Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Road Less Traveled: Transforming Education by Investing in Parents & Families

Today the LAUSD Board of Education received an initial set of recommendations from our Parent Engagement Task Force outlining ways the District can transform the culture and practice of parental engagement throughout the District. This work stemmed out of my Parents as Equal Partners in the Education of Their Children resolution, co-sponsored by Board Members Zimmer and Martinez.

The Taskforce recommendations mark a significant step forward in our collective commitment and duty to shift the District’s status quo culture of compliance in the area of parent engagement to one of authentic partnership and respect that acknowledges the central role that parents and families play in their children’s educational success.

The Taskforce – chaired by Antonia Hernandez, President of the California Community Foundation and former President of MALDEF – focused its work on three essential elements of parent engagement, as outlined in our resolution:

• Identifying parent rights and responsibilities in supporting student achievement;
• Building parent capacity as teaching partners, advocates who push for better schools, and decision-makers who choose the best educational options for their children; and
• Addressing barriers to parent and family involvement

Developed by over one hundred stakeholders including parents, school leaders, district staff, educators, nonprofits and university faculty, the Taskforce recommendations emphasize the need to invest in families; the importance of accountability for all stakeholders including parents, teachers, principals and district staff in fostering authentic partnerships; and the need to create systematic communication between parents and schools that is open, equitable and data-based.

Our next step is to receive from our new Superintendent, Dr. John Deasy, a comprehensive Master Plan for Family and Community Engagement that begins to integrate parents and families to the center of all of our reform efforts. This conversation is essential if we are to make good on our promise of educational excellence to our children.

Last week at the United Way Education Summit, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated, “The public school system of Los Angeles is at a crossroads. Community leaders, community groups, unions, parents, educators, and students can continue on the road you have been on. Or you can take the road less traveled, the harder road.”

The Board of Education, with overwhelming parent and community support, made a clear decision to embark upon the road less traveled last December when it passed the Parents As Equal Partners resolution. The passage of the resolution boldly acknowledged that our inability to meaningfully and systematically engage parents posed the greatest threat to the success of our students. It signified that without parent involvement all other educational reform efforts would be fruitless.

With gratitude to Antonia Hernandez, chair of the Taskforce and a long time civil rights leader, and all the members of the Taskforce and sub-committees, we walk firmly and deliberately on the road less traveled. Indeed, today we moved further on that road to honor parents as equal partners in the education of their children.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Decision for Echo Park Kids

This past Tuesday, the LAUSD Board of Education voted on Superintendent Cortines’ Public School Choice 2.0 recommendations. While the Board approved 23 of his 28 recommendations, amendments were offered and subsequently approved by the Board in several instances. This decision-making responsibility (whether to support, not support, or amend) is something I have always taken very seriously as a Board Member.

Throughout my tenure, I have approached each decision the same way – analyzing all available information, asking deeper questions, meeting with appropriate parties for greater understanding, and being guided in my final decision by the interests of children (relative to each individual choice). The thought process behind an amendment I offered on Tuesday for Central Region Elementary School #14 – a new PSC school in the community of Echo Park – highlights the steps I go through when making a decision.

In the case of CRES #14, Mr. Cortines recommended a plan submitted by the Local District 4 and Echo Park Community Partners Design Team. I began by reviewing factors I considered especially important, as well as criteria and guidelines set forth in the PSC process and by the Superintendent himself for recommending a plan, namely: 1) the quality and strength of the plan; 2) the applicant’s track record of success; 3) the likelihood of the plan being fully and successfully implemented; 4) the review panels’ input and recommendations; 5) the Superintendent’s recommendations; and 5) parent input.

In addition, I considered the needs of the students that CRES #14 was built to serve. Specifically, it was built to relieve two overcrowded campuses: Union and Rosemont Elementary schools. The demographics for these schools are roughly 89% Latino students, 6% Filipino, and 1% White, African American, and Asian (each). Almost 60% are English Learners. Further, 91% are low-income and in extreme poverty.

While I was impressed with the collaborative nature of the LD4 and Echo Park Community Partners Plan and their engagement of a number of community members (and the plan indeed had many exciting elements), the plan also fell short in meeting some of the criteria listed above, as was noted by several reviewers on the various review panels. In the end, the LD4 proposal received mixed reviews, with three of six reviewers either not recommending the plan or not giving it a rating at all.

Further, Superintendent Cortines’ recommendation for the LD 4 plan came WITH RESERVATIONS and noted, “the plan lacks depth in many key areas; implementation timelines are vague; and key decisions around curriculum, professional development and assessment are unknown.” His recommendation also states that the LD 4 plan “lacks many important details, especially for English Learner students.” Given the likelihood that the majority of the students served by CRES #14 will be English Learners, this was especially troubling for me.

On the other hand, the Camino Nuevo plan was rated highly and commended by each of Mr. Cortines’ review panels. Indeed, all six reviewers recommended Camino Nuevo for CRES #14, noting the depth of their proposal and excellent results. At the Board meeting, Superintendent Cortines shared that Camino Nuevo is a great partner for the District, as evidenced by the strength of their program and exceptional track record. He lauded their success and effective instruction, and stated that he was “blown away” with what he saw in visiting their classrooms. Elements of the Camino Nuevo plan that were particularly impressive in their depth include the following:

1. The proposal was founded on a strong instructional program that incorporates a proven, research-based bilingual program for core academics, with weekly art, music, dance, drama, and physical education instruction;

2. There was a focus on the “whole child.” What this means is that CN provides case management to ensure families have access to necessary support services. They leverage partnerships to accomplish this. CN serves as a referral hub. They offer wrap around support services to address potential barriers to learning outside the school as well as inside the school. Given these students are predominantly low-income and in extreme poverty, this is essential;

3. There was a strong focus on parent involvement and a “parents as partners” motto that is integral to the school’s culture and practice;

4. The plan incorporates a longer school year (195 instructional days compared to 180 at LAUSD), an extended length school day, and smaller class sizes;

Further, Camino Nuevo’s track record for very similar populations, in the surrounding areas, in similar grades, is outstanding. Consider this:

• 60% of CN students are proficient in English Language Arts and 80% are proficient in math (compared to 42% & 40% in English Language Arts and 52% & 49% in math at Rosemont and Union Elementary Schools, respectively)

• CN is effectively closing the achievement gap between English Learners and fluent English speakers (840 API for ELs in K-8 – compared to 644 at LAUSD, though for K-12 )

• For K-8 schools, CN’s API grew from 651 to 859 in five years (over 200 point increase)

• Their high school API is 788, with a 96% graduation rate; 80% of students are accepted into four-year colleges and universities

My decision also factored in parent input. In this case, there was an outpouring of support from parents for both plans submitted for CRES #14. My staff met with parents supporting the LD4 plan, as well as parents supporting the Camino Nuevo plan. Though each group had a different interest, all were articulate and passionate in what they wanted for their children. I also received hundreds of letters and emails, numerous petitions and postcards, and a few phone messages as well. In reviewing all of this input, there was essentially equal support for each plan.

I also considered the needs of English Learners. For too long, we have struggled to provide a quality education for these students. When we look at third grade reading proficiency rates for all students at LAUSD – approximately 34% – and then further disaggregate for English Learners, only 11% are reading proficiently. This means that almost nine of every ten EL students are reading BELOW grade level. This is not new, but this also does not have to continue.

After analyzing all of this information and input, it became clear that Camino Nuevo’s plan was the stronger of the two. For this reason, I decided to offer an amendment to have Camino Nuevo operate CRES #14, which was subsequently approved. I chose Camino Nuevo because we owe our children better – especially our English Learners. They cannot wait another year for us to figure it out when we have a proven model available to them right now.

Even so, I appreciate wholeheartedly and am inspired by the work of Local District 4 and the local community members who came together to work on a plan for CRES #14. They provided a good plan that can be made even better. I hope they continue to collaborate, and that we find a way to bring their strengthened plan to other neighborhood schools that need help. They are a visionary and committed group, and my hope is that they form an Education Collaborative and further bridge the divide that has existed in the community. This would be powerful!