February 25, 2009
Unite, Take Over the Schools
Los Angeles Schools Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines has a strong message to Jewish parents and others nervously considering public school education for their children — unite and take over the schools.
“They have done this in the past,” he said.
I interviewed Cortines recently about a subject of great importance to Jewish Journal readers — bringing middle-class Jewish families back into a Los Angeles public school system that many of them abandoned after a controversial desegregation plan decades ago, along with demographic changes that left whites in the minority. The issue has taken on new intensity as the recession is leaving so many families unable to afford private schools.
Cortines said his advice to take over the schools doesn’t just apply to Jewish parents. He said he means it for all parents — African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, anyone concerned about the quality of education in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
I said I knew that, but I was writing for Jewish parents and grandparents, and my interview would focus on their concerns. He understood my parochial interests and was willing to address them.
Cortines called me shortly after I approached his office for an interview. “This is Ray Cortines,” said the unexpected voice on my mobile phone.
He offered to come out to the Westside where I live for the interview. Amazed at the call and the offer, I replied I should go to his office downtown.
Usually, government officials of his level or lower hide behind walls of communications directors, chiefs of staff and counselors. I’ve often had to ambush them at an event for a face-to-face conversation.
Cortines is a slender, energetic man of 76. His eyes are lively. He is friendly and unpretentious and retains something of the warm manner of the elementary school teacher he once was. But there is also a certain distance about him, a boss-like presence that I imagine warns underlings that they had better complete their assignments in a hurry.
Cortines has been superintendent since January, when he took over from David Brewer, a former Navy admiral. Previously, Cortines served as superintendent in Pasadena, San Francisco, San Jose and New York, as well as serving as interim superintendent in Los Angeles a few years ago. He was also the top education adviser to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Jews, he said, have a long history of activism in the district’s schools. Now, he said, is the time for them to renew their interest.
“I don’t think parents understand how powerful they can be,” he said.
“They have rights,” he said. “Some of us [educators] have taken away those rights.”
“We don’t welcome parents,” he continued. “We [say], ‘We want you to bring the lemonade and cookies,’ but when they ask, ‘Why and why not?’ we think they are meddling.”
We talked about parental fears of children leaving the relative comfort of small elementary schools for bigger middle schools and high schools. Parents are worried about safety and whether the schools will produce graduates who can meet parental expectations of college. How can parents find out about a school?
“I think they ought to go and visit before they reject the public school,” Cortines said. “And they need to go alone and walk around.”
I pointed out that it is all but impossible for a parent — or anyone — to walk into an LAUSD school uninvited. A good reason for this is to keep out perverts, kidnappers, drug dealers and shooters. But security also permits principals to keep out parents — and reporters, as I learned over the years.
Parents, he said, “should make an appointment.” But he also said don’t let the principal “make you wait a month or so.” Insist on an immediate tour.
Parental involvement has changed schools, Cortines said. He cited the example of Emerson Middle School, long hard hit with discipline problems, low test scores and racial strife.
Parents insisted on change. Even though the recession had not yet struck hard, they objected to ransoming their families’ future to high private school tuition when Emerson — which many of those same parents had attended — was in the neighborhood. Some of these parents were Jewish.
Marlene Cantor, the school board member who represents the area, arranged a meeting between Cortines and the parents at a Westside Coffee Bean. Drawing on the small school pattern of charter schools, Emerson was divided into three small schools emphasizing strong academics, all on the same campus.
“I’ve been there,” Cortines said. “Some of the finest teaching in the city goes on there.”
Not all charters work, he said. “I will recommend that some charters not be renewed because they have not met the standards.”
He is determined to make all principals and teachers throughout the system more accountable for the success or failure of their schools. He has visited more than 60 schools. Before each visit, he looks at the school’s test scores, advanced placement programs and parental involvement. In the past two weeks, he said, he has removed some principals.
Cortines is committed to the idea of dividing large middle and high schools into smaller units on the same campuses. “Very few [stand-alone] small schools have sufficient libraries or computer labs,” he said.
The district is also expanding the number of magnet programs. At present, there are 162, and 11 more will be opened in the 2009-10 school year. These have been very popular with Jewish parents, because they offer choices for specialized learning, often smaller class size and motivated teachers and parents.
Cortines is well aware of the need and the increasing demand for good public school education. Because of the recession, he said, more people are applying to magnet schools and the charters.
Join them. Check out the public schools. Call the principal for a tour. Say that Ray Cortines sent you.