First person: College isn’t for us?


Skylar and Randall playing in her backyard | 1998

This Reporter Corps story published Oct. 13, 2013 recently aired on KCRW as a radio piece produced by Kerstin Kilm and Skylar Endsley Myers. Fast forward to 8:10 to hear Myers talk with her childhood friend Randall about why the two pals ended up taking different paths. 

I opened the door to see my best friend from childhood, Randall, chewing on a pen top, facing me in his baggy jeans. We hadn’t seen each other for nearly a decade. As kids our lives seemed like mirror images and we were inseparable skateboarding, biking and playing basketball on our block of South Central Los Angeles. But something changed in middle school. In eighth grade, while I was worrying about which private high school would give me a scholarship, he was getting arrested for the first time.

How was it that my ace homie growing up–the one who I would run the streets with for hours–ended up on the fast track to prison while I sped toward opportunities? [Read more…]

LA for Youth holds concert at City Hall

On April Fool’s Day, the L.A. for Youth campaign gathered for a concert outside of City Hall to make a statement about what they call “foolish” safety policies in schools in Los Angeles. image

Performances included dancers, bands, musicians, and spoken word artists.

They hope to end violence in schools. However, they want to offer more positive solutions other than just sending police officers into schools.

“What we need to start doing is look into all these alternatives to incarceration and all these alternatives to school discipline, getting rid of zero tolerance policies and willful defiance and other terms that are aimed at criminalizing youth,” said Julio Marquez, L.A. for Youth representative.

The event hoped to show a more positive portrayal of school and community, one without guns and violence.

According to the LA Times, The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has hired 750 security aides since the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in December.

No one from LAUSD was available to comment.

Henry Sandoval, an LA For Youth campaign member shared his own story of the public school system. 

For years he was pushed out of school and onto the streets. His school finalized him three times, meaning he automatically failed all his classes. image

“It came to a point where all my friends got finalized and kicked out to the streets,” Sandoval said. “We saw it as something really cool. We saw it as an early vacation.”

Now at age 21, his perspective has changed. He finally got off the streets and graduated.

Then just four months ago, a gunman with no apparent motive shot Sandoval in the chest. He says he harbors no harsh feelings towards his attacker.

“Everybody needs help, and the people who need the most help are getting pushed out and getting kicked out into the streets,” he said.

Jasmine Jauregui, youth organizer for LA for Youth, also shared her story.

Her father is serving time in prison and she wants to make sure that others don’t end up there as well. For her, the event meant a call for action.

“I want young people to get involved and wake up to the reality. We need to fix what’s not right,” she said.

LA for Youth’s larger goal is to raise enough money to open 500 community centers throughout Los Angeles.

“Community answers and community resources are the end to this violence,” Sandoval said.

Los Angeles mayor visits nation’s most expensive public school

Listen to an audio story by Annenberg Radio News:


image Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took a tour of the six shiny, state-of-the-art schools at the Robert F Kennedy complex. He wasn’t visiting for any special performance or opening. Instead, he visited to remind the public of education accomplishments during his term. The visit came after his “State of the City&#34” address last night, when Villaraigosa emphasized his commitment to school reform.

Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Monica Garcia guided Villaraigosa around:

“Mr. Mayor what is great about that auditorium — you can lift the back and it seats out to where we walked down…”

That’s just one of the incredible features of this new public school, just finished last year. It’s known to some as the “Taj Mahal” of public schools. It cost $580 million to build, making it the most expensive public school in the nation. Chuck Flores is the principal of New Open World Academy, one of the six pilot schools at RFK. His school focuses on technology and social justice.

“I mean, you know the cost of the campus that’s been in the news forever, but I think it’s really providing an opportunity for kids who’ve been disenfranchised for so long.”

Flores is referring in part to the fact that for years the district bused students out of the area to other schools. Now, if you live in a nine block radius, you can attend school here. Flores says the school’s amenities, like its beautiful library, create a better learning environment for students.

Oscar Jaramillo used to attend LA High School. Now, he’s part of the Ambassador School of Global Leadership at RFK.

“I have more opportunities and dreams to accomplish right here at ASGL,” Jaramillo said. “I know I love being an ambassador. I’m very proud of that so that we can all, like, become like global citizens around the world.”

The mayor also referenced our globalized world.

“There is no more important issue for a city if we want to be competitive in a world economy than to be educating a future generation,” Villaraigosa said.

But with six schools costing half a billion dollars, and a $350 million dollar deficit remaining, the city may not be able to build new schools like RFK anytime soon.

Track system at Manual Arts eases overcrowding, hinders student performance

imageLos Angeles has some major issues. Traffic is one. The state budget’s another. But unbeknownst to many Angelenos, is the chaos that is the year-round schedule of many schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Students relish that spring day when they walk out of their school’s doors and don’t look back until early September. But for two thirds of all Los Angeles high school-aged, public school students, the idea of summer vacation, is well, just an idea.

Starting in 1974 and coinciding with a rise in student enrollment that lasted three decades—almost 750,000 students attended a public school in Los Angeles in 2000—elementary, middle and high schools implemented a track system. Tracks—labeled A, B, C and sometimes D—organized the school year so that up to one third of the student body was always on break—whether it was April or August.

A year-round schedule was the best option for school districts with such rapid growth—such as L.A. Unified, according to 1997 an analysis by the Education Commission of the State (ECS), a Denver–based nonpartisan education research organization that first studied year-round schooling more than a decade ago just as the idea was introduced in U.S. schools.

“It was a poor, quick fix,” said Tom Roddy, who has been a teacher in the district for almost a decade. “It was done as a stopgap, and they did a poor job of it.”

Roddy is a currently journalism teacher at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles.

“A traditional school has 182 instructional days,” he said. “With the tracks, we have 160. Twenty-two less days for instruction really adds up. Not to mention after having two months off twice a year, we end up having to go over a lot.”

In 2006, the passage of the Williams Settlement Legislation required that all students have access to adequate learning materials, such as textbooks, access to clean, safe and functional facilities, and that all teachers are appropriately assigned and have the proper certification or training for their assignment, especially those in classrooms with 20 percent or more English learners.

To fulfill these requirements, L.A. Unified needed to ease overcrowding by building more schools, in turn being able to put all schools on a traditional schedule.

“I think it will help tremendously,” said Nisha Dugal, interim principal at Manual Arts High School. “We are constantly battling low test scores. It’s easy to see why, when we have students on A track coming back to school from two months off on March 7th. Their high school exit exams are March 8th and 9th. It just doesn’t work.”

A Problematic System

According to the ECS findings on year-round schooling, every case study was different: “In some cases, year-round schools have led to an increase in student achievement. Conversely, levels of student achievement have decreased in other instances.”

Though enrollment has slowly waned, with 100,000 fewer L.A. Unified pupils than in 2000, the education budget crisis in California has taken a toll on swift progress.

Had the economy and school budget remained the same, the change back to a traditional school year would have happened much more quickly, but the district just didn’t have the funds to create the space to have all students on a September-June schedule.

Yet as L.A. Unified slowly moves back to a more traditional 9-month academic schedule, not everyone is happy about it.

Jovana Urrutia, an 18-year-old senior at Manual Arts, likes the tracks.

“The track system is a good thing. With a school of over 3,000 students, it’s nice that it’s not so crowded during the year. I can do Intersession too and catch up on everything,” Urrutia said.

Intersession, much like summer school, was something L.A. Unified initiated so that students could catch up on some of the school days they lost due to the tracks. “We have about 200 kids out of 3,000 attending Intersession and exam prep. I wish I could say there were more, but I can’t force them to go,” said interim principal Dugal.

“I stay more focused,” Urrutia said, in defense of the track system.

Yet, she admitted that the all the tracks are not equal.

“A track is the most crowded, because kids really want to be on a normal schedule. You can really only get a summer job if you are on A track,” Urrutia added.

For parents with children in different schools, the track system proves troublesome.

“Originally the tracks were based by city block, to help with truancy, and to keep families together on the same tracks, even at different schools,” Dugal said. “But now it’s really about numbers.

Students at Manual Arts who have siblings at our feeder middle schools—who are a traditional schedule—may not have the same vacation. It makes things difficult.”

Easing the Overcrowding

The light at the end of the tunnel for Manual Arts and other high schools in the area is that they know help is on the way. West Adams, a high school near Manual Arts, is almost finished with its school year and ready to take up to 600 of Manual Arts’ students.

“They will relieve us a little, but we will still have a high school with 2,400 students. That’s a lot,” Dugal said.

As per the new L.A. Unified policy, schools are mandated to go to a traditional September to May schedule, which will force many students to newer surrounding high schools. Dugal said that students would be reassigned based on where they lived.

Roddy, the Manual Arts journalism teacher, emphasized the need for more space.

“There hadn’t been a school built in Los Angeles in 30-some-odd years,” Roddy said. “The school can’t close down for more than a day or two for repairs, nothing gets really clean.”

Dugal seconded this fact, but added that this year the school was able to shut for a full week over Christmas, to do maintenance and spruce up the school. Roddy concluded it was much-needed rare occurrence.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines also proposed that many schools start earlier as well, creating yet another change to try and improve student test scores. Based on a trial of 17 high schools in L.A. Unified, Cortines wanted to have early start, saying that kids had more time to prepare for the exit exams and letting them out earlier in June was met with much backlash from parents who already had summer plans in place. Though this has nothing to do with the new traditional schedule, Cortines is grasping for just about anything to improve test scores.

On top of building more schools and switching to a traditional September through June school year, Cortines is facing a plethora of budgeting concerns and taking heat most recently from parents frustrated with the flip-flopping of scheduling for next school year.

Cortines has since pushed his plan back a year, to 2012, giving the district two huge changes in their education system in one year, which has the potential to make it hard to figure out if either one is working to boost test scores.

Ultimately, the push for a traditional schedule will help all involved, especially the students. Whether more budget cuts will reduce the number of teachers and new buildings is still unknown. Dugal is hopeful.

“Because of the new school in our area, we hopefully will just be moving teachers, not terminating them,” she said.

OPINION: The School Board Election: What L.A Unified doesn’t want you to know

imageBy David Lyell (left), L.A. Unified Teacher

Please vote March 8 for UTLA-endorsed Los Angeles Board of Education candidate Marguerite LaMotte in District 1.

Unlike her opponent, LaMotte, has opposed abdicating responsibilities to charter school companies.

Current school board member LaMotte wants to spend money where it should be: the classroom. LaMotte grew up in the Deep South under segregation, was involved in Civil Rights struggles and believes that a quality education for all children is the cornerstone of democracy and that equal access to education is how we begin to start to level the playing field.

For years, the current board—LaMotte excepted–hasn’t been addressing the real impediments to reform:

  • the lack of student and faculty safety at schools
  • the lack of enforcement of effective student discipline policies
  • the high drop-out rates, the grade inflation and social promotion
  • the lack of support for teachers and support professionals
  • the ineffective administrators
  • the bloated bureaucracy
  • the unhealthy food choices
  • the lack of support for physical education programs
  • the lack of parental involvement
  • the lack of support for Adult Education programs so parents can improve their own lives
  • the lack of an emphasis on the importance of reading with and to children, especially during the first three years of life.

What they don’t want you to know is that charters started as a way to explore innovative teaching practices, that fewer than one in seven charters produce better results, and while they should be explored, charters should not be promoted as the “be all end all” to the problems facing our schools that the politicians – school board members and the Superintendent – have refused to address for years.

What they also don’t want you to know is that there’s an incestuous relationship between current and former board members, district employees, and many in the charter school industry. We need to follow the money trail.

Our incoming superintendent, John Deasy, negotiated an $80,000 salary bump despite recent layoffs, pay cuts, and firings – all done because the district supposedly doesn’t have enough cash. The board didn’t even bother to consider any other candidates. Deasy has worked for the Gates Foundation, embracing their push for value-added assessments, despite that, at best, value-added has a margin of error of plus or minus 45 points, and even worse, the foundation has been withholding data from researchers.

Aside from his regular six figures, Superintendent Cortines was earning $150,000 a year from Scholastic books for who knows how many years. He also owns or owned at least $100,000 in Scholastic stock, a company with $16 million in contracts with L.A. Unified, yet Board Member Monica Garcia reportedly doesn’t see that as a conflict of interest.

School Board Member Yolie Flores recently took a part-time job making $144,000 per year working to help Bill Gates in his effort to privatize education.

Parker Hudnet, head of L.A. Unified’s Charter and Innovation department, has the power to recommend or deny charter school applications. He was the CEO of Judy Burton’s charter chain, Alliance for College Ready Schools.

Ted Mitchell, head of L.A. Unified’s Teacher Effectiveness Taskforce, is also the CEO of the New Schools Venture Fund, a non-profit that actually makes quite a lot of profit – enough to pay Mitchell $572,856. Mitchell is currently on Alliance’s board, and Alliance was recently awarded a contract after Cortines decided he needed to cement his status as a reformer by reconstituting Jordan High School.

According to the 2009-2010 L.A. County District Salary Survey of unified school districts, L.A. Unified is ranked last in teacher pay. Thirty-eight percent of our students live in poverty, and they need plenty of instructional time in small class sizes. Yet, Cortines wants to reduce instructional time by having teachers take another pay cut in the 2011-2012 school year, in the form of more furlough days.

L.A. Unified has an insane ratio of administrators to teachers, roughly 8 to 1, and spends 61 percent of its budget at school sites, as compared to the 90 percent that other districts, on average, spend in the classroom. We need leaders who value teachers, celebrate their efforts, and want to spend money where it should be: the classroom.

On March 8, please vote for Marguerite LaMotte. Thank you for your consideration.

Read more from David Lyell at

Map image courtesy of L.A. Unified

OPINION: John Deasy a disappointing choice for LAUSD superintendent

imageBy David Lyell (left), LAUSD teacher

I’m disappointed by the appointment of John Deasy as the superintendent to the LAUSD School Board. The school board didn’t even bother to consider any other candidates, which is very strange. The public needs to remember that the mayor, who celebrated this appointment, after recently attacking UTLA, was also handed a vote of “no confidence” by teachers at eight of the 10 schools he takes credit for operating.

The reality is that the teachers at those school sites operate those schools. The mayor, who rarely shows up, only operates them on paper, and dismally at that. We need to remember that this is the same mayor who, in 2009, spent 15 times as much as his nearest opponent on his campaign, then refused to debate him.

Deasy embraces Value-Added. Value-added testing is yet another example a punitive, ineffective, dictatorial management style. A July 2010 report by the Institute of Education Sciences concluded that, “more than 90 percent of the variation in student gain scores is due to the variation in student-level factors that are not under the control of the teacher.” An August 2010 report by the Economic Policy Institute warned in a report that it would be “unwise” to give substantial weight to VAM scores in measuring teacher effectiveness. Researchers for RAND concluded that, “the research base is currently insufficient to support the use of VAM for high-stakes decisions about individual teachers.”

LAUSD Board Members cry about a budget crisis, yet spend $100 million per year on non-mandated assessments — that is, testing not required by law — and $43 million on mini-districts. In December 2010, they fired clerical and custodial workers at school sites after firing teachers and instituting furloughs, and they transferred hundreds of other clerical and custodial staff. Now Cortines says we need to take more furlough days.


We need to use the Federal Jobs money for its intended purpose: to save jobs. We need to spend that $143 million that is wasted on testing and mini-districts, and spend it on teachers, clerical, and custodial staff.

Aside from his employment record, serious ethical questions remain concerning Deasy’s background. In addition to the LMU and University of Louisville scandals, Deasy comes from the Gates Foundation. Gates — whose company Microsoft was literally sued by the US Government for antitrust allegations and using market dominance to stifle competition — is now an advocate for, of all things, competition. Like Oprah, Gates is just wrong. Instead of asking why it’s so hard to fire teachers, they need to ask why school districts can’t carry out their administrative duties in a timely manner.

Gates has even recently advocated for larger class sizes, and videotaping teachers. That’s how out of touch he is. Our schools are already so darn top-heavy with administrators, classrooms are under-staffed, and teachers are under-paid, over-worked, and under-appreciated. In Gates’ world classrooms would host one thousand students. Teachers would have every twitch scrutinized by a panel of six-figure education “experts” who then meet with the teacher to tell them what they need to do to improve. Where I come from, that sounds like a colossal waste of tax-payer dollars. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but those are the type of policies he advocates.

LAUSD is insanely top-heavy with administrators who make well over six figures. We need less bureaucracy. A test result cannot teach a student. A teacher can. It’s very strange how the very people who claim to care about children the most are the same individuals who do everything humanly possible to actually avoid having to spend time in a classroom. They love their cushy six-figure jobs.

We need real reformers who want to work with teachers instead of demonizing them. As it is, 50 percent of all teachers quit within the first five years. The numbers are even higher in charter schools. Fewer than one in seven charters produce better results, and many are simply out of control, as we saw with the Parent Trigger scandal in Compton. Charters are the new deregulation, and we all know how well that worked with the banks.

We need leaders who recognize that the way to improve education is to support the work teachers do. Teachers are responsible for student achievement, not administrators, not tests.

Read more from David Lyell at

John Deasy announced as new LAUSD superintendent

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced this week that John Deasy will assume the role of LAUSD superintendent in the spring after serving as deputy superintendent.

“John Deasy is the right person for this job and the Los Angeles Unified School District is lucky to have him,” said the Mayor. “John understands the unique challenges facing the LAUSD and has already benefitted from on-the-job training as Deputy Superintendent.”

What do you think of Deasy’s appointment? Let us know in the comments below.

LAUSD teacher David Lyell responded to Howard Blume’s article in the LA Times today, noting that Deasy’s background has yet to come into full view:

What Howard Blume’s article didn’t mention is that prior to coming to University of Louisville, Deasy, while chief of the Santa Monica school district, awarded Robert Felner’s research company, the National Center on Public Education and Social Policy, a $375,000 grant care of the Santa Monica School District. Rather than defend that dissertation, as one would expect of a learned Ph.D candidate, Deasy offered to give it back. He did so because his conscience was telling him that he did not earn that degree.

Blume also failed to mention that Deasy reportedly lied on his resume about having worked as a Faculty Member in the doctoral program of the Educational Leadership and Social Dept. of Loyola Marymount University. LMU reportedly has no employment records for him.


Lyell added:

What the public needs to understand is that teachers would like to see responsible, conscientious leadership from the LAUSD School Board, and it is the board, and not teachers, that is responsible for determining district policy. Teachers would like to see district leaders who are interested in collaborative policies, rather than embracing a punitive top-down management style that favors turning schools over to corporate interests who see children as dollar signs.


Settlement changes teacher layoffs

By: Albert Sabate

Listen to the audio story here:


Read the script here:

A new agreement by the Los Angeles Board of Education and the American Civil Liberties Union changes the usual practice of laying off the most recently hired teachers first. Now, some teachers will retain their jobs over teachers who have been teaching longer. Some teachers say this is especially important for South Los Angeles.

Teacher:: “I think in any other school community, a policy that continually lays off more than half of the teachers at one school site, year after year, and places substitute after substitute in front of the students, would be an outrage, and it would be deemed criminal. Today, this settlement says to us that this policy will no longer be tolerated by the schools of South Central Los Angeles.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, and others, filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District in February. The lawsuit accuses the Los Angeles Unified School District of denying students equal access to public education.

Mark Rosenbaum from American Civil Liberties Union:

Rosenbaum: “The American dream must be open and accessible to all children. Poverty and race shall not disadvantage any child.”

Until now, layoffs have been based on seniority. More often than not, new instructors teach at poor or low-achieving schools. But because these teachers are at the bottom of the totem-pole, they are the first to go. That means that those schools lose a larger proportion of their teachers.

Speaker:: “At all costs, we must retain and support those teachers who are making the most differences in the lives of our students.”

Plaintiffs found a loophole in the education code that said seniority could be used in determining layoffs, but only if it does not interfere with the students’ education.

Here is Kenneth Aubrey, a teacher at Gompers Middle School:

Aubrey: “Why should I be punished, and other teachers be punished, for making a social decision to go where they are most needed, where they can be the most effective?”

The unanimously approved settlement would spare 45 struggling schools from layoffs. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villraigosa says these reforms were just a start.

Villaraigosa: “This isn’t just about fixing the dance of the lemons. It’s about cutting down the trees. The system where decisions are based solely on seniority has created a system of inequality. And a system where decisions are made to protect the adults has only served to hurt the children.”

The settlement still has to be approved by a judge, but is widely expected to be approved.

Superintendent proposes budget plan for Los Angeles Unified School District

Listen to the audio story here:


Megan Rilley is chief financial officer for the superintendent’s office. She says these federal funds have saved jobs.

Rilley: One-time funding doesn’t solve the problems, especially if we have declining enrollment where our student population is coming down, and if our expenditures are still increasing. So, we have to really address those problems, which are more fundamental, systemic issues, rather than relying on every year, some new funding to come out of Washington D.C.

Next year, they are trying to save $142 million. The remedy will require furloughs and further salary reductions, but it will save 3,300 jobs, and it will also decrease the number of school days.

Rilley: I think for the 2011, 2012 school years, I think there will be job reductions. I don’t think that can be avoided. What we’re trying to do is minimize as much as possible the impact on the programs to the students and then to the employees that would potentially be effected.

The superintendent’s office has until July 2011 to find the best solutions for the school district.

Changing how teachers make the grade

The Los Angeles Unified School Board voted unanimously Wednesday to reform teacher evaluations.

The district will now begin negotiating with members of the teachers’ and administrators’ unions.

All sides agree that the current method of grading teachers needs work, but controversy remains over how to measure something as complicated as good teaching.

“It would be very difficult to design a worse system than we have currently,” says Gabe Rose, the deputy director of a Los Angeles parents’ union. He said valuations are not based on fact.

“The current system uses data for zero percent of evaluation,” he said. “It completely ignores and throws out all the data that Los Angeles Unified School District collects.”

That data, called “value added,” measures how much students’ test scores improve over the year.

But the teachers’ union and other groups worry that such numbers do not tell the whole story.

David Tokofsky, a former teacher and board member who represents the administrators’ union, said the tests ignore all subjects except English and math. He also said the tests might miss other parts of teaching.

“The excitement aspect, you can’t measure that as smiles per minute, but you certainly can measure whether or not a child is feeling competent enough,” he said.

South Los Angeles parent Rob McGowan agreed.

“Just like parents don’t want to be seen in a negative light over one thing, or one aspect, of what’s happening with their kids out of context, I think the same holds true for teachers,” he said.

School district officials agree that testing should not be the only metric used. They said most of the debate going forward will be about how large a part those test scores should play.

“What you’re going to see is a discussion around how much weight does each of these multiple measures get, and how do you do the specific formulas,” said Drew Furedi, a policy expert for the district. “And I think that’s to be discussed.”

Furedi did not know how long those negotiations would take.