Terror threat closes all Los Angeles schools

Los Angeles Unified closed all its schools today after receiving a threat. The second largest school district in the United States has told 643,000 students to stay home to allow time for a full search of more than 1,200 schools.

I predict nothing will be found. And there will be more threats. What superintendent wants to gamble on students’ safety?

New York schools received a similar threat — apparently from overseas — and dismissed it as a hoax. Which it was. But the San Bernardino shootings have made people nervous in southern California.


No more ‘fake classes,’ schools promise

Some students were assigned to “work experience” or “service” classes that required picking up trash, running errands — or nothing at all. Others were sent home early. To settle a class-action lawsuit, six high schools in Oakland, Los Angeles and Compton have agreed to end “fake classes” with no academic content, reports the Contra Costa Times.

One of the plaintiffs, Johnae Twinn, hopes for a career in medicine. As a senior at Oakland’s Castlemont High last year, she tried to sign up for physiology and debate. Both were canceled. Instead, she was given two “home” classes — that is, no class. Another class period was spent sitting in the library. That was called “Inside Work Experience,” though she received few assignments.

Jessy Cruz failed to graduate after his high school placed him in three content-less "classes."

Jessy Cruz failed to graduate after his Los Angeles high school placed him in three “fake classes.” 

Twinn is struggling in college because of her weak academic preparation, said Kathryn Eidmann, a staff attorney for Public Counsel.

Already behind, low-income students were cheated of instructional time, Eidman told Peg Tyre in an interview. “Jessy Cruz, a named plaintiff in the suit, was a foster kid who was not on track to graduate. He was assigned to three contentless courses. He was not able to graduate. He has not gotten his GRE. He has not gotten a job.”

Eric Flood, another plaintiff, was assigned to three service classes one semester at Oakland’s Fremont High. He had to take online credit-recovery classes after school.

At Jefferson High in Los Angeles, Jason Magaña was placed in graphics, a class he’d already taken and passed, and given two “home” periods. He couldn’t get into economics, which he needed to graduate.

Los Angeles explores all-charter district

Los Angeles Unified is exploring conversion to an all-charter school district, but the school board’s real goal seems to be gaining more autonomy to compete with expanding charters, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Philanthropist Eli Broad, who's proposed a huge charter-school expansion in Los Angeles, at Harlem Success Academy.

Philanthropist Eli Broad, who’s proposed a huge charter-school expansion in Los Angeles, at Harlem Success Academy.

“It’s not fair that the current system provides autonomies to the charter schools and not to traditional public schools,” board member Monica Ratliff said.

Charter schools will have space for half the district’s students, if the Broad Foundation’s eight-year expansion plan becomes a reality.

Converting the huge district to charters would require state approval and the support of a majority of teachers.

Richard Vladovic, another board member, said the chances of L.A. Unified becoming an all-charter district were “slim and none.”

LA teachers: Suspension ban leads to chaos

Officer Henry Anderson patrols Robert E. Peary Middle School in Gardena. Credit: Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times

“In a South Los Angeles classroom, a boy hassles a girl,” write Teresa Watanabe and Howard Blume in the Los Angeles Times.  “The teacher moves him to the back of the room, where he scowls, makes a paper airplane and repeatedly throws it against the wall.

“Two other boys wander around the class and then nearly come to blows. ‘Don’t you talk about my sister,’ one says to the other. The teacher steps between them.

“When she tries to regain order, another boy tells her: ‘Screw you’.”

It’s another day of disruption in Los Angeles Unified, write Watanabe and Blume. The nation’s second-largest district was  “hailed by the White House and others” when it banned suspensions for “defiance” and announced plans to use “restorative justice” strategies to resolve conflicts.

Suspensions are way down. But, say teachers, classroom discipline problems are way up.

Only a third of school staffs have been trained in restorative justice strategies, such as “talking circles.” Few counselors have been hired to deal with disruptive students.

Sylvester Wiley, an L.A. Unified police officer for 32 years, said schools are increasingly calling police to handle disruptive students. “Now that they can’t suspend, schools want to have officers handle things, but we constantly tell them we can’t do this,” he said. “Willful defiance is not a crime.”

At Los Angeles Academy Middle School in South L.A., teachers have asked for an after-school detention program, but one has not yet been established. They say they are overwhelmed by what they consider ineffective responses to students who push, threaten and curse them. The stress over discipline prompted two teachers to take leaves of absence in the last two months.

 “Where is the justice for the students who want to learn?” asked Michael Lam, an eighth-grade math teacher, at a recent forum.

Ramon Cortines, the interim superintendent, said poor execution has undercut the new discipline policies, which were pushed through by the Board of Education and former Superintendent John Deasy.

Esquith fired: Is it a witch hunt?

Former “teacher of the year” Rafe Esquith was fired by the Los Angeles school board on charges of inappropriately touching minors, reports the Los Angeles Times.

In a letter to Esquith’s attorneys in August, district officials said they were investigating claims of “inappropriate” touching and “inappropriate” photos and videos of a “sexual nature” on his computer.

Until April, author and teacher Rafe Esquith taught Shakespeare to fifth graders in a mostly Latino and Korean neighborhood in Los Angeles. Photo: Beatrice de Gea, Los Angeles Times

Until he was removed from the classroom in April, award-winning teacher Rafe Esquith taught Shakespeare to fifth graders in a mostly Latino and Korean neighborhood in Los Angeles. Photo: Beatrice de Gea, Los Angeles Times

Charges also include mishandling his nonprofit, which funds his fifth-grade students’ annual Shakespeare play and field trips, giving food to students without parental permission and improper handling of permission slips.

Esquith, 61, refused to defend himself at a hearing. Instead he’s filed a $1 billion class-action lawsuit charging Los Angeles Unified conducts “witch hunts” against older teachers in a “shrewd” effort to save money on retirement benefits.

 It’s a “witch hunt” against an outstanding teacher, writes Jay Mathews in his Washington Post column. The charges are “fuzzy.”

The dishonest nature of the Esquith investigation is clear from the fact it did not begin until a state commission ruled against the district on a silly complaint that he had somehow offended students and others with a mild joke involving a reference to nudity. I think the district investigators decided they were not going to let this celebrity teacher — countless awards, four intriguing books and movie star supporters — show them up.

I’m less confident that Esquith couldn’t possibly be guilty, but the charges are fuzzy. What does “inappropriate” mean?

In 2006, a man charged Esquith with abusing him at a summer camp in the 1970s, when the accuser was eight or nine and Esquith was a college student. The district says Los Angeles police were notified. Nothing happened then. Now, Esquith says investigators asked him if he’d been warned 40 years earlier about “pushing” a child.

In a legal claim, the teacher’s lawyers attack the district’s policy of expanding a misconduct charge against a teacher into a wider investigation, writes Craig Clough on LA School Report.

Even when a teacher has been cleared by a police or legal investigation, the district will investigate the teacher for any possible violations of district policy,” Jose Cantu, who supervises the Student Safety Investigative Team, told LA School Report.

The unit was created to investigate sexual abuse allegations “in the aftermath of the Miramonte Elementary sex abuse scandal, which has so far cost LA Unified roughly $170 million in settlements.”

Twice as many charters in LA?

Los Angeles teachers protested the Broad Foundation’s charter plans at the opening of the Broad art museum. Photo: Ed Mertz, KNX

Charter advocates hope to create 260 new charter schools in Los Angeles with space for half the district’s students, reports the Los Angeles Times. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and others want to raise $490 million to double the number of charter schools and add 130,000 students in the next eight years.

Currently, 16 percent of LA students are enrolled in charter schools.

There will be plenty of political opposition, of course. The school board is divided. The teachers’ union picketed the opening of Broad’s new art museum in protest.

Tenth grader Jasmine Payne, 14, in class at Animo College Prep on the campus of Jordan High School in Watts. Photo: Los Angeles Times

Jasmine Payne, 14, in class at Animo College Prep on the campus of Jordan High in Watts. Photo: Los Angeles Times

Billionaires should not be running public education,” said United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl said.

In an editorial, the Times endorsed the idea, citing Stanford studies that show “significantly better academic outcomes” for Los Angeles charter students compared to similar students in traditional district schools.

Creating so many schools so quickly will be a huge challenge. Where will they find 260 principals capable of launching new schools? Can they find enough good teachers? I have a feeling the grand plan will need to be scaled down.

Libraries add ‘coder time’ to story time

Librarian Brooke Sheets uses colored cups to teach algorithms and debugging to girls at Los Angeles’ Central Library. Photo: Alex Schaffert-Callaghan, KPCC

To play a drawing game called Phenomenal Turtle, nine-year-old Perla Hernandez had to “break down big complex problems into small sequential steps,” writes Alex Schaffert-Callaghan on KPCC. She was one of a dozen children who came to a Los Angeles’ library for “coder time.”

 Children can program a turtle to create designs in Phenomenal Turtle

Children can program a turtle to create designs in Phenomenal Turtle

Librarian Joanna Fabicon “would love coding to be as ubiquitous in libraries as story time.” She works with an afterschool program to reach children at eight LAUSD elementary schools.

Girls feel comfortable coming to the library, said Brooke Sheets, a children’s librarian at the central branch. “More than half the kids in Hernandez’s class were girls, a ratio most computer science programs can only dream of,” writes Schaffert-Callaghan.

At the end of the lesson Hernandez showed her game to the group. “The kids watched as a small green turtle moved quickly across the screen, filling it with a rainbow of intricate pop-art patterns, earning a big round of applause.”

Within 10 years, all New York City schools will offer computer science, pledges Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Chicago plans to require a year of computer science for high school graduates by 2018, reports the New York Times. (Really! How many can add fractions?) “The San Francisco Board of Education voted in June to offer it from prekindergarten through high school, and to make it mandatory through eighth grade.”

LA: If D’s don’t count, 3/4 won’t graduate

Ten years ago, Los Angeles Unified’s board decided that all students would have to pass college-prep courses required by state universities with a C or better to graduate, starting with the class of 2017. Three-fourths of 10th graders won’t graduate in 2017, the district estimates.

Tomorrow, the board is expected to ease graduation requirements: D students will be allowed to graduate

In addition, the board may let students stay in enrolled until age 22, an option now reserved for special education students and new immigrants who need time to learn English.

Meanwhile, a state bill would eliminate the graduation exam because it’s not aligned to Common Core standards.

This story profiles an 18-year-old who’s “aced” her classes in a home-study program but failed the math portion of the graduation exam.

The state exam measures basic skills: It’s possible to pass the math portion with elementary arithmetic skills and a little guessing. If it were aligned to Common Core, most students would fail.

New discipline rules make schools less safe

“Progressive” discipline policies such as “restorative justice” are reducing suspensions — and making schools less safe, argues Paul Sperry in the New York Post.

Convinced traditional discipline is racist because blacks are suspended at higher rates than whites, New York City’s Department of Education has in all but the most serious and dangerous offenses replaced out-of-school suspensions with a touchy-feely alternative punishment called “restorative justice,” which isn’t really punishment at all. It’s therapy.

. . . everywhere it’s been tried, this softer approach has backfired.

Chicago teachers say they’re “struggling to deal with unruly students” under a new policy that minimizes suspension, reports the Chicago Tribune.

“It’s just basically been a totally lawless few months,” said Megan Shaunnessy, a special education teacher at De Diego Community Academy.

De Diego teachers said the school lacks a dedicated “peace room” where students can cool off if they’ve been removed from a class. They say the school does not have a behavioral specialist on staff to intervene with students, nor does it have resources to train teachers on discipline practices that address a student’s underlying needs.

 “You have to have consequences,” fifth-grade teacher John Engels said of the revised conduct code. “If you knew the cops weren’t going to enforce the speed limit, when you got on the Edens Expressway you’d go 100 miles an hour.”

Oakland students discuss behavior issues in a "talking circle."

Oakland students discuss behavior issues in a “talking circle.”

All over the country, teachers are complaining that student behavior has worsened under lenient policies, writes Sperry.

It has created a “systemic inability to administer and enforce consistent consequences for violent and highly disruptive student behaviors” that “put students and staff at risk and make quality instruction impossible,” wrote Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahern in a letter to the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Los Angeles Unified also is seeing problems, writes Sperry.

“I was terrified and bullied by a fourth-grade student,” a teacher at a Los Angeles Unified School District school recently noted on the Los Angeles Times website. “The black student told me to ‘Back off, b—h.’ I told him to go to the office and he said, ‘No, b—h, and no one can make me.’ ”

Oakland Unified is considered a national model for using restorative justice programs to cut suspensions in half.  “Even repeat offenders can negotiate the consequences for their bad behavior, which usually involve paper-writing and ‘dialogue sessions’,” writes Sperry.

There have been serious threats against teachers,” Oakland High School science teacher Nancy Caruso told the Christian Science Monitor, and yet the students weren’t expelled. She notes a student who set another student’s hair on fire received a “restorative” talk in lieu of suspension.

. . . White teachers are taught to check their “unconscious racial bias” when dealing with black students who act out. They’re told to open their eyes to “white privilege” and white cultural “dominance,” and have more empathy for black kids who may be lashing out in frustration. They are trained to identify “root causes” of black anger, such as America’s legacy of racism.

Conflicts can take days or weeks to resolve. Teachers must use class time for “circles” rather than academic instruction.

“RJ (restorative justice) can encourage misbehavior by lavishing attention on students for committing infractions,” warns science teacher Paul Bruno, who participated in talking circles while teaching middle school in Oakland and South Central Los Angeles.

Most schools still follow zero-tolerance rules. An 11-year-old boy was kicked out of school for a year when a leaf that looked like marijuana, but wasn’t, was found in his backpack, reports the Roanoke Times. The gifted student now suffers from depression and panic attacks.

LA gives up on ‘computers for all’

Los Angeles Unified won’t try to give every student a computer, said Superintendent Ramon Cortines on Friday. It’s too expensive, he said. Besides, he told reporters, “education shouldn’t become the gimmick of the year.”

FBI seizes LAUSD records related to troubled iPad program

John Deasy, his predecessor, was forced out after his $1.3-billion iPads-for-all plan crashed on rollout, notes the Los Angeles Times. 

Cortines requested a federal review, which found “lack of resources and inadequate planning for how the devices would be used in classrooms and, later, how they would be evaluated, reports the Times.