July 5, 2011
The Education of LAUSD’s Steve Zimmer
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“On the contrary, I figured there must be something very special and unique about Judaism for people to hate it so much,” he says.
Being a pariah was painful, but it gave him an identity. “It was literally beaten into me at 7 years old. I felt a lot of times like my name was ‘Jew.’ ”
That sense of estrangement ruptured something deep in Zimmer that he’s been trying to reconcile ever since. “When I tell the kids about [being victimized], one of them once asked me, ‘Why didn’t you fight back?’ I’m, like, ‘What do you think I’m doing?’
“There aren’t a lot of folks who have experienced hate the way I did, but who also have the agency of white male privilege,” he added. “I have no choice except to spend my life using the privilege to work toward eliminating the pain. It’s not like, ‘Oh, wow, he’s this great guy,’ or whatever. I have no choice, doing that work. That’s like breathing, for me.”
When we arrive at Richard A. Alonzo Community Day School, a continuation school that offers educational rehab for middle- and high-school students, ages 13 to 19, who have been kicked out of traditional schools, Zimmer tells me about a boy we’ll call Matthew.
A few months ago, after Matthew had been kicked out of middle school, he and his grandmother appeared before the board, begging for clemency. Matthew was facing permanent expulsion, which requires a board vote. When Zimmer heard Matthew had moved to Alonzo, he intervened, mostly because of his confidence in the school’s principal, Victorio Gutierrez, whom Zimmer calls “one of the best principals in the district.”
Zimmer waits for Matthew in Gutierrez’s office under a poster of Malcolm X. The principal and the school board member seem like good friends as they talk students, gang incidents and drugs. Both are well versed in gang lingo, dropping names like White Fence and The Drifters.
“It’s all drug distribution,” Gutierrez tells me. “It’s all through the Mexican mafia. The kids go from tagging crews, then they feed into some little pee-wee gang, then they go straight into Los Veteranos — a ‘veteran’ is a person who has done some heavy stuff — and once they do the heavy stuff, they earn the respect, and they get the tattoo.
“Wait till you meet Matthew,” Gutierrez says. “He’s a little kid, so sweet. His father is from the 42nd Street gang, and the kid came in with a crack addiction — 14 years old.”
A slight, smiling boy in massively oversize denim shorts appears in the doorway wearing his backpack. Zimmer lights up, like he’s seeing an old pal, but his voice retains an authoritative edge.
“When I go back to the board, what do I tell them?” Zimmer asks the boy.
“I’m doing good,” Matthew says.
“You’re doing good? Are you giving Mr. Gutierrez any problems?”
“No,” Gutierrez interjects. “Everybody loves him.”
“No fights?” Zimmer presses. “Nobody hitting you up” for drugs?
“He’s not even eating Cheetos anymore,” Gutierrez jokes.
“He’s not even eating Cheetos?!” Zimmer says with mock enthusiasm. “Tell your grandmother I said hi, OK? Can you tell her I say hi, so I can go back and tell everyone you’re doing good?”
On the way out, Zimmer praises Gutierrez. “That guy is transformational,” he says. “He teaches those kids, ‘Do not be ashamed of who you are.’ ” In Zimmer, he touches that deep, 7-year-old boy, the uneasy Jewish kid who wanted nothing more than to be accepted.
“What I think a lot about is, like, kids who pick themselves up at 5 o’clock in the morning, after being up all night with their 2-month-old baby, who then get on two or three buses, going through neighborhoods where they see things that are unspeakable, just to get to school and try their best,” he says.
“I cannot accept that they do all that, and we can’t do everything in our power to make sure that they get the skill set they need so that they can become the anchor in their family and not repeat the cycle all over again.”
For Zimmer, that is more important than test scores, or innovative curriculums, or getting rid of bad teachers. But some educational leaders, like Marlene Canter, who served on the school board as Zimmer’s predecessor in District 4 from 2001-2009, worry he is too invested in these at-risk kids and that it distracts him from his broader role.
“One of my concerns when Steve was running for office was that he lived on the very outskirts of my district, and the heartbeat of who he was was centered around Marshall High School,” Canter said. “He was unfamiliar with the Westside and the West Valley, and you have to get to know the world you’re representing.”
Yolie Flores, also on the board, doesn’t think he focuses enough on educational excellence. “Steve is much more worried about declining enrollment and the financial implications on the district than I am,” said Flores, who represents District 5, which covers Northeast L.A., parts of East L.A. and Southeast L.A. “I’m not interested in protecting a system, and I think Steve’s really struggling between what honors teachers and what holds people accountable.”
One of the most contentious debates surrounding education reform is the issue of teacher evaluation. Reformers want bad teachers cast out, painting them as a strain on the system. One reason charters have been so successful has been the grass-roots activism of “parent triggers” that have legally earned the right to transform public schools, usually through a charter takeover, with a simple majority vote. It is ultimately a power struggle over who should control school governance.
Zimmer stands with the union on most major issues — budget, contracts, health benefits — but says he is prepared to push hard on the issue of teacher evaluations. “No one should want teacher evaluation reform more than teachers,” he says. “Being a union supporter and supporting radical teacher evaluation reform are not mutually exclusive.”
Howard Blume, a veteran education reporter for the Los Angeles Times and former managing editor of The Jewish Journal, thinks it’s a mistake to “overly draw” Zimmer’s alliance with the union. “Steve Zimmer is one of the most independent people on the board,” Blume said, noting that during Zimmer’s first campaign, he had support from charters, labor and higher-ups at Teach for America. “Zimmer sees himself as a unifier,” Blume said. “And his opinion seems to matter to people, even when it doesn’t carry the day.”
One thing most people interviewed for this story agree upon is that Zimmer talks — a lot. Tamar Galatzan, the other Jewish member of the LAUSD board, a city attorney who represents District 3 in the West Valley, frequently finds herself agitated by Zimmer’s discourse. “Steve is very deliberative and wants to talk every issue through, in every possible permutation, before we do anything. That is a challenge for someone like me, who doesn’t have a lot of patience for talmudic discussions about reform.”
Zimmer seems to think that if he argues long enough, he’ll find a way to bring everybody together. But he can’t.
“If you talk to people in the reform community, the charter school world or the private sector, they’ll say, ‘Steve Zimmer is 100 percent labor vote on every major issue. He’s the union
guy,’ ” Zimmer admits. “But if you talk to the union, I’m described as Benedict Arnold — I’m a traitor.”
Nevertheless, in the fall, Zimmer plans to declare that he will seek re-election for another three-year term. For now, the playing field is wide open, though there is talk that previous challengers, including Stryer and Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, may challenge Zimmer’s seat. Zimmer also notes that the teachers’ union, his most ardent supporter in the last election, has told him it will consider endorsing an opponent, which could prove a blow to his campaign.
Zimmer claims he doesn’t care about the prestige that comes with being on the school board. “I already had my dream job,” he said of his teaching position at Marshall. “Going back to the classroom is not a threat to me.” But, the desire to continue to serve remains.
“I live in Hollywood, where families sleep in their cars — that’s their home,” Zimmer says. “Then I go to the Palisades, where families have homes for their cars, and I have to figure out how to make public education work for everyone.
“When I go to the Palisades, the reason parents are so upset about the calendar is because they can’t vacation. And then I come to East Hollywood, where the idea of a vacation isn’t even in their vocabulary. But the job of public schools is to make sure that the kids who have everything, and the kids who have nothing, have the same chance to have excellence.”
Zimmer’s final school stop on our day together is Elysian Valley, a continuation school in Northeast L.A. As he chats with a student, I notice a quote by George Bernard Shaw inscribed on the ceiling: “Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ — I dream things that never were and say ‘Why not?’ ”
Zimmer is such a man; someone who lives deeply in the world as it is, but never stops working toward what it could be.
“I never had any ambition to be a school board member,” he says on the drive home. “The position doesn’t matter to me really at all, except for what I can do. What I want for myself, what I need for myself, is irrelevant. For me, it’s about, ‘Am I uniquely positioned to do things no one else can?’ ”
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