May 20, 2019

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.