September 29, 2009

Top Stories and Commentary for Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Commentary by Askari Gonzalez/New America Media

Dear Governor Schwarzenegger, When is the last time you talked to a public school student? And I don’t mean one of those meet-and-greet, dog-and-pony shows. I mean, you know, really talked to one of us, like inviting us over to your office in Sacramento or going to lunch at a McDonald’s. To find out what’s really going on in our schools and in our lives. Well, since it seems like it’s been a while, I decided to write you this letter. My name is Askari Gonzalez and I am a junior at William C. Overfelt High School in East San Jose, California. Overfelt is a lot like many high schools in California. The students and teachers do the best with what they have. It is mostly Latino. Two-thirds are considered low-income and almost one-third is learning English. Only 2 percent of our 1,600 students go on to a University of California campus. (more…)

Opinion by Diane Ravitch/New York Times
Ravitch is a historian. Her book ‘‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System’’ will be published in February.

The single biggest problem in American education is that no one agrees on why we educate. Faced with this lack of consensus, policy makers define good education as higher test scores. But higher test scores are not a definition of good education. Students can get higher scores in reading and mathematics yet remain completely ignorant of science, the arts, civics, history, literature and foreign languages. Why do we educate? We educate because we want citizens who are capable of taking responsibility for their lives and for our democracy. We want citizens who understand how their government works, who are knowledgeable about the history of their nation and other nations. We need citizens who are thoroughly educated in science. We need people who can communicate in other languages. We must ensure that every young person has the chance to engage in the arts. But because of our narrow-minded utilitarianism, we have forgotten what good education is. (more…)

By Kathy Matheson/San Francisco Chronicle

The Rev. Al Sharpton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich don’t agree on much, but a meeting with a group of inner-city charter school students on Tuesday left them with the same impression: There is hope for improving the U.S. education system. "We may disagree about other issues, but this is a place where we have a common" goal, Gingrich said outside Mastery Charter School in West Philadelphia. "I take education very, very seriously." Sharpton, a liberal Democrat, and Gingrich, a conservative Republican, joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the first stop of a "listening and learning" tour to find out which school strategies are working and why. The odd couple of Gingrich and Sharpton found common ground in the concept that education is the new frontier on civil rights. President Barack Obama has a goal of turning around 5,000 failing schools across the U.S. in the next five years. (more…)

By Jill Tucker/San Francisco Chronicle

A Marin County nonprofit will pour $35 million into a handful of school districts specifically to help students who lag behind their more privileged peers, an unprecedented infusion of cash focused on about 1,800 children. The money from the Marin Community Foundation will amount to about $19,000 per student over five years, or $3,800 apiece annually in extra services. The full grant is a jaw-dropping figure that will probably grow with additional donations from the 300 families that have contributed to the foundation’s $1 billion assets, said Thomas Peters, the group’s president and chief executive officer. The organization is making grants to schools in the San Rafael, Sausalito Marin City, Novato and Shoreline school districts, which are attended by the highest percentage of low-achieving students in Marin County. (more…)

By Sharon Noguchi/San Jose Mercury News

On a day when temperatures were forecast to hit nearly 100 degrees, Principal Tom Scheid had donned black slacks, a black dress shirt and tie to address the junior and senior classes at San Jose High Academy. Afterward, he’d change to short sleeves. But talking up the success on state test scores, and the challenge ahead, he was all business. "Our teachers worked really hard, and you worked really hard," he said. "We need to keep going up." In the past two years, San Jose High leapt 63 points on the state’s Academic Performance Index — and its Latino students, who make up 80 percent of the school, did even better, jumping 72 points. But there are too few San Jose Highs in Santa Clara County. In API scores released this month, for the first time the median score of local Latino students fell below that of Latinos statewide. (more…)

By Cheri Carlson/Ventura County Star

Natalie Johnston of Fillmore attends Santa Clara School near Santa Paula, which has 56 students in three classrooms, none single grades. It also has high test scores, and Principal Kari Skidmore says students learn not only what’s required for their grades level, but also are enriched by exposure to the other grade’s material. Jill Bengtsson kept her daughter home on the first day of school this fall, protesting her Camarillo school’s decision to put the 9-year-old in a combined class of third- and fourth-graders. With one teacher split between two grades, she worried her daughter would be shortchanged. “I feel like my child’s not getting the same education this year,” Bengtsson said. “You just don’t get the same amount of instruction.” Schools have added more combination classes this year as districts tighten budgets and increase class sizes amid huge state funding cuts. Some parents have balked, while others seek out the multigrade classes that experts say can be a good, if challenging, way to educate kids. (more…)

Also Noted for Tuesday, September 29, 2009:

Guy Mehula, 56, who had been with the program since 2002, quit after an apparent power struggle with district leadership. James Sohn is named interim facilities chief.
By Seema Mehta/Los Angeles Times

Guy Mehula, the highly regarded head of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s massive school construction program, has resigned after an apparent power struggle with district leadership. In a brief letter to subordinates Monday, Mehula gave no hint of discord, painting his departure as an opportunity to search for new challenges. "The work that we have done together and the investments we have made in our schools, community, and economy are significant," he wrote. But critics say Mehula’s resignation is fallout from a growing rift between his facilities services division and district headquarters, prompted by policy changes made by Supt. Ramon C. Cortines that threaten to dismantle the award-winning division. (more…)

The loss of the head of the LAUSD’s construction division could be the beginning of waste, cost overruns, political contracts and worse.
Commentary By Constance L. Rice/Los Angeles Times

Constance L. Rice is a civil rights attorney and a member of the School Construction Bond Oversight Committee.

The construction unit of the Los Angeles Unified School District has successfully and cost-effectively built 80 new schools and won scores of awards. So how has Supt. Ray Cortines rewarded this efficient unit? By driving out its superb leadership. Guy Mehula, the talented head of the construction division, resigned Monday after LAUSD leaders made clear their intention of dragging Mehula’s quasi-independent team back under the tight control of the district. Taking away the unit’s autonomy would be a huge mistake. The district has tried micromanaging the construction of schools, and it failed miserably. If you need convincing, just think about the disastrous cost overruns and construction errors of the Belmont Learning Complex. (more…)

By Rebecca Kimitch/Whittier Daily News

Walking through the halls of high schools in El Monte, Rosemead and South El Monte, it is possible to hear more than 30 different languages spoken. From the more common Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese to Khmer, Farsi, Gujarati, and Urdu - students with native languages other than English are the rule, not the exception. Less than one-quarter of all students in the El Monte Union High School District speak only English. This diversity presents unique challenges to the district, as well as interesting opportunities, according to students and administrators. "It’s a nice experience. You get to see all different cultures. You can’t exactly tell where people are from, but then you talk to them and learn," said El Monte High School senior Carlos Gonzalez, who is among the 60 percent of students in the district who also speaks Spanish. (more…)

By Jill Tucker/San Francisco Chronicle

It was 1984 when a handful of San Francisco parents embarked on a controversial education experiment to open the first Chinese immersion public school program in the nation. The idea was to immerse the students in Cantonese from the first day of school, teaching them math, science and other subjects in Chinese and gradually increasing English skills along the way. Success would mean that by the time the children finished elementary school, they would be grade-level literate in both languages. The pioneering venture, which operates at West Portal Elementary’s kindergarten through fifth grades, was launched as U.S.-China relations were just warming. Today, it has become one of the school district’s shining stars, gaining steady popularity among families and setting an example for similar programs in San Francisco and across the country. (more…)

Garfield High is left with a burned-out shell as L.A. Unified and insurers argue over whether the remaining walls should be demolished after 2007 arson fire.
By Carla Rivera/Los Angeles Times

Garfield High School has not hosted a play, a musical performance or an assembly in its historic auditorium since an arson fire gutted it nearly 2 1/2 years ago. A burned-out shell — its walls shored up with a latticework of scaffolding and steel beams — is all that remains from the three-alarm blaze that caused an estimated $30 million in damage to the East Los Angeles landmark. After pledges to rebuild the facility, a benefit concert by Los Lobos and donations from boxer Oscar De La Hoya, among others, the Los Angeles Unified School District is mired in an insurance dispute that could create additional delays and leave the school system footing more of the bill. Community members and alumni, who long relied on the auditorium for neighborhood meetings and events, are frustrated — as are school administrators and students. (more…)

By Larry Copeland/USA TODAY

Driver’s education in public schools, which virtually disappeared a generation ago, could be staging a comeback. "We’re on the cusp of a renaissance of driver’s education here in this country," says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. High school driver’s ed was nearly universal 30 years ago. Today it is offered in only a fraction of schools in standard curriculum. About 15% of eligible students take high school driver’s ed compared with 95% in the 1970s, says Allen Robinson, CEO of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, which represents about 50,000 public and private driver’s ed teachers. (more…)

The California Education News Roundup is produced by the Just Schools California project at UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA). For the latest research, background and an array of resources on educational justice issues, visit If you wish to contact us, please e-mail

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