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January 11, 2012

La Cañada’s young school reformer

http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/la_canadas_young_school_reformer_20120111

Andrew Blumenfeld. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Andrew Blumenfeld. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

It’s easy to conjure up images of the folks pushing education reform in districts where students are obviously struggling.

Think of Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the embattled public schools in Washington, D.C., who instituted reforms like variable pay for teachers based upon student achievement. Or consider Steve Barr, who founded the Green Dot group of public charter schools in response to the low graduation rate in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But who is Andrew Blumenfeld, and why is he pushing a reformist agenda in the high-performing schools of La Cañada Flintridge?

“We know we do well on standardized tests,” Blumenfeld said in an interview last month. “Do we use that as a reason to pat ourselves on the back and not do much more? Or do we use it as an opportunity?”

Blumenfeld, who is just 20 years old and halfway through his junior year at Princeton University, last Dec. 6 officially became a member of La Cañada Unified School District’s (LCUSD)Board of Governors, the district from which he’d so recently graduated.

He did so by winning a hotly contested election in November, campaigning while still in school and beating the incumbent by just 10 votes on his platform of school reform.

The primary plank in Blumenfeld’s platform was to ensure that every classroom in the district would be staffed by a well-qualified teacher. Blumenfeld, who graduated from La Cañada High School (LCHS) in 2009, says he experienced “unevenness” among teachers in the schools himself — like many students in this small, wealthy city in the San Gabriel Valley, Blumenfeld opted to take certain classes in a private learning center instead of in the public high school.

He heard similar complaints from parents while on the campaign trail.

“People felt ... that their student would have an award-winning teacher one period of the day, and a real challenge in another period of the same day,” Blumenfeld said.

Blumenfeld’s focus had been on education reform for some time before he decided to run for the school board. As a Princeton freshman, he co-founded the campus group Students for Education Reform, which has expanded in two years to 40 campuses across the country.

When Blumenfeld starts to talk about the gritty details, as he frequently does, he can sound a bit, well, wonky. He eschews such descriptions; then again, he did help initiate a course in college about education policy, and chose the collective bargaining agreement between LCUSD and its teachers’ union as his research paper topic.

“He knows more about the teacher contract and its implications than most of the sitting school board members,” said Cindy Wilcox, a former LCUSD board member who was also a co-chair of Blumenfeld’s campaign.

Between the time he filed his candidacy in August and Election Day, Blumenfeld held more than 35 events, mostly in people’s living rooms. Sometimes that meant flying back and forth between New Jersey and Los Angeles.

But his campaign was driven by his platform, and his focus on the “dud” teachers in La Cañada’s high-performing schools and the protections granted by collective bargaining agreements to all teachers couldn’t have been better timed.

In October, Wilcox told a local reporter about an official complaint she had filed against an LCHS geometry teacher back in June. As reported in The Jewish Journal, the teacher is alleged to have made comments betraying ethnic, religious and gender bias to students in her classroom, including calling one Jewish student “Jew Boy.”

Blumenfeld, who is Jewish, says he sees his religious identity more as part of his upbringing than of his day-to-day life. He called Wilcox’s involvement with both his campaign and the complaint “a coincidence,” and said he first learned about Wilcox’s complaint in late September. He added that he didn’t learn about the specific details until he read about it on Patch.com, a local news Web site.

“I had no idea it was going to be a public issue until it was a public issue,” he said.

For her part, Wilcox said she wasn’t thinking about how the news about the complaint might affect Blumenfeld’s campaign when she approached the reporter.

“It’s hard to say whether that was a positive or negative on Andrew’s campaign,” she said. “The campaign was the last thing on my mind.”

Nevertheless, the story seemed to illustrate perfectly the issues Blumenfeld was trying to highlight, and some of those involved in his school board bid later became very committed to tracking the progress of the complaint.

Through his campaign, Blumenfeld said, “We engaged a lot of people in the policy-level questions of our district — and then there was a very interesting policy-level question in our district.”

Public meetings of the board — including one on Dec. 6 at which Blumenfeld was sworn in — have been contentious, featuring heated discussions of how student and parent complaints should be addressed by schools’ administrative staff and district board members.

The school board met twice in closed sessions last month to discuss what actions should be taken against the teacher, who has remained in the classroom with an administration-appointed observer.

According to a statement released on Dec. 26, the board unanimously voted to direct its lawyers to pursue a settlement agreement with the teacher “that would result in [her] separation from the district.” Students enrolled in her classes would be allowed to transfer at the start of the new semester, the statement said.

Blumenfeld said he has been satisfied with the board’s deliberative process on this matter so far, and he’s been making progress in other areas. One of his signature campaign proposals — a district-wide teacher evaluation survey, the results of which would be reported directly to the board — appears to be moving forward. A superintendent’s committee has been established, with the goal of circulating a survey and getting results by June.

“I think these surveys are a long time coming, so it would not be the end of the world to me if we had to wait until the first quarter of the next [school] year to do it,” Blumenfeld said.

By that time, Blumenfeld, who has promised to be in La Cañada at least four days each month to fulfill his duties as a board member, will be in his last year at Princeton. He’s already weighing his options for after graduation — graduate school or the Teach for America program are possibilities — as long as they allow him to come back to La Cañada for the remaining two years of his term.

For now, just one month into his tenure, Blumenfeld said he feels energized by his work with the board and is looking forward to “getting things done.”

“It is all becoming very clear to me how that happens,” he said. “It’s not just this amorphous thing where I feel kind of powerless.”

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