproportionate share of the student population, Zimmer expressed concern over President Donald Trump’s administration’s efforts to deport undocumented students.

“I think of it as a real crisis for our community and for the Jewish community. I think it’s a defining moment, and hopefully a uniting moment,” he said. “Because whatever our particular political perspectives are about — gentrification, language, all the different things we could have disagreements about — it’s in our DNA to be worried right now, and to be present with the most vulnerable.”

As the only Jewish kid in his school in Bridgeport, he said, he experienced anti-Semitism and bullying. His father ran a small blueprinting business and he had a close relationship with his maternal grandmother, Sadie Berlin, who was a needle worker in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side. They shaped him into the person he is today, he said.

“We had special bond and I felt like she was able to share her struggle with me; [that was] kind of who she was,” he said of his grandmother. “She was incredibly politically passionate. She was a passionate Zionist. You could not entertain any argument with her around Israel.”

He spoke fondly of his co-workers and of the children at LAUSD schools. In fact, he greeted several people at the Family Source Center with hugs and said he treats his employees, including teachers, bus drivers, custodians — and all L.A. Unified students — as if they are family.

This attitude, he said, is what distinguishes him from his opponents in the race.

“I make instructional decisions, and operational decisions, as if it were my own kids. But I make decisions about our own employees as if they’re my mom and dad,” he said. “That’s what you should expect from me.”

Board contenders differ sharply on LAUSD issues

Even as candidates at a Jan. 9 forum for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board promised civility and a break from the bitter politics of the day, they were free in their criticism of the incumbent.

“Reasonable people can disagree about complex areas of policy,” said Nicholas Melvoin, a prominent challenger for the District 4 seat. “It doesn’t have to be mean.”

But a short while later, when the conversation turned to the district’s multibillion-dollar unfunded pension liabilities, Melvoin was on the attack.

“This board has consistently, going back years, kicked this can down the road,” he said as he sat onstage next to the incumbent board president, Steve Zimmer.

Melvoin has raised more than $160,000 in just under a year as a candidate, making him Zimmer’s top challenger in terms of fundraising for the March 7 school board primary elecion in a district that stretches from the Westside to the San Fernando Valley. 

Both men are Jewish, but the two share a great deal more than that.

“Nick Melvoin and Steve Zimmer have so much in common they could be brothers,” an April article on the website EdSource by Michael Janofsky stated. “Both are progressive Democrats, Jewish, adjunct college professors and former public school educators from Teach For America.”

But issues of teacher tenure, charter schools and how to deal with $1.46 billion deficit produced sharp disagreement at the event at The Rose restaurant just blocks from the beach in Venice.

Zimmer and Melvoin sat center stage, flanked by fellow candidates Gregory Martayan, a public relations specialist, and Allison Holdorff Polhill, an attorney and high school teacher, under wicker lamps in the heated outdoor patio of the upscale eatery, as some 150 guests sipped red wine and sampled from cheese platters. The event was hosted by Speak Up, a grass-roots parents organization, on the first night back from winter break for LAUSD students.

It was the first time all four candidates found themselves onstage together.

Where Zimmer saw a district that had struggled but triumphed through hard times, Melvoin painted a picture of a board that has lost touch with the needs of parents and students.

“Through the many difficult times that this school district has endured over these past eight years, we have been able to stabilize LAUSD through the Great Recession,” Zimmer said.

He touted the November passage of Proposition 55, an income tax extension to fund health care and education in California, as a positive development for the district.

Meanwhile, Melvoin mentioned that more than 100,000 LAUSD students are in charter schools, with more on waiting lists, despite the board’s reticence to adopt charter schools wholesale, calling the situation “an indictment of our failed status quo.” He depicted the district’s deficit as a sign that its affairs are in disarray.

“The board has failed to heed the warnings of financial experts for years that said we’re heading for a cliff,” he said.

Melvoin first made his name in the education world working on a lawsuit against LAUSD, Reed v. California. After being laid off in 2010 from a two-year stint as an LAUSD teacher, he joined the class-action suit that challenged seniority-based layoffs, which resulted in a settlement. Since then, he’s spent time as a legal clerk for the American Civil Liberties Union and an education consultant. 

Zimmer spent 17 years as an LAUSD teacher before his 2009 election to the board.

Much of the conversation among the candidates revolved around a school board that is seen as oppositional to charter schools. Melvoin skewered the board for rejecting philanthropists such as Eli Broad in their attempts to fund a ramping up of the district’s charter school enrollment. 

“Philanthropists and community members want to spend billion of dollars … and they’re told no,” Melvoin said. “So when schools and faculty are being encouraged to vote against incoming funds when we have this fiscal situation, that’s a shame.”

Zimmer rejected the charge that the board is anti-charter. In a school district with more than 1 in 6 students in charter schools, “the idea that this board is somehow opposed to [school] choice … it’s just a fictional narrative,” he said.

The other candidates were no more gentle in their criticism of the incumbent board than Melvoin.

“Teacher tenure happens too quickly and too soon,” Martayan said.

During the forum, Martayan — who said he recently returned from a trip to Israel — touted his plan to introduce Hebrew education and kosher food to LAUSD schools. Though he’s not Jewish, Martayan claims to be supported by much of the Orthodox Jewish community.

Polhill, meanwhile, slammed the board’s inaction on pension liabilities as “fiscally irresponsible and dangerous.”

Despite Melvoin’s promise of an amicable debate, he presented himself as a change candidate who represents a sharp contrast from the incumbency. But Zimmer rejected the tactic of “blaming LAUSD for everything.”

“Whether that is a good narrative or not is less important than whether it works for kids,” he said.

Gun and bomb attack threat closes Los Angeles schools in likely hoax

Los Angeles shut more than 1,000 public schools on Tuesday over a threatened attack with bombs and assault rifles, sending hundreds of thousands of students home as city leaders were criticized for over reacting to what federal officials later said was likely a hoax.

The emailed threat, which authorities said was “routed through Germany” but likely more local in origin, came less than two weeks after a married couple inspired by Islamic State killed 14 people and wounded 22 others at a county office building in San Bernardino, just 60 miles (100 km) away.

“Based on past circumstance, I could not take the chance,” Los Angeles School Superintendent Ramon Cortines said at a news conference.

Federal officials, who asked not to be identified, echoed an assessment by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton that the decision in Los Angeles was an “over reaction” and that New York had received an almost identical threat that was quickly deemed not credible. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he backed the decision and Police Chief Charlie Beck said it should not be second-guessed because the threat was “very specific to Los Angeles Unified School District campuses.”

Beck said the email mentioned assault rifles and machine pistols and implied the use of explosives. 

But the unprecedented move at the second-largest public school system in the United States left some 643,000 students and their families scrambling to cope and drew criticism.

A law enforcement source told Reuters that Los Angeles authorities ordered the closure to allow a full search of public school facilities without consulting with the FBI, which typically takes the lead on investigations into potential terrorism.. Some public schools in the city remained open as did most private schools.

“L.A. is a huge school system,” said Bratton, who had previously served as police chief in Los Angeles. “To disrupt the daily schedules of half a million school children, their parents, day care, buses based on an anonymous email, without consultation, if in fact, consultation did not occur with law enforcement authorities, I think it was a significant over reaction.”

Garcetti denied that assertion, saying his city had contacted federal law enforcement officials. 

Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California, told the New York Times that the person who sent the email claimed to be a devout Muslim prepared to launch an attack using bombs, nerve gas and rifles with “32 jihadist friends” because he had been bullied at a Los Angeles high school.

Sherman told the paper that the number of attackers and claim to have nerve gas cast doubts on the credibility of the email, as did the writer consistently failing to capitalize the word “Allah.” 

“While we continue to gather information about the threat made against the Los Angeles and New York School Departments, the preliminary assessment is that it was a hoax or something designed to disrupt school districts in large cities,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee, said in a written statement.

Cortines, in defending his decision to take such a dramatic step, said the threat stood out from most that the district received in its seriousness and scope, referencing multiple campuses and mentioning backpacks and other packages. 

“It is very easy for people to jump to conclusions and I have been around long enough to know that usually what people think in the first few hours is not what plays out in later hours,” said the mayor, Garcetti. “But decisions have to be made in a matter of minutes.”

Police Chief Beck said it was “irresponsible” to criticize the decision in the aftermath of the Dec. 2 attack on a regional center in San Bernardino, California, east of Los Angeles. 

That massacre and other mass shootings have pushed the issues of militant Islamism and gun violence to the forefront of the U.S. presidential campaign.

A school district spokeswoman said that it had asked for 13 enforcement agencies to help search some 1,000 campuses, including 187 charter schools.

Professor Brian Levin, an expert on counter-terrorism and hate crimes at Cal State University San Bernardino, remarked on what a massive undertaking it would be to search schools.

“God bless 'em, but I couldn't do it. Who knows? Maybe they can. It involves looking in classrooms, closets, lockers – if you can get bomb-sniffing dogs in there, doing that – vehicles and surrounding perimeter areas,” Levin said.

“If it were me, if I were chief, I'd want more time. But maybe the political pressures don't allow for that,” he said.

Some parents used social media to vent frustration at having learned about the closures from the news media, rather than directly from the schools.

Ronna Bronstein, who has two sons in grade school, said she was trying to find out more while shielding her younger child from the news.

“I don't want him to be frightened to go back to school tomorrow,” she said.

Many Jewish day schools closed in response to LAUSD threat, now deemed a hoax

A handful of Jewish day schools in the Los Angeles area responded on Dec. 15 to a threat to L.A. schools by either canceling classes or enacting other precautions, such as increasing campus security. By midday, the threat was deemed a hoax according to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Jewish schools that closed for the day included Kadima Day School, Yeshiva Yavneh, Harkham Hillel Academy, Yeshiva University High School and Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School. 

Whereas all Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools were shuttered by an order from Supt. Ramon Cortines after a board member received a threat of violence involving backpacks and packages at public school campuses, these private day schools closed voluntarily out of concern for the safety of students, as well, school leaders said.

“We’re pleased we made this decision for our community,” Kadima Day School Director of Admissions Michelle Starkman said in a phone interview on the morning of Dec. 15. “Who we are, safety is the No. 1 thing we do.”

She said her concern stemmed from the fact that Kadima — based in West Hills — is surrounded by several LAUSD schools.

“Many of our families have children attending LAUSD schools as well as Kadima,” Starkman said. “I think it’s unsettling for families to think one school does not take the safety of their child as seriously as another.”

One school that ramped up security but stayed open was Sinai Akiba Academy, which had already been increasing its security in recent weeks. Sarah Shulkind, its head of school, said she had been in contact throughout the day with other day school leaders, and she expressed confidence in the school’s decision to remain open despite the LAUSD developments.

“The best thing we can do for the school and the community is have school as usual. It reassures kids they are in a place where adults are taking care of them,” Shulkind said. “They are doing text study as usual, innovation lab as usual and coming to school as they always would be.”

More than 900 LAUSD schools closed after what LAUSD initially described as a “credible threat” was delivered in an email to LAUSD officials. Various media outlets said authorities traced the email to an IP address in Germany.

“All L.A. Unified schools closed,” a message on reads. “The safety and well-being of our students remain the Los Angeles Unified School District’s top priority. Resulting from a threat received, all schools are closed today over concerns for student and employee safety.”

The investigation into the email is ongoing, Schiff said in a statement on the afternoon of the closures. He said the threat could be “a hoax or something designed to disrupt school districts in large cities. The investigation is ongoing as to where the threat originated from and who was responsible.” School officials in New York City also received the threat but did not close the schools.

Schiff was not immediately available for a phone interview. 

The threat affected public and charter schools in the LAUSD system. Among those was Lashon Academy Charter School, a Hebrew-English charter school, which closed in accordance with the instructions of LAUSD.

“Lashon, as a public school, follows the instructions/recommendations of the District, which was to close our school,” Josh Stock, founder and executive director of Lashon Academy, wrote in an email to the Journal.

The incident followed closely on the heels of the San Bernardino shooting, which resulted in 14 people dead and 21 wounded.

“My guess is the school district is being extra vigilant after San Bernardino and just wanted to make sure [everything was safe],” Gary Weisserman, head of school at Milken Community Schools, said in an interview. 

Weisserman did not close Milken, but, because Milken uses LAUSD buses, morning bus routes were canceled, he said. The actions affected approximately 60 students, Weisserman said.

The school also canceled the day’s after-school programs as a safety measure, Weisserman said. “In the afternoon, it is harder to secure the campus … people are coming in for games, practices. To be safe, [we’ve] canceled [them]. [But] campus is secure. We’re business as usual.”

Milken Community Schools is one of the largest Jewish high and middle schools in the United States. Another large Jewish day school located in Los Angeles is deToledo High School. Los Angeles Police Department officials were visiting with deToledo High School officials at the time of a Journal phone interview with David Marcus, campus business manager at deToledo.

Marcus said he has overseen the increase of security at the school, saying the school is safe and secure — and open.

“Our response is [that] we’re vigilant. We make sure this is a safe place for our students,” Marcus said. “We’re on top of stuff like this.” 

Rabbi Moshe Dear, headmaster at Yeshiva Yavneh, echoed Starkman.

“Even though there was no direct threat to our school, for sure, our school is located across the street from an LAUSD public school, which made the decision a little easier,” Dear said in a phone interview.

The Yavneh leader expressed that the threat was troubling him on an emotional level.

“I think it’s sad we live in these times that schools, which are meant to be a safe and happy place, need to send children home because of these types of threats,” he said. “We hope and pray for better days.” 


Press release from Patrick Boland regarding the LAUSD shutdown  

Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Schiff Statement on School Closings

Washington, DC – Today, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank, CA), the Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, released the following statement after receiving a preliminary briefing: 

“While we continue to gather information about the threat made against the Los Angeles and New York School Departments, the preliminary assessment is that it was a hoax or something designed to disrupt school districts in large cities. The investigation is ongoing as to where the threat originated from and who was responsible.

 “The safety of our communities and particularly our young people is paramount. At the same time, in an environment in which it is very easy to transmit threats, real and otherwise, and when fear and disruption may be the goal as well as the effect, communities and law enforcement will need to make a difficult judgment as to how to respond in a variety of circumstances. The goal of the intelligence and federal law enforcement community should be to assist local authorities with as timely information as possible to help inform those judgments.  I will continue to urge the intelligence and federal law enforcement community to share as much information as it can, as quickly as it is able.”

How “all kids” is the current LAUSD?

In decrying the recently leaked memo outlining a plan to create more high-quality public charter schools in our city, LAUSD School Board President Steve Zimmer said: “This is not an all-kids plan or an all-kids strategy…it’s very explicitly a some-kids strategy, a strategy that some kids will have a better education at a publicly-funded school…[t]he conversation should be better public education options and quality public schools for all kids, not some kids.”

I agree with that last part. And yet I have a hard time seeing how LAUSD itself has engaged in an “all-kids” strategy. I’m confused as to how policies that have led to only twenty-six percent of high school students being on track to graduate can possibly be called part of an “all-kids” strategy. It seems to me that this is a “quarter-of-kids” strategy. That’s not to say that Zimmer and others don’t believe that all kids should succeed; on the contrary, I believe that they do. But by denouncing various school innovation plans as a “some kids” strategy and touting the district’s as an “all kids” one, Zimmer is not only unnecessarily incendiary, but he also invites scrutiny of how “all kids” this district has been of late.

Although local media criticism of LAUSD is not unusual, it’s not every day that someone with the stature of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez is compelled to say of this district: “You’ve got to be kidding me.” And yet that’s exactly what he said earlier this week when writing about the district’s asinine decision to rehire an attorney who, only months prior, had not only argued in court that a “13-year-old student was partly to blame for her 28-year-old math teacher’s sexual abuse of her,” but also said on the radio that it was more dangerous for her to cross a street than to have sex with a teacher. Only when that comment came to light did the district apologize. It was bad enough that this argument was used in court (which it can no longer be, thanks to a law passed in response to LAUSD’s tactics), but then to rehire the lawyer? I highly doubt that the student tragically implicated in this situation believes that this is part of an all kids strategy.

Sadly, it’s not the district’s response to these cases, but the fact that they exist in the first place that’s the most difficult to stomach. The year before I started teaching at Markham Middle School in Watts, an assistant principal was arrested and charged with five counts of forcible lewd acts on a child. That’s horrible enough, but here’s the kicker: he was moved to Markham “even though police had alerted the district that they suspected [he] had had sex with a minor.” To echo Lopez: “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Have things improved since his arrest in 2008? Unfortunately not. Last year, the district paid over $139 million to settle the case of an educator who was convicted of committing 23 counts of lewd conduct upon a child. What is appalling about these cases is not only that they happened, but that they could have been prevented. In the case of the assistant principal at Markham, the district had been alerted to his actions; in the more recent case, the conduct had been occurring since at least 1996. Regrettably, the students affected were not part of an all kids strategy.

Horrific incidents like these unfortunately detract from the work of the district’s incredibly caring and hard-working teachers who labor day in and day out on behalf of the district’s nearly 700,000 students. So what is the district doing to ensure that all kids in LA have access to high-quality teachers and that all teachers in LA are adequately supported in their work? Instead of standing with California students who brought a landmark civil rights case aimed at reforming anachronistic, regressive policies that actually prevented all kids from having effective teachers (the judge went so far as to say the evidence “shocks the conscience”), some district leaders condemned the case and even attempted to vilify these kids. Kids who, it is worth noting, are supported in their efforts by most teachers in the state.

And so the disgusting cases mentioned above are symptoms of a larger problem: that the district isn’t interested in who stands in front of all kids. Despite the fact that nothing is more important to student achievement than the quality of the teacher, it is illegal to consider quality when making staffing decisions. Hopefully that will change in the next few months, but with no thanks to the district’s current leaders. And while board members may be beholden to special interests that supported their campaigns, parents and teachers themselves are tired of it. And when one considers that it is low-income students of color who suffer the most as a result of district staffing policies, the idea that this can be called an “all kids” strategy would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.

It’s no surprise, then, that academically, the district has failed to serve all kids well. Twelve years ago, the district deserved a lot of credit for the passage of the A-G resolution that sought to ensure that students who graduated from an LAUSD school would also be eligible to enroll in California’s public universities. At the end of last year, however, the district had to water down the policy because student data indicated that only 26 percent of the class of 2017 (the first year the requirement was to go into effect) would have met the new standards. Why? Well, for one, because many schools in the most under-served areas of the city did not even offer the college prep courses necessary. “It is clear that we have not resourced A-G properly,” Zimmer said at the time. He called for a report by the “best experts” to tell the district what needed to be done. Too little, too late—and I’d reckon that 74% of the district’s students don’t believe that they’re part of an “all kids” strategy. 

At the school where I taught, that figure is more like 94%. At Markham, only six percent of the eighth graders were proficient in math last year. At a public charter middle school nearby, that number was 22 percent. Not adequate to be sure, but still almost a four-fold improvement in achievement. In my mind, an “all kids” strategy would include learning from that higher performing school while also providing needed supports to both schools. Instead, all too often this district silos its charter and traditional schools and pits them against one another rather than inviting cooperation and collaboration. This may be why there are over 40,000 children on charter school wait lists in LA. Rather than learning from high-performing schools throughout the district—traditional, pilot, teacher-led, magnet and charter—and replicating success, the district has pitted these schools against each other and forced parents, the innocent bystanders in this equation, to get in line between thousands of others all looking for high-quality school options.

Something that parents know, however, that I wish more of our leaders knew, is that this isn’t a zero-sum game. There are incredible schools of all shapes, sizes, and governance structures throughout LA and the teachers and staff at those schools are working tirelessly on behalf of all kids. And I, for one, welcome anyone who wants to help the district innovate in an effort to serve all kids even better.

So let us stop questioning motives and spend our energies working to close opportunity and achievement gaps, ensuring children go to school in safe learning environments, and preparing every student for college. “All kids” in LA surely would benefit if we did. 

Nicholas Melvoin is a former LAUSD middle school teacher and current education attorney and advocate.

Fresh start at Harkham GAON Academy

The contrast at the Westside Jewish Community Center (WJCC) was marked: In the gymnasium, Harkham GAON Academy students were actively engaged in a basketball game. In the auditorium next door, members of a different generation were performing their own exercises in a WJCC-sponsored senior-citizen workout class. 

This scene, and others like it, began playing out this fall when the coed Modern Orthodox school previously known as Yeshiva High Tech moved into rented space at the WJCC.

The marquee outside the Westside Jewish Community Center welcomes its newest tenant, Harkham GAON Academy. Photo courtesy of Harkham GAON Academy

“We have a new place … new administration — everything is different,” Harkham GAON Academy Principal Debora Parks said in an interview at the WJCC, the school’s new home for the 2015-16 school year. “Yeshiva High Tech doesn’t exist anymore.” 

Yeshiva High Tech originally opened in the fall of 2012, offering blended learning for a group of approximately 40 students in grades 9 through 12; enrollment is now above 50, of which 14 are girls. In blended learning, some instruction and content are received online, under adult supervision, and some instruction occurs in the traditional teacher-in-the-classroom manner.

GAON student Sarah Brown raises her hand during Hebrew class. Photo by Ryan Torok

Rabbi Moises Benzaquen, the school’s founder and director of Judaic studies, included GAON in the new name as a way to honor the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank in 2014: Gilad Shaar, Ay-el Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel. The first letters of the teens’ names along with the addition of the letter “O” forms the word “gaon,” which is the Hebrew word for “genius.” 

Benzaquen visited Israel in the summer of 2014 and was moved by the experience, Parks said, and the new name for the school occurred to him while he was traveling back to the United States. 

The other part of the name celebrates Efrem Harkham, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and longtime supporter of the school who has promised a $100,000 gift at the start of January, Parks said.

“There is a need for another alternative-type high school, a Jewish high school,” said Harkham, founder of L.E. Hotels and president and CEO of Luxe Hotels. “We’ve got the conventional type, which we are very thankful for — YULA, Shalhevet, the other high schools in the area — but we really needed another choice, a more affordable, innovative choice. We needed to find a way of teaching these kids in a more affordable way as well as teaching them in a style that is conducive to the new age.”

Parks was hired as principal this academic year, succeeding Rebecca Coen. Parks — who is not Jewish — previously worked for 13 years at Maimonides Academy in Los Angeles.

Harkham GAON Academy, a coed modern Orthodox school, offers online learning in a traditional classroom environment. Photo courtesy of Harkham GAON Academy

Harkham GAON’s blended learning is for the first time incorporating a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) online curriculum called Edgenuity. Also for the first time, the school is relying on Santa Monica College (SMC) for a Hebrew program that brings in two instructors from the college to teach beginning and advanced Hebrew. Students earn college credit for the Hebrew courses. On a recent school day, students in the beginner’s class — Hebrew 1 — sat in front of laptops while a Hebrew instructor from SMC, joining them in the classroom, led them in instruction. Lessons in Hebrew 2, whose class includes many native speakers, took place in another room, Parks said. 

Bringing down costs is a major part of what Parks is expected to accomplish, according to Benzaquen. He said he is working with her to decrease the school’s budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and they are aiming to keep annual tuition relatively affordable, at $12,000. 

“We need to help with Jewish education, to make it more accessible,” he said.

The school moved because it needed more space. It is renting 10 classrooms on the third floor of the WJCC, which last year had been rented to Shalhevet School while that school’s new campus was being built. This arrangement has financial benefits because the WJCC pays for security, maintenance and utilities, Parks said. 

“We’re hoping to stay for three years,” she said.

Although there is not much mingling between the students and the WJCC members, Parks said some of the female GAON students have been volunteering at the WJCC preschool as a way to earn community service credit.

Using the LAUSD curriculum, part of the City of Angels School Virtual Academy (an individualized, Western Association of Schools and Colleges accredited instruction program of LAUSD), and the SMC Hebrew instructors contribute to GAON’s cost-cutting measures. Both are provided at no cost to GAON through an agreement with LAUSD. In contrast, last year the school paid for a private online general studies curriculum and used expensive distance learning for Hebrew instruction, in which students engaged via Skype with instructors based in Israel.  

Parks said the school is currently working on earning affiliation with Builders of Jewish Edcation, a resource for Jewish day schools in Southern California. 

For now, the school is enjoying its new moniker, digs and curriculum. Additionally, the Harkham GAON Academy Lions, which have hired an athletics director, are developing basketball, flag football, volleyball and soccer teams, according to school leadership. 

“The thing that’s exciting for me is it’s a new school. … I’m really looking forward to rejuvenating the school spirit through athletics,” said Kevin Trice, director of the athletics program. “I’m just very excited about that.”

A crusader for California’s kids

For nearly 20 years, Robina Suwol has been on a mission to protect California’s kids from dangerous pesticides, toxins and chemicals. And the Sherman Oaks resident shows no signs of slowing down.

It all goes back to an otherwise typical morning 17 years ago. The former actress, who jokes she is “over AARP age,” was dropping off her two sons at their Sherman Oaks elementary school. Her older one went off to his classroom. But Suwol had a specific routine with her younger son. They would say goodbye. Then she would watch as he headed off. When he got a certain distance away, he would turn and the two would blow each other kisses. On this day, however, when her son blew a kiss, there appeared to be something in the air around him. He said there was a terrible taste. Then Suwol noticed a man nearby in a white hazardous-materials suit. 

Suwol might have forgotten about the incident, except that her son had asthma. It had been in check. But soon he had what Suwol described as a “very serious” attack.

Suwol’s son worried that another incident like the one at school might occur. Suwol assured him it wouldn’t. But could she really be sure? She started doing research — never, she notes, with any litigious intent. Her motive simply was to find out what her children’s Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school was using that day and see if there might be alternatives.

What she discovered floored her. The district, she said, was using nearly 160 products, many with adverse health effects. This didn’t sit right with Suwol, so she met with school administrators and LAUSD board members.

One year after the incident at her boys’ school and with input from Suwol, LAUSD instituted the Integrated Pest Management Policy, which states, among other things, that the district “will give non-chemical methods first consideration when selecting appropriate pest control techniques.” It also requires that any products used be approved by a Pest Management Team — a group of 15 individuals including teachers, parents, a physician, an environmentalist and school district staff — which meets monthly. 

The policy embraces a precautionary principle, which says that even if a substance has not been scientifically proven harmful, if there is any concern that it might be, the district won’t use it. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Suwol said.

The policy underscores the importance of personnel training; anyone handling pesticides receives instruction. Even workers such as painters and roofers are educated about what they can do to keep pests at bay. And it mandates that parents receive a copy of the policy and a list of approved products (now closer to 30) at the beginning of each school year. 

According to Suwol, the policy put the district at the forefront of pest management, making it a model for other districts across the country. It also altered Suwol’s career path. In 2000, she launched California Safe Schools (, a one-woman enterprise with an office in downtown Los Angeles. The mission: “Protecting our children’s health and the environment.” Before this, Suwol, who talks about the importance of tikkun olam, had long been involved in health and environmental issues, but more as a hobbyist: participating in beach cleanups, for example. This represented a new chapter, a new level of commitment.

A few years later, Suwol worked with then-Assemblymember Cindy Montañez to pass AB 405, prohibiting the use of experimental pesticides on school grounds, which then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed in October 2005. 

But Suwol’s work is not limited to pesticide use. Over the years, she has received calls from parents, teachers and community members about lead paint, asbestos, groundwater contamination and vapor intrusions at California schools. People call her from private schools and schools outside of LAUSD about the use of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes in classrooms and Roundup weed killer on school grounds. Suwol is not a scientist, but she works closely with several experts. 

When she gets a call, Suwol’s first task is to listen. She asks callers if they have spoken to anyone at the school, and if not, encourages them to do so. If people need more information about a product or issue, she will provide it. She has become an ace at public records requests and has developed close working relationships with senior staff at several regulatory agencies. But her objective is to empower others “to be their own leader,” she said. In some cases, she will meet with administrators, share her concern and offer alternatives. But she is aware that an outsider’s voice is often less compelling. And when people call her with obvious litigious intent, she makes it clear that that is not the purpose of California Safe Schools.

Suwol, who grew up in a reform Jewish home in Portland, Ore., and worships at Chabad of Sherman Oaks, does not charge for her services. California Safe Schools is supported through various foundations and grants.   

One issue Suwol is particularly concerned about currently is the use of crumb rubber on some artificial turf fields. This is granulated rubber made from recycled tires. Although Suwol concedes there have been no significant studies done in this area, much has been written about the chemicals in crumb rubber and possible links to cancer.

One might imagine that not every school administrator and bureaucrat is thrilled to see Suwol’s name in their inbox or on their callback list. And surely there are some in that camp. 

“One person was discouraging me from sitting down with her,” recalled Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health for the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health. That was nearly 16 years ago. Bellomo decided to meet with Suwol anyway. At the time, he was director of environmental health and safety for LAUSD. 

“I sat down with her and made the observation [that] she was focused like laser light on the cause. She would be willing to do anything to not lose the person she was talking to. She was extremely tactful and respectful. I have seen her sit at a meeting and instead of reacting violently, she was very thoughtful. She would say, ‘I hear what you are saying. But can you explain why you believe this won’t be helpful?’” 

Bellomo continues to work with Suwol in his current position. “I have never seen her come to the school district or county health department with an initiative that wouldn’t directly benefit the public interest. She is unrelenting,” he added.

Sometimes Suwol’s enthusiasm can seem over the top. “Someone said to me, ‘What are you? A god—- one-woman band?’ ” Suwol recalled. But that passion comes from a good place.

“If there is a success to our program,” she said, it’s that “we’ve never misled anyone. We have been very honorable. I don’t try to invent something or create a situation. If you work from your heart in that way, really good things happen.” 

LAUSD board president Steve Zimmer talks about getting back to basics

Steve Zimmer was first elected to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board in 2009 after coming to town as a Teach for America trainee and then teaching for 17 years. Now he helps guide the nation’s second-largest public school system, serving nearly 700,000 students as the newly elected board president and representative for District 4, which encompasses a vast and varied swath of the city that includes Tarzana, Encino and other portions of the San Fernando Valley, as well as Venice, Mar Vista and Hollywood.

The 45-year-old Hollywood resident and New York native, who davens at Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard and spends the High Holy Days at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Pico-Robertson, recently took time in his 24th-floor downtown office to talk about the recent school board election, the new technology plan and what it’s going to take to bring families back to LAUSD. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Jewish Journal: Do you miss the classroom? 

STEVE ZIMMER: Every day. That’s why I was just out. Stephen Wise Temple does some of our Freedom Schools, a program with the Children’s Defense Fund. We were able to connect them with some very high-poverty schools in the Valley. I was just there this morning. So I do try to be in a classroom or school or around kids or families in some way every day, because this building can be very far removed from the children and families we impact. I think of myself as a teacher, a counselor, on special assignment.

JJ: You represent a huge area of Los Angeles. How did this come to be?

SZ: The district was created through obscene political gerrymandering. No more obscene than any other district; mine just happens to be a piece of bizarre art.

JJ: And how do you represent these various areas fairly?

SZ: You have to be balanced. I represent all. But there is no question in my mind who needs the school district more. Equity questions are not personally difficult for me. I’m not interested in fairness, so to speak, because this system has not been fair to poor children at all. But … there is a challenge to balance how much time and effort we spend addressing the needs of families living in severe poverty every day.

JJ: Are there particular issues unique to your San Fernando Valley constituents and schools? 

SZ: I think that there are. Diversity in the Valley, especially in the portion of the Valley that I serve, is one of the most unique opportunities in this generation to embrace authentically diverse schools. Woodland Hills in particular is a community that has a vast diversity — I think of Taft High School. I have two high schools that are literally the United Nations: Fairfax and Taft.

In the West Valley, we have the advantage of a certain level of stability, a baseline of stability both in our schools and in our economy and housing. That is not true in other areas of Los Angeles. Because we have a stability baseline, we can take public education and authentically diverse public education to a whole new level, really a kaleidoscope celebration of different cultures.

JJ: In recent years, LAUSD’s enrollment numbers have consistently been going down. What can be done to reverse this trend? 

SZ: Unless families believe that their neighborhood LAUSD school is going to be the conduit through which their family can achieve the American dream, they aren’t going to choose LAUSD. We have to offer instructional pathways that have the quality and the attraction value that will lead families to choose us. So: magnet programs for across the district, instructional designs that are specialized that are very attractive, dual-immersion programs, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] programs. …

I believe in choice, but I am very, very wary. I am very cognizant of the damage that competition has done to our schools. And we became obsessed with data instead of being data-informed. When a system becomes so obsessed with competition that they view children through their potential to score versus their overall humanity, the dehumanization of that public school system is not something that is attractive to parents, is not something that is warm and inviting. And our public schools, to my great regret, have become test score-obsessed. A lot of charter schools have, too.

JJ: How do we change that? 

SZ: It’s about balance, about returning us to the purpose and objective of public education as it relates to families — to meet and fulfill the American dream. That is not a test-driven process. So I believe we reverse that by returning to our roots.

JJ: Is that view shared by your colleagues on the board?

SZ: Right now, we share an understanding that the cost of cutthroat competition in the public education system is greater than the real gains for some children.

JJ: You’re a big proponent of universal preschool. But Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines wants to get rid of the district’s half-day preschools and instead offer full-day preschool, significantly reducing the overall number of preschool spots.

SZ: Vexing question. Very deep. We’re going to do everything we can to use money the state has allocated to replace seats that this plan adjusts. There is actually a gain in hours but a loss in seats. Children coming to our kindergarten classes where there are severe school readiness gaps, these equity needs are going to be addressed. The problem is, from a facilities perspective and literally a numbers perspective, if we are going to address the equity issue, there is going to be some temporary seat loss, especially in communities where people can afford private options.

JJ: The recent school board election felt very much like a vote that was  either pro- or anti-charter school. Is that how it feels on the board?

SZ: I think there is a difference between support for existing charter schools that parents have chosen [and new charter schools]. I respect and support those choices as long as the charter is doing very well, and I mean very well.

JJ: Why a different bar for charter schools?

SZ: Because that’s why charters are supposed to exist: either to provide something better, or unique and innovative. Otherwise there’s no compelling reason to authorize them.

JJ: Do you think there’s any chance to roll back the charter trend? 

SZ: We have the most charters of any school district in the nation. We have incredibly high levels of saturation. If choice is so important, the California Charter Schools Association agenda and the Walton Family Foundation and other foundations’ agendas to situate more and more charter schools within the LAUSD boundary is not about children. It’s not about choice. It’s not about innovation. It’s about a very different agenda of bringing down the school district, an agenda to dramatically change what is public education. It’s about altering the influence of public sector unions. I just happen to disagree with that agenda. But folks should be explicit about what their agenda is. 

I’m actually very proud we have some of the highest-performing charters in the country. It takes a lot for me to not renew or to close down an existing charter. But at the point we’re at, a new charter has to be compelling. It has to offer something we don’t have right now, and that is a high bar. I am unapologetic about it.

JJ: You were a supporter of the iPad initiative. Where is LAUSD right now with technology? 

SZ: The iPad program was the best idea with the worst plan of any initiative I have ever supported in my life. It really is like iPadgate. We were told it was within our grasp to eradicate the digital divide. This is the public-education version of a bright, shining lie. It was the single most disappointing moment of my board career. 

What’s going to happen now? The new technology plan will be a very diverse one with tech labs at schools, some tablets for elementary school students, and hybrid machines for middle school and high school students. It’s going to take a while. Five to seven years.
But we’re starting now. We’re not waiting.

JJ: It seems like a lot of the dialogue relating to LAUSD pits teacher against student. If something is good for students, it’s bad for teachers and vice versa. 

SZ: How it’s said in my world is whether you have a kid agenda or an adult agenda. That is an incredibly deceptive political construct. Anybody who has spent their career in public school knows that’s a lie. When you’re supporting teachers, you’re supporting kids. When you create a better environment for learning, you’re supporting kids and everyone who works with them. 

That lie — kids versus adults — that lie is a subterfuge about what part of the reform movement is about, which is eviscerating or lessening the influence of public sector unions. A lot of that is focused on teacher unions. Teacher unions are teachers. I’ve been very critical of my own union and the union I consider to be an ally. [But] there’s a difference between being critical of different policies of a labor union and believing that union should not exist. And a lot of money that fuels the charter and reform movement is by people who believe teacher unions should not exist.

JJ: Let’s end with a happy LAUSD story. Do you have one?

SZ: I’ll share two brief stories. We had our first graduates from the continuation school program we built. We worked with the Los Angeles Youth Network. [The school is] specifically designed to serve kids living in emergency homeless shelters. It is situated in our field office, in East Hollywood. 

Also, the student recovery work we have done. Cortines and I initiated this program. We have this particular day every year in the fall where we get all the lists of the students who have dropped out or been pushed out of our schools. We empty this building and all the district offices. We get our social workers and community volunteers, and we literally go door to door looking for them all. It’s like a campaign. We have phone banks. The sole purpose is to find kids and bring them back. We have a very simple message: We miss you. We’re not complete without you. We have over 6,000 diplomas we have been able to issue [through this program] over five years. That is, bar none, the thing I am most proud of in my board term. 

LAUSD Mandarin immersion program expansion sparks backlash

“It’s really been an L.A. story,” said Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board member Steve Zimmer, who is in the middle of a classic Los Angeles conflict that reflects the city’s many cultures and tensions. 

The dispute is taking place in West Los Angeles, in an area encompassing parts of Venice and Mar Vista. The people who ran a popular Mandarin immersion program at Venice’s Broadway Elementary School wanted to expand to both Mandarin and Spanish immersion and move to a new building, proposed to be built on the Mark Twain Middle School campus in Mar Vista, a few miles west. The new building would cost $30 million.

Broadway is near the Oakwood section of Venice, a working-class Latino and African-American area that has been known for gangs but is now rapidly gentrifying. Mark Twain is located in an area that is both working-class Latino and multiethnic middle class. The Mandarin immersion families come from all over the city, drawn by the quality of the magnet program. Many parents, some affluent, drive their children to school. Families living around Mark Twain, fearing traffic, objected to moving the immersion program.

It got so ugly that Superintendent Ramon Cortines canceled plans for the new building on the middle-school campus. Now the immersion program’s parents are furious.

The importance of the conflict extends beyond Venice and Mar Vista and is extremely relevant to the Jewish community, which places a high value on quality education.

Supporting the Mandarin immersion program is part of Zimmer’s effort to make the LAUSD attractive to middle-class families, including Jewish parents who may be nervous about sending their kids to schools where minority students are in the majority. Zimmer, who is Jewish, told me the public schools “have deep, authentic and strong roots in Jewish identity in the Diaspora.”

The Mandarin immersion program was the idea of Broadway Elementary School’s principal, Susan Wang, along with several parents, including some with roots in Taiwan. Wang, a native Mandarin speaker, came to the United States from Taiwan as a teenager. She graduated from UCLA and has been with the LAUSD for 20 years, 13 of them teaching severely autistic children.

In 2010, the Mandarin program opened at Broadway with two classes of 24 students each.

The program was so popular that it was expanded to four classes a year later. Students spend a half-day in English-speaking classes and the other half in classes where only Mandarin is spoken. The goal of immersion supporters was to create a track for students to travel from elementary to middle and finally to Venice High School, which has a foreign-language magnet program offering instruction in Italian, French, German, Japanese and Spanish, as well as Mandarin.

Zimmer said such creative teaching would attract a wide range of students to Los Angeles public schools. “If we make it about instruction, some of the other tensions recede, because families are saying, ‘This is the best instructional model for my kid,’ ” Zimmer said.

That’s been the case with my family. My daughter, Jennifer Doliner, and her husband, John Doliner, enrolled their oldest daughter, Anabelle, in the predominantly minority Emerson Middle School, where she received a rigorous academic education. When I picked her up after school, I enjoyed watching the Latino, African-American, Caucasian, Asian-American and, I bet, other ethnicities, head for home. It was the multicultural L.A. that so many people talk about but seldom see. Anabelle attends the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet with an intense academic program that prepares students from all over Los Angeles for a university education. 

Her sister, Lila, attends another LAUSD school, Ocean Charter. Charters are public schools, but operate independently from many district rules — and are exempt from teacher’s union contracts.

After a determined search for academic programs they felt were right for their kids, Jennifer and John have managed to keep them in public schools.

When enrollment opened at Broadway, parents waited all night to get their kids enrolled in Mandarin immersion. “We knew Mandarin would outgrow Broadway,” said Zimmer, who began looking around for another site. He settled on the campus of Mark Twain, a middle school with a declining enrollment.

The West Mar Vista Residents Association objected. Zimmer, the group said, sprung the project on the neighborhood without consulting its residents. The school’s enrollment would add more than 560 students from all over the city to the Mark Twain campus, making it a “commuter school,” with hundreds of parents dropping off and picking up their kids every day, the association said. “The school is proposed to be built in an already traffic gridlocked part of the city on about half of the Mark Twain Middle School play field,” a statement from the association says. Association leader Saeed Ali did a study, which found there is plenty of space in underutilized Westside schools for the immersion program without it being shifted to Mark Twain.

Immersion parents are “beyond upset” over Cortines’ decision to cancel construction of the immersion school building on the Mark Twain campus, parent Jennifer Pullen told me in an email. “LAUSD is losing families … at an alarming rate, yet a program that is academically challenging, innovative and growing with parents camping out all night to get a spot in one of the four kindergarten classes (and quite a few end up on the wait list) is being drastically reduced in size.” She noted that Cortines is reducing the number of kindergarten classes — in which students start the immersion process — from four to two.

Cortines happened to drop into Zimmer’s office while I was interviewing the school board member. He told me he had instructed aides to look at other sites for expansion. “There shouldn’t be one place for Mandarin, or one place for French or one place for Spanish; there should be multiple places,” he said.

There’s no end in sight for this particular L.A. story. I know this from covering many such stories in the neighborhoods and in the schools.

I don’t like traffic, either. I’m trapped in the nightmare of parental pickups when I fetch my granddaughter Lila at Ocean Charter. I arrive early to find a parking place, and nervously try to avoid colliding with stressed and rushed moms and dads when I pull out. But I also know the value of imaginative programs such as Mandarin immersion, Spanish immersion and others.

If Cortines and the school board want to help the public schools, they should encourage and expand such innovation instead of cutting back.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Harris Newmark High School: Where the generations meet

On a recent sunny midmorning in the Westlake district, an area west of downtown Los Angeles that has been home to Jews since the turn of the 20th century, the student body and staff of Harris Newmark High School — a continuation school — gathered for a celebration. Also present were some descendants of the pioneering Los Angeles Jewish businessman for whom the school was named, the civic leader and chronicler Harris Newmark (1834-1916), as well as some Los Angeles Unified School District leaders. They were there to mark the school’s recent achievement, as Principal Justin Lauer told the audience, that Newmark High, in the state’s program of recognizing achievement in continuation high schools, was “the only school in LAUSD to get model school this year in the state of California.”

It was a day of connection. Almost 100 years after his death, Newmark remains a figure of considerable magnetism. On this day, his legacy linked him to the students, the Newmark family to the school and also created a bond for his descendants to each other.

Once known as Belmont Continuation School, the small campus whose motto is “Reclaiming Futures, Restoring Hope, Rebuilding Dreams” changed its name in 1975. Dwarfed by Belmont High School and its approximately 1,000 students across the street, Newmark’s enrollment is only 130 by day and 40 by night — students who school counselor Kenneth Suto described as “second-chance kids.”

At the outdoor ceremony, the students listened politely as a succession of speakers came forward to the microphone.

In an attempt to help the school’s primarily Latino students identify with the Prussian Newmark — the unstated theme of the morning — Dr. Harris Newmark III, a great-grandson, told the story of the family’s history.

He began by pointing out that his great-grandfather came to the United States from Lobau, West Prussia (today, eastern Germany), where he was born. At 19, after sailing to New York in 1853, and then to San Francisco via the Nicaragua Isthmus, he settled in Los Angeles. He worked first as a clerk for his older brother, Joseph Phillip (J.P.) Newmark, in Joseph’s dry goods business, where he earned $30 a month. “Ten months later, he bought out his brother and started building a wholesale empire,” Newmark III said. “Between 1870 and 1900, he was considered one of the leading wholesale merchants. With relatives and various business acquaintances, he was involved with selling everything from clothing, groceries and hardware, to hides and wool,” Newmark III said.

In fact, the list of the historical Newmark’s numerous friends and business associates reads like a gazetteer of Southern California greats (or current landmarks) — including Pio Pico, Phineas Banning, Isaac Lankershim and Isaac Van Nuys.

Newmark also became involved with real estate. At one point, said the descendant, his great-grandfather owned around 8,000 acres of the area that is now Santa Anita Race Track and the L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Newmark and his associates also were the original subdividers of what would eventually become Montebello.

In 1885, Newmark, along with Kaspar Cohn, John Bicknell, Stephen M. White, and Isaias Hellman, bought a large tract of property for $60,000 that included the parcel that would become Montebello. “It was out of the Newmark and Cohn shares of the purchase, consisting of 1,200 acres, that Montebello had its beginning in May 1899,” the City of Montebello website states. Originally given the name of “Newmark,” after being subdivided and adding a water system in 1900, it was incorporated as the Montebello Land and Water Co. In 1920, the area officially changed names to Montebello upon incorporation.

Newmark also “was instrumental in bringing the Southern Pacific Railroad to Los Angeles,” the great-grandson said; since his own father’s death, Newmark III has been researching his family’s history.

A builder of area institutions, Harris Newmark was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Board of Trade and the Southwest Museum, as well as the Los Angeles Public Library. He served as president of Congregation B’nai B’rith (now Wilshire Boulevard Temple), supported the Jewish Orphans Society and was a founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, whose “principal [objectives] were to care for the sick, to pay proper respect, according to Jewish ritual, to the dead, and to look after the Jewish cemetery,” Harris Newmark wrote in his book “Sixty Years in Southern California,” an invaluable and often cited personal account of the development of Los Angeles from the years 1853-1913.

Newmark was buried in Home of Peace, which is also mentioned in his book and was originally organized in 1891 by the Hebrew Ladies of Los Angeles.

“He rose from poverty and immigrated to Los Angeles,” said his great-grandson and namesake, who is a Los Angeles physician and board-certified diagnostic radiologist. “He achieved great success” and “he was also concerned about the less fortunate, and did much to help them.”

“Harris Newmark would be proud of this school,” Newmark III told the group, after which he presented the school with a copy of his great-grandfather’s book and a framed reproduction of individual portraits of his great grandparents, originally given to the Los Angeles Natural History Museum by his grandfather, Marco Newmark. 

The next speaker was Caprice Young, a former LAUSD school board president, who is also descended from Harris and Sarah Newmark.

Holding up her own copy of the Newmark book, Young described it as celebrating “the immigrant heritage of Los Angeles,” filled with “all the amazing stories of the people who came here in the 1800s from around the world.”

Of particular interest, Young told the students, is Newmark’s “trip across the Nicaragua Isthmus.”

“Picture me,” Newmark wrote, “none too short and very lank, astride a mule, a big demijohn [of brandy] in one hand, and a spreading green umbrella in the other.”

“Immigrants coming to Los Angeles 150 years ago were enduring the same kind of crazy hardships that immigrants now are enduring as they come to Los Angeles,” Young said.

“I am very thrilled to be part of the family for whom this school was named, and, of course, we want to be here for you now and in the future,” she added.

Roberto Martinez, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District Educational Service Center-East, drew a language parallel between some of the students and Newmark, whose native language was German. “If he came today, he would be called an English-language learner, an E.L. student,” Martinez said of Newmark, who learned Spanish before English so he could run his business.

After two students told their personal stories of the hard journeys and lessons that brought them to the continuation school, Monica Garcia, LAUSD school board member and a past board president, challenged all the students to draw upon Newmark’s example, as well as their own experience, to “create the world not yet.”

In helping to create that world, Harris and Sarah Newmark must have had their own hard times — according to the Braun Research Library of the Autry National Center, only “five of their 11 children survived infancy.”

After the speeches, cake was served, and members of the Newmark family gathered under a canopy to greet each other. Phone numbers were also exchanged, as Caprice’s mother, Nancy Young, a great-great-granddaughter of Harris and Sarah Newmark, and Newmark III had never met. And just like at family gatherings everywhere, Warren Scharff, another of Newmark’s great-grandsons, brought out some family photos to see if anyone could identify who is in them.

The latest generation was represented by Warren’s nephew, Michael Scharff, and Newmark III’s children: daughter Jacqui and son Harris Kent Newmark IV.

“The great thing about today is a lot of the students had no idea who Harris Newmark was,” said Heather Sandoval, school coordinator, after the assembly. Soon that will change, as Sandoval plans to institute an elective course on Harris Newmark, she said.

“Whether you shared Harris Newmark’s background as an immigrant,” Garcia said in her remarks, or as a person of humble beginnings or if you shared his adventurous spirit, “there is a piece of Mr. Newmark in all of you.”


Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at

LAUSD board race a study in polarization

Though none of the candidates may want to admit it, the race to represent District 5 on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education is characteristic of the broader polarized climate of public education politics: the incumbent, Bennett Kayser, is an unflinching supporter of the teachers union; the second candidate, Ref Rodriguez, is a charter school operator with reform credentials; and the third candidate, Andrew Thomas, is an LAUSD parent and educator who rejects the terms of the union-reform divide. 

“I’m an active dad from the neighborhood,” said Thomas, 49, in an interview with the Journal. 


L.A. city charter amendments aim to increase voter turnout

Two Los Angeles city charter amendments on the March 3 ballot would align city and school board elections with national and statewide races in the hopes of increasing voter turnout.

Charter Amendment 1 pertains to city elections and Charter Amendment 2 pertains to Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education elections. Primaries would move from March of odd-numbered years to June of even-numbered years, and runoffs would move from May of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years.


Local education politics has a watchdog in LA School Report

With her strong background in journalism, Jamie Alter Lynton strongly considers the ethics of covering stories such as the hackers’ release of confidential information from Sony Pictures Entertainment, where her husband, Michael Lynton, is the chief executive. On the one hand, it is a news story that needs to be written about; on the other hand, a lot of the information is highly personal. Where do you, as a journalist, draw the line between reporting and participating? 

It is a question Lynton has asked herself repeatedly since her 2012 founding of LA School Report (, a news website that covers exclusively local education politics. Although often described as a philanthropist, Lynton is a journalist and self-proclaimed citizen-activist whose site — which has broken news stories such as former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy’s departure — has brought unprecedented scrutiny upon the seven LAUSD board members and has been ahead of the curve in its coverage of the scandal surrounding LAUSD’s $1 billion iPad program.

By her own admission, Lynton, 55, a member of Ohr HaTorah synagogue in Mar Vista, did not have a firm grasp on how public education worked in Los Angeles until relatively recently. She spent the first 15 years of her career at CNN, CBS, CNBC and Court TV, where she ultimately served as vice president and Los Angeles bureau chief. In the years between leaving journalism and starting LA School Report, she raised her three daughters, sat on a few boards and became a prominent figure in fundraising. She is currently a trustee at CalArts, and in 2007 and 2008, she served on the Obama for America National Finance Committee. 

It was not until 2011, when a friend mentioned to her that school board races can cost a few million dollars, that Lynton took a first look at the minutiae of education politics. In the year that followed, she repeatedly asked herself: “How is it possible that the public has no way of finding out about these races?” At the time, no news outlet in Los Angeles covered LAUSD on a daily basis with a high level of scrutiny. To remedy this, she began devising a news site whose first goal would be to demystify the inner workings of public education. Her other goals, she said, were “to push the mainstream media to cover the story more,” “to have the principal players in this universe read us and take us seriously” and “to awaken a deeper conversation amid the public and among stakeholders.” 

Early in 2012, she hired Alexander Russo, a well-known education blogger, to assist her in shaping the new online outlet. Bankrolled entirely by Lynton — she declined to say how much she has invested in the venture or how many readers it now has — LA School Report launched in July 2012 with Russo as editor and with one freelance reporter, Hillel Aron; Lynton wrote mostly commentary pieces. Since its inception, the website has posted a combination of aggregated, reported and editorial content. Its official objective is, as stated on the site, “to look beyond the ‘reform vs. union’ debate” and “to provide information and context with one primary question in mind: what is in the best interest of students?” 

Lynton is adamant that she has never tried to promote any particular solution to any given problem. “I’m not advocating iPads or no iPads,” she said. “I’m just trying to look at what the inconsistencies are with the elected officials who make policy and with the administrative officials that are executing them — pushing them to be accountable and pushing them to find answers is my role, not solving it for them.” 

In addition to covering the usual day-to-day occurrences of LAUSD politics, Lynton’s team has paid particularly close attention to a few important stories: the effects of glitches in the MiSiS (My Integrated Student Information System) data management software; the scandal surrounding the misuse of funds by nonprofit charter network Magnolia Public Schools and Deasy’s tumultuous final year as LAUSD superintendent. Lynton also claims that LA School Report was the only local outlet to have a reporter in the courtroom last year during Vergara v. California, a case in which a judge ruled in favor of students challenging the constitutionality of state laws governing teacher seniority, tenure and dismissal (and which is now being appealed). Mark Harris, the reporter, published daily summaries of witness testimony, which the website supplemented with commentary every few days from an assortment of voices.

“LA School Report’s coverage of the trial itself helped to shape and drive what became a media firestorm. Eventually the story took on a life of its own, and it ended up not just shaping the legal landscape of education politics, but orienting the entire national conversation toward how to best serve children,” said Ben Austin, a reform advocate who worked with the plaintiffs, Students Matter, in preparing for the case. 

Michael Escalante, executive in residence at the USC Rossier School Of Education and former superintendent of Glendale Unified School District, said he’s found the website to be an invaluable source of insight into what’s going on in L.A. schools.

“LAUSD is such a large influence on California education, those of us who follow decisions in Sacramento need to know what’s happening in LAUSD,” he said. “It is my hope that LA School Report continues the in-depth observations of what’s happening in LAUSD. No one else seems to have some of the details that are being provided.”

Although Escalante said he believes it provides accurate information, the project hasn’t always been free of controversy. Soon after launching LA School Report to deliver “journalism in the public interest,” Lynton took a personal financial stake in the volatile arena of public education. In December 2012, she donated $100,000 to the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee started by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to support school board candidates without ties to the teachers union, and ultimately to elect a board sympathetic to Deasy’s reform efforts. Despite spending about $4 million in the March 2013 election cycle, only one coalition-backed candidate won a seat on the board. Although LA School Report was first to report Lynton’s contribution to the Coalition for School Reform, it permanently troubled its relationship with union officials and members of the board of education. 

“That was a mistake,” Lynton said. “I quickly realized after making the donation that not only can I not give money to education issues, I can’t give to anything local.” 

Numerous union leaders, including United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) President Alex Caputo-Pearl, UTLA Vice President Cecily Myart-Cruz and former UTLA President Warren Fletcher, either declined or did not respond to requests for comment for this article.  

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who was among the candidates attacked in the 2013 election cycle, said, “When LA School Report started, they were very, very aggressive, and kind of unapologetic about their slant.”

Although Russo said Lynton was not part of the day-to-day editorial process at the time, some of her commentary pieces were sharply worded and politically divisive, such as those over a controversial measure introduced by Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes that would have rewritten teacher evaluation laws. Lynton wrote a strongly worded piece in opposition, noting that its passage would be “catastrophic for the future of education in California.” With political resistance mounting, Fuentes withdrew the bill. 

As the editorial makeup of the site changed over time, Lynton brought Michael Janofsky, a longtime New York Times reporter, on board as managing editor, tasked with improving and expanding the website’s content. 

“It was a blog in the beginning, and I wasn’t really sure what it was going to turn out to be. But ultimately, I really wanted it to be a news site,” Lynton said. 

What Janofsky offered was a strong understanding of how to report a story’s significance and implications over time. 

“It was sort of skimming. I didn’t get enough of the why of things,” he said of LA School Report in its first year. “Since this is such a strong public policy arena, it deserved a little more context and perspective. I wanted to make it serious journalism.”

Lynton and Janofsky hired reporter Vanessa Romo, formerly of Los Angeles public radio station KPCC-FM, and increased the size of the freelance staff. Even Zimmer acknowledges that Janofsky’s and Romo’s résumés lent LA School Report credibility, and that with their arrival it became “less of an opinion blog” — though he still considers the quality to be less than that of a newspaper.

“Not every journalist gets everything right all of the time. I think with a blog — and [LA School Report] really is a blog; I don’t see it as an online newspaper — I think that the rules of engagement and the processes are a little bit different,” he said.

Lynton readily acknowledges that she has her own opinions and that Internet journalism is its own medium, but she disputes the claim that her opinions affect LA School Report’s coverage. 

In the coming year, “We want to refine what we’re doing,” she said. “We want to really get a handle on this space, and see if we can make this grow in a way that would start being self-sustaining. Microjournalism is not a profession to make money on, but I’m just passionate about not having journalism just go away.”

How the LAUSD can do iPads right

If somewhere in Los Angeles a snarky editorial cartoonist is trying to combine an images of an iPad and a tombstone into a commentary on the resignation of LAUSD superintendent John Deasy, that person should put away the pencil and start on a different project.

The post mortems of Mr. Deasy’s time at LAUSD have pointed to the difficulties associated with his plan to provide an iPad to each student as one of the shortcomings of his tenure. The cancellation of the iPad contracts should not deter Mr. Deasy’s successors from striving to bridge the digital divide and equip all LAUSD students as active learners in a knowledge-based economy. However, the order of operations (that’s an algebra concept for those who have forgotten what was taught in 8th or 9th grade) might profitably start elsewhere than with the selection of the device and software that will be put into the hands of students and their teachers.

Anyone who can predict the digital device that will be most used three or five years from now should be applying for Tim Cook’s job at Apple, rather than as Mr. Deasy’s successor. But without ubiquitous wifi access across the LAUSD’s domain, the device won’t matter. Schools need to establish robust wifi networks at their campuses so that teachers can reliably depend on their students getting a digital signal during lessons.

No lesson will achieve its objectives if the technological requirements for that lesson break down. That’s true whether the teacher is disappointed by the absence of a digital signal, a burned-out bulb in an overhead projector, a roll-down map that won’t roll up when it is no longer needed, or crumbly pieces of chalk that won’t write on a blackboard. So the first pillar of a bridge across the digital divide is building campus digital networks. That work requires lots of skilled design and installation; each building has unique possibilities and challenges as a wifi site. Further, building robust digital networks requires organizational continuity and commitment, because there will be a lot of expense at the front end before any benefit appears.

Once a robust network is in place, teachers will find ways to use it. Highly skilled self-sufficient educators will take off and run with a robust network. Those teachers who need support should have it available from educational technologists who are located at their campuses and who have the confidence of the principal at the site. As more millennials, who have grown up in a digital age, become teachers the need for such support may diminish, but for now, the role of the educational technologist is as vital as skillful people equipped to do the work are rare and precious.

What good is a network delivering lessons if the students do not have devices on which to receive them? Not much, particularly in a district where the vast majority of students are poor. But instead of becoming the provider of digital devices, a school can become the payer for digital devices by providing vouchers for families to use in obtaining the digital device of their choice. The demand created by voucher-wielding families can affect the market more nimbly than can a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar contract, the management of which has already been shown to exceed LAUSD’s managerial bandwidth.

Student use of LAUSD iPads for non-instructional purposes caused a distracting fuss during the initial roll-out of the devices. If families own or lease the devices with the support of District funds, the non-instructional uses of the device no longer become part of the District’s concerns. So long as every student is assigned a district email account and teachers only use those accounts for lessons and other school business, the non-school use of the device is not the school’s concern. As if there’s any scheme this side of Beijing that could control an adolescent’s use of the Internet.

If the embrace of digital devices does not make full use of their capacity to enable students to collaborate, corroborate, and communicate in their work, what’s the point of using them? Independent educational technology consultant Sam Gliksman made that point in these pages (digital version) this summer. If old lessons are poured into new digital containers, the students will have bridged the digital divide only to the extent of touching these shiny new things. The work won’t have changed.

The initial point of attack on the digital divide need not be the same for each grade level. Equipping all 600,000 students, a number that about the same size as the invasion force that landed at Normandy in 1944 is an organizational task of unimaginable complexity. One size won’t fit all. Younger students can work with shared devices kept at the school site. Secondary students can be trained to use their personal devices for school tasks. But even grade level specialization need not be district-wide.

The Normandy invasion comparison provides some guidance in thinking about implementing digital devices. The invasion as a whole was a massive enterprise, like LAUSD, but the heroes who were the leading edge, as we learned from Stephen Ambrose (for the readers among us) and Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg (for the HBO subscribers) operated as a “Band of Brothers.” (Shakespeare deserves a shout out for that concept as well.) A school faculty that operates like a band of brothers and sisters can be nimble and ambitious in bringing digital tools to their students. Some small faculties, as found at both secular and Jewish independent schools, have crossed the digital divide. Like the WWII bands of brothers, they’ve not done this in absolute unison or without some (professional, not physical) casualties. Whether the entire LAUSD can reach the same objective with its immense group of teachers and learners is a more challenging prospect.

Neil Kramer, PhD is Dean of Faculty Emeritus at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California 

No magic bullet: Technology has much to offer in the classroom, but it can’t fix everything

I’m sold on technology in the classroom. I really am. I mean, books, paper and pens are a form of technology — they’re just a comparatively inert and messy form. 

I’m not sentimental about physical books. I’m sure when they came around, some poor slob was sitting in a corner crying because reading would never be the same without handwritten scrolls, and a few centuries before that, when the scrolls came around, some sad shmo was tearing his hair out and wailing that you’d have to pry his stone tablets out of his cold, dead hands.

But I’m not ready to hand the keys over to Apple yet. The fact that new technology is available does not mean we know how to use it. The really cool thing about most of these netbooks, laptops, tablets and e-readers is that they are adaptive to our needs, and if the software is smart, it’s adaptive, too.

Technology is not static. High-tech tools are not shovels; they aren’t created for a single purpose and used that way forever. In fact, it’s my impression that iPads were created because they were cool and Apple figured, correctly, that users would figure out what they were good for through trial and error. Google is now doing the same with Google Glass. God help us all.

But currently we are not talking about technology in schools this way. What I see instead is an approach to technology as if it were a solid, unchanging, one-size-fits-all answer. In my opinion, this way of thinking is a mistake — a very, very expensive mistake. This mistake has two aspects:

1. Top-down, large-scale, prepackaged “solutions” 

Right now, superintendents and schools, terrified of seeming out of date, are investing enormous amounts of money in prepackaged technology without regard to its usefulness in the context of the very different classrooms in which it will be used. The most glaring example is the recent fiasco in which Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy pushed for $1.3 billion to purchase iPads for every single student in the district — with such blind enthusiasm that the original plan was to offer above retail for each and every tablet. Are your ancestors spinning in their graves? Mine are. 

The district also failed to ask whether any teacher actually wanted to use these tablets; as of this year, 80 percent of the high schools that received the iPads reported that they rarely use them. As for the expensive Pearson software “curriculum” purchased for the devices, sight unseen, less than half of 1 percent of all teachers surveyed had ever used it. 

2. The delusion that technology and “blended learning” will allow us to cut back on teachers, saving us money 

This is a fantasy I hear promoted by many blended-learning advocates whose dream, at least as I’ve heard it, was that in the future, classrooms would have 60 or more kids. Here’s how the dream goes:

Each class, divided into three groups of 20 pupils, will have a “master teacher” in charge of 60 kids per class period. One group will be led by the teacher and be focused on discussion or direct instruction. Another group will be divided into small groups who work together on a project. A third group will work independently on computers to do individualized lessons guided by software to meet their needs.

A third of the way through the class, everyone will rotate to a new station. By the end of the class, each of the pupils will have been in a class discussion, participated in a group and done an individualized lesson.

Final result: We save a ton of money. 

The teacher is then carried away on a stretcher.

Actually, that last sentence is purely hypothetical. It’s also the only part I actually believe. Seriously, can you imagine actually teaching a class like this? I mean, for more than an hour? Without being on a Xanax drip?

Let’s get real. Blended learning is a cool idea, but it is not going to allow us to fire half the workforce as if on an assembly line when you upgrade your machinery.

So what can blended learning do? I have now seen blended learning in action at a few sites, and I’m here to tell you that — done thoughtfully, in an organic way that proceeds from a teacher’s needs and with a class size small enough for the teacher to have an individual relationship with students — it looks promising. 

But when class sizes balloon to more than 30, things get much, much dicier. I recently witnessed a really excellent teacher leading a blended-learning English class with 37 students. With this number of pupils, due to funding cuts, the small-group work aspect was not possible because kids just wouldn’t focus without a teacher’s supervision. 

But the biggest issue is sustainability. The teacher I observed was essentially teaching two simultaneous classes; she had to plan the discussion and personally design work for the students doing the individualized lessons, because as far as I know there is no really good software for 11th-grade English — how could there be once you got past basic grammar and vocabulary? The kids not sitting in front of her were filling out worksheets or chatting. Every so often, she’d stop her lesson to redirect them, at which point the other group would drift off task. Just watching her gave me a headache.

Like so many educational innovations I read about, large classrooms and rotating workstations might work in a class of high-functioning, confident students, but in an underserved community where you have a lot of kids coming in far below grade level, with low confidence and a history of negative experiences with school, many students need more individual attention than this. 

And yet, ironically, I only hear people talking about saving money by using technology to allow enormous classes when they’re talking about students of color in high-poverty communities. I never hear people talk this way about saving money on affluent white students. So before we implement the technology “solution,” let’s be honest about which students are being treated as objects on an assembly line and which are being seen as human beings in our educational system.

Technology is a great tool. We are going to be able to do a lot of cool stuff we’ve never dreamed of. But as a society, let’s let go of the delusion that technology is going to replace teachers or allow enormous class sizes.

It’s going to take time. And patience. And that most outrageous of luxuries, human conversation. 

I know, I know, we can’t afford human conversation. We need to spend a billion dollars to gear up for the billion dollars’ worth of standardized testing coming at us.

That, we can afford. How else will we be sure our children are learning?

Ellie Herman is an award-winning writer, teacher and life coach in Los Angeles. She blogs about education, learning and life at

The Fulfillment Fund: Giving kids a shot at college

This fall, Crenshaw High School valedictorian Christerbell Ahaiwe will start her freshman year at UCLA. What her new classmates might not realize is how hard she worked to get there. 

Growing up with six siblings in South Los Angeles, Christerbell had to squeeze in her homework around daily chores and tutoring her sister, who struggles with a learning disability. If it wasn’t for the one-on-one college and financial aid counseling she received through the Fulfillment Fund, her prospects might not have been so bright. 

College is a given for many local Jewish teens, but for thousands of low-income students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), it is not assured. Neither is an encouraging learning environment — or even a safe one. Gang violence, poverty and severe budget cuts that affect classroom resources are just a few of the factors that make higher education a far-off prospect for some 100,000 students in the district’s Title One high schools (defined as having high numbers of students from low-income families).

Kenny Rogers, CEO of the Fulfillment Fund, is working to change that. “We want to make college a reality for students in Los Angeles who are growing up in under-resourced communities,” he said. 

For nearly 40 years, the Fulfillment Fund has offered mentoring, academic instruction and guidance programs that plug gaps in L.A.’s public education system. A college education, the nonprofit’s leaders believe, is key to giving students a shot at careers that pay more than minimum wage — and hope for a more fulfilling life. 

Improving college access for underprivileged kids might seem like an unlikely cause for Gary and Cherna Gitnick, the Encino couple who founded the organization in 1977 and have remained heavily involved in its operation. The pair moved to Los Angeles from Nebraska so Gary could teach medicine at UCLA (he’s now chief of the division of digestive diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine). But they noticed the impact of mounting inner-city turmoil on the city’s children — namely, how poverty led to hopelessness and despair. If there is a way to give kids opportunity, they felt, children will feel empowered to make something of their lives and become productive citizens. 

The Gitnicks’ vision started small, with an annual holiday party the couple hosted for children with disabilities. Then, seeing how Gary’s patients benefited from having positive role models, he and Cherna created a mentoring program that paired trained adult volunteers with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

“It was very motivating,” Gary recalled, noting that students’ high school attendance and graduation rates improved when they had someone who could show them that “it’s possible to pull yourself up.”

But what about after graduation? Knowing that the best jobs increasingly require college degrees, the Gitnicks developed a classroom-based curriculum that teaches high school students how to prepare for college. In gang-ridden schools, where students often receive little parental or financial support, course instructors coach teens on how higher education can be a path to higher income and the practical aspects of getting there: studying for the SATs, writing a college essay, filling out a college application. Crucially, the program also connects students with college counselors, whose numbers have dwindled at LAUSD schools because of budget cuts. 

The resource gap has dire implications for student success: Nationally, eight in 10 students from the upper income quartile get college degrees, while only one in 10 from the bottom income quartile do, Rogers said. 

“Essentially, we try to provide young people with all of the necessary resources that our kids would get,” Gary said recently at the Encino home where he and Cherna raised four children of their own and followed the triumphs of thousands more. 

Their formula works. Ninety percent of the Fulfillment Fund’s high school graduates go to college, compared to about half of low-income kids nationally. And 70 percent of those students finish with a degree, compared to 30 percent of their peers. 

“We more than double their chances of going to college and getting their degrees,” Rogers said. “Helping students go to college and graduate has immense value for the community.”

It’s also consistent with Jewish values. Rogers, whose oldest son recently had his bar mitzvah at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, often contemplates the adage, tzedek, tzedek tirdof — justice, justice shall you pursue. And as the High Holy Days approach, it’s easy to see the theme of personal transformation in Fulfillment Fund students’ stories. 

When one young man, Marcelo, entered the program, he was stealing hubcaps for cash. He was matched with a pair of mentors who encouraged him to turn his life around; eventually, he went to business school at USC and found a career in real estate investment. Efren, a Hamilton High School student who exasperated instructors in the Fulfillment Fund’s college access curriculum, once skateboarded through the halls. This past summer, after working hard to raise his grades, he scored an internship with a skateboard clothing company. 

The organization now works with more than 2,500 students in Los Angeles, with its college access program in five LAUSD schools, its mentoring program throughout the district and college scholarships provided to 250 students per year. With its yearly budget of $4.5 million funded entirely by private donations, the nonprofit’s reach is impressive. 

“A lot of people look at our educational system and say, ‘It’s too big, it’s too broken — why invest?’ ” Rogers said. “But we can make a difference, one student at a time.”

5 Lessons drawn from the LAUSD iPad fiasco

It’s becoming difficult to read the news in Los Angeles these days without running across yet another article about the problems faced by the sputtering LAUSD iPad initiative. Finally, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy announced this week that they were “>the US spends more per student than any other country. That spending isn't always reflected in results that show US students continuing to drop in performance rankings. Technology is widely viewed as a panacea so it's not surprising that many districts and schools are investing heavily in educational technology systems and devices. However, the dominant trend maintains the status quo and patches technology use on existing pedagogical models. When we turn a blind eye to the massive disruption occurring in the world around us we fail to build new educational visions that harness the enormous potential of technology to reform learning. 

The cost of the LAUSD iPad initiative was initially estimated at $500 million but was quickly revised to one billion dollars within the first few months. If for no other reason, financial accountability would demand a well thought out and designed vision for technology use – a vision that addresses the evolving needs of modern learners and changes the rigid, curriculum driven instruction that has characterized institutionalized education for decades. Instead, whatever plan there may have been was sketchy, poorly communicated and certainly didn’t stem from any attempt at educational renaissance. Rather than aspiring to renewal and reform, from the beginning LAUSD was mired in delays and technical fixes that were reflex reactions to unanticipated events. The classic example occurred when iPads were recalled within days of their initial rollout as “>wrote a year ago;

     “Technology can be used to empower students to research, discover, create and connect within more student-centered, experiential learning processes … In contrast, LAUSD’s iPad initiative is still entrenched within an age-old educational paradigm that stresses course delivery and administrative control. The iPad becomes a glorified digital textbook that contains extensive Common Core courses by Pearson for pre-K to 12th grade, designed to prepare students for standardized tests.”

The plan seemed questionable from the start when “>December 2013 survey revealed that a large majority of teachers would have voted to discontinue the iPad rollout.  Most teachers viewed it as an additional burden. They weren’t given a voice in the formation of the plan and lacked the necessary clarity with respect to the project goals. The general school community still remains puzzled by the concept of Common Core standards, the perceived rush to purchase several hundred thousand devices and the continual stream of negative press after the initial rollout. LAUSD leadership was dictating terms of a very expensive and hastily conceived plan. They failed to communicate a clear understanding of the urgent need for reform in an education system that's becoming more rapidly outdated with every passing day. As a result, they didn't get the support of teachers and the community at large. 

Lesson 3:  Training requires more than an introductory “how-to” workshop.

If your dentist tells you he’s about to remove your wisdom teeth you’d hope he has more experience than an afternoon workshop in tooth extraction. When it comes to using technology however, many administrators imagine that teachers simply need a few hours in a crowded room with a technology instructor and they’re good to go. 

Effective technology use requires a change in school culture. Firstly, training has to extend far beyond simple “how-to” sessions. Teachers need to feel comfortable with technology in their classroom. Don't mistake that to mean that they need to be skilled in technology applications. Knowing how to use an iPad or a specific curriculum app doesn't translate into an understanding of how to utilize iPads as effective educational tools. Training should reflect the educational goals and stimulate discussion about new horizons and pedagogical practices.  

Secondly, educational technology training is not an “event”. It’s an ongoing process that's busy with ongoing discussion, experimentation and evaluation. Technology use can stimulate cultural change when it's energized by sharing and collaboration and encouraged to swell from the bottom up.

LAUSD pilot teachers were given an initial 3 day workshop – one day by Apple and two additional days by Pearson to provide instruction on their Common Core curriculum app. The result? “>iPads in Education for Dummies 
Contact Sam for workshops and professional development at

Charter school moving to Shomrei Torah

Shomrei Torah Synagogue has found a new occupant for the space on its West Hills campus that once belonged to New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS). Ivy Academia Entrepreneurial Charter School is moving its eighth- to 12th-grade students and its business operations from Chatsworth to the synagogue’s campus.

“We were happy to be able to house New Community Jewish High School for nine years of partnership, and while we were sad to see them go, we are excited to be able to reach out to a new organization in need of space,” said Rabbi Richard Camras, of Shomrei Torah.

The synagogue announced June 20 that it has entered into a lease with the public charter school authorized by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The K-12 charter school has 1,150 students spread among two other campuses located in Woodland Hills and Winnetka.

The space became available when NCJHS, in search of a permanent location, purchased the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus — former home to the JCC at Milken, which closed June 30, 2012 — from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Renovations at the site are ongoing, and the school is preparing to move to the Vanowen Street location and begin classes there in August, according to Cheri Mayman, NCJHS’ director of marketing.

Jessica Green, executive director at Shomrei Torah, a Conservative congregation of more than 500 member families, said that the match with Ivy Academia has been perfect.

Although the charter school was founded in 2004, the high school branch was started five years ago when the students from the lower grades grew into it. They have since had three graduating classes.

Caroline Neuhaus Wesley, executive director of Ivy Academia, said that she is excited about the new facilities, because it has full science labs, nicer classrooms, access to better technology, and the area is only 10 minutes from the school’s Woodland Hills campus on De Soto Avenue.

According to the school’s Web site, its entrepreneurial program teaches students life skills that translate into business skills. Pupils are taught to organize and manage a business. 

The school’s operating charter was renewed by the LAUSD school board for another five years in April, the same month that its two founders were found guilty of illegally taking or misappropriating more than $200,000 in public funds following their arrests in 2010, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Wesley explained that many changes have been made.

“Basically, in working with LAUSD in our memoranda of understanding, the founders are no longer attached to Ivy Academia, we have brought in an entirely new board of directors [and] a new management team, and we have continued to excel despite the controversy.”

Wesley said that the relationship between the school and the temple will be a positive one.

“I think it’s going to be a wonderful experience,” she said. “They’re excited to have us there, and we’re excited not only to have a nice facility but also to be working with Shomrei

A voter’s eye view of the Los Angeles election

This year, for the first time, the nonpartisan Pat Brown Institute at CSU Los Angeles went into the polling field.  As poll director, I wanted our poll to illuminate broader trends in the local electorate, and to conduct it we retained Susan Pinkus, who for many years ran the Los Angeles Times’ polls. Under Pinkus’ direction, calls were made to 1,705 adults between April 29 and May 7; of those, 904 were registered voters and 674 were determined to be likely voters.

We released our poll results in two stages, on May 10 and May 13.  The first revealed that the mayor’s race between Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti has become a dead heat, with Greuel ahead by one point among likely voters but within the margin of error of 4 points. (A second poll by Survey USA for KABC TV showed an actual tie.) Perhaps the tight race will generate the kind of excitement that has been missing in the campaign thus far.  Our second set of results showed Dennis Zine and Mike Feuer hold clear leads for controller and city attorney, respectively.

In this, as in so many elections, we have focused so much on the candidates that we may have forgotten that elections are really about the voters — how various groups’ representation has changed over time and what they want to happen in their city.  

Of the likely voters in the PBI poll, 42 percent were white, 12 percent were African American, 29 percent were Latino, and nine percent were Asian American. Consider that when Richard Riordan defeated Mike Woo in 1993, whites cast 72 percent of all votes, and Latinos cast only eight percent.  Riordan’s election was the last time that a Republican had a real chance for the city’s top job, when Republican voters cast more than 30 percent of the votes.  In the PBI sample, only 13 percent of likely voters identified as Republican.  This is a Democratic town, with 56 percent of the likely voters calling themselves Democrats.  (An estimated 6 percent of the city, and a larger share of its voters, are Jewish, who are disproportionately Democratic, but their numbers were too small in the PBI poll for analysis.)

We often hear negative things about the city and about the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).  We should also wonder how people feel in their own neighborhoods, because that’s their day-to-day experience.  Only 40 percent of voters polled like the direction of the city, and 22 percent approve of the LAUSD, but within this sprawling metropolis, residents are more pleased with their own neighborhoods and even their local schools, than with the “city” and the “school district.”  Voters said their own local schools are in good shape (37 percent favorable), just as they thought their neighborhoods are doing well (52 percent. This has probably been true in the past, but we have tended not to ask.

As Latinos’ numbers and influence continue to rise, they are feeling optimistic.  Nearly half (44 percent) think the city is going in the right direction, compared to only 29 percent of African-Americans, who have seen their hard-earned political gains jeopardized by a declining population share.  Latinos think that Antonio Villaraigosa has done a good job as mayor, giving him a 62 percent approval rating, compared to his overall 50 percent approval.  Latinos were much more likely to give the beleaguered LAUSD positive ratings than either whites or African-Americans.  Latinos favor giving the city’s mayor greater authority over the school district to a significantly greater degree than either whites or African-Americans.

  As a group on their way up, Latinos can see a better future in front of them, and their attitudes toward public institutions are starting to reflect that optimism.

Latinos prefer Eric Garcetti over Wendy Greuel (48-36 percent), Dennis Zine over Ron Galperin for controller (29-18 percent), and Mike Feuer over Carmen Trutanich for city attorney (31-23 percent). 

Whites are not as optimistic as Latinos about the direction of the city, but among all groups, whites are the most satisfied with how things are going in their neighborhoods (65 percent, compared to 31 percent for African-Americans and 42 percent for Latinos).  White voters support Greuel (53-42 percent), Zine (30-21 percent), and Feuer (39-23 percent).   African-Americans, whose numbers in the sample are too low for full analysis, favor Greuel by a 2-1 margin, and also Zine and Trutanich. 

The sleeper for Greuel is a growing gender gap, with women supporting her by 13 points and men backing Garcetti by the same margin.  A surge of women voters or a high black turnout might ensure victory for Greuel, just as a mobilization of Latino voters, who tend to be late deciders, would do it for Garcetti.

Among registered voters (numbering 904 in the PBI sample), crime, the city budget, and education emerged as what people worry about most.  Voters also expressed concern about traffic, the economy, streets, and jobs — essentially the bread-and-butter issues of everyday life in a big city. 

Yet not all groups have the same concerns.  Whites were more likely to list traffic than either African-Americans or Latinos, who were worried more about crime than whites.  And whites and African-Americans were more concerned than Latinos about the city budget.

What guidance does this poll hold for the next mayor? 

With all the talk about pensions and other budget issues at city hall, the next mayor will have to spend much time and political capital on quality-of-life issues that will require hard choices among budget priorities. 

The mayor can build on voter optimism about neighborhoods and local schools while trying to build confidence in the city government and in the school district.  Voters will want to see results in their daily lives, not just glossy programs that are advertised to have no costs or side-effects, only benefits.

Both candidates have been working hard to convince the electorate that no hard choices will have to be made, that it’s possible to have a fully staffed police force, nice parks, easy-to-navigate streets and lots of new jobs.  Naturally, this is not going to be true starting July 1, when the mayor takes office.  To govern is to choose.

With two Democrats in the runoff, the voters will not be able to give an ideological direction to the new mayor.  The voters will really be selecting the better leader, the person most likely to negotiate and bargain on the city’s behalf, to make the right choices among competing priorities.

Voters won’t tell the mayor whether more money should go to parks or to keep the police force at 10,000 officers, whether to support a jobs-producing development or stop it in order to reduce traffic congestion.  Nor will voters tell the mayor how to deal with the powerful forces that dominate city hall.  They may be ambivalent about giving the mayor greater authority over the school district, but they certainly will expect schools to improve under the next mayor. 

Once elected, the new mayor will hopefully trust the voters enough to make plain that choices must be made, that there is no free lunch when it comes to municipal services, that talking alone won’t make a powerful and effective mayor, and to engage the public in the process of setting priorities.  Our poll does not say whether voters will welcome that honesty.  But what our poll does show is that the voters will look to their own neighborhoods and their own local schools to see if what the mayor is doing works for them.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs and Director of the PBI Poll at California State University, Los Angeles.  Full reports on the PBI Poll on the Los Angeles City Elections can be found at


Turning teens into police officers

Roberta Weintraub, a 77-year-old political activist and former president of the L.A. Unified School District Board of Education, has always had a soft spot for the men and women in blue.

“It’s a most wonderful career for young people today,” she said of entering the police force.

Founder of the nonprofit L.A. Police Academy Magnet School Program in 1997, Weintraub’s more recent endeavor bridges the gap between high school or early college and the Los Angeles Police Academy, which requires that entrants be at least 20 1/2 years old.

The result is the Police Orientation and Preparation Program (POPP), a school-to-work program that exposes Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) recruits to the physical demands and mental challenges of policing.

For participants in their late teens and early 20s, the day begins at 6 a.m. with physical training — climbing walls, jumping rope, running track — and continues with such courses as psychology, economics and biology. All the while, students rub shoulders with sergeants, lieutenants and cadets in the police force.

“We’re trying to find future officers,” said Weintraub, a philanthropist, civic leader and prominent member of Los Angeles’ Democratic community from Beverly Hills who is a main funder of the project.

POPP, the brainchild of Weintraub, represents a partnership between the LAPD, LAUSD and Los Angeles Community College District. According to its Web site, it is an “exploratory educational experience that places career-bound law enforcement in an LAPD training environment.” The two-year associate degree program takes place at the LAPD Ahmanson Recruit Training Center in Westchester, an official satellite location for West Los Angeles College.

POPP currently has 98 students enrolled who are between the ages of 17 to 21. Participants are high school seniors and college freshmen who took part in the L.A. Police Academy Magnet School Program, where the curriculum is developed for students interested in a career in law enforcement; participated in LAPD cadet programs at their middle schools and high schools; or who are the children of police officers. Applicants can also be “recommended by a law enforcement officer [or] other official who can vouch for your character and commitment to the law enforcement profession,” according to the Web site.

By obtaining their associate degree, POPP graduates are eligible for higher-paying jobs within the police force, which offers quality pension benefits, Weintraub said. Ultimately, POPP offers a path to middle-class jobs for children of lower-income families, and creates a “home-grown” Los Angeles police force that is made up of members of L.A. communities, she added.

The first program of POPP ended in June 2011, with graduates entering into jobs with the Culver City Police Department, the Transportation Security Administration, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, private security firms and elsewhere. Two students were awarded their associate degrees, and 18 students completed the two-year program and plan to take college classes to complete their associate degrees. Eighty-percent of students receive fee waivers and do not pay anything to participate in the program, according to The cost of tuition for the entire program is $2,760.

For Weintraub, who has spent more than 30 years working in the Los Angeles educational world, involvement with POPP is the latest in a seasoned career. She began as an advocate who opposed forced busing within LAUSD during the early ’80s, favoring the preservation of neighborhood schools instead. 

For 14 years, from 1979 to 1993, she served on the LAUSD Board of Education and as the board’s president from 1979 to 1981 and again from 1988 to 1989.

Additionally, she wrote and produced the Emmy-winning “School Beat,” a public television talk show from 1985 to 1987.

“I’ve had a really interesting career,” Weintraub said during an interview at the Ahmanson Training Center.

All of this experience has helped with her more recent initiatives, POPP director Jeffrey Burgess said.

“She knows all the players in L.A. on a first-name basis. She just gets things done,” he said. “She sets her mind to something and it gets done. There’s no obstacle placed in her way that she can’t overcome.”

During the ’90s, Weintraub, who is a member of the Beverly Hills-based Temple of the Arts, began to demonstrate an interest in linking high school education with police work. With the support of then-Mayor Richard Riordan, she founded and became executive director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Police Academy Magnet School Program, which is implemented at high schools in Monroe, Dorsey, Wilson, San Pedro and Reseda. Offering a police officer-led high school curriculum, the program feeds into POPP, which functions as a “capstone program,” Burgess said.

PPOP began in fall 2009 as a sort of semester study-abroad program for high school seniors. As it became apparent that a program was needed to bridge the gap for 18-year-old high school graduates and 21-year-olds who were looking for jobs with the LAPD, POPP was expanded to become a full-time educational and recruitment program. As a bridge-the-gap program, POPP is useful at keeping 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds out of trouble — specifically from committing the type of mistakes with the law that would make them ineligible for joining the police force, Burgess said.

That’s exactly the case for POPP student Eduardo Serrano.

“On the weekends, instead of me going partying and having times with my friends, I decide to just work,” the 18-year-old said.

After he graduates POPP, Serrano will either transfer to a two-year program where he can earn a bachelor’s degree or he will join the Marine Corps.

POPP student Dalia Gonzales says that the program’s rigorousness “motivates me to stay in school, pursue my career and what I want to do.”

And what Gonzalez, 19, wants to do is eventually become a narcotics officer. She’s on her way. This month, she will finish her first year at POPP — two semesters of classes such as criminal investigation, psychology, police report writing and community relations.

“Courses like that are helping me prepare for what I am going to see when I am police officer,” Gonzalez said.

After she finishes PPOP and walks away with an associate degree, Gonzalez, who lives in Sylmar, plans to transfer to a college where she can earn a bachelor’s.

The program’s biggest fan still may be Weintraub. She said she has donated approximately $800,000 to fund POPP, pay for textbooks, chairs, computers and tutoring, she said. And she would like to see a school-to-work program that follows the POPP model but prepares students for jobs in City Hall.

Weintraub doesn’t mind that the program takes up so much of her time.

 “It’s a lot of work, but I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said.

Eating with an eco-conscience

A small group gathered in the sanctuary of Temple Isaiah on April 11 to do what Jews do best: talk about food and then eat some. 

The occasion was a panel convened by Netiya, a Jewish network dedicated to advancing urban agriculture in religious institutions, nonprofits and schools across Los Angeles. The crowd had come to share and discuss best practices for creating change in the food systems at their churches, mosques, synagogues and schools as part of “Just Food: The 411 on Food Procurement for Your Synagogue.”

Devorah Brous, founding executive director of Netiya, introduced the group and its mission, which is to act as a resource for faith-based institutions all over the city attempting to rethink their food purchasing policies and create garden sites on their campuses. She was particularly excited about the interfaith group that had convened for the event, which included representatives from several local mosques. 

Sue Miller, a lay leader at Leo Baeck Temple who started the synagogue’s Green Team, kicked off the event with a slideshow about the Sustainable Shabbat she created at the congregation. She described the program as a “shop and drop”: An e-mail goes out weekly to a list of some 30 volunteers who sign up to purchase local, organic produce from a farmers market, and they drop it off at Leo Baeck before Shabbat services on Fridays. The temple staff then prepares it and sets it out with locally made hummus for worshippers to snack on, so that alongside cheese and cookies there is an eco-conscious and healthy option to offer.

“We consider this a kind of mindfulness practice,” Miller said of her efforts to green the temple’s food program, which also has included a campaign to make all paper goods on the premises recyclable or compostable. “We start every meal by blessing our food, so the first question we asked ourselves was: Is our food worthy of being blessed?” 

She’s led Leo Baeck’s Green Team in a holistic attempt to narrow the gap among Torah, belief and action, encouraging congregants to make connections between what’s on the dinner table and issues like water pollution and labor rights. 

Bill Shpall, the executive director of Temple Israel of Hollywood, offered another perspective. After tasting the food being served to nursery and day school students at the congregation, he decided that anything he wouldn’t serve to his own children — much less eat himself — had no place at his temple. He empowered a committee to taste test their way through the offerings of a number of caterers, and though taste was the deciding factor, the option they chose was, happily enough, also a vendor invested in sustainable, organic food. 

The program wasn’t without pushback, mostly on the financial side; where previously the school had made money on the lunch program, Temple Israel now only breaks even, he said. It’s worth it, though, Shpall explained, to have twice as many kids eating and enjoying the school’s improved hot lunches as a result of the change — and knowing that the food the temple provides is thoughtfully and ethically sourced. 

“It proved that you can move away from the cheapest option and still be crazy successful,” he said.  

There’s also an attitude switch that came with the lunch change, he added. The temple started hosting catered Friday night dinners once a month, with food from the same vendor. The janitorial staff also now uses a biodegradable cleaning product instead of a variety of environmentally destructive options.

Temple Isaiah’s Rabbi Joel Nickerson recently convened a committee that spent more than a year examining food and Judaism from the ground up, starting with the biblical laws of kashrut and working its way to modern issues of food justice. The committee then sent a survey to the entire congregation to help create an updated and cohesive food policy for the temple. The survey garnered some interesting and impassioned responses, he said.

“People hold synagogues to a higher standard,” Nickerson said. “We’re working on balancing choice with the values of our tradition and making sure people know that, whatever we decide, it’s not a judgment on their personal practices.”

Each of the panelists remarked on the difficulty of making choices for a large and diverse group, especially about something as personal as what to eat. All of the institutions represented were Reform, and though some require kosher-style food be prepared and served on the premises, none require that those vendors be certified kosher.

Paula Daniels, a senior adviser to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, wrapped up the event by bringing in a citywide perspective. She discussed the fruits of her work with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Among its efforts, the council has put together a “good food” procurement policy for organizations looking to green their food sourcing. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) already has signed on and is aiming to source 15 percent of its food locally.

One of Daniels’ ultimate goals is to create initiatives that will get produce into corner stores and create regional food hubs around Los Angeles, leveraging the massive buying power of purchasers like LAUSD to create economies of scale that will make organic food cheaper for consumers all over the city. 

“Los Angeles’ problems come in threes,” Daniels said. “West Los Angeles has three times as many supermarkets as South Los Angeles, which has three times as much poverty and three times the rate of obesity and diabetes.” 

While farmers markets have created access to fresh, local, healthy food for consumers in wealthier parts of the city, they can be prohibitively expensive; one of Daniels’ goals is to ensure access to a broader swath of the community.

The final words of the evening came from Got Kosher? owner Alain Cohen, who grew up in a restaurant family in France. He discussed the issue of sustainability from a provider’s perspective, emphasizing how difficult it can be to get high-quality organic product that also is kosher. 

Cohen is proud, though, to be living the laws of his faith: “Kosher is a decision, not a duty,” he said. This statement echoed a sentiment shared by all of the panelists — that while the strict laws of kashrut represent part of Jewish tradition and history, there is more to think about in the modern food world than milk, meat, pork and shellfish.

After the panel concluded, the crowd — an interfaith, intergenerational mix of people from all over the city — munched on vegetables, hummus and challah from Got Kosher?, which has ethical sourcing policies in place, and chatted about what’s been done and all that’s left to do. The Belgian chocolate pretzel challah was a particular favorite, a perfect example of the kind of food the panelists had been praising all evening long: something thoughtfully sourced and carefully made, ethical in its origin and very good to eat.

Steve Zimmer holds middle ground

After surviving opposition funded by the mayors of America’s two biggest cities, newly re-elected Los Angeles Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer says his win has preserved a “system of checks and balances” in running L.A.’s huge school district.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg teamed up to pour millions of dollars into the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee that supported the campaigns of Zimmer’s challenger, lawyer Kate Anderson, as well as school board president Monica Garcia, a Villaraigosa ally. Garcia won, but Anderson lost in a race that turned out to be the most closely watched of the election. Another Villaraigosa-backed candidate, Antonio Sanchez, is headed for a runoff in a contest for an open seat.

Bloomberg gave $1 million to Villaraigosa’s Coalition For School Reform, which put in almost $4 million to take control of the school board. The two mayors are aligned with national education advocates who generally oppose teacher tenure and seniority rules and instead favor evaluating teachers on the basis of statistically controversial student test scores. They also back charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately run schools whose teachers are often not union members. 

Villaraigosa, Bloomberg and their allies seem to believe in the old cliché: my way or the highway.

But Zimmer, whose Fourth District ranges from East Hollywood to Venice and from Westwood into the San Fernando Valley, received 52 percent of the vote in an extraordinarily low-turnout election. “Venice was the tipping point for me,” Zimmer said. “I knew the election would be determined in Venice, and it was literally these parents e-mailing for us. The voters who voted were highly informed and highly educated on the issues. This election was won by moms in virtual precincts, moms blogging, really engaged in the substance of the issues.

“What the opposition wanted was complete control,” Zimmer said. “When you don’t have a system of checks and balances, you go to extremes. As a policymaker, I think moderation, compromise and cooperation are the key ingredients in building successful.”

Zimmer, who was a classroom teacher and counselor at Marshall High School, has always tried to walk a line between the Villaraigosa coalition and the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the teachers union that opposes the mayor.  It’s a difficult task in the highly polarized world of education politics and policy.

“He was no one’s ‘yes man,’ ” wrote former State Sen. Gloria Romero in an Orange County Register column. “That seemed to be the problem.” Romero advocates changes in school operations, but doesn’t follow the hard line espoused by some of the national reform leaders. 

Although UTLA has criticized Zimmer in the past, the union obviously considered him better than the Villaraigosa group and put almost $1 million into his and other school board races.

Now safely possessed of another four-year term, Zimmer is looking to the future.

One big question is whether he will support school superintendent John E. Deasy, who is much admired by the Villaraigosa group. Zimmer’s foes implied during the campaign that he would vote to fire Deasy.

I asked him if he would continue to back the superintendent. “Absolutely,” Zimmer said. “John Deasy is the right person. He is the best person. I have been the decisive vote to maintain the Deasy superintendency, but I reserve the right to disagree with him on policy issues. We should debate policy. We are policymakers. You get the best policy by having a healthy debate.”

Another big question is whether Zimmer will be a candidate for president of the school board — a high-visibility post, although the president has the same one vote as the six other board members.

“I think people will speculate,” he said. “And if asked by a strong majority of my colleagues, I would consider that. But I am not obsessed with title or position. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about that.”

We discussed a subject that has long interested Zimmer — the effort to persuade parents to keep their children in public schools, particularly the middle class in middle schools. I first met Zimmer when I began writing about this for the Jewish Journal a couple of years ago, centering my attention on Jewish families on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. Zimmer, who is Jewish, has been a leader in the effort.

“On the Westside, I am very proud of the fact that we have had the guts to deal with the complicated issue of families coming back to the public schools,” he said. How do our parents, especially in the Jewish community, invest in and support and transform our neighborhood schools without excluding anybody? That is the absolute question. Can we make the investment? Can we re-engage in our public schools?”

“There are strong examples in West Hollywood. We’re beginning to have examples on the Westside in elementary schools.”

Ethnic and class differences can make the process difficult. Zimmer talked about the difficulty of getting parents of different incomes and ethnicities to work together. “How do I as a leader guide a person through a relationship with a parent who might not even have a high school education … who is regarded as ‘the other’? That is the struggle of the moment on the Westside.”

It’s actually the struggle of the moment all over Los Angeles, and not just in the schools. I’m glad Zimmer survived the Villaraigosa-Bloomberg assault and will be around to continue to add his moderate voice to the battle. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

LAUSD OK’s English-Hebrew charter school

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has given a green light to a proposal for a dual-language charter elementary school to be located in Van Nuys offering classes in English and Hebrew. 

Lashon Academy is the first Hebrew-language charter school to be approved by LAUSD, which has previously approved charters for dual-language immersion schools teaching other languages. 

The school board unanimously approved the petition for the school, whose name means “language” or “tongue” in Hebrew, on Jan. 15. But while LAUSD board member Tamar Galatzan voted to approve the petition, she voiced skepticism about Lashon. 

“I have grave concerns about this school and schools like it,” she said at the meeting. “I think they’re really private schools masquerading as public schools.” 

Charter schools are publicly funded and do not charge tuition. LAUSD has approximately 230 charter schools operating in its district, more than any other school district in the United States.

The Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), a New York-based nonprofit backed by mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, helped Lashon’s local board craft its petition and has been seeding Hebrew-language charter schools across the country. Lashon is the sixth HCSC-supported charter to be approved nationwide since 2009 and the second to be approved in California, following the approval of Kavod Elementary Charter School in San Diego in March 2012. 

Josh Stock (whose last name is listed as “Feigelstock” on the 390-page document approved by LAUSD) is Lashon’s lead petitioner; he said Lashon’s curriculum would be modeled after the first HCSC-established school, Hebrew Language Academy (HLA) in Brooklyn, N.Y., which is now in its fifth year. 

HLA’s curriculum focuses on the “culture of Hebrew and Israel and its immigrant communities,” and each classroom is staffed by two educators, one English-speaking and one Hebrew-speaking. Lashon will use that model, despite California’s awarding charter schools less funding per pupil than New York state does. 

“As our schools get up and running, they typically rely on philanthropic dollars to make up for funding gaps,” HCSC Executive Director Aaron Listhaus wrote in an e-mail, adding that when the schools reach capacity, the public funding can cover their costs.

Lashon’s success in winning board approval for its charter petition comes after a series of rejections to petitions by another local charter program offering Hebrew, the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences (AEALAS). A charter high school offering Hebrew as a second language opened in 2010 in Santa Clarita, but subsequent petitions by the nonprofit to establish an AEALAS elementary school were rejected by three different Los Angeles-area school districts. AEALAS has not formally submitted a charter to LAUSD, however. 

LAUSD approved Lashon’s charter for five years, but it’s unclear whether the school — which has not yet hired a principal or secured a facility — will be ready to open its doors to students by fall 2013. 

Most of the five members of the school’s board are Jewish. Pastor Jim Tolle, who is the spiritual leader of The Church on the Way, an Evangelical church in Van Nuys with approximately 15,000 Latino members, is the board member in charge of doing outreach for the school, which is to be located in the Van Nuys area. Most of his congregants are Latino, and Tolle, who is a fervent supporter of Israel, is charged with helping ensure that Lashon’s student body is reflective of the surrounding neighborhoods. 

The school’s outreach plan was key to its approval, Galatzan said at the LAUSD meeting, adding that she’d be watching the school’s enrollment closely. 

“I just want us to keep an eye on these programs because this to me sounds like a private school that’s publicly funded, if the only kids who are going there are white, Jewish, Israeli kids from the Valley,” she said. 

“They’re in Van Nuys for a reason,” Galatzan added, alluding to the proposed school’s proximity to more Jewish areas nearby. The school, according to its petition, is to be located somewhere in a 30-square-mile area stretching from Valley Village to Canoga Park. At least five private Jewish elementary schools are located in or near that area. 

Stock disagreed with Galatzan’s characterization of Lashon. “At the end of the day, Lashon Academy is a public school,” he said. “There’s nothing Jewish about it.”

To watch the LAUSD school board vote:

Opinion: Save the Academic Decathlon

In a city where some of the very rich are willing to pay $1 billion-plus for the bankrupt Dodgers baseball team, why can’t anyone spare $500,000 to support an Academic Decathlon program that brings luster to the often criticized Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)?

Unbelievably, funding for the annual Academic Decathlon, which pits high school students against their peers in a test of wits and knowledge, would be eliminated in the cuts proposed in the worst-case budget approved by the LAUSD board. 

These cuts are planned unless teachers agree to four-day unpaid furloughs or voters support a parcel tax, an additional tax on property. Among the other cuts contemplated are the closing of all adult schools and abandonment of afterschool programs and English-as-a-second-language classes. Thousands of teachers would be dismissed.

News of the contemplated death of the Academic Decathlon program came out just as the Granada Hills Charter High School team won the 2012 California Academic Decathlon on March 19, its second consecutive win, completing a grueling period of preparation — with some sessions lasting eight hours a day — studying history, music, physics and math, learning to answer questions orally as well as on paper. LAUSD schools have won the state title 18 times since 1987, and 12 national titles.

I find it a bit suspicious that Superintendent John Deasy and the Board of Education would pick on the Academic Decathlon program in the midst of the budget crisis. Its cost is a relative pittance; its pluses are huge. Threatening to eliminate something so valuable sounds like a familiar LAUSD budget scare tactic.

“Every year, they go to the same filing cabinet and bring out the same old cuts,” said former school board member and teacher David Tokofsky. He’s the father of L.A.’s Academic Decathlon competition, starting the string of national and state victories with his Marshall High School team in 1987.

But let’s assume Deasy and the school board are not bluffing, that they’d really be willing to sacrifice this adornment to the school district to save a few dollars. Is there an alternative?

I talked to Tokofsky about raising money from private sources. He agreed with me about the availability of rich potential donors. He noted that some of them, and their foundations, are already putting money into the district to promote their own ideas of school reform, including paying salaries of some administrators they like.

There are others he figures would be willing to help. “There are really famous rock stars from Garfield and Banning and other schools,” he said. “There are athletes. We are so busy beating up the system that we don’t celebrate the people who could help us. We should hunt down the alumni who have the most romantic views of their schools. They’re out there, yet nobody is harvesting them.”

Tokofsky gave me a rundown on the approximately half a million dollars a year needed to finance the competition. The money goes for coaches, supplies, travel and food for the competitors, and salary for the official who administers it, Cliff Ker. Coaches, who are teachers, saw their extra pay cut this year from $5,000 a year to $2,800. Coaches work with the teams two or so hours daily at first, then five, six and even eight hours a day as competition nears.

“It’s very hard to find coaches,” Ker said. “It’s a lot of work, there is a lot of turnover — we have between 20 and 25 coaches leave each year, about a third. They are dealing with very bright kids, some more motivated than others, requiring many hours of study with very few tangible results until it is over. It has to be a very special individual who is dedicated, can put in the time, [is] disciplined, kind of a whole bunch of John Wooden clones,” said Bruins fan Ker, invoking the name of the famed late UCLA basketball coach.

“Part of my job is to get donations,” Ker said. “David [Tokofsky] has helped me. But the most we have raised in a year is $100,000. Recently, we have raised [only] $50,000 a year. I have gotten leads, but I don’t know whether it is my [lack of] fundraising skills, or I’m not connected, but I have only been able to raise that $50,000.”

The district could help more. The Academic Decathlon makes headlines during competition time, but Deasy and his media staff could turn themselves into John Wooden clones and do much more.

The high school students and their coaches bring something positive to a district flooded with gloomy news about test scores, labor management disputes and investigations into a few perverted teachers. And now, with the stroke of a pen in their bureaucratic hands, Deasy and the school board are threatening to kill something so good.

Los Angeles can’t leave it up to them. We’re loaded with rich people — film executives and stars, athletes, Midas-touch financiers, developers, etc. They give to museums, universities, charities, foundations and political campaigns. Synagogues, churches and many other causes. A small portion of this wealth should go for LAUSD’s amazingly successful Academic Decathlon teams.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Shorter summer challenges camps

“Early-start” is finally starting.

After delaying implementation of a new, earlier school calendar last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will begin classes three weeks sooner this fall for the majority of students.

Caught in the middle are local summer camps, which are once again working to accommodate the change without compromising the quality of the camp experience. Jewish camps in the Los Angeles area are offering families stopgap deals to make overnight camp feasible for LAUSD students who will have a shorter summer vacation.

At many camps, the problem is twofold: Not only are students squeezed by the early start of school at summer’s end, but as the last academic year on the old calendar wraps up this June, those same kids might have to miss the beginning of camp, too.

“This summer, it hits us on both ends,” said Josh Levine, director of Camp Alonim at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley.

The L.A. Board of Education voted in September to move forward with the early-start plan, which members approved in 2010 but then scrapped in early 2011 due to concerns over start-up costs. The district will call school back to session on Aug. 14 and end instruction in early June in 2013, a schedule proponents say is more beneficial to students academically and places high schools in line with college calendars.

LAUSD schools on traditional calendars (not year-round) are scheduled to finish instruction on June 22. But Camp Alonim and Camp JCA Shalom both start their first overnight sessions on June 19, while Alonim’s CITs (counselors in training) are asked to arrive June 18. Camp Ramah and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps’ first sessions start on June 20.

Alonim lets campers whose school schedules conflict start camp a few days late — even CITs, who are required to be present all eight weeks. Around 10 percent of Alonim’s CITs typically arrive late because of school, Levine said.

“We’re actually looking forward to the beginning of our summer not conflicting with LAUSD” in 2013, when the new school calendar liberates kids for summer break on June 4, he added.

As for the end of summer 2012, Alonim’s third and final session ends Aug. 12, two days before L.A. public schools begin. “We haven’t heard any significant issues from our families this year and we haven’t seen an adjustment in enrollment,” Levine said. 

The transition won’t be as easy for Camp JCA Shalom. The Malibu camp plans to run a one-week mini-session Aug. 14-19, which now coincides with the first week of school.

“For those kids in LAUSD, that’s not going to be an option anymore,” JCA Shalom director Joel Charnick said. “We’re looking at the registration very closely to see if that week will even happen” if there aren’t enough sign-ups.

The last of the camp’s three full sessions, traditionally the most popular, clears the start of school by two days. But many families are still concerned that the window to prepare for class is too short. “We’ve heard from a number of parents who are saying it’s very hard and some who have requested they pull their kids out early,” Charnick said.

Still, the camp is discouraging parents from making children miss out on the fanfare and bonding that traditionally marks the last day of camp, he said: “That’s like playing four quarters of football and leaving in the last minute of the game.”

The fact that a “good chunk” of JCA Shalom campers attend LAUSD schools will necessitate talks about shifting the camp calendar for future summers, Charnick said. “If need be, our camp, and probably many others, will have to make the very tough decision of moving sessions around to accommodate that [early-start] schedule. We’re willing to do what it takes to keep our kids coming to camp. Having to miss part of camp every year because of a school change — we’re going to make sure it doesn’t come to that.”

School board members have pushed for the early-start calendar because it will give schools time to complete the first semester of classes before winter break, meaning students won’t have to spend their vacations studying for finals. Superintendent John Deasy had urged delaying implementation of the calendar last fall due to a one-time extra cost of $2 million to $4 million. But board members, including Tamar Galatzan and board president Monica Garcia, said the time to enact the change was now — 18 LAUSD schools already on the new schedule, many in the San Fernando Valley, already have shown academic improvement, they said. 

At Camp Ramah in Ojai, the second of the camp’s two four-week sessions ends Aug. 15, the day after LAUSD’s school year starts.

“Any change of timing in any school district will put pressure on families to enroll in a specific session of Ramah,” said Rabbi Joe Menashe, the camp’s director. “But we have not felt a drastic switch this year because it’s only a short overlap at the end of the summer.”

The camp will let families pick up their kids on or after Aug. 12, after campers spend their last Shabbat together. But Menashe is suggesting that parents bring their children back for the end-of-camp banquet the night of Aug. 15. “That way they can still be part of this nice end-of-summer experience,” he said.

Charnick, who was a JCA Shalom camper himself in the 1980s and ’90s, still recalls “every minute” of his last weekend of camp as a CIT — the final Havdalah as a group, hugs between friends, tearful goodbyes.

“Those last few days are just critical to kids’ experience,” he said.

LAUSD reaches out to middle class

Los Angeles’ new school superintendent, John Deasy, says one of his top goals is to persuade middle-class families, including Jewish parents, to return to the Los Angeles public schools. “It’s one of the major projects I have to deliver,” he said.

I interviewed Deasy last week in his office on the 24th floor of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) headquarters, just west of downtown Los Angeles.

Deasy has been superintendent since January. Before taking the LAUSD job, he was deputy director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major supporter of charter schools. Charters are publicly funded but are run with considerable independence; they also often receive substantial private funds and operate outside of union contracts. Deasy also has served as superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and the Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland.

It was our first meeting. He — or a member of his staff — had checked me out, and he had read my articles on education. Most important for readers of The Jewish Journal, he was on top of the middle-class issue.

He told me he’s been talking with parents about getting private-school students to enroll in public schools, including those on the Westside and in the West Valley, home to many Jewish families. “People are saying they want to come back, but come back with confidence,” he said. “And that’s my obligation. And I think some are coming back because of the huge economic pressures, which are not going to get better soon. And so, while they may be forced back economically, we want them to feel welcomed and comfortable that the decision … can actually better the lives of their sons and daughters.”

Deasy said school board member Steve Zimmer, who represents much of the Westside, sparked the back-to-public schools effort. He said Zimmer was supported in this by Tamar Galatzan, who represents the West Valley. Both are Jewish.

“I have a whole team on this,” Deasy said. “And we’re going to spend some money to incubate programs that are highly attractive for parents to come back to. At the same time, I am … improving the district, so, as students come through these programs, they will continue to matriculate to better and better public schools.”

He said the program would be presented to the Board of Education in autumn.

Elevating the back-to-the-public-school campaign to a top district priority would be a change. It’s been going on for a few years on some campuses, but has depended on the interest of principals and parent groups. Operating with the intensity of a political campaign in some areas, it has worked. “This is about organizing — listening, communicating … [going] to churches, synagogues, neighborhood councils, door to door,” Zimmer told me when I interviewed him a while back.

Parents dealing with LAUSD face a bewildering number of choices, including traditional public schools, magnets, charters and pilot schools, the last of which offer a blend of charter and traditional approaches. 

“I would acknowledge that now we make choice difficult for parents,” Deasy said. “We want to make it much easier. … Parents shouldn’t have to figure out the system. We are developing a portal [on the LAUSD Web site], which lays all this out. We want parents not to search but to be fed information. And, of course, [the site will be] in all of our six predominant languages, so that what you are left with is to make a choice, not to wonder how to find something. It is one-stop shopping, how to register, how to transfer, how to learn about choices, how to understand college applications, how to fill out a financial-aid form, immunization rules, counseling and support, after-school options.  Up to this point, it has been hit or miss, or, worse, fractured information.”

A major obstacle facing Deasy is the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. The union is opposed to charters, test-oriented teacher evaluations and any easing of seniority rules that would make it easier to fire teachers. All these steps are favored by LAUSD’s critics, who consider them reforms. Deasy’s time as an executive of the charter-supporting Gates foundation makes the union suspicious of him.

The union has a new president, Warren Fletcher, who succeeded the combative A.J. Duffy. Deasy said he and Fletcher “are working on building a strong relationship together. We both have enormous responsibilities on our shoulders, and we both don’t want to make mistakes in our first year. I have met him a number of times now,” Deasy added. “He wants to do the right thing by his membership and students, and so do I. … How we disagree will be the hallmark of our relationship, that it will be a respectful and productive disagreement when it occurs, and a very respectful and productive collaboration when it occurs.”

If that miracle happens, it will change the theatrics of the Los Angeles public-school debate. With the shouting toned down, perhaps the two sides can then get down to substance, and the district can be made into something attractive to all Los Angeles, to become, as Deasy said, “Best in the West; No. 1 in the nation.”

The Education of LAUSD’s Steve Zimmer

It’s been dark for almost five hours, the city has slowed, and even the 101 Freeway is sparse and quiet. Steve Zimmer has just wrapped his last appointment, but rushing home seems foolish when a rare sit-down dinner is an option. Most days Zimmer hardly notices how alone he is, because he never stops working.

On this wintry night earlier this year, the then-18-month veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education is coming off a 14-hour day, a zigzag tour of schools from West Hollywood to the Elysian Valley, from parent meetings on the Westside to policy meetings downtown, home to Hollywood to walk his blind Chihuahua-pug mix and is about to wind down — finally — with dinner and a very necessary nightcap in Echo Park. By this point, Zimmer is hungry, tired and melancholy, so once he’s decided upon the kitschy French bistro Taix on Sunset Boulvard, he pops in a Leonard Cohen CD and sinks into the driver’s seat of his LAUSD-owned Prius.


“So you know that everybody covers ‘Hallelujah,’ but this version, this live version is just … unbelievable,” he says. “The instrumentation is very different than his studio albums. I didn’t realize how Jewish-influenced his music was until I heard this. It almost has a klezmer-y feel.”

Zimmer moves to another favorite, Beck, whose album “Sea Change” he calls “the breakup album.” “It rips your heart out,” he says, explaining that he listened to it on loop for months after a six-year relationship ended recently. At 41, he has never married, but he says his last breakup felt like a divorce.

“I’ve been good — or at least passable — at a lot of things in my life,” Zimmer tells me. “I haven’t been as good at relationships. An artist can’t help being an artist — in the same sense that I can’t help what I do. It’s a focus thing.

“I don’t know how to do things any other way. It’s a complicated balancing act to have two passions. It takes a very, very special person to be willing to be part of a balancing act.”

Steve Zimmer speaking at Venice High School about LAUSD’s “We Build” school construction and renovation program.

But if Zimmer thinks his schedule reflects any sort of work/life balance whatsoever, he’s either incredibly un-self-aware or in denial. Most days he’s so entrenched — between developing and arguing policy downtown and visiting with parents, students and administrators at any of the 99 school sites in his district, which runs from East Hollywood to the ocean, north to the Valley and south to Westchester (“It’s f—-ing enormous!”) — there really is no distinction between Zimmer’s work life and personal life. Given the constant state of crisis in today’s public schools, every school board member must take the job seriously, but, for Zimmer, it is an up-all-night, high-octane, high-stress, the-world-rests-on-your-shoulders kind of job. He gives it everything, with a self-sacrifice that borders on masochism.

You might call Zimmer a modern-day Don Quixote, a man on a deeply personal but quite possibly futile quest to revitalize public education during one of the most fraught periods in American schools’ history — and in a landscape packed with counter forces so dizzying it makes La Mancha look like a playground. Is he mad? Maybe. And yet, there can be reason in madness. Zimmer is the kind of hero you want to see succeed — affable, passionate, intense and charismatic —  and he approaches almost everything except politics with romantic brio.

Like any good literary character, Zimmer faces tough obstacles and has some tragic flaws. He took a huge pay cut to sit on the board full time, leaving his $90,000-per-year teacher’s salary for an annual income of about $50,000. “I don’t say this lightly, but financially, this has ruined me,” he says.

The parallel between his life and the central dilemma facing LAUSD is striking: Just a few months ago, due to California’s budget crisis, LAUSD faced a $408 million deficit for the 2011-2012 school year, effectively threatening the jobs of about 4,000 teachers, and, as a result, the education of approximately 640,000 students.

The crisis was mitigated in late June when LAUSD passed a budget combining state revenues, givebacks from the unions and from the California Workers’ Compensation reserve, as well as a one-time stimulus from the federal government’s Education Jobs Bill. But even that wasn’t enough; this month, 3,000 LAUSD employees face layoffs, though a pending labor deal with the unions mandating furlough days may prove a saving grace for at least half of those jobs.

Zimmer is part of a board trying to steer a ship under siege and, every day, has to contend with numerous angry forces. But, for Zimmer, that seems to fade into the background when he’s face to face with the city’s most vulnerable. He is known for his devotion to at-risk students, the impoverished and gang-prone, those most susceptible to drug addictions or lives of crime.

His altruistic spirit, while admirable, has also earned him criticism; he’s been accused of putting the needs of his Eastside constituents before the concerns of his more affluent constituents on the Westside. Indeed, dividing his focus is a struggle both internally and externally, but Zimmer maintains that his bottom line is to ensure equal opportunities for all students, irrespective of where they land on the socioeconomic continuum.

To bridge the education gap between the haves and the have-nots, he says, is “the civil-rights struggle of our day.”

At 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, Zimmer picks me up 20 minutes late for a parent meeting at Rosewood Elementary School, where he’ll discuss the district’s plans to build a new middle school in West Hollywood (currently, the closest option is in Hollywood, a long commute for parents). Zimmer wears a suit that looks a little baggy on his medium build, the business attire an odd contrast with his laid-back style. He has beady but piercing blue eyes and is markedly bald in front; a perpetually furrowed brow gives him a scowling look.

“So, this is a train wreck of lateness this morning,” he apologizes before adjusting his tie and checking his BlackBerry. “But there will be food and coffee.”

Before he was elected to a three-year term on the board in 2009, Zimmer taught for 17 years. He came to Los Angeles as a Teach for America trainee in 1992, and, by fall, was placed at John Marshall High School teaching English as a second language. Marshall transformed Zimmer; the Los Feliz school is a Title I school, with nearly 70 percent of students qualifying for the free or reduced-fee lunch program. At Marshall, he realized his students needed more than what the classroom offered, so he created an intervention-counseling program and became a community activist, campaigning for immigrant rights and bilingual education. Public education, he came to believe, is the best and only hope for creating stability in marginalized communities.

At West Hollywood’s Rosewood, 25 parents have gathered inside a small auditorium for a meeting about a new middle school added onto the nearby Laurel Elementary School campus last fall. “We want middle school to be something you’re excited about, not something you’re scared of,” Zimmer says to mild chuckles. Laurel opened to sixth-graders in fall 2010; 160 students are registered for grades 6-8 for the coming school year.

“You get to have a major role in how this school is shaped. You get to build it,” he tells them. When he’s done with his shpiel, parents ask about class size, curriculum and what the cafeteria will serve. Zimmer doesn’t have all the answers but tells them classes will start small. “I wouldn’t be broadcasting this out,” he warns.

“And the new superintendent is on board with this?” one woman asks, referring to John Deasy, who would take over for LAUSD’s veteran innovator Ramon Cortines in April 2011.

“He will be,” Zimmer says with surprising confidence for someone who was the sole board member to oppose Deasy’s confirmation as superintendent last January. “He should be,” Zimmer corrects himself, “because if we do this right, we’re going to retain the ADA [average daily attendance] of the middle-school students we’ve been losing to charters for years.”

Before Zimmer helped open the new middle school, only 11 students from the greater West Hollywood area attended an LAUSD middle school. The resulting loss in funds to the district was enormous because LAUSD receives approximately $5,800 from the state per student enrolled. Next calendar year, Zimmer estimates the district will have lost 83,000 students to charter schools. Do the math, and the total losses amount to more than $480 million, a substantially larger sum than LAUSD’s total deficit.

At a town hall meeting at Walgrove Elementary in Venice in June, Zimmer found himself in the awkward position of defending district plans to parcel out Walgrove land to a charter school (LAUSD is required by law to provide space for charters). The meeting was attended by Tanya Anton, author of “GoMamaGuide,” a detailed guidebook to Los Angeles schools. Anton makes a living advising families about their public school options. In the last election, she supported Zimmer’s opponent, Mike Stryer, a business executive-turned-Fairfax High School teacher, but she said she is heartened by Zimmer’s willingness to engage in dialogue.

“My issue with Steve is that I feel he’s conflicted, because he was paid for by UTLA money,” Anton said, referring to the teachers’ union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which donated an estimated $300,000 to Zimmer’s 2008 campaign. “I just don’t know how effective he can be. I see his passion. I honor his commitment to the disenfranchised. I just don’t know if he can take care of business and get things done.”

Because he is a former teacher, Zimmer’s allegiance to unions is philosophical and fundamental; he believes public workers’ rights should be protected. But Zimmer’s union association has also become an image problem as one of public education’s fiercest current battles pits a civic-led reform movement against teachers’ unions. Fed up with dismal graduation rates and low test scores — in LAUSD, approximately 50 percent of students graduate high school, and only about 10 percent go on to college — teachers’ unions have come to represent what many believe is an intolerable status quo, one that protects poorly performing teachers. The notion that if students are failing, bad teachers are to blame, has been reinforced in mainstream culture by popular polemics such as Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

The assumption that Zimmer parrots union party line is problematic, but it’s also not entirely true. In fact, Zimmer nearly derailed his union base within the first weeks of his term, when, in July 2009, he voted for Public School Choice. The measure created a mechanism by which all new LAUSD schools are automatically put out to bid, so charters can apply to operate these schools. Zimmer came on board when, as a compromise, an addendum included failing schools in the conversion program. To date, however, only one charter operator, Green Dot, has ever applied to take over an LAUSD failing school.

The teacher’s union vehemently opposed Public School Choice, largely because most charters are not unionized, and every takeover means more job losses for teachers and other school staff. A.J. Duffy, immediate past president of UTLA, referred to Public School Choice as “an unmitigated disaster” and called it a “misstep” on Zimmer’s part to lend his vote.

“Having said that, I’m a realist,” Duffy added. “And when we support a candidate for school board, we don’t buy them. They don’t belong to us. Overall, Steve has been very good about pushing a progressive teacher-driven agenda.”

Zimmer defends his support of Public School Choice as a political compromise.

“Public School Choice is a better process for restarting schools than anything the federal government has come up with. But for new schools? I’ll regret forever that I voted for that,” he said. He believes the admissions process by which charters operate, as well as the disproportionately low attention given to special-needs programs, work against the core value of public education — to serve all students.

Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, admitted Zimmer has “butted heads with official union leadership — on a number of occasions.”

“He’s not a blind follower,” Durazo said. “But he believes in the fundamental value of a strong labor movement, that it is essential to a democratic society. He represents true human values; a janitor losing his or her job is not just a number to him — that’s a human being.”

The problem Zimmer faces, though, is that what matters most to him is not necessarily what matters most to everyone else. “Certainly I think about kids first, but not kids only,” he says. “Because to get kids to graduation requires adults that are well trained, performing well, and well supported.”

Zimmer was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to a middle-class family. His mother taught middle school, and his father taught business at Newark College. When Zimmer was 5, his father lost his job and purchased a blueprinting business in Bridgeport, Conn., moving the family from Jewish Mecca to a place where the boy would become the only Jew in school.

“I got beat up because of it,” he says. “I remember one time when we were doing a Christmas project, one of the kids asked, ‘Why doesn’t he have to do it?’ And my teacher said, ‘Oh, he’s not like us. He’s different, he’s Jewish.’ ” The family’s religious practice was even more alienating, as they kept a strict kosher home and attended a Conservative shul every Shabbat.  Did this make him resent Judaism?