Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

API school test scores expected to vanish in California for 2 years — maybe forever

API school test scores expected to vanish in California for 2 years — maybe forever

Jan. 24, 2014


Real estate agents use them to tout the desirability of neighborhoods. Parents monitor them to choose schools. Principals live and die by them.

But Academic Performance Index scores, the cornerstone of the state’s accountability system in K-12 education, are expected to take a two-year sabbatical beginning this year. And when the API scores return — assuming they do — they’ll be a markedly different beast. What form they will take is a big unknown.

Fourth graders at Pennekamp Elem. in Manhattan Beach take standardized tests. Foreground ID is Sloane Harp. Photo by Brad Graverson/Thursday, Jan 24, 2014/The Daily Breeze
Fourth graders at Pennekamp Elem. in Manhattan Beach take standardized tests. Foreground ID is Sloane Harp. Photo by Brad Graverson/Thursday, Jan 24, 2014/The Daily Breeze

This could come as a rude awakening to the California public, which has become almost as familiar with the term “API” as Americans have long been with acronyms like GPA and P.E.

“The general public and parents and even the Realtors — they have no idea,” said Bill Lucia, executive director of the education advocacy group EdVoice. “People are going to be very confused.”

The change also promises to be challenging for educators.

“I’m really leaning on my department chairs to make sure instruction continues to be challenging,” said Mitzi Cress, principal of the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula High. “But the fear is not knowing. It’s a bit like being blind — you’re moving forward and you think you’re doing well … but you never know until those test scores come out and now we don’t have that.”

Assigned to schools every fall (usually in late August) based on the performance of students on a handful of springtime tests, the API boils the academic performance of entire schools to a number ranging from 200 to 1,000. In a sense, it’s the equivalent of an A through F letter grade for any given school, inviting easy comparisons between and among schools, with the state-set goal of 800 amounting to a B, and anything above 900 in elite territory.

That’s about to change.

“The whole rating system based on performance of the California Standards Tests, and the scaling system based on 800 — that is history,” said Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and the president of the California State Board of Education. “So the real estate agents will have to get into some new concepts.”

Kirst acknowledges that it isn’t yet known what the API will look like — or even if there will be an API — on the other side of the two-year break.

Why the murkiness? Put simply, the California public school system is awash in historic reforms — from the curricula that must be taught and tested to the way schools are funded — and state policymakers haven’t gotten around to deciding whether the API in its current (or any) iteration should remain the benchmark for success.

“The whole world has just changed,” Kirst said. “Figuring out accountability with this is something that the board has to do by 2015.”

He added that the changes in education are so vast that it is impossible for the board to address them all simultaneously.

“There’s just so much new policy it’s mind-boggling,” he said. “You have to approach it one conceptual domain at a time.”

Valid or not, arguments about complexity do little to mollify the advocacy groups who view the lack of data as a way to keep the public in the dark about the performance of its own schools.

“What it says to me is the state is just not interested in letting parents be a part of this process,” said Gabe Rose, deputy director at Parent Revolution. “How can we be a part of school improvement if we’re not getting any information about how schools are doing?”

Chief among the landmark education reforms underway is an approaching tidal wave: new content standards, which amount to a description of what students are expected to learn at each grade level.

Come fall of 2014, the California content standards — the guidepost for K-12 instruction in the Golden State since the late 1990s, will be fully replaced by Common Core — a nationwide set of content standards that aim to put a premium on critical-thinking skills over rote memorization.

Replacing the standards also means overhauling the system of assessments. Until now, students every spring have been sharpening their pencils for the STAR tests (for Standardized Testing and Reporting), which measure their grasp of the state standards.

In their place will be a system called Smarter Balance, (also referred to as Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress, or MAPP) which will swap out the old pencil-in-the-bubble exams for math and English with computerized tests. Students in grades 3-8 and 11 will take the tests this year on a trial basis. (For parents, the switch means that, for the first time in years, the state will not mail them the individual results of their children’s performance on the springtime exams.)

API changes

To smooth the transition of this huge undertaking, state lawmakers last fall passed Assembly Bill 484, which ends the STAR tests. AB 484 also provides the authority to the state Board of Education to suspend API scores for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years — a decision expected to be made at its March meeting.

This is a big disappointment to Kimberly Vawter, an assistant principal at Valor Academy Charter School in the San Fernando Valley, who teaches a middle-school class that encourages students to look at API scores when selecting a high school.

“We are very big right now in (the Los Angeles Unified School District) on school choice,” she said. “Now I feel like we are giving them a choice without giving them any information.”

If the API continues to exist — and most education watchers believe it will — the qualities it measures will be markedly less based on testing, at least in the high schools.

Under a little-known law passed in 2012, the test-score quotient of the API for high schools can be no more than 60 percent by 2016-17. To date, the API — though the product of a complex formula — has been derived 100 percent from the performance of students on tests.

Soon, in the high schools, 40 percent of the API must be based on other metrics. The specifics have yet to be hashed out, but the new components are likely to include graduation rates, dropout rates and college-and-career readiness benchmarks.

The bill’s author, Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, hails it as a major step toward moving beyond an era that tempts instructors to teach to the test.

“The API to me is not an end, it’s a means to an end,” he said. “We’re trying to create a jolt to the system that leads to curriculum being taught in ways that are both rigorous and relevant to what people might want to do with their lives.”

His bill actually has a supporter in Parent Revolution, which believes it strikes the right balance between one extreme (over-reliance on test scores) and the other (no information at all).

“Some people think test scores are the only thing that matter — we fought against that regime,” said Rose of Parent Revolution, a group best known for its advocacy of the parent-trigger law allowing parents to convert underperforming public schools into charter schools. “But we also believe they need to be a piece of the puzzle.”

Some aren’t so certain that diluting the influence of test scores on the API is a step in the right direction. Paul Warren, a research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California, says that on the one hand, it’s a more holistic way of measuring a school’s performance. On the other, he said, it leads to more ambiguity.

“When these other things are incorporated, you don’t exactly know what it means when scores are high or low,” Warren said. “It gets more complicated.”

Lucia of EdVoice puts it more bluntly.

“It’s a muddled mess right now,” he said. “It’s like mixing a bunch of colors — you’re just going to get brown.”

Further diluting focus on test scores is an obscure provision of a new school funding formula approved this past summer by the state Legislature. The overhaul — a brainchild of Gov. Jerry Brown known as the Local Control Funding Formula — not only shifts more money to school districts with high numbers of disadvantaged students, it also grants local school districts more autonomy in spending.

Somewhat paradoxically, in order to earn this local control, all school districts are required by the state to create a “local control accountability plan” that demonstrates how their schools will meet expectations in eight priority areas set by the state.

API scores in and of themselves don’t even make up one of these eight areas. Instead, they’ve been relegated to one of several bullet points under the priority titled Student Achievement. Other priorities include Student Engagement, Parental Involvement, Course Access and Implementation of Common Core.

State educators point out that the accountability plans pertain to a new, local layer of accountability, not the statewide one long associated with STAR testing. But even local school administrators are confused about what role it will play, not to mention a little annoyed at the fuzzy plan for its rollout.

Tim Stowe, chief academic officer of the Torrance Unified School District, notes that while the deadline for local districts to submit their local-control plans is July, the state won’t release the rubric for how those plans will be evaluated until October 2015.

“These timelines are out of whack,” he said. “It’s ludicrous.”

If school administrators are confused about what is around the corner, the general public isn’t even aware major change is afoot.

“When I talk about this to friends of mine who have kids … they are hearing about it for the first time,” said John Lee, executive director of the advocacy group Teach Plus. “To them, it doesn’t pass the smell test that we’re moving into this phase where, for three years, there is not going to be any accountability system in place.”

But Kirst believes the end result of a more holistic picture will be worth the growing pains.

“Schools are complex and have many dimensions,” he said. “To have everything hinge on a single test taken on a single day is too narrow.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Centinela Valley schools lag in academic performance despite paying superintendent $663K

Centinela Valley schools lag in academic performance despite paying superintendent $663K

By Rob Kuznia, The Daily Breeze

Posted: 03/07/14, 12:53 PM PST | Updated: on 03/09/2014

More stories investigating the Centinela Valley

The tiny Centinela Valley Union High School District employs one of the most expensive superintendents in the state of California, if not the nation.

And the district is spending nearly $200 million to provide state-of-the-art facilities at the three high schools it serves: Lawndale, Leuzinger and Hawthorne.

But the district’s test scores — while on the rise — remain the lowest among all 80 school districts in Los Angeles County. Its dropout rate — while improving — now sits at 24 percent according to the latest available figures from the state. This means about one out of every four students who starts ninth grade in the district stops attending school before graduating. The countywide average dropout rate for high schools is 15 percent. At the Los Angeles Unified School District, it’s 20 percent.

Still, the story of Centinela Valley’s academic progress is multifaceted. In summary, the district, under the leadership of Jose Fernandez — whose total compensation ballooned from $286,000 in 2010 to $663,000 last year — has made some academic strides, though not enough to lift the district out of the basement on many measures.

Fernandez, who took the helm in 2008, did not respond to a request for comment. But under his watch, the district has made gains on test scores, graduation rates, college readiness, attendance, the performance of English learners and the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses, among other things.

It also has launched several academies — schools within schools — designed to spark student interest in careers such as engineering, marine science, criminal justice, environment and culinary arts. Last year, it was recognized by the state for linking coursework to career pathways.

Hawthorne High recently became the only high school in the South Bay or Harbor Area to offer a curriculum called International Baccalaureate, an accelerated program that rivals Advanced Placement and whose most successful graduates can enter college as sophomores.

Although controversial, the new facilities bankrolled by two voter-approved bond measures have been a boon to a population of students whose level of poverty can be staggering. Teachers union President Jack Foreman says students at Hawthorne High use the brand-new media center as a place to study until 8 p.m., in many cases because it beats trying to do homework in cramped apartments.

“Half of these kids are living in very unstable homes — crazy living situations,” he said. “There were two brothers last year who told me, ‘We’re back living behind the tattoo parlor.’ ”

The Lennox apartment of a family he visited was even more discouraging, Foreman said.

“It was worse than things I’ve seen in Third World countries,” he said. “You walk in and there’s some little tiny kitchen like in the hallway. … No central room to sit, it was dark. Oh, God — just run down. A lot of our kids are coming from places like this.”

Although the district’s test scores have risen in five years, they remain a sore subject. The district’s 2013 Academic Performance Index score — a number from 200 to 1,000 assigned to schools every fall based on the performance of students on a handful of springtime tests — rose from 626 when Fernandez first arrived to 680 last year.

And yet, the 680 figure is not only the lowest districtwide score in Los Angeles County, it’s 19 points below the next lowest-scoring district, Compton Unified. In fact, Centinela Valley’s API score has been the lowest of all 80 districts since at least 2009, with the exception of 2012, when it crept up to 78th before dropping back to last, according to the California Department of Education.

(The county technically serves 81 districts, but the lowest performing of them — the Los Angeles County Office of Education — isn’t considered a regular school district as it caters to high-risk students: juvenile offenders, pupils with disabilities and potential dropouts.)

In fairness, educators say high school districts are at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to API scores because elementary students generally perform better on tests than older students.

“I would strongly argue that the L.A. County ranking is way too simplistic and definitely does not provide a fair and accurate picture of CV’s academic situation,” said John Schwada, a public relations consultant hired in late February by the district, about three weeks after the Daily Breeze published the initial story about Fernandez’s compensation. “The L.A. County ranking compares apples and oranges.”

Even so, there are five high school districts in Los Angeles County, and Centinela Valley currently ranks last among them. And of the 67 high school districts across California with a 2013 API score, Centinela Valley ranks 65th, ahead of King City and Upper Lake. (A handful of high school districts had no score.)

Schwada also noted that Lawndale High School’s scores fall in the top 50 percent when held against individual schools across the state with similar demographics. Hawthorne High falls in the top 40 percent among like high schools; Leuzinger, the bottom 40 percent.

He also pointed out that, although the district’s dropout rate as a whole is higher than LAUSD’s, the corresponding figure for individual schools paints a more favorable picture. Lawndale High’s dropout rate of 5.6 percent is better than nearly 60 percent of all high schools in Los Angeles County. He also noted that Hawthorne High’s rate of 18.6 percent is better than 21 percent of the county’s high schools, including Gardena High.

In any event, Allan Mucerino, who in the fall of 2012 became the district’s assistant superintendent of educational services, said the district’s overall API ranking among school districts in Los Angeles County is all the more reason to redouble efforts to improve further.

“I don’t want to make excuses,” he said. “I think that’s just a message that we need to continue to improve and do better. It’s why I’ve chosen to work here, because there is a lot of room for growth and work to be done, and, as a result of that, the rewards are that much greater.”

Foreman is adamant that schools in Centinela Valley have improved significantly over the past four years.

“Leuzinger (High) is a transformed school,” he said. “I mean, that place was a hell-hole before.”

The most easily recognizable change at that school at 4118 Rosecrans Ave., in Lawndale, is the campus itself. Bankrolled by funds from a pair of voter-approved construction bonds worth a combined $196 million, the district replaced half of Leuzinger’s 80-year-old campus with a state-of-the art wing of classrooms.

Educators say discipline problems there are way down as well. And Leuzinger is no longer at the bottom of the heap on test scores.

Some, however, attribute the school’s aberrant API score spike of 56 points in a single year in 2011-12 to a corresponding sudden near quadrupling of the student population at the nearby Lloyde Continuation School, reportedly to ensure that the tests of poor-performing students would not take be reflected in Leuzinger’s scores.

“A lot of the API score comes from the 10th grade CAHSEE score,” said a district employee who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, referring to the California High School Exit Exam. “There was a big sweep of 10th-graders sent to Lloyde. Those kids should not have been sent.”

Mucerino — who was not in Centinela Valley at the time — says while he has heard the same accusation, he believes the number of students short on credits was just unusually large that year. However, the following year, enrollment at the continuation school dropped closer to normal, and Leuzinger’s test scores plunged by 25 points.

Despite Centinela Valley’s academic struggles, plenty of the district’s students do go on to thrive after high school.

Genesis Gutierrez, the 2013 valedictorian at Lawndale High School, earned a full-ride scholarship to Cal State Long Beach, where she is already on pace to graduate early. Four of the other top students all went to either Brown University, UC Santa Barbara or UCLA.

“I loved the teachers, they were amazing,” she said. But she added: “It was just very sad that at Lawndale High School, sometimes we would have textbooks that were outdated, mismatched, tearing, ripping, etcetera.”

She lamented that students had to procure their own novels for English class, and the science labs — due to the massive construction under way — were held in bungalow classrooms.

“We had to share goggles and lab aprons,” she said. “It’s not the teachers’ fault by any means, it’s just that there wasn’t the funding.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

High school football player helps reassemble a ruined team after everybody walks

High school football player helps reassemble a ruined team after everybody walks

April 6, 2013


For Jason Ferguson, captain of the varsity football team at St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey, the first day of this past season was pretty normal: everybody showed up, ran some laps and went home. But that was the beginning and end of “normal.”

When the powerhouse football team at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey quit en masse this fall and its members scattered to other schools, Jason Ferguson, the captain, stayed behind. He later helped recruit a large group of boys to assemble a new junior varsity team from scratch. St. Bernard High recently honored Jason with a leadership award for his team spirit.
When the powerhouse football team at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey quit en masse this fall and its members scattered to other schools, Jason Ferguson, the captain, stayed behind. He later helped recruit a large group of boys to assemble a new junior varsity team from scratch. St. Bernard High recently honored Jason with a leadership award for his team spirit.

Later that night, Coach Larry Muno, upset about a contract calling for him to fundraise for his own salary, walked. It was a bombshell. Within a week, nearly all the players on the varsity squad had scattered to other schools. Suddenly, what had been a 10-0 team the prior season was dust. Vanished, too, was the junior varsity team.

The teams were gone, but not all the players. Ferguson, captain of the varsity team and an outside linebacker, stayed on.

“St. Bernard is pretty much a family to me,” said the soft-spoken high school senior, who next year plans to study computer science at either Northern Arizona University or the University of Arizona. “I couldn’t really leave it behind.”

It was a painful decision. All summer long, Jason had been looking forward to a final year of football, and now that senior dream was dashed. Or was it? A new coach was soon hired. That coach, John Bibb – nicknamed “Bama” for his Alabama upbringing and faint accent – solicited Jason’s help in recruiting some guys to assemble a junior varsity squad.

Jason took this calling to heart. He hit up five senior guys who weren’t already on the team. Using Facebook and Twitter, he gently cajoled the waverers.

Jason also gave tours during freshmen orientation with an ulterior motive in mind. If a group contained an unsuspecting big guy, Jason made sure to take a detour through the courtyard, where Bama was lying in wait. The coach gave a quick spiel and let the kid know what time practice would be.

“They were like, ‘OK,'” Jason said. “They pretty much kind of got tricked into it.”

Eventually, they’d cobbled together a team of about 30. About half of the players had never before suited up for the gridiron. The junior varsity squad canceled its first couple of games so it could get up to snuff. But the Friday night of the team’s first game on Sept. 14 was soon less than a week away, and Jason was pumped: He was going to play football again after all.

That Thursday, the day before the game, Jason and the five other seniors were summoned into a room by Coach Bibb. The school’s two principals, Cynthia Hoepner and Mike Alvarez, were there. They had bad news: The Del Rey League had rejected the team’s request to allow the seniors to play. (CIF rules allow seniors to play JV football, but divisions within the statewide league can override the rule.)

The room fell into an awkward silence. The boys choked back tears, as did the adults.

“We’re still gonna need you,” Bibb said. “You’ve been good role models. ”

Jason was the first to speak up.

“I’m in, coach,” he said.

The others followed suit. That first game was against Washington Prep High. Jason and the five seniors graced the sidelines in jerseys and jeans – fetching balls, calling plays, offering water, but, above all, providing moral support.

Jason doesn’t remember the score.

“It was a blowout,” he said.

A blowout in favor of the St. Bernard Vikings.

And so it would be for the next six games, each of them won by the Vikings, most by a wide margin. The team finished 7-0.

In one of those games – the nonleague game against Marshall High from Los Angeles – Jason and the seniors were allowed to play. On defense, Jason made a tackle. On offense, he ran the ball for a 20-yard touchdown.

After securing the league championship, the team celebrated in the locker room with pizza and fizzy apple cider, which they shook and sprayed like champagne.

Last month, at a gala celebrating the school’s 55th anniversary, Jason was feted with a leadership award for his loyalty to the team. The other person so awarded at the March 16 event was the school’s most famous alum, Kevin Chilton, who, after graduating in 1972, went on to become a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, a four-star general and an astronaut who piloted the space shuttle Endeavour on its maiden voyage in 1992.

Hoepner, one of the school’s co-principals, said Jason is all the more deserving of the award for his humility.

“I don’t know that Jason fully understood what his heroic efforts did for the morale of the school,” she said. “I don’t know that at the time he fully comprehended or even wanted the attention. … He’s a kid. He did what he felt in his heart was right to do. ”

Indeed, Jason is reluctant to take so much credit. He cited another senior who stayed on, Gilberto Cabuto, as well as two other seniors who’d done the same last year, during a strangely similar series of events with the school’s basketball team.

As for Hoepner, this fall was almost as traumatic for her as it was for the players. A new principal, she hadn’t been on staff for a month when Muno quit.

During that first week of practice, she would stand in the library, looking out the window facing the football field at the dwindling number of players. On Day Two, there were 30 or so, sans Muno. By Day Five, the roster of varsity and junior varsity players had withered to a measly eight.

“Eight players on this huge field,” she said. “You’re going, ‘That doesn’t even make an offense.’ ”

That imagery led to a rallying cry that has stuck all year at the school – one emblazoned on school-spirit T-shirts: “From Eight to Great. ”

Over the months, bonds among members of the hastily assembled team grew strong. “They’d go to the chapel before every game with Coach Bama,” Hoepner said. “They were a family. ”

She vividly remembers a celebration in the jam-packed faculty lounge after the team won the title.

“One freshman said, ‘Go hard or go home!’ The whole team, in one roar, said, ‘And home is not an option!'”

Accountability Featured Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

School superintendent amassed $663,000 in compensation

Centinela Valley schools chief amassed $663,000 in compensation in 2013

This was the first in a series of stories on the big-money politics of a high-poverty, low-performing school district in Los Angeles County. The series won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. To view a landing page with links to the entire series and infographics, click here.

Originally published on Feb. 8, 2014


The superintendent of the Centinela Valley high school district negotiated a contract so loaded with out-of-the-ordinary perks that he managed to amass more than $663,000 in total compensation last year.

Documents obtained by the Daily Breeze from the Los Angeles County Office of Education show that although Jose Fernandez had a base pay of $271,000 in the 2013 calendar year, his other benefits amounted to nearly $400,000.

On top of that, the district just over a year ago provided Fernandez with a $910,000 loan at 2 percent interest to buy a house in affluent Ladera Heights.

Though Centinela is made up of just three comprehensive high schools and a continuation school in Hawthorne and Lawndale, Fernandez’s payout in 2013 more than doubled that of his peers in larger neighboring South Bay districts.

His total compensation even eclipsed that of John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system. Deasy’s base salary is $330,000 this school year and his gross compensation is just shy of $390,000, according to the LAUSD. But the district enrolls more than 650,000 students while Centinela Valley serves about 6,600.

“That’s obscene,” said Sandra Goins, executive director of South Bay United Teachers, the umbrella union for teachers in the Centinela Valley, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Palos Verdes Peninsula school districts. “That places him above the president of the United States — the leader of the free world.”

(The overall compensation package for President Barack Obama — salary, benefits, plus other perks — amounts to $569,000 annually.)

Fernandez, 54, was hired in January 2008 to take over a district suffering from lagging student test scores as it teetered on the brink of financial ruin. He had worked in the district since 1999, serving as an assistant superintendent of business and executive director of its adult school.

A former Inglewood city councilman, he took the top job at Centinela Valley during a tumultuous time. His predecessor, Cheryl White, had just been fired, and the district was fiscally insolvent. Fernandez was viewed as a money-minded leader.

After serving nearly a year as the interim superintendent, Fernandez was promoted to permanent status in late 2008 on a narrow 3-2 vote. With the new title came a 19-month contract with a base salary of about $163,000, plus allowances.

As Fernandez moved to shake up the district and steer it back toward financial stability, school board members rewarded him with a generous contract in 2009. Though his base pay increased only slightly to $198,000, a careful read of the deal reveals some striking fringe benefits:

• An annual raise of 9 percent.

• A relatively short work year of 215 days, compared to as many as 245 days worked by superintendents of other school districts.

• The right to be paid for days worked beyond the contracted work year of 215 days.

• A clause allowing him to be reimbursed by the district for purchasing “air time,” or up to five years of service to add to the number of years he actually worked, so as to boost his lifetime pension.

• A stipulation that he can only be fired by a supermajority of the board (four of five members).

• The ability to cash out vacation pay.

• An option to take a low-interest loan from the school district to purchase a home.

Fernandez exercised the loan option a little more than a year ago, using it to buy the two-story, four-bedroom home in Ladera Heights, one of the more expensive ZIP codes in Los Angeles County. He has 40 years to pay it off, at an interest rate of just 2 percent.

“That’s a super good deal,” according to Steve Murillo, owner of First Manhattan Mortgage and Realtors in Manhattan Beach. Murillo noted that the vast majority of home loans must be paid off in 30 years; interest rates in the current market now hover in the low- to mid-4 percent range.

“It’s like they are giving him free money,” he added.

The revelations about Fernandez’s compensation package come at a time when State Controller John Chiang is calling for more transparency among California school districts about superintendent salaries. Last week, he began asking every public school district for compensation documents, so they can be posted on his website at

Chiang has been putting together a user-friendly database listing the salary and benefits of California public employees ever since the scandal in the tiny city of Bell, where city leaders hid their exorbitant pay packages from the public. City Manager Robert Rizzo was collecting a salary of nearly $800,000, part of an annual compensation package worth $1.5 million.

Rizzo, the former assistant city manager and six other Bell officials have been convicted of corruption charges. He is currently serving 10 to 12 years in prison.

“After the city of Bell demonstrated how the absence of transparency and accountability can breed fiscal mismanagement, my office endeavored to create a one-stop resource detailing compensation data for every public official and employee,” Chiang wrote in a letter sent to every public school district on Monday.

Fernandez declined to be interviewed for this story, saying, through a spokesman, that he was loath to have to defend earning what he is legally entitled to by contract.

But his supporters point out that he has brought big improvements to a district that, prior to his arrival in 2008, was on the verge of bankruptcy, not to mention a state takeover.

“We were one payroll away from being taken over,” said Bob Cox, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. “This really was a scary place.”

Under Fernandez’s tenure, test scores in the largely low-income district — once among the lowest in the county — have risen, especially at two struggling high schools, Hawthorne and Leuzinger. (They’ve dipped at Lawndale High.) Also, major facility upgrades are either underway or finished at all three campuses, thanks to a pair of voter-approved bonds netting nearly $100 million each.

In addition, Fernandez played a key role in the November 2012 passage of a parcel tax that will bolster the district’s general-fund revenues of about $50 million by $4.6 million for each of the next dozen years.

“He’s a great leader,” said board President Maritza Molina, a 2004 alumnus of Lawndale High who was elected to the board in 2009, just months after graduating with her bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara. “He is very transparent with the board.”

The school board has been so pleased with Fernandez’s leadership that it unanimously extended his lucrative contract for another four years in 2012.

Pressed about specifics in the contract, Molina instructed a reporter to discuss details with Michael Simidjian, an attorney working for the district on a contract basis.

The Daily Breeze also called the three other board members who voted for Fernandez’s 2009 contract. Two of them — Rocio Pizano and Hugo Rojas — did not return calls. The third, Gloria Ramos, returned the call but declined to comment.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, said it isn’t illegal for a school superintendent — or any government official — to earn a high salary.

“Public officials can make high salaries if an elected board approves it in an open meeting,” she said.

Julie White, a consultant with the Association of California School Administrators, said she hasn’t come across so hefty a pay package in California. “That’s a large amount of money,” she said.

But she said it isn’t necessarily unusual for superintendent contracts to include housing assistance. That said, housing perks often raise eyebrows in the K-12 realm. In 2008, then-LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer drew fire for his $3,000-a-month housing stipend, part of a compensation package that totaled $381,000.

It isn’t entirely clear how Fernandez’s 2013 total payout breaks down. Some lucrative perks in his contract would be difficult for a layperson to spot. For example, one clause reads: “The District shall pay the employee portion of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) contribution and shall Compensate Superintendent for any service credit purchased.”

Though it sounds innocuous, that clause fattened his 2013 compensation by a six-figure sum that exceeds the entire annual salaries of many superintendents. About $215,000 of that came from the district’s one-time reimbursement to him for purchasing the service credit known as “air time,” said Simidjian, who works for the firm Dannis Wolliver Kelley.

Although air-time benefits vanished on Jan. 1, 2013, as a result of statewide pension reform, officials in Centinela Valley say Fernandez purchased his years out of pocket before then, and was reimbursed by the school district during the 2013 calendar year.

Another roughly $20,000 came from how the district covers Fernandez’s annual contribution to the state’s retirement system.

One obscure benefit pertains to the 215-day work year, which payroll experts say is short. It is more common to work 225; Deasy’s LAUSD work year spans 249 days.

“Two hundred and 15 days means that he doesn’t have to work nine weeks,” said a retired member of the California Association of School Business Officials, who is highly regarded as an expert on legal school payroll matters but asked that his name not be used. “If you get a full annual salary, and there’s nine weeks a year that you don’t have to work, you certainly don’t need to take 30 days of vacation.”

The short work year essentially encourages Fernandez to cash in much or all of his vacation time at the end of the year. His contract gives him 30 days of vacation annually.

In 2013, Fernandez did this to the tune of about $25,000, Simidjian said.

The short work year also increases his daily rate of pay. This affects yet another arcane-but-important provision in Centinela: The right for the superintendent to be paid for days worked beyond the contracted work year. In 2013, this contract provision beefed up Fernandez’s bottom line by about $50,000, Simidjian said.

Even if some of these expenses are one-time payments, Fernandez’s gross compensation has risen year after year since 2010, when it was $286,290. That amount ballooned to $392,000 in 2011, then to $403,000 in 2012 and $663,000 last year, according to county Office of Education, which calculates pay and compensation in calendar rather than fiscal years. In 2014, Fernandez’s total compensation is expected to return to the $400,000s.

Meanwhile, teachers in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, which serves communities where the median household income ranges from $33,000 to $49,000, have received two raises since 2006-07 — one for 1.75 percent in 2011, and the second for 1 percent at the beginning of this school year.

Jack Foreman, the Centinela Valley teachers union president, said the pay range for teachers in the district hovers around the county average, but the benefits package is among the least generous in the county.

“It really makes me feel sick,” he said of Fernandez’s compensation. “I think the message is that the district doesn’t put a very high value on its teachers.”

In an effort to make a fair comparison, the Daily Breeze obtained the same W-2 documents from the county for the superintendents of the Torrance, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes Peninsula unified school districts. Total 2013 compensation amounted to $257,804 for George Mannon of Torrance Unified, $251,032 for Steven Keller of Redondo Beach Unified and $227,229 for Walker Williams of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified.

As for Fernandez’s compensation package, the retired school finance expert, who helped the Daily Breeze deconstruct the contract, said he has never come across a deal like this during his 29 years in the business.

“I’m just appalled — it’s horrible,” he said. “It’s such a rip-off. There are some similarities to Bell, you might say. And the problem is, since most of it is legal, who can do anything about it?”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Marina del Rey thieves caught on video stealing bike given to autistic child by Make-A-Wish

Marina del Rey thieves caught on video stealing bike given to autistic child by Make-A-Wish

When the Make-A-Wish Foundation gave a 12-year-old girl stricken with severe autism and a life-threatening medical condition an expensive tandem bicycle this past spring, it was also a gift to her mother, who cherished their rides along the beach in Marina del Rey.

But thieves snatched that gift from Mia Timbrello and her mother, Yolanda Rangel. In the wee hours of Nov. 30, two men stole the electric bike from the condo complex where it was being stored in the 4200 block of Marina City Drive.

Mia Timbrello, 12. In the back is her mom, Yolanda Rangel. (Submitted photo)
Mia Timbrello, 12. In the back is her mom, Yolanda Rangel. (Submitted photo)

Now the Sheriff’s Department is enlisting the public’s help in catching the scofflaws, who were captured on video surveillance struggling — with eventual success — to heave the cumbersome three-wheeled bike over a locked gate at the complex around 2:30 a.m.

“We really would like to get this bike back for this little girl,” said Detective Keysha Gipson of the Marina del Rey sheriff’s station, which issued a press release about the theft on Wednesday. “The bike is so unique you can’t miss it — it’s bright fire orange.”

Mia and her mother live in Whittier, but the bike was stored at a friend’s place in Marina del Rey because they enjoyed taking rides along the beach between Santa Monica and Venice. They last rode a couple of weeks before it was stolen.

“The weather was beautiful,” Rangel said. “My daughter had a grin from ear to ear.”

Mia was born with a medical condition called necrotizing enterocolitis that causes tissue death in the bowel. The condition was so severe she underwent an organ transplant at age 11/2 that replaced her liver and intestines. Rangel said she wasn’t expected to survive the procedure.

“My daughter is a miracle and shouldn’t be here,” said the single mother, who works in sales. “She fought for her life.”

After the procedure, Mia’s body rejected the organs, and she lost some of her hearing. Over the years, doctors at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center — where the transplant occurred — recommended that the family contact the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Rangel did, but there was one problem: Mia’s autism left her unable to verbalize a wish.

But the organization and the family worked together to find the perfect gift. It eventually came down to either a bounce house or a bicycle. As a test, the group brought Mia a tandem bicycle to see how she would react.

“The smile on Mia’s face was just priceless,” Rangel said.

The decision was easy. The Make-A-Wish Foundation put in an order for a bike designed specifically for Mia and her mother. The bike — valued at $3,000 to $5,000 — arrived in April.

“I live on a hill, so they put an electric pack on it to help me pedal up the hill,” Rangel said. “It looks like a chariot.”

To give the impression she was steering, Mia rode in the front seat of the bicycle, which has two wheels in the back for added stability. Rangel — and sometimes Mia’s older sister — rode in the back, where the actual steering took place.

Detective Gipson said the delay between the theft on Nov. 30 and Wednesday’s press release owes to some miscommunication about the process of reporting the crime.

“This was reported to the condo complex security first — that’s why it is coming late,” she said.

Because Mia is nonverbal, she hasn’t asked about her prized possession.

“She has pointed when we see a bike,” Rangel said. “And I’ll think, ‘Awww, she wants to ride a bike.’ ”

Rangel, 40, said if the thieves aren’t caught, she hopes they at least gave the bicycle to a child who is just as deserving as Mia, who turns 13 on Feb. 6.

Anyone with information that could lead to the recovery of the customized bicycle and the identity of the suspects involved is encouraged to contact Detective Keysha Gipson of the Marina del Rey sheriff’s station at 310-482-6022. Those who want to remain anonymous can contact Crime Stoppers at, 800-222-TIPS (8477).

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Study: Cranberry pills, acupuncture among effective preventive treatments for urinary tract infections

Study: Cranberry pills, acupuncture among effective preventive treatments for urinary tract infections

Taking antibiotics every day is the most effective way for women to prevent urinary-tract infections, followed by — in order of effectiveness — monthly acupuncture treatment, daily cranberry pills and daily estrogen therapy, according to a first-of-its-kind study by researchers at Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute near Torrance.

The report, which will be published in the Wednesday issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, is a comprehensive analysis of previous studies on the various preventive treatments, which have been investigated in isolation but never in comparison to one another in this manner.

“The purpose of this is to synthesize the literature,” said Dr. Loren G. Miller, an investigator at LA BioMed and the study’s lead researcher. “There have been dozens and dozens of little studies, but nothing that has taken the studies together and looked at them in a more holistic and global way.”

The review comes amid growing concern about the threat of antibiotics resistance, fueling interest in other strategies for preventing the infections.

Miller said he was most surprised by the apparent success rate of cranberry pills, a widely known folk remedy often viewed with skepticism in the medical establishment. But he cautioned that high-quality research on this preventive measure is in short supply. Even more scant are reputable studies on acupuncture; researchers at LA BioMed found just two, both conducted in Sweden, Miller said.

“I was unaware acupuncture was even recommended or tried for urinary-tract prevention, let alone shown to reduce infections,” he said.

Every year, millions of women suffer from urinary-tract infections, resulting in some 6 million outpatient visits and 479,000 hospitalizations nationwide. Often brought on by dehydration, sexual activity or pregnancy, the infections produce symptoms that include a burning sensation when urinating, back and rib pain due to stressed kidneys and a sense of having to urinate often without the ability to do so.

About half of women suffer at least one urinary-tract infection in a lifetime. About a quarter who experience one will endure a second within six months, said Miller, who also serves as a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Women are more susceptible than men because the urethra tube separating their bladders from the outside world is much shorter, providing less of an obstacle for the bladder-bound bugs.

The analysis at LA BioMed found that women who took antibiotics to prevent infections had the highest rate of success. The recurrence rate for this method was 0.4 a year. (An annual recurrence rate of 3.0 would mean the treatment has no measurable effect.)

The next most effective method, acupuncture, demonstrated a recurrence rate of 0.7 a year, though this number came with the caveat about the shortage of dependable studies. Estrogen therapy — which applies only to post-menopausal women — and cranberry pills both reduced the recurrence rate to 1.1 per year.

Miller said the problem with the cranberry method is that it is not standardized. The difference between supplements and juice isn’t widely studied, for instance, and the amount of concentrate varies widely by brand.

The researchers also looked at a fifth method, known as self-diagnosis and treatment, in which women take antibiotics without visiting the doctor only when they detect the symptoms of an infection.

Although this approach led to no discernible decrease in the recurrence rate, it was associated with the highest quality of life of all management strategies.

“If I was a woman with this, I would probably do the self-treatment,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t want to be bothered with going to the doctor. But everybody is different. Some say, ‘I just never want that infection again.’ ”

The LA BioMed review did not look at another emerging treatment that involves replenishing the body with naturally occurring bacteria to ward off infections. This can be done by eating yogurt, but Miller said a more direct approach is to apply the good bacteria — in the form of a lactobacillus suppository — directly to the vagina.

“There aren’t enough high-quality studies to model it at this time,” he said of the method, which he called promising.

In recent years, patients have been increasingly reluctant to take antibiotics for fear that overusing them could build resistance.

Indeed, scientists have found resistance in more infections — including some strains of urinary-tract infections caused by E. coli, a gut bacteria and a common culprit. One troubling study by the University of Manitoba put the resistance rate for trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic commonly prescribed to treat urinary-tract infections, at 21 percent, according to WebMD.

The LA BioMed study also sought to compare the costs of the various treatments. On average, patients paid $140 a year out of pocket for the antibiotics and nearly $950 a year for acupuncture. The discrepancy owes largely to how antibiotics are often covered by health insurers, whereas the cost for acupuncture is typically borne entirely by patients.

The meta-analysis reviewed six studies on the preventive effectiveness of antibiotics, four on cranberry pills, five on estrogen therapy and two on acupuncture.

Ultimately, Miller said he doesn’t recommend any particular method over another.

“Because patient preferences are very diverse, we laid out the benefits and costs of each approach to help the patient and provider choose an approach that best suits the patient’s lifestyle and preferences,” he said.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

No resources? No problem. Carson High School robotics students make good use of junk

No resources? No problem. Carson High School robotics students make good use of junk


Originally published on May 9, 2014

What the Carson High robotics team lacks in resources, it more than makes up for in resourcefulness.

Carson High’s scrappy robotics program began two years ago with a shopping cart, which served as the team’s laboratory. The four founding teammates — all freshmen — spent weeks pushing it around campus, scavenging recycled materials and junk, such as broom sticks and scrap metal, that might prove useful for building an underwater remote operating vehicle.

These days, the team has a little more in the way of resources, but it remains a have-not.

Most notably, Carson High has no swimming pool, thereby complicating the effort to participate in the annual underwater robotics competition, which is happening Saturday in Long Beach.

But team members have a way of making things work, with a little help from their friends and neighbors.

One generous neighbor, the DoubleTree by Hilton in Carson, allowed the team to use its outdoor pool in the weeks leading up to today’s competition.

There, with happy-hour hotel guests sipping cocktails nearby, the teammates have perfected their two remote-controlled vehicles.

“We have to be as creative with materials as we can,”said coach Tammy Bird, a science teacher. “It’s all about repurposing materials. … It’s completely ‘MacGyver.’ ”

Built in the shape and size of microwave ovens, the sibling robots are a complex confection of PVC pipes, broomstick handles, bilge pumps used in boat toilets, scrap metal, diapers (for waterproofing electronics), underwater cameras and skeins of wire. The curious creations are manned by a kid on the surface with an Xbox controller connected to a laptop. The robots are capable of plunging to the bottom of the pool, motoring across the surface, picking up debris, opening doors and collecting samples.

“It’s kind of like the Mars rover, where you’re sending something out to collect data, since we can’t be there,” said Bird, the lead teacher with the school’s Environmental Science, Engineering and Technology Academy.

The months of hard work have led to the annual Marine Advanced Technology Education competition, which is happening all day today at Long Beach City College.

Historically, the team has fared surprisingly well, given its meager resources. In both its first and second showings, Carson High placed fourth out of the 15 or so regional competitors.

“We beat both CAMS teams last year, and they’re an engineering school,” Bird said. “The kids said, ‘Sorry Miss Bird, we didn’t win the competition.’ I’m like ‘Oh hell, you won — you beat both CAMS teams!’ ”

The only Los Angeles Unified School District competitor in Saturday’s event, Carson High is an unlikely robotics standout. It’s an urban school serving a largely low-income population that is among the most diverse in LAUSD. The school’s test scores lag far below the state average.

Of the team’s 24 members, only one or two have a parent who works in the field. None has a car; they make the two-mile trek from the school to the DoubleTree by skateboard, foot or bicycle. (The school technically has two teams — one for each robot.)

Team captain Jelani Dozier was among the four freshmen who pioneered the program two years ago. He fondly remembers pushing the shopping cart around campus that first year in search of materials.

“We have this thing at our school called the graveyard,” he said. “That’s where teachers throw out old desks and stuff they don’t need, old computers that don’t work.”

The cart made passes through there. And Bird still chuckles about how things from her classroom and school garden went missing — and wound up on the robot.

“One of my teacher boxes with wheels to cart my books and stuff around — the wheels disappeared on that,” she said. “The rotors on my sprinkler heads were used for propellers.”

The team’s biggest score that first year was an empty five-gallon water jug, which became the core component to that first legendary robot, “Bottlenose Porpoiseful,” named after the dolphin-like marine mammal.

“The shopping cart was their laboratory, and people laughed at them,” said Nuu “Tui” Tuimoloau, a retired college counselor who volunteers with the team.

The team got the last laugh: their contrivance was the fastest robot in the competition.

True to scrappy form, the Carson High roboteers have tricked out their creations with a few enhancements that have tested the limits of the rules of the game — prompting organizers to rewrite them. For instance, the Bottlenose Porpoiseful had wheels — the ones that disappeared from the teacher cart — enabling the charismatic device to scoot along the bottom of the pool when the intent is for the robots to hover and be “neutrally buoyant.”

Now, wheels are expressly forbidden. Dozier views the new rule as a badge of honor.

“We thought outside of the box,” he said.

The premise of this year’s game mimics an eerie reality on Lake Huron, one of the five Great Lakes. On the bed of the chilly waters separating northeast Michigan from Canada are hundreds upon hundreds of shipwrecks.

Each team is meant to be a company vying for a contract to help identify the “ships,” which in reality will consist of sundry props — such as dinner plates or ship masts fashioned out of PVC pipe — at the bottom of an Olympic-size swimming pool.

Students must use their robots to pick up china, open doors, collect samples and take pictures, among other things. While achieving these tasks, the driver and co-pilot cannot be within direct view of the robots — the camera on the robot and monitor in front of them must serve as their eyes.

“It’s a real and relevant scenario,” Bird said.

For students, the program has led to real and relevant career opportunities. One junior on the team, Jennifer Baysa, this summer will work as a paid intern at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Dozier, who had been pinning his post-high school hopes on football, said he has found a new career path.

“Because of this, I’ve been able to go with Ms. Bird to places like Raytheon and Northrop Grumman and see what they’ve been doing,” he said. “It’s kind of changed my perspective on what I want to do after college. I want to be some form of mechanical engineer.”

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Centinela Valley superintendent secured $750K life insurance policy before school board approval, documents show

Centinela Valley superintendent secured $750K life insurance policy before school board approval, documents show

April 17, 2014

The embattled superintendent of the Centinela Valley school district — who is under investigation for his massive pay — took out a $750,000 life insurance policy before securing approval from the school board to do so, the Daily Breeze has learned.

That life insurance policy was in addition to a $1 million policy that Jose Fernandez had already taken out. Both were whole-life plans, meaning the premiums paid by the district can be cashed out, like the balance of a bank account.

For 54-year-old Fernandez, whose total compensation of more than $663,000 in 2013 made him one of the highest-paid public school superintendents in the nation, those policies grant him access to even more income, should he choose to surrender the policies and take the cash.

Fernandez today could surrender the larger policy for $154,770 in cash, and the smaller policy for about $83,000, said Rob Damico, an insurance expert who came to this conclusion based on charts in the policies that were obtained by the Daily Breeze.

After giving the school district the 20 percent share of any payout to which it is entitled by contract, Fernandez could cash out both policies and take home about $190,000.

“That’s a nice little bonus he’s getting,” said Damico, a State Farm insurance agent in Signal Hill. “I wish I had been the one that sold this policy. The commission would have been really nice on this thing.”

School experts say it is rare for school administrators to get whole-life insurance policies from their employers. Most public school administrators — and most employees in general — have term-life policies that offer a payout to a beneficiary only in the event of death.

Whole-life policies, on the other hand, double as savings accounts, yielding modest annual returns to the tune of about 2 to 3 percent, Damico said.

Naj Alikhan, communications director for the Association of California School Administrators, said most professionals inside and outside of education have a compensation package that includes some sort of life insurance policy.

“Those policies could come in various forms, from term-life to accidental death and dismemberment to any other configuration,” he said in an email to the Daily Breeze. “Whole life policies are rare in all lines of work.”

But Ken Shelton, the former chief business officer of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said it isn’t unheard of for administrators to get whole-life policies.

“It happens, but I don’t know the frequency,” he said. “It’s not totally unreasonable.”

In any case, whole-life policies are expensive. The Centinela Valley school district, which oversees three comprehensive high schools in Hawthorne and Lawndale, has been paying New York Life about $56,000 a year in premiums for the $1 million policy, and about $41,000 a year for the $750,000 policy. That adds up to about $97,000 a year, all for premiums.

The $1 million policy was among the many perks enshrined in Fernandez’s employment contract, approved by the school board in December 2009. Documents show Fernandez initiated the policy the next month, securing a plan from New York Life.

Nearly a year later, on Oct. 28, 2010, Fernandez took out a second policy from New York Life, according to documents obtained by the Daily Breeze. The date of issue on that $750,000 policy was Nov. 8, 2010.

However, it wasn’t until the following month, on Dec. 14 of that year, that the Centinela Valley school board approved the second whole-life policy for Fernandez among a batch of revised board polices and administrative regulations. The milieu also included $300,000 whole-life policies for Assistant Superintendents Bob Cox and Ron Hacker, as well as $150,000 term-life policies for all managerial employees, including the school board.

The school board vote wasn’t unanimous.

Voting against it was one board member, Sandra Suarez, who by then had become a lone-wolf dissenter on a board whose core three members were in lock step. (Gloria Ramos abstained on that item.)

Suarez said she wasn’t even aware of the life insurance issue at the time. Instead, she objected to a pattern she was noticing: district officials, she said, would make decisions first, and then seek board approval later. District officials often would try to rectify such matters by making the votes retroactive to an earlier date. Fernandez’s whole-life insurance policy, for example, was made retroactive to the beginning of the school year.

“Certain things he might have wanted done, they did ahead of time,” she said. “It tells us something: The board was not making the decisions; he was making the decisions.”

Reached on his cellphone Thursday, Fernandez declined to comment. The Daily Breeze also emailed detailed questions to Fernandez’s attorney, Spencer Covert. Aside from a follow-up question sent by Covert’s secretary, the office had not responded by Thursday evening.

Fernandez’s compensation package is currently being reviewed by several agencies, including the FBI, the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. What’s more, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System also is investigating the matter.

Cox, a longtime administrator in Centinela Valley who is serving as interim superintendent during the multiple probes into Fernandez’s compensation, did not dispute that it appears Fernandez took out the insurance policy before the board approved it.

“This was a district that was driven by one person,” he said. “Now, board members and even senior administrators are trying to come out from under that and to figure out how to do the right thing. That’s what’s going to happen here, and it’s going to be painful for a while, but we’re going to have to show that it’s not business as usual.”

It’s unclear whether that sequence of events amounted to a breach of state education law. Officials from two agencies — the District Attorney’s Office and the county Office of Education — declined to weigh in. Both agencies are refraining from making any further comments until completion of their probes.

Teachers union President Jack Foreman has long sounded the alarm on the policies, saying they are hidden income for Fernandez.

“It’s a gift of cash, but it masquerades,” he said. “The reason it builds cash value is you’re paying a fortune in premiums.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Varmints captivate Redondo Beach elementary school students

Varmints Captivate Redondo Beach Elementary School Students

This article was published on Sept. 20, 2012


Wild animals and elementary schools.

It might not sound like the wisest combination, but a bunch of critters paid a visit to Birney Elementary School in Redondo Beach on Thursday night, and it’s safe to say it was the most memorable lesson the kids had all week.

A ferret, a snake, a skunk, an owl, an oversized rabbit, an African serval cat. All of these animals and more took their turn on the stage, with their handler, Mollie Hogan, delivering a pithy lecture about each one, over the squirrelly exclamations of 100 or so excited kids.

“This bird can hear my heart beating,” she said of a barn owl named Dancer, explaining that owls have an extremely acute sense of hearing.

Hogan is the founder of the Nature of Wildworks, a Topanga-based nonprofit rescue shelter that provides lifetime care for nonreleasable wild animals. It also has an outreach mission to build public respect for nature and wildlife – hence the visits to elementary schools.

Holding a colorful bird the color of the sun, leaves and sky – its natural camouflage – Hogan introduced the class to a macaw parrot. Unlike the owl, the parrot likes noise generated by the enthusiastic crowd.

“She likes the fact that all of you are wearing very colorful clothes,” Hogan said. “She just thinks you guys are birds.”

Is it true parrots can talk? When Hogan’s dog, Patty, barks, the macaw says, “Patty stop it.” When the phone rings at home, the bird says, “Hello, how are you?” Once, as Hogan held the bird while saying goodbye to someone, the bird said, “Goodbye, and don’t come back.”

“It was pretty embarrassing,” Hogan said. “You have to be very careful what you say around a bird like this.”

She showed a couple ferrets – named Tinker and Bell – and then dug into a kennel to retrieve a prairie dog, the favorite food of the black-footed ferret. While holding the varmint upside down and scratching its neck – thereby putting it in a trance – Hogan explained that the black-footed ferret is the among the most endangered animals in the United States because the prairie dog had been hunted to near extinction by settlers in covered wagons.

“We don’t have prairie dogs in California, we have ground squirrels,” she explained.

The animal that actually brought the room to a hush was the skunk. That’s because Hogan warned it may spray if they were too loud. But this was in jest – the skunk had been descented.

Actually, skunks prefer not to spray if they don’t have to, because they have limited ammunition, and the smelly acid is their main line of defense. So a threatened skunk usually makes a big show of warning its potential targets. It stomps, it moon walks, it stomps some more. Then it turns around, lifts its tail and cranes its neck to face the victim.

“They are taking aim,” she said. “I’ve been sprayed by a skunk. It gets in your eyes, and causes temporary blindness, like pepper spray.”

Part of the aim of the organization is to educate the public on what makes for a good pet, and what does not.

Not so good? A ferret, which is illegal to keep, or the macaw, which tends to be picky about who it likes.

Much better is the rabbit.

“The one thing they do wrong is chew toys,” she said, as the students beheld a giant bunny named Honey. “But they are nice and quiet. … Look at how big her ears are.”

Click here to see photos

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

‘Mean girls’ dropped: Cheer coaches fired for molding snobby high school squad

‘Mean girls’ dropped: Cheer coaches fired for molding snobby high school squad


El Segundo High School has fired its two longtime cheer coaches after members of the team and parents complained that they contributed to a “Mean Girls” culture by playing favorites, issuing threats and ostracizing certain girls, among other things.

Last week’s controversial firings of the two coaches, Marney Hagen and Nicole Martin, came on the heels of an independent investigation conducted by an attorney from out of town. The Daily Breeze this week obtained a copy of a three-page report, written by El Segundo High interim principal Ali Rabiei, based on that investigation.

“Each complainant generally alleges that District employees have each engaged in harassing, bullying and intimidating behavior director toward certain student team members; and have witnessed and condoned inappropriate and harassing behavior by ‘favored’ student Cheer Team members toward other student Cheer Team members,” Rabiei wrote. “We discovered sufficient evidence to substantiate the allegations.”

In addition to the firing of the part-time coaches, the school has discontinued its competitive cheer team, which in theory is a kind of all-star crew, though parents say there were no tryouts for the team. Meanwhile, the regular cheer squad — which performs the traditional cheerleading routines for football and basketball games — will carry on, but with new coaches.

The firings, which happened Dec. 10, has divided the cheer community, with many parents and team members rallying to support the coaches.

“Most of the girls on the team want to keep the coaches — that should tell you something right there,” said Mark Reppucci, the father of a team member. “I know (the coaches) personally and I like them both, but I don’t know them as teachers or coaches.”

Parents on the other side say the bullying has been an issue for years.

“The coaches had an attitude of still being teenagers themselves,” said one parent, who declined to share her name for fear of retaliation.

“It’s ‘Mean Girls’ behavior that is promoted not just by the girls and the coaches, but also some of the parents of the ones in the in-crowd,” she added, referring to the comedy film from 2004 about teen cliques.

These parents noted that many students and cheer-squad members who support the coaches have been taking their frustrations out on a single girl via Facebook and Twitter.

“There was a firestorm” on social media, said another parent, who also requested anonymity. “One girl has been targeted as the scapegoat. But it’s not just one girl — it’s the whole culture of the team.”

The three-page report is short on specifics, likely because it is a summary version of a more detailed and confidential document from the investigation, which was based on 17 witness interviews and other pieces of evidence, collected over a period of two months this fall.

But the parents shared what they believed to be a few egregious anecdotes.

A few weeks ago, the team was on the bus for an away football game. With them was a mother who was not authorized to be on the bus. Sometime during the game, somebody filed a complaint about the matter to school district administrators, who quickly intervened, informing the parent that she couldn’t ride on the bus on the way home.

Just before the bus started back for El Segundo, a girl on the bus reportedly cussed out another girl in a threatening manner, believing she was the one who made the complaint.

The coach, the parent said, didn’t intervene.

“She never came to the girl who was threatened and said, ‘Are you OK?’

Another parent shared a story about a girl who complained to the coaches about being bullied by other teammates. That girl was cut from the team, the parent said.

“They allowed the girls to scream at each other,” she said. “The coaches would sit there and not say anything. ‘Fight it out,’ they’d say.”

The parents said the coaches discouraged parents from getting involved. They also said the coaches friended the students on Facebook.

The regular cheer squad consists of two teams, the varsity and junior varsity. Combined, it includes 47 girls. About 10 girls who tried out to participate didn’t make the cut, parents said. The competition team, which had been in existence for about four years, included about 20 members.

It does appear that the cheer team has experienced some success. The web page of El Segundo High School congratulates the team for first-place finishes at a U.S.A. Regional competition.

The Daily Breeze reached out to both coaches via Facebook, but neither responded to the messages. Hagen had been a coach for eight years; Martin had been one for five. Both women are in their forties, according to parents.

Geoff Yantz, the superintendent of the El Segundo Unified School District, declined to comment about the matter, citing personnel confidentiality laws.

The report concludes, “it is apparent that the culture of the cheer program is hostile toward Cheer Team members deemed as ‘non-favored.’ The employees, whether intentionally or unintentionally, have created, or allowed to be created, an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and general unfairness.”