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Epic Charter School Fail Exposed

Donald Cohen

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A $300,000 plane; $861,000 to pay off personal debts and keep open a struggling restaurant. A down payment on a house and an office flush with flat-screen televisions, executive bathrooms and granite counter tops. This isn’t a list of expenditures from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, this represents a small slice of the more than $30 million of taxpayer funds that have been wasted through fraud and abuse in Pennsylvania’s charter schools since they first opened in 1997.

A new report from the Center for Popular Democracy, Integrity in Education, and Action United is blowing the lid off the lack of public oversight at Pennsylvania’s 186 charter schools.

Inadequate audit techniques, insufficient oversight staff and a lack of basic transparency have created a charter system that is ripe for abuse in the Keystone State. But there is hope. The report provides a detailed roadmap for Pennsylvania to create an effective oversight structure and provide meaningful protections that can curtail endemic fraud and waste.

The report calls for an immediate moratorium on new charters until the inadequate oversight system can be replaced with rigorous and transparent oversight. That’s the right first step.

According to the authors, charter school enrollment in the state has doubled three times since 2000 and Pennsylvania’s students, their families and taxpayers cannot afford to lose another $30 million.  Pennsylvania’s students and taxpayers deserve better.

Education

California Tries to Close Its College Degree Equity Gap

It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken, following four decades of disinvestment and tuition hikes.

Bill Raden

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Hill Street Studios LLC/Getty Images

Today, with California’s higher education system cartwheeling from one crisis to the next, the state’s vaunted Master Plan for Higher Education, which in 1960 revolutionized matriculation with a modern, multi-segmented system of public colleges and research universities, is being attacked as an obstacle to opportunity. Its outworn ideas of access and excellence have been rendered so thoroughly obsolete by demographical change and austerities that education reformers won’t waste their breath or political capital on a master plan redesign. Instead, change advocates are focused on improving delivery.

“We don’t need another blue ribbon commission or task force to study it,” argues Audrey Dow, senior vice president at the research and advocacy group Campaign for College Opportunity. “What we need is a governor who’s going to take action and say, ‘Okay, I’m setting the goal. I’m going to take these policies and make sure that ones [already] on the books are implemented. And then I’m going to add this, and then with my January budget, this is what I’m going to do.’”

That person would be Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who, on the campaign trail, embraced the idea — if not an actual number — of a state college completion goal. Sacramento has already passed a handful of reforms aimed at streamlining on-time graduations. After inauguration, Newsom will launch “California Promise,” his sweeping education agenda that includes some of the college access, affordability and infrastructure pieces that advocates like Dow insist are needed to close equity gaps.

It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken. Four decades of disinvestment and dizzying tuition hikes, on top of some of the country’s highest costs of living, have put its world-renowned, formerly low-cost degrees disproportionately out of reach for low-income students and students of color. This year, that sustained neglect was formally recognized when the university system that gave the world its fifth-largest economy slipped from its top rankings spot in the annual QS World University Rankings.

“The big story here is, we’ve had tremendous historical success,” notes John Douglass, a senior research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, who has written on the crisis. “But this system is starting to break down, and it’s just not clear where we’re going, and nobody’s offered a vision on how we can maintain access for Californians to our higher public ed system and the robust relationship of the universities with economic development.”

It’s little wonder that an election eve poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that a majority of likely voters said the level of state funding for public higher education was insufficient, and 61 percent thought there is not enough government funding for scholarships and grants for students who need financial help. That’s almost exactly the same percentage that cast their ballots for Newsom, who promised to make affordability and degree completion a top priority.

Better late than never. For the past decade PPIC has issued warnings that California risks crippling its economy if it doesn’t close what the nonpartisan research group says by 2030 will otherwise be a workforce skills gap of 1.1 million baccalaureate degrees. For a state that increasingly relies on — and rewards — highly educated workers to grow its knowledge economy, a degree deficit will translate into lower wages, reduced tax revenues and a widening chasm of income inequality.

Similar concerns in 2009 led the new Obama administration to set a national goal to have 60 percent of all 25-to-34-year-olds complete at least an associate degree by 2020. By 2017, 45 states had adopted or were considering their own college attainment targets. California, however, conspicuously failed to follow suit.

“There’s really been at the state level no real leadership to say, ‘Hey, this is the gap, this is how we’re going to close it, and we’re going to align policy and budget to that, to ensure we set an attainment goal, and hit that attainment goal,” explains Dow.

The irony, she adds, is that more Californians are going to college — and graduating — than ever before. This includes Latinos, who now account for half of the state’s K-12 students. But those numbers are too few and rising too slowly to meet the projected demand. Which is why the College Opportunity campaign has been lobbying Newsom to adopt a statewide college credential attainment goal of 60 percent of adults — or 1.7 million additional degrees — by 2030.

“Within that goal we have to be closing racial equity gaps,” she emphasizes. “There’s just no way that it’s mathematically possible for California to hit 60 percent without closing racial and ethnic gaps in attainment.”

What is possible is for Newsom to combine political leadership with an arsenal of research-proven strategies developed to mitigate the worst completion rates in the state. The 70 percent share of all California’s public college students who attend the 114-campus community college system is an artifact of the Master Plan, which designed the two-year colleges to take all the mostly underserved students whose grades left them ineligible for the elite four-year University of California, and who couldn’t get into the California State University system. Unfortunately, the 2.1 million community college students have only a 47 percent chance of graduating, transferring to a four-year school, or earning some sort of certificate after six years.

One of the more divisive methods being proposed to boost completions is a Jerry Brown pay-for-performance funding scheme from the Gates Foundation that would withhold part of the schools’ $6.7 billion in general funding until specific transfer targets are met. Newsom has remained noncommittal. An early success at clearing a transfer path to the CSUs was the Associate Degrees for Transfer program, in which any student with the certificate is guaranteed admission. Its effectiveness persuaded UC to sign onto a similar program last spring. There’s also Assembly Bill 705, which requires community colleges to consider high school grades rather than placement tests in order to reduce non-credit remedial coursework. Which was also the point last year of CSU’s controversial decision to simply do away with remedial classes altogether as it tries to double its 19 percent four-year graduation rate to 40 percent by 2025.

It is to eliminate such frictions that Newsom has vowed to revive a version of the defunct California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) to coordinate student-centered reforms across the UC, CSU and community colleges. Jerry Brown had eliminated CPEC in a 2011 line-item budget veto, claiming it had become “ineffective,” then vetoed a subsequent effort to revive it. The new commission will also oversee what could be Newsom’s most impactful proposal — an integrated data system to both track student progress and act as early-intervention radar by anticipating problems on the degree track. But as promising as that might sound on paper, university veterans of past budgetary battles may require convincing.

“At the moment, I don’t really know how high higher education is in Newsom’s agenda,” Douglass says warily. “I think it could be like Jerry Brown’s, which was not very high. The only issues he really cared about was the politically popular issue of freezing tuition, not looking at, well, what is the financial model? How can the system grow with the state’s population and needs?”

But Newsom’s campaign trail commitments to degree equity and to expanding affordability have already persuaded Dow and other college education advocates. The real proof will come in how much he’ll include for higher education in his first, January budget, and in how soon he’ll honor his campaign pledge to double the state’s current year of free community college or to expand Cal Grant B Access awards for low-income students as a pathway to a debt-free degree.

“Those are the costs that really put students into debt or keep students from going full time,” Dow argues. “We have to be thinking about time-to-degree as an affordability issue. When students at a community college take six years to complete, that’s four additional years that they’re paying for tuition when it should have been two years.”

The truth is, Dow would have good reason to be optimistic about any young governor entering office at the head of a mandate-like blue wave of legislative Democratic supermajorities, and with a projected $14 billion surplus to turn his promises into policies.

“We will see what happens,” she says.


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Will New York Fund Amazon Subsidies or Student Debt Relief?

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. Now, however, prominent Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly have slammed the idea of offering taxpayer subsidies to the retail giant.

David Sirota

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Long Island City photo by King of Hearts

Co-published by Splinter

Elections have consequences, and they may have particularly immediate consequences for billionaire Jeff Bezos, as newly empowered New York Democrats appear to be positioning themselves to try to block new state subsidies for Amazon, now that the online retailing titan has chosen New York City and Northern Virginia as new headquarters locations.

A day before last week’s midterm elections, when Amazon’s choice was still up in the air, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes,” said Cuomo, as reports surfaced about Amazon potentially moving in to Long Island City.

The next day, though, Democrats won control of the state Assembly and state Senate. Now, prominent Democrats in those chambers have slammed the idea of New York offering taxpayer subsidies to Amazon. And one lawmaker wants the legislature to decide between giving Amazon taxpayer largesse or addressing the state’s student debt crisis.

Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim announced that he will introduce legislation to slash New York’s economic development subsidies and use the money to buy up and cancel student debt — a move he said would provide a bigger boost to the state’s economy. The legislation, says Kim, would halt any Cuomo administration offer of taxpayer money to Amazon, which could reap up to $1 billion in tax incentives if it moves to Long Island City. The deal is a goodie bag for Amazon: It includes everything from a $325 million cash grant to a promise that taxpayers will help secure a helipad for Amazon executives.

“Giving Jeff Bezos hundreds of millions of dollars is an immoral waste of taxpayers’ money when it’s crystal clear that the money would create more jobs and more economic growth when it is used to relieve student debt,” said Kim, who recently published an op-ed with law professor Zephyr Teachout criticizing the Amazon deal. “Giving Amazon this type of corporate welfare is no different, if not worse, than Donald Trump giving trillions in corporate tax breaks at the federal level. There’s no correlation between healthy, sustainable job creation and corporate giveaways. If we used this money to cancel distressed student debt instead, there would be immediate positive GDP growth, job creation and impactful social-economic returns.”

New York has the most expensive set of corporate subsidy programs in the country, and a report by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that such subsidies “are not cost-effective, with either no statistically significant effects or large costs per job created.” Kim noted that in 2015 alone, New York gave out more than $8 billion in corporate incentives. He pointed to a recent study by the Levy Institute that found cancelling student debt would result “in an increase in real GDP [and] a decrease in the average unemployment rate.”

In New York, student debt has ballooned. A 2016 report by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office found that “the delinquency rate among New York student loan borrowers rose by more than a third over the past decade while average borrower balances in the State increased by nearly 48 percent, to $32,200.” A memo outlining Kim’s bill says the legislation would empower New York officials to “exercise their eminent domain powers to buy, cancel, and/or monetize the state’s out of control student debt,” which the memo says totals more than $82 billion.

Kim’s move followed criticism of a possible Amazon deal by Senator Michael Gianaris, who led Democrats’ successful effort to win control of the chamber, and who is expected to be in one of the Senate’s top jobs.

“Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” Gianaris and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, both of whom represent Long Island City, said in a press release. “The burden should not be on the 99 percent to prove we are worthy of the one percent’s presence in our communities, but rather on Amazon to prove it would be a responsible corporate neighbor.”


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California’s Schools Chief: Why a Low-Profile Job Matters — And Is Awash in Election Money

Whoever is elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in November will have a historic opportunity to correct the course of a system in which the public good has increasingly been compromised by the competing demands of private interest.

Bill Raden

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Outgoing State Schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson at his first swearing-in, 2011.

What makes the superintendent far more than a glorified administrator is the authority that comes with a popularly elected mandate.


The most persuasive evidence that the California Dream is rooted in Enlightenment notions of free public education, democratic governance and equity can be found in the state’s founding document. Not only does the 1849 Constitution sketch out the contours of public schools, accountability, a funding mechanism and a Department of Education, but the framers stipulate that it be led by an elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI).

Fast-forward 169 years to the election of a new superintendent and the latest test of California’s commitment to its foundational cornerstone. The stakes are high. Though California spends 40 percent (or $56 billion) of its $138 billion budget on its six-million student public school system, the past four decades have seen the state slip from among the top-five states for school funding to consistently ranking in the bottom five. Whoever is elected on November 6 will have a historic opportunity to correct the course of a system in which the public good has increasingly been compromised by the competing demands of private interest.

What, exactly, does the superintendent do? The political shorthand typically describes the $175,000-a-year position as Sacramento’s elected equivalent to Betsy DeVos, the Trump-appointed U.S. Secretary of Education.


The superintendent can use the post’s bully pulpit to act as a super-lobbyist
on behalf of students.


On paper, the SPI interprets regulations, sets curriculum and teaching standards, collects school accountability data and manages the day-to-day business of the sprawling California Department of Education. The superintendent is thus an implementer but not a maker of policy — which is the bailiwick of the governor and his appointed president of the State Board of Education.

But those roles represent a great deal of power, and not just for their direct impact on California students and their families. Jack O’Connell, whose two-term tenure as schools superintendent immediately preceded Tom Torlakson’s election as superintendent in 2010, says the sheer size of the California Department of Education means that decisions by its superintendent reverberate far beyond state borders.

“There’s an organization that all 50 state superintendents belong to,” notes O’Connell, “and there’s a line on their agenda — ‘Hey California, what’s happening?’ Because [we’re doing] what’s going to come next [elsewhere]. So when we start requiring algebra in eighth grade, textbook companies are going to start putting algebra in eighth grade, and those are the same textbooks that other states are going to use.”

What ultimately makes the SPI far more than a glorified administrator or compliance officer is the authority that comes from having a mandate. Unlike the 37 states that follow the federal model by appointing the chief executive of their education agencies, California is among a select group that gives voters the final say. Winning a statewide election translates into power, says Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies, and the director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State University, Sacramento.

“You look at other states, like Texas, [where] the Commissioner of Education is appointed. This position is different,” Heilig explains. “The Superintendent of Public Instruction is not beholden to the governor but is setting an agenda for education. So it’s a really important office. Teacher associations have [the superintendent race] as one of their top priorities, because they understand the sort of independence that this elected official has.”

That institutional independence, plus the opportunities afforded by the SPI’s automatic seat on the State Board of Education, has evolved into an almost mystical power of personal persuasion. Superintendents often refer to it as “the bully pulpit,” though during the 1960s, that term was realized in its worst sense — when populist Republican segregationist Max L. Rafferty used his pulpit for declaring war on the counterculture, and became a national figure in the process.

In its best sense, however, the SPI can use those powers of persuasion and independence to act as a kind of super-lobbyist and coalition-builder from inside or outside the state schools bureaucracy to advocate for students. Democrat Bill Honig, who spent a decade in the job from 1983 to 1993, was renowned for his public battles with Republican Governor George Deukmejian. In 1990, that meant organizing a statewide resistance against Deukmejian’s attempted cut of $800 million from the schools. Honig calls it the “convening power,” and he credits Torlakson’s mastery of it, in tandem with Jerry Brown, for transformative changes like Local Control Funding Formulas, alternative school-accountability measures and bringing Common Core to California.

“This is a very complex educational system in California, with local school districts and boards, and teachers, unions, counties, the Department of Ed and the State Board,” Honig says. “I mean, there’s a lot of moving parts. When we are the most effective is when we’re moving in a common direction under a common philosophy, and that’s what’s happened in the last eight years under Brown and [board president] Michael Kirst and Tom Torlakson.”

Democrat Delaine Eastin concurs. State schools superintendent from 1995 to 2003, Eastin had to operate under both the governorships of Republican Pete Wilson and Democrat Gray Davis. It was under Wilson that she similarly found herself politically isolated and facing a hostile governor, who she also had to sue for illegally withholding money from schools. She adds, however, that effective independence can also depend on the determination of the individual occupying the office.

“Having a voice at the table that’s steadfast and articulate is really important,” Eastin says. “The superintendent can be ineffective if the superintendent sits on his hands, or her hands. But it is important that the superintendent be nimble and to not paint with too broad a brush. … Sometimes you have to go toe to toe.”

The superintendent race has already attracted the inflationary levels of campaign spending by education PACs and independent expenditure committees that critics say is rattling the integrity of California elections. But the June gubernatorial primary reached a new spending height with a political belly flop that was solely the work of a PAC controlled by the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). In a failed attempt to boost the election hopes of pro-charter candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, the charter lobbying group dropped $22 million into the former Los Angeles mayor’s flagging campaign against Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.

Now, five weeks out from the general election, the only option open for charter school forces is to repeat that performance by pulling out the money stops in the superintendent’s race, where Marshall Tuck, a former Los Angeles charter school operator in his second run for superintendent, is facing teachers-backed Tony Thurmond, a progressive Assemblymember and former social worker from Richmond. The two Democrats finished the primary with Tuck barely edging out Thurmond, 37 to 35.6 percent. Although officially nonpartisan, the PAC spending makes the race the latest proxy for the broader battle between progressives and neoliberals for the soul of California’s fractious Democratic Party.

Because charters are ground zero for that fight in California education, it’s little surprise that Tuck and Thurmond’s sharpest differences revolve around fixes to the state’s deeply divisive charter school law. Public schools have long complained that the law’s authorization and funding mechanisms doom struggling schools and push fiscally stressed districts into insolvency. Thurmond has said he’d consider supporting a “pause” to new charters; Tuck has flatly rejected any brake to charter expansion but would give extra funding to districts hemorrhaging enrollment to keep them afloat during downsizing.

The issue has made Superintendent the only non-ballot initiative race to make the California Fair Political Practices Commission website’s “Top Ten” list of heaviest PAC spending for the general election. Recent filings with California Secretary of State show the Tuck campaign far out front in the super-PAC money race, with Tuck at $14.3 million, mostly from EdVoice for the Kids PAC, a charter PAC associated with Reed Hastings, the billionaire Netflix CEO and a major charter school funder. The Thurmond campaign stands at roughly $5 million, mostly from unions. (Disclosure: Some of Thurmond’s campaign contributors are financial supporters of this website.)

At the end of the day, the effectiveness of any superintendent hinges on an ability to strike an amicable working partnership with the State Board of Education and the governor — to move an agenda in “a common direction” under a common philosophy. And if bad blood left by the charter lobby’s bare-knuckle primary campaign against Gavin Newsom should mean that a Superintendent Tuck wouldn’t be off to a running start with a Governor Newsom, there’s still plenty of common ground between the two camps on school funding, early education, California’s teacher crisis and closing the achievement gap.

But whoever wins, there remains a unique opportunity for a superintendent and governor on the same philosophical page to change the paradigm for reform and bring peace to a destructive quarter-century of charter-versus-public school warfare that has come mostly at the expense of students.


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Living Homeless in California: The University of Hunger

A January study found that 11 percent of students on the California State University’s 23-campuses reported being homeless during the past year. At Humboldt State nearly a fifth said they’d been homeless at one point during 2017.

Gabriel Thompson

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Illustration: Define Urban

Homeless students told of sleeping in the woods and of completing research assignments at McDonald’s, to take advantage of free Wi-Fi.


 

In August of 2016, Chanté Marie Catt left her home in Redding, in the Sacramento Valley, to begin her first semester at Humboldt State University. Catt was 36, with a boyfriend and 1-year-old daughter, and possessed a booming laugh and no small amount of confidence. After nearly two decades running her own pet-care business in Los Angeles, she had begun to feel limited by her lack of a college degree, and several years earlier followed her parents north and enrolled at Redding’s Shasta College. The transfer to Humboldt had her dreaming of towering redwoods and cool ocean breezes. “We were excited to start a new life, maybe buy a house,” she says.

The couple tried to find a place from Redding, scouring Craigslist for openings without luck. In person, Catt figured, her prospects would improve. Once they had checked into a campground north of the university and enrolled their daughter in daycare, she dedicated her time to visiting property management companies. A week went by, then another. She paid application fees to management companies—$20 here, $43 there—and called through every listing she found, but even with a solid credit and rental history, never heard back. The family bounced from one campsite to another, with occasional stops at a motel to clean up. It was an expensive way to live, and she rapidly blew through $16,000 in financial aid and student loans. One day, out of a combination of anger and desperation, Catt took to Craigslist from her motel room. “I’m a sociology student,” she wrote, “starting research on our homeless students and on the property management companies here. Anyone want to share their stories!?”

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Within hours, she received more than 150 responses. Homeless students told her of moving from couch to couch, of sleeping in the woods and of completing their research assignments at McDonald’s, where they took advantage of free Wi-Fi. “My children are cold, we are broke from all the rental application fees and I’m tired of it,” wrote a mother of two. A graduate student who worked full-time revealed that he was living in his car for the second consecutive semester: “I never knew it would be this hard to find a place to rent.”

Several weeks later, while still homeless, Catt had organized a campus group, the Homeless Student Advocate Alliance, and was spending her free time passing out fliers to attract more members. They weren’t hard to find. “Every couple of students I talked to was experiencing some sort of displacement,” she says. For many students at Humboldt, going to college meant becoming homeless.


One homeless-student conference included workshops on outdoor living, covering topics like how to light fires to keep homework dry.


The true scale of this crisis was revealed last January in a groundbreaking report commissioned by the California State University system. The study found that 11 percent of students on the university’s 23-campuses reported being homeless during the past year. The problem was most acute at Humboldt State, where nearly a fifth of the student body had been homeless at one point the previous year.

“In large part, students are homeless because they don’t get enough financial aid,” says Jennifer Maguire, a Humboldt social work professor, who co-authored the study with Rashida Crutchfield of Long Beach State. “It’s even worse here, because we’re in a rural area with a very limited housing stock.” According to the North Coast Journal, a local newspaper, there aren’t even enough rental units in the city of Arcata, where the university is located, for the students who need housing—much less anywhere else. And while the university plans to build more student housing, it can currently only guarantee slots for first-year students.

This shortage allows landlords to crank up rents and reject applicants at whim. For students without a financial cushion, the situation can quickly turn into a full-blown emergency—and in the CSU system, that’s a lot of students. More than half the students at Humboldt are the first in their family to attend college, and a third are Latino. Many work full-time; some have kids. “The ‘non-traditional’ student is now the traditional student,” says Maguire.

On a cool April morning, more than 200 people packed into a theater at the College of the Redwoods in nearby Eureka, for a forum on homelessness co-hosted by Humboldt State. “I mentioned to a community member last week that I would be attending this summit today and she asked me, ‘What does homelessness have to do with HSU?’” said Humboldt State president Lisa Rossbacher. The crowd laughed, which represented at least some progress. It’s no longer a secret that Humboldt State students struggle with homelessness.


“My children are cold, we are broke from all the rental application fees and I’m tired of it,” wrote a Humboldt State University student.


Much of the progress is due to the efforts of activists like Catt. After several months of homelessness, her family eventually landed an apartment, thanks in part to an emergency welfare grant. By that time, she had organized the homeless student alliance, which was pressing the university to finally address the problem. Last fall, the group held a three-day conference at Humboldt State that included workshops on outdoor living, which covered topics like how to light a fire and keep your homework dry. On the third day, a group of students put up tents on the quad and stayed for two nights. They then moved to the library, which they occupied, and demanded that it remain open 24 hours a day to give homeless students a safe and warm place to be.

The next day, an administrator contacted Catt and offered her the position of off-campus housing liaison, which had been one of the alliance’s demands. Since January, Catt has worked with more than 100 students, many of whom are in need of housing or have dealt with retaliation from landlords. It’s a start, though there are limits to what she can accomplish. One student who was living out of her car recently came to Catt’s office, and Catt gave her a code to the campus lockers, which are normally reserved for students taking physical education classes. The student broke down in tears at the prospect of a hot shower. A few days later, Catt texted her that a landlord had recently called with a room to rent, but the student had moved back in with her parents. “She told me it had just been too cold out there,” says Catt.

A couple of days after the homeless summit, I met Jasmine Bigham, a 23-year-old transfer student, on the steps of the campus library. Like Catt, she had arrived at Humboldt in 2016, and anticipated finding housing within a week or two. “Weeks turned to months,” she says. She spent a semester living out of her Subaru Outback, searching for places to park at night that looked safe, then curling up on the back seat. She didn’t tell her parents. “No parents want their kids living like that,” she says—and anyways, they didn’t have much extra money. Bigham is from a small town in neighboring Siskiyou County, and before college had lived inside a metal shop designed to store tractors and supplies; her parents created walls by hanging tarps. “I sort of grew up having to figure shit out,” she says.


Homelessness has caused Jasmine to give up on some dreams. She wants a college education, so that means giving up a home.


After a semester in the Subaru, she bought a used trailer for $1,000 and parked it at a KOA campground for $600 a month. That felt safer, but then the trailer’s ceiling collapsed and an intoxicated neighbor harassed her, so she left for a room in a house that was infested with mold and rats. She could only handle the grime for so long, so last year she sold her Subaru and plowed the rest of her savings—which she earned by waitressing in Lake Tahoe—into a GMC van. Since January, she’s been living at a parking lot next to student housing.

As we walk from the library to the parking lot, Bigham outlines her semester budget. Scholarships nearly cover her tuition, and she’s in charge of the rest. Right now she’s not working, because she’s taking 19 units, the maximum allowed. The parking pass is $180 a year, and she rents two lockers, at $5 a piece, for the semester. Each day she stops by the campus food pantry, where she fills plastic containers with soup and picks up rice and beans. She describes the area around campus as a food desert but in reverse—filled with only “really expensive healthy food” that’s out of her reach. She takes a bus to Eureka, then walks a mile to reach a more affordable grocery store, where she can load up on quinoa, bell peppers and mangos. She has a camping stove, or else prepares meals for the week at friends’ homes.

At the parking lot, she points out several other vehicles where students are living. She’ll graduate in December, and tells me that when she returns this fall she hopes to get the other homeless students to park together, to create a greater sense of safety. She opens the back of her van, which is meticulously organized: a plastic container for her clothes, a folded mattress she bought on sale at Ross Dress for Less, an ice chest and cans of beans. “I had to learn what food stays good and what doesn’t,” she says.

Bigham tells me that she’s always felt different. She is an African American from an all-white rural community. She grew up on a “broken-down ranch” with cows and pigs, while many students at Humboldt talk about eating meat as if it were a crime. “The hardest thing is people not understanding,” she says, leaning against her van. “If you talk about how people don’t have enough to eat, they say, ‘Well, why don’t they just feed themselves?’”

Homelessness has caused her to give up on some dreams. She loved track, and was recruited by a couple of larger colleges to throw the javelin, but didn’t want to live in a big city. She hoped to continue with athletics, but juggling a full academic load while being homeless didn’t leave much room for anything else. She shrugs and smiles. “You can either be sad or you can figure it out. If you don’t have money, but you still want to do things, you have to give up something,” she says. She wants a college education, so that means giving up a home.


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Living Homeless in California: For Many Kids, Home Is Where the School Is

The Los Angeles Unified School District has more homeless students than many school districts have in total enrollment. In response, the district has created some innovative policies.

Bill Raden

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(Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

For the teachers, counselors and school liaisons comprising the thin front line of educators grappling with the Golden State’s homeless student population explosion, the dire reality of what it means for the 268,699 young Californians public school districts identified last year as lacking “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” comes into grim focus during the home visit.

“I would find places where there was a garage [and] they would have an extension cord going to the front house,” Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Homeless Education Program coordinator Angela Chandler told Capital & Main, recalling her time as a district counselor in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. “The [floor] would be concrete with no carpet or anything, and there would be no real running water. The family would have to go to the front [house] to use the restroom.”

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In a city like Los Angeles, whose high poverty and low housing affordability edged out San Francisco for the stop spot on Forbes’ 2018 list of the worst American cities for renters, veterans like Chandler have long become accustomed to seeing two, three and even four families “doubled up” in apartments meant for one.

In 2016-2017, 80 percent of Los Angeles County’s 71,727 homeless-identified students checked “doubled-up” on the Student Residency Questionnaire for incoming public and charter school students mandated by the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The 1987 federal law, which first spelled out the education rights for the nation’s homeless students, requires all schools and districts to provide homeless students “equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.” The first step is to recognize them when they walk through the door.

But in California, where parents are already uncomfortable with a perceived social stigma around homelessness, the same climate of fear ushered in by Donald Trump that has already spooked immigrant families from using the country’s safety net, has introduced a new skittishness to being identified as homeless.

“We get phone calls from some schools, from our liaisons there, that parents are apprehensive,” Chandler explained. “[Parents] thought that it was tied to residency status instead of nighttime residency, like where you live.”

That apprehension could explain how when the official homeless head count for the city conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) soared 23 percent from the previous year, LAUSD’s homeless count dropped from 17,258 students in 2016-17 — to what Chandler said was a little over 15,000 in 2017-18.

Nevertheless, even that drop gives LAUSD more homeless students than many school districts have in total enrollment. Chandler serves them with an astonishingly skeletal staff: eight classified aides work the phones, coordinating the daily flood of district-wide calls for technical assistance and student supports; a sole “senior parent community facilitator” performs district-wide outreach; and the program’s heavy lifting falls to its 18 full-time counselors, who are charged with keeping the district’s homeless kids in the classroom and on track to escape the cycle of homelessness.

With homelessness, the clock is always ticking; the longer it lasts, the more dramatic its impact. Compared to non-homeless students, homeless kids become even more likely to be held back from grade to grade, to be chronically absent, to fail courses, have more disciplinary issues, and to drop out of high school. As with all extreme poverty, the traumas and deprivations of homelessness are just as toxic to early development and learning, to performance in middle and high school and to diverting kids into the juvenile justice system.

“Every time they change schools, they have setbacks,” Chandler said. “It’s harder for them to adjust. And we already know that their life is very chaotic, and some of it’s traumatic. So our focus is to minimize the amount of changes that these youth and children have to go through so that they at least have one stable, safe place to go on a daily basis, which is their school sites.”

Providing that safe place is why, Chandler said, so much of the program is focused on training school personnel and community partners. LAUSD requires each principal to designate a staff member as homeless liaison, who is responsible for meeting and assessing the needs of each homeless student in home visits. But that person must first be able to interpret federal guidelines for who is homeless. McKinney-Vento’s “fixed, regular and adequate” definition is much broader than the narrower, unsheltered street sense used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and by homeless service providers.

To pay for that service, LAUSD, like all California school districts, has been more or less left to cobble together money from wherever it can. Much of it comes from federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students, with some state money funneled through California’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Anything beyond that is up to Chandler’s grant-writing prowess.

Last month, for example, the latter landed the district a competitive, $250,000, three-year federal Education for Homeless Children and Youths Grant. Chandler’s ingenuity wrangled money for three additional program positions when she managed to piggyback onto a Los Angeles County Office of Education proposal for tapping dollars from Measure H, the quarter-percent sales tax passed by county voters in 2017 for homeless services and prevention.

But Chandler was also instrumental in developing the strategy that has proved to be a game-changer for the district — the coup of bureaucratic diplomacy that wed LAUSD’s Homeless Education Program with L.A. County’s new Coordinated Entry System (CES), the database created in 2010 putting the most vulnerable of the homeless population in the front of the available housing queue. Practically, it meant co-locating LAUSD staffers inside the homeless-services providers to help train and aid them in referrals by meeting with families as they came for their intake sessions.

“Prior to them being there, trying to negotiate where these kids went to school or keeping them in the same school was incredibly difficult, because we don’t speak the same language that the districts do necessarily,” said Kris Freed. She is the chief programs officer for L.A. Family Housing, which owns and operates affordable housing and permanent supportive housing in the San Fernando Valley. “[Now] they’re huddled with us, if you will, so they hear everything that’s happening and can engage at any point and say, ‘I can help. I can step in. I can do this.’ ”

Chandler’s dream for the program is to build it into something that looks a lot more like L.A.’s robustly funded foster care system. Administered through the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, foster care provides kids with full-time, dedicated advocates and greater access to resources like scholarships and tuition programs to get into universities and colleges. It even offers independent living programs, so once kids age out or time out of the system, they land in some type of stable housing.

“The way out of poverty is through education,” she said. “We want our youth to become self-sustaining, so they can go on to school or get a decent job and are not homeless adults.”


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Actress Speaks Out Against Lunch Shaming in School Cafeterias

When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many school districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk.

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Actress  Debrianna Mansini (Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad) is a passionate advocate for ending hunger in America, specifically through ending the practice of “lunch shaming” in schools. She will speak about it during The Meatball Chronicles, her solo show that opens June 2 at the Broadwater as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. She and chef Hunter Long Fox, of the Hollywood restaurant Hunter & Charlie’s, will host a celebrity luncheon to raise money to assist poor families who cannot afford the price of a school lunch. Mansini spoke to Capital & Main by phone.


Capital & Main: What exactly is lunch shaming?

Debrianna Mansini: Lunch shaming happens when a child’s family owes money to the school lunch program, and a cafeteria worker has to refuse to serve the child a hot lunch. (I don’t want to disparage cafeteria workers. A lot of them don’t want to do it — they’re required to.)

I read about it in the New York Times and it just horrified me. Shaming kids about food and poverty? This will this affect them their whole lives.

Debrianna Mansini

How does lunch shaming usually work? Are children ever denied food altogether?

When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk. Some schools take away their lunch entirely. Sometimes the child gets a stamp on their hand. It’s kind of akin to having a scarlet letter.

How widespread is the problem?

An alarming number of American youngsters still can’t afford a $2.35 lunch. In 2016, 18 percent of kids were living in poverty, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the figure is 21 percent. The poverty rates are highest among minorities.

Yet anti-shaming legislation has been passed in New Mexico and California, has it not?

In April of 2017 New Mexico’s [Governor] Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance. And it puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children.

In October 2017, [California] Governor [Jerry] Brown signed SB 250. authored by state Senator Robert Hertzberg. It ensures that children will not denied a full lunch because of their parents’ debt.

Does that mean parents no longer have to pay?

The law specifically says that districts are not required to give parents a pass on not paying indefinitely. Instead it requires that districts do all they can to enroll families in the federally subsidized school lunch program and also to notify families – not bill collectors — of unpaid balances as soon as they are 10 days behind.

Is there a group or individuals spearheading a national campaign to abolish it?

NM Appleseed is a non-partisan nonprofit with a mission to create systemic change for the poor and underserved. The organization helped pass the bill in New Mexico and has since been in contact with 32 other states about passing legislation. On the federal level, Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham is carrying a bill in the House and Senator Tom Udall is carrying a version in the Senate.

Besides legislation, what are some of the ways groups and individuals are helping to deal with childhood hunger and lunch shaming?

The Community Eligibility Program, set up by the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] in 2010, has become a lifesaver. It gives free lunches to every student in a school where at least 40 percent of the families are extremely poor and automatically qualify for government aid. Another solution is the federal free meal program. But not every struggling family meets the income requirements, and those that do may have language barriers or fears over immigration status or fail to file the paperwork.

Rob Solomon, chief executive of GoFundMe, said it had about 30 active campaigns to raise money for meal debt. One man started Feed the Future Forward, which hosts crawfish boils and golf tournaments to raise money. It has wiped out more than $30,000 in food bills so far.

What’s the connection between your show and the cause?

The Meatball Chronicles is a love story centered around the power of food and family. When I heard about lunch shaming, I thought this is something I can actually speak about through my show, which is about our relationship with food. The piece is stand-alone, but I use the time before the audience to raise people’s awareness.

I believe food can heal not just our bodies but our souls. And what better way to bring all that together but through theater?


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County Ballot Measures Would Fund Child Care, Early Education

Research that shows early childhood education can profoundly impact the future success of children. But early childhood educators are still chronically underpaid.

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Teachers in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma are not the only educators struggling to improve conditions in a profession they say is undervalued.

Alameda County’s low-income child care workers are joining cash-strapped parents in an attempt to raise wages, improve quality and expand access to care in a region where pay has not kept pace with the dramatic increases in housing costs for many families.

They are taking their fight to the ballot on June 5 with Measure A, an initiative to raise approximately $140 million per year to expand preschool and child care access and improve retention of teachers by boosting pay. In neighboring San Francisco, already considered a leader in early childhood education, voters will also have the option to vote for Proposition C, which would expand the number of child care slots and increase wages.

In many ways, child care workers face a steeper climb than newly emboldened red state K-12 teachers. As tough as things may be for school teachers in right-to-work states, there is some consensus that what they do is a necessary public good.

That’s not been so for early childhood educators in spite of research that shows that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops in the first five years of life and that quality child care programs can fuel the future success of children and stabilize families, especially those who are low income.

“Some of it has to do with historical baggage about whether mothers should be working outside the home,” says Marcy Whitebook, an expert on the childcare labor force at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.


The United States lags far behind other developed nations in both preschool funding and enrollment.


Unlike the public schools, which are centralized and government funded, the early childhood education system is decentralized — taking place at a mix of private and public schools, centers and homes — and the funding is fragmented, with parents expected to shoulder the lion’s share of the cost.

Nancy Harvey, a former elementary school teacher, who runs a child care business out of her West Oakland home, feels the consequences of this underinvestment.

She serves a mix of middle and working class families in a diverse neighborhood that she says has been gentrifying. “Every other year, I’m looking for new staff because they get burned out or they need higher wages,” says Harvey. Meanwhile, she says, some of her families have had to leave the state because “between having to pay child care and rent, they simply couldn’t make it.”

Alameda County’s Measure A, a half-cent sales tax, would expand access to child care and preschool for low and middle income families, provide supports for homeless and at-risk children, and raise the wages of child care workers to at least $15 per hour. The scholarships could impact more than 20,000 children as the program ramps up, according to Angie Garling, who heads Alameda County’s Early Childhood Education Office.

In neighboring San Francisco, advocates gathered enough signatures to place Proposition C, a 3.5 percent surtax on commercial rents over $1 million a year on the ballot. The estimated $146 million raised annually would clear a waitlist of families who are in line to receive early child care and education services.

Prop. C would also make quality early child care more affordable for families earning as much as $207,500, and increase wages for child care workers beyond the $15 per hour to be required by the city’s minimum wage law as of July 1. A little over $20 million of the revenue would be set aside for the general fund.

The two local ballot initiatives – in Alameda County and San Francisco – represent a “down-payment” on the kind of investment that only the state and federal government can provide, says Whitebook. And the measures are part of a wave of activism at the local level, according to Margaret Brodkin of Funding the Next Generation, who says other cities and counties plan to include child care measures on their ballots in future elections.

The state has been gradually increasing funding for child care since the end of the Great Recession, after cutting funding for 110,000 child care slots, according to Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget and Policy Center. But California is still 67,000 slots short of where it was, he adds. Even a substantial boost in federal child care dollars, recently approved by Congress, will not be enough to address the funding deficit, say advocates.

Those revenue sources help those who meet income eligibility thresholds. The U.S. generally lags behind other industrialized countries when it comes to providing universal preschool. The overall enrollment in preschool of 3-to 5-year-olds in the United States is 67 percent, the lowest of all but two of the 34 countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to an OECD study published last year.

And both measures will also help child care workers, many of whom rely on public assistance, according to a recent UC Berkeley study co-authored by Whitebook. Those who obtain bachelor’s degrees, as required by Head Start and some public pre-K programs, do not usually earn much more for their troubles, according to the study.


In Alameda County, center-based child care exceeds tuition at UC Berkeley and is often a family’s second largest cost after housing.


A child care worker in Alameda County earns $29,000 a year on average, about 79 percent of what it would take for a single person in the county to afford the bare necessities, according to the California Budget and Policy Project. Meanwhile, the cost of center-based care exceeds tuition at UC Berkeley and is often a family’s second largest cost after housing.

These statistics are more than just academic to Morgan Pringle, a child care center substitute teacher who is also pursuing a degree in human development at California State University, East Bay.

While she was growing up, she says her mother, also a child care worker, supplemented her main job with fast food and house cleaning gigs. When the car’s transmission gave out, “we just had to go without a car for a couple of years,” says Pringle, who also recalls stints living with her grandmother and aunts. “The pay of an early childhood educator has never matched the cost of living here in Alameda County,” she adds.

Like Harvey, she’s joined Raising Alameda, a coalition that has brought family day care providers, parents and child care center employees together in support of Measure A. The Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents child care providers, is a member of the coalition.

Even advocates acknowledge that an increase in sales tax, which is generally considered a regressive tax, is not ideal. Measure A will raise the sales tax in some Alameda County cities to close to 10 percent.

But local governments do not have many progressive funding options since the passage of Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that limited tax increases on real estate, according to Hoene.

Voters who want to expand child care services in San Francisco will be able to vote to levy a surtax on commercial rents. However, they must choose between Proposition C and a rival measure, Proposition D, which would fund housing and supportive services for seniors, the mentally ill and homeless youth. Proposition D, which also would tax commercial rents, is endorsed by the city’s acting mayor and five supervisors, including mayoral candidate London Breed.

Proposition C, an initiative backed by Supervisor Norman Yee and Breed’s rival in the mayor’s race Supervisor Jane Kim, only requires a majority vote, while Proposition D — which was placed on the ballot by a vote of County supervisors — requires a two-thirds vote. However, if they both win, only the one with the most votes will be enacted.

At least one voter has already voiced frustration that the city’s political leaders have pitted the need for affordable housing against the need for child care.

“In my day, we would go into a room with these two competing great ideas and take as much time as we needed, and not come out until we’d resolved them,” former Mayor Art Agnos said at a Board of Supervisors committee meeting earlier this year, according to a report in Mission Local.

Back in Alameda County, Trisha Thomas, who runs a family day care in North Oakland while also selling life insurance and working as a church musician, says she is happy to be raising the visibility of her profession through a ballot campaign that has involved testifying at public meetings and phone banking.

“For many years, people just saw us as babysitters,” says Thomas, who has a bachelor’s degree and plans to pursue a master’s degree. “My kids can do math. My kids can read. My kids are well above the average child starting school.”

“To be viewed as a teacher, it’s important to me,” she says.

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The Hard Work of Diversifying Higher Education in California

In California, where 76 percent of its K-12 enrollment is students of color, diversifying public colleges and universities is a top priority.

Bill Raden

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UC regents meeting earlier this year. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

USC Professor: “The only way that we’re going to change educational outcomes is if we have faculty that are racially literate.”


On April 30 Thomas Kanewakeron Gray, 19, and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, 17, two Native American Mohawk brothers, joined a campus tour of Colorado State University, a sprawling, public research university located just an hour north of Denver. They had scrimped and saved, their mother would later say, to make the seven-hour drive from the family’s home in Santa Cruz, New Mexico to “their dream school.”

The two teens joined the tour somewhat late, provoking one nervous mother, who was white, to call 911 and describe them as “Hispanic” kids “from Mexico” who “joined our tour” yet “weren’t a part of our tour.” The bewildered boys, who had been invited there by the university’s admissions office, quickly found themselves being frisked and questioned by campus police, before they were released. (Colorado State University is nearly 80 percent Caucasian; the senior leading the tour later admitted she hadn’t even noticed the police remove the Grays.)

The brothers’ ordeal illustrates the degree to which higher education’s path to economic security and enlightened citizenship is increasingly crossing a battleground for a broader American promise of equal opportunity called diversification. The Colorado incident is part of a recent minefield of what psychologists label microaggressions — the everyday indignities of racially themed slights, snubs, insults and general indifference whose hurt tends to be invisible to its perpetrators but is experienced by marginalized groups as a very real, if low-level and wearying state of dread. When they occur on a college campus, their impact on degree completion can be profound.


Success for first-in-their-family college students of color can be dramatically improved by hiring more faculty
that look like those students.


“The only way that we’re going to change educational outcomes is if we have faculty that are racially literate,” University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education educational equity professor Estela Mara Bensimon told Capital & Main by phone. “In other words, they have an awareness of how the classroom can be a racialized space, where microaggression or other kinds of circumstances are detrimental to students of color.”

In racially diverse California, those circumstances included last month’s furor over the latest fraternity hijinks at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a California State University campus that holds the distinction of being the least diverse public university in the state. It’s a lack of diversity that tends to play out at Cal Poly fraternities in near-annual rites of disparaging ethnic and racial minorities. The targets of April’s incident, which triggered campus protests when photos turned up on social media of fraternity members in minstrel blackface and dressed as Mexican-American gang members, were African-Americans and Latinos. In 2013, the insult was to women and Native Americans. Last year, it was the idea of diversity itself.

For California, which boasts both the fifth-largest economy in the world, and where 76 percent of its K-12 enrollment is students of color (and still surging), diversifying public colleges and universities is a top priority. Producing the educated workforce needed to continue growing the economy means not only recruiting students of color but also seeing them complete a degree.

Or at least that’s the argument made in a new study by the college-equity advocacy group Campaign for College Opportunity (CCO). Called Left Out: How Exclusion in California’s Colleges and Universities Hurts Our Values, Our Students, and Our Economy, the report found that although systemwide student diversity at California’s public colleges and universities is a robust 69 percent (second only to Hawaii), its faculty and senior leadership tend to often be white and male.

Using data for the 2016-17 academic year for all three segments of the state’s higher education system — University of California (UC); California State University (CSU) and California Community College (CCC) — it found that tenured faculty was at least 32 percent racially diverse, while senior leadership came in at roughly 40 percent diverse and academic senates scored a disappointing 26 percent. Women were significantly underrepresented in college governance, with men making up about two-thirds of the system’s regents, trustees and Community College Board of Governors. The least diversified faculties and leadership were the 10 UC campuses; California’s 114 Community Colleges were the most diverse systemwide — with the exception of its academic senates.

The other wrinkle, says CCO senior vice president Audrey Dowd, were nagging gaps between college access and degree success for minority students. “When we look at completion, that’s where we see a huge disparity in rates of success. So we know that Latinx students, black students and then some subgroups within the Asian American population, are not fairing as well, they are just not completing at the same rate as their white counterparts.”

The findings add to an already well-supported argument that college success for often first-in-their-family college students of color can be dramatically improved merely by hiring more faculty that look like those students.

“Our work looking at faculty of color has found that they’re more likely to employ teaching practices that we know are good for underserved students,” said J. Luke Wood, director of the Doctoral Program in Community College Leadership at San Diego State University. “You have to be exposed to people who look like you at some point, or else it’s hard to envision yourself doing the kinds of things that they’re recommending you do to be successful.”

That’s what Devon Graves, a black third-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles and a first-generation college student from Riverside County, said happened to him when he met the popular political science professor Renford Reese while Graves was an undergraduate at Cal Poly Pomona, the 81 percent diversified sister campus to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Reese became his undergraduate adviser.

“He was one of a few African-American tenured professors, but he did play an important role in where I’m at today,” Graves recalled. “I just remember still having a tough time transitioning onto campus, having that impostor syndrome, thinking that I didn’t belong. … If it wasn’t for him, I would have never thought of myself as someone who can pursue a Ph.D. and do the research that I do and see myself as a professor. So seeing someone who looked like me in that position, and who helped mentor me to get to that next level made a world of difference.”

One of the more outstanding exceptions in the CCO report was 60,000-student East L.A. College, whose president, Marvin Martinez, hosted the organization in March when it came to Los Angeles to present the study’s community college findings. With its 67 percent Latinx enrollment, 72 percent diversified faculty and a college leadership that was 80 percent Latinx (and 60 percent Latina), Martinez said that diversity has actually been the school’s most potent recruitment tool.

“It’s one major reason students come to East L.A. college,” he said at the conference. “It’s also a [faculty] recruitment tool, by the way. … I ask them, ‘Why East L.A. College? Why are you interested in this campus?’ And many give me the same response: ‘I feel at home here.’ ‘I like it here.’ ‘I feel that the people know me.’”

But it’s one thing to make the case that a more diversified faculty and administration will lead to greater college completion for minorities that will attract more faculty of color, which will be ultimately good for all Californians — and another to actually get that ball rolling.

Bensimon, who as the director of USC’s Center for Urban Education also teaches diversifying colleges how to “re-script” their hiring processes, pointed out that California has what she calls “a locked system of hiring” that has evolved precisely to preserve power by yielding primarily white candidates.

That’s partly because policies like hiring preferences trickle down from the top in California’s system of public higher education, where the “top” is whoever is sitting behind the governor’s desk. California’s governors appoint the UC regents, the CSU trustees and the CCC board of governors, which is why their complexions tend to mirror the overwhelmingly white, male makeup of the state’s political elite. It’s also why CCO has injected the issue into the governor’s race by hosting three gubernatorial forums on higher education. It is not a done deal.

“It’s really about whiteness as an institutional culture and an institutional practice that most whites are not able to see,” Bensimon reflected. “Unless we begin to make that more transparent and be able to talk about it, I just think it’s really hard to change, to help institutions of higher education be more equity-producing.”


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Investment Banker Named Los Angeles Schools Superintendent

Austin Beutner, who has no background as an educator, was widely seen as the more politically connected of two finalists, as well as being the prospect most sympathetic to charter schools.

Bill Raden

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Austin Beutner, center. (Photo: Isidoro Hoyos)

It’s official. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District board confirmed what city media outlets had been reporting during the previous 24 hours as likely: Millionaire investment banker Austin Beutner will be the next superintendent of L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest public school district.

The school board reportedly negotiated a three-year contract with Beutner prior to Tuesday’s announcement, offering him an annual base salary of $350,000.

The 5-2 vote to ratify the contract (George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson cast the dissenting votes) came at the end of Tuesday’s school board meeting. The vote brought to a close a fast-tracked, three-month nationwide search for a successor to Michelle King. A popular superintendent who had risen through the ranks at LAUSD, King officially stepped down in January after barely two years on the job to concentrate on fighting a cancer diagnosis.

The announcement also capped an impassioned day of public testimony, the vast majority of it opposing Beutner and pleading for the board to hire LAUSD’s current interim superintendent, Vivian Ekchian. The superintendent search had been winnowed to just the two candidates in the final weeks.

The 58-year-old Beutner, who has no background as an educator, was widely seen as the more politically connected of the two, as well as being the prospect most sympathetic to charter schools. He may best be known to Angelenos for his troubled, yearlong tenure as publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 2015, as well as for Vision to Learn, a charity he founded to provide vision screenings and glasses to low-income students. The charity was recently in the headlines for being in breach of a $3 million contract with LAUSD over delivery of services.

Ekchian, also 58, had been overwhelmingly favored by teachers and district insiders and, like King, had spent her entire education career within LAUSD, including 10 years as a classroom teacher. Ekchian had been handpicked by King to fill in during the latter’s sick leave and has been running the district since September; she was officially appointed interim superintendent in January.

Tuesday’s announcement was preceded by a day of public testimony, much of it highly critical of board member Ref Rodriguez over his refusal to recuse himself. Rodriguez, 46, the District 5 member, is facing three felony and 25 misdemeanor counts for allegedly laundering $26,000 in campaign contributions during his 2015 race.

Those charges have cast a long shadow over the search. They were foremost on the minds of the teachers, parents, union officials and at least five former board members, who questioned the legitimacy of Beutner’s selection in often emotional public comments.

“The man you’re about to choose has no history of success anywhere,” said former school board president Jeff Horton. “What that says to all of the educators that you depend on to deliver your product is, ‘We don’t really care whether a person knows about education. We have other criteria — which are connected with our donors and our backers.’”

Teachers-union members were even more blunt in their opposition: “Let’s be very clear and dispel any notion that the school board majority, representing more than $15 million in political donations from the charter lobby, is here in the best interest of our public schools,” charged United Teachers Los Angeles secretary Arlene Inouye. “It’s clear you want a superintendent in place before criminally indicted board member Ref Rodriguez’s trial, where he faces possible jail time.”

Rodriguez, who was elected to the board in 2015, riding a wave of over $2 million in charter school campaign contributions, effectively held the deciding vote on a board in which pro-charter members hold a 4-3 majority. He has resisted calls for his resignation despite a widening series of scandals that include revelations that in 2014, as head of the charter chain Partnerships to Uplift Communities, Rodriguez had authorized and signed $265,000 in checks to a nonprofit under his control. And, last month, Rodriguez was arrested at a Pasadena restaurant on suspicion of public intoxication, without later being cited or charged.

Rodriguez and his troubles had been the center of a series of public demonstrations leading up to Tuesday’s vote, including Friday’s delivery of a petition to district attorney Jackie Lacey by a group called Concerned Parents of District 5, calling for Rodriquez’s  immediate resignation and speedy trial.

“We’re speaking up and letting the school board know that we want him to resign,” Eagle Rock parent Rocio Rivas said of Rodriguez. “He should not be voting on anything, particularly the superintendent.”

In a separate action on Monday, a rally organized in front of LAUSD’s Beaudry Street headquarters by the East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD) took the school board to task over the selection process and characterized Rodriguez as being emblematic of the board’s lack of accountability for charter schools.

“What’s so troubling is that it’s not at all clear that Beutner could have earned the votes for superintendent absent strong-arming from the very charter school interests that have thought that they purchased the board majority,” said EAPD president Hans Johnson. “Ref Rodriguez is conspicuously a part of the corruption.” (Rodriguez’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Beutner will be the sixth superintendent in a decade for LAUSD, a district that has been plagued with unstable leadership and superintendent tenures far below what a 2016 Brookings report found was a mean of roughly four years for the districts it studied.

As the new superintendent, Beutner will need to deal with the district’s overall lackluster academic performance and a long-term budget deficit that comes at a time of declining enrollment, which itself is being aggravated by increasing charter-school competition.


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A California Public School that Betsy DeVos Wouldn’t Recognize

The Social Justice Humanitas Academy is one of a handful of community schools that have been dramatically closing opportunity and achievement gaps in some of Los Angeles’ toughest neighborhoods.

Bill Raden

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All photos by Joanne Kim.

Its successes have led growing numbers of education policymakers to see California’s community schooling movement as a holistic reform that can restore equality of opportunity.


 

It’s a Tuesday morning on the Los Angeles campus of César E. Chávez Learning Academies, and a classroom of upper-level high school students is standing in a large, inward-facing circle. Suddenly a wisp of a girl steps forward and, thrusting out her palms as if halting oncoming traffic, brings the gathering to a hushed silence. “I chose to honor myself this weekend by staying home and spending time with my family,” she declaims confidently before rejoining the circle.

“Did anyone notice what she just did there? That’s how you take command of a room,” principal José Navarro pipes up from his own place in the circle. Then, one by one, the rest of the kids take their turns at an affirmation, each followed by Navarro leading a constructive critique of their delivery.

A Social Justice Humanitas Academy student responds to a question at a biweekly Council.

Welcome to a biweekly Council at Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA) community school, a relatively recent addition to Los Angeles’ educational landscape. Part group therapy, part empathy- and trust-building exercise, the Councils are at the heart of a new, research-supported understanding of the profound role that healthy communities and school cultures play in children’s education.


In seven years of existence, SJHA has raised its graduation rate from 83 percent in its first year to last year’s 99 percent graduation rate.


SJHA is just one of a handful of community schools that have been dramatically closing opportunity and achievement gaps in some of Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) toughest and most reform-resistant, high-poverty neighborhoods. Their successes have led community organizers and a growing number of education policymakers to see California’s fledgling community schooling movement as a holistic, bottom-up reform that can restore equality of opportunity and the democratic promise of the state’s system of universal public education.

There’s good reason for optimism, according to a December Learning Policy Institute meta-analysis of 140 community schooling studies. “[We] came out quite convinced,” report co-author Jeannie Oakes said by phone, “that not only community schools as a whole, but [their] components all made a positive difference in things like student achievement, attendance, behavior and graduation rates.”

Though the concept of community schooling dates back to the turn of the last century and John Dewey’s Progressive Education Movement, its modern form has just really come into focus in the last 20 years. Full-service community schools only became eligible for federal money in 2015 under Title IV of the Obama administration’s Every Student Succeeds Act. The good news is that though Title IV had been targeted for elimination by President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, congress rebuffed the administration by giving a big boost to the block grants in the federal omnibus spending bill signed into law March 23.

Past federal policies, including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, pushed corporate-styled, top-down reforms such as high-stakes testing and draconian accountability schemes. Meanwhile, state leaders gambled that radical deregulation and competition from privately-managed charter schools would force low-performing, resource-starved neighborhood schools to either put up or shut down. True, charter schools have flourished, but research suggests that privatization merely “creams” gifted students who were already well positioned to succeed, while pushing out kids with the highest needs.

SJHA principal José Navarro.

Social Justice Humanitas launched in 2011 as a “teacher-led” community school in partnership with the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP), a Los Angeles education nonprofit that, with the Youth Policy Institute (YPI), Communities in Schools of Los Angeles, and the UCLA Center for Community Schooling, collectively account for 60 of the community schools currently operating in LAUSD. Thanks to a patchwork of foundation grants, partnerships and an on-site YPI community school coordinator, the César Chávez campus has become a hub for community support services, which is one hallmark of community schooling. LAEP also contributed the Humanitas curriculum, which it had developed as an interdisciplinary approach in which English, history, math, science and art lessons are linked around a common social justice theme.

On the same week that Navarro presided over SJHA’s Council, for example, the 10th grade had focused on ethical decision-making and, just upstairs from the Council session, desks in teacher Jael Reboh’s English class were pushed together into small discussion groups during a lesson on the Nazi victory in the German federal election of 1932 through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The SJHA campus is located on the edge of a gritty, largely Spanish-speaking pocket of the Northeast San Fernando Valley. A mere three traffic lights to the east sits Pacoima’s San Fernando Gardens, the largest public housing project in the San Fernando Valley, which is still remembered for being a gang-infested war zone during the crack epidemic of the ‘90s. Social Justice Humanitas is currently 96 percent Latino, with just over 90 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunches.

The neighborhood is also a place where homes typically lack the kind of early learning opportunities and enrichments that kids from more affluent communities take for granted — access to books, museum outings or adults who are able to read to them regularly. (A community scorecard issued the same year as SJHA’s launch gave the city of San Fernando a D for risk and a D for its schools.)

SJHA assistant principal Marike Aguilar at her desk.

In its seven years of existence, SJHA has raised its graduation rate from 83 percent in its first year to last year’s 99 percent graduation rate, with a 98 percent A through G matriculation rate with a C or better. During the same period, LAUSD’s graduation rate went from 67 to 80 percent. SJHA also outperformed the graduation numbers of its fellow pilot schools in the district and has more of its students matriculating into college.

“We’re ranked fourth in the district,” says Jennie Carey Rosenbaum, who joined SJHA as its community school coordinator and is now the school’s social-emotional learning initiatives director. “In a community with great poverty, it’s one thing to say, ‘Yes, yes you should go to college,’ and, ‘This is important’ — [but,] to constantly be saying that is sort of the counternarrative to everything they’ve heard in their lives.”

“I could have become entirely disinterested, disengaged and kind of weighed down by a lot of my personal life,” Vanessa Diaz agreed by phone. Diaz attended SJHA while in foster care before graduating in 2012 and going on to earn a degree in community and regional development from the University of California, Davis. “I feel like they see and treat students like the very best that they can be,” she said. “The education system right now is just so structured [around] criminalizing to black and brown communities and minorities, that this whole thing just really changed the game for me.”

In some ways, Social Justice Humanitas Academy, with its emphasis on teacher leadership, rather than on a more collaborative decision-making model involving parents, students and community partners, makes it a bit of an outlier in the movement. Yet it does share what most expect from community schooling: restorative justice; “whole-child” and culturally relevant, interdisciplinary teaching; family engagement; expanded learning opportunities; and on-campus wraparound supports that address basic student and community needs, including physical and mental health, financial literacy, housing assistance and legal support.

“No kids get thrown away here,” declared parent Belinda Davenport by phone. “I worked as a volunteer aide in a Spanish class, where this one teacher has like 13 kids on [special education Individualized Education Program] IEPs. … They have kids that are on behavioral IEPs as well as academic, but no kids get suspended, no kid is labeled bad. They find a resource to help that kid be loved and supported.”

The sometimes staggering levels of commitment required for that kind of close attention is why much of the job of a community school coordinator involves taking the load off teachers by finding community partners that can provide the kind of crucial services and resources that more affluent kids get at home.

“Public school teachers have been doing this for so long,” explains LAEP community schools director Gustavo Morales. “They have been the community school coordinator. They have been the resource coordinator. They have been the health and leadership coordinator. This is just relieving some of the pressure that has been put on teachers and really allowing the community to rise up and provide that additional support.”

Still, José Navarro admits that his school had a nearly 40 percent faculty turnover between its first and second year alone. Of the 22 people who were part of the school design team when Humanitas was still a small learning community based at nearby Sylmar High School, a mere seven made the move to the César Chávez campus.

And that’s what worries people like the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) Sharon Delugach. (Disclosure: AFT is a financial supporter of this website.) Last summer LAUSD’s board voted to embrace community schooling and Delugach became part of an implementation team currently working with the board to define and systematize a scale-up of community schools within the district.

“They still have a UTLA contract, but they have more autonomies than traditional schools have,” Delugach says of pilot schools like SJHA. “One of the things about pilot schools is that teachers are just responsible for so much at a school site, way beyond their classes. I do know that it takes a toll — sometimes it’s really not sustainable.”

Ultimately the problem comes down to money. The LAUSD implementation team is calling for an initial start-up of 20 district-created community schools. By comparison, Oakland Unified, which has seven percent of LAUSD’s enrollment, operates 35 full service community schools. And New York City, which has a 45.5 percent higher enrollment than LAUSD, last year announced it was adding 69 new community schools, which will bring its citywide count to 215. But California continues to dwell in the cellar of national per-pupil funding — a persistent stinginess that many say has exacerbated an opportunity gap that this year earned the state a C in school finance, a D-plus in K-12 Achievement and a dismal 36th place finish in Education Week’s 2018 Quality Counts national performance report card.

For a high-poverty urban district like LAUSD, where declining birth rates, reduced immigration, gentrification and the expansion of charters have left neighborhood schools scrambling for resources, education researchers believe that community schooling offers the first meaningful bang for its buck in delivering equity for its highest-needs students.

“I used to live in Brentwood [on L.A.’s affluent Westside], right next to Kenter Canyon Elementary,” reflected Jeannie Oakes, “and when you look at that school, with the extra science programs, the after-school stuff and the parent engagement and all that, it looks quite a lot like the community schools that UCLA or the Social Justice Humanitas Academy would have developed just within this structure of a community school.”

“Poverty is not a learning disorder, but it’s real,” Navarro observes. “And it’s debilitating if it goes unmitigated. More money? It would really help. If my teachers were able to grade, plan and meet with students who are failing before they left the building at five, six o’clock, we’d get a better product.”


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