Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

LMU grads trying to take hangover remedy to the big leagues

Loyola Marymount University grads trying to take hangover remedy to the big leagues

It was 2012, and a group of college buddies from Loyola Marymount University in Westchester had gone their separate ways.

While living it up in Las Vegas, Cameron Killeen noticed friends nursing their hangovers with Pedialyte — a hydration beverage meant for babies with diarrhea.

Founded and developed by three Loyola Marymount University graduates, Hayden Fulstone, Brandin Cohen, and Cameron Killeen, Liquid I.V. is a specially formulated, all-natural lemon-lime rehydration beverage.
Founded and developed by three Loyola Marymount University graduates, Hayden Fulstone, Brandin Cohen, and Cameron Killeen, Liquid I.V. is a specially formulated, all-natural lemon-lime rehydration beverage.

Brandin Cohen was in Arizona, working as a sales, marketing and branding expert with the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. In the locker room, he noticed players swigging a drink to stay hydrated. He took a closer look: Pedialyte.

When Killeen, Cohen and a third pal, Hayden Fulstone, reconnected, the recent grads swapped their Pedialyte stories and an idea was born. Why not create a drink that not only alleviates hangovers and rehydrates the body, but also spares the consumer the embarrassment of making a run to the baby aisle of a grocery store?

And thus was born the concept for what would come to be called Liquid I.V.

Advertised as “all natural lemon-lime rehydration beverage,” the product comes in two forms: a powder packet and a bottled drink that tastes a little bit like lemonade, a little bit like Gatorade, and a little bit like Emergen-C vitamin powder.

The powder form is billed as the hangover treatment; the liquid form is associated with the hydration, which is meant to appeal not only to athletes, but also military personnel and jet-lagged travelers.

“It started as a hobby,” Cohen said.

Now, it’s their life.

The three 25-year-old entrepreneurs — who graduated in 2010 and have been best friends since meeting in the dorms as freshmen — have put their careers on hold to focus full-time on their venture.

Fulstone quit his job in the marketing department at Gensler, the world’s largest architecture firm. Killeen had just passed the Chartered Financial Analyst exam for which he’d spent four years studying. Cohen was days away from moving to Boston University, where he had been accepted into its MBA program.

“Now we sit in a little room all day long and yell at each other,” Killeen joked.

They work out of an office in West Los Angeles, and store the product in a warehouse and distribution center in Long Beach.

Already, Liquid I.V. is sold at about 50 stores in and around the South Bay — mostly convenience stores and gyms such as El Segundo Athletic Club and Fit On Studios in Manhattan Beach.

Strong sales via the Internet (where eight packets sell for $24.99) and a healthy amount of capital investment have propelled them to the next level. Come mid-January, Liquid I.V. (powder) will be sold at about 150 convenience stores in and around 35 college campuses across the United States, from UCLA and USC in Southern California to Dartmouth in New Hampshire. They will hire three full-time employees.

Liquid I.V.’s initial sales data and online traction have caught the eye of business people in Las Vegas, the very city where the concept was conceived. In March, the trio will meet with representatives of a large hotel chain that — depending on the results of the upcoming launch — might sell the product in mini bars up and down the Las Vegas Strip.

Much of their success to date owes to a clever marketing campaign that befits a group of millennial men with pro-sports connections.

Liquid I.V. is used and marketed by more than 100 professional athletes — including St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha, winner of the 2013 National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player Award. The athletes receive the product for free in return for touting its merits on Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media.

Their nexus to the Major League Baseball circuit was Ryan Wheeler, a Torrance wunderkind and LMU alum who went on to play for the Arizona Diamondbacks before he was traded to his current team, the Colorado Rockies. Wheeler is now a partner in the company. Another enthusiast is famed basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale.

“It’s a great way to get a bigger following,” Fulstone said of the pro-athlete campaign. “Some have 50,000 or 100,000 followers (on Twitter). People see the Tweets and check out the website.”

Much as the pro players pimp the product online, students living near the college campuses where Liquid I.V. will be sold are set to serve as “ambassadors” who’ll spread the word to peers in return for receiving loads of it for free.

The LMU graduates owe some of their success to their alma mater. Last year, they enrolled in a new business incubator class offered by the university. The class, which kicked off in January, required businesses to create and market a prototype.

It was during that class that they, working with an experienced beverage chemist, finished the brew, a specific blend of glucose and electrolytes that the three founders say is clinically proven to rehydrate the body at a rate similar to an I.V.

So far, the track record of the seven start-up ventures that took the first class is pretty good: five are still in business.

One of them, a Web-based car-buying service called Nabthat, launched last week with some fanfare at the L.A. Auto Show.

Another, an ergonomic shovel, brought in $60,000 in seed money from a 40-day campaign on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter — putting the venture in the top 5 percent of successful Kickstarter projects.

Fulstone is careful to say that the beverage isn’t a “cure” for anything.

“When you say cure, it is stating that there is a disease and a hangover isn’t a disease,” he said. “We can only make structure-function claims such as what the drink helps with.”

But the group has gotten doctors to recommend it in lieu of more sugary drinks such as Gatorade.

To say the three friends spend a lot of time together is an understatement. In addition to having been dorm pals and roommates, they each clock in about 80 hours a week at the office.

“When we first came into the office, they told us it was only open from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday,” Killeen said. “We were like, I don’t think we can be here if that’s true. We had special keys made.”

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Lennox school board election a referendum on year of turmoil

Lennox school board election a referendum on year of turmoil

Voter turnout for the recent race to fill three seats on the Lennox school board might have been low, but the election results were pointed — and the ramifications are significant.

In a single night, voters issued a referendum on a year of extreme turmoil in the tiny, low-income K-8 district tucked in the shadow of the Los Angeles International Airport. The Lennox electorate effectively fired the two incumbents — Marisol Cruz and Sonia Saldana — who were part of the three-member majority that brought about much controversial change.

Over the course of the last year in Lennox, a narrow majority of the board has ushered in a polarizing superintendent, received a reprimand by the county’s district attorney for holding illegal secret meetings, presided over an organization that has been riven by politics and denied the request of the community’s prized charter high school — Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy — to break away from the district.

Now, the new board makeup — which takes effect next month — raises intriguing questions about the fate of that superintendent, Barbara Flores, who has been on medical leave since late August.

The new power base also raises the possibility of a do-over in the secession effort of the Lennox Academy, whose teachers and students are said to have campaigned vigorously against the two fallen incumbents.

In addition to ousting Cruz and Saldana, voters on Nov. 5 also re-elected an incumbent who was often on the losing end of those majority votes. Juan Navarro has been a soft-spoken but steady critic of the district’s recent direction.

“The voters spoke up,” he said. “Not only the voters, but our youth.”

Also, in a telling indication of the power conferred upon parents by the parent-trigger law pioneered by California in 2010, Lennox voters picked Shannon Thomas Allen for the school board. She is a leader of a grass-roots parent group in Lennox that came about largely as a result of that law, which enables a majority of a school’s parents to replace the leadership.

But the strangest outcome of Election Day was who finished in first place. Sergio Hernandez Jr., who billed himself with the County Recorder’s Office as a teacher and school administrator, breezed to victory, even though nobody seems to know who he is.

During the campaign, Hernandez did not show up for several forums and campaign events. Neither of the other winners has met him. He also did not return multiple calls from the Daily Breeze.

And yet Hernandez took 21.7 percent of the vote. The first runner up, Allen, garnered 18.1 percent; Navarro, the incumbent, collected 17.1 percent.

Despite Hernandez’s low profile, his opinion about the hot topics of the day in Lennox suddenly matter. For instance, with one member of that old board majority — Mercedes Ibarra — in the middle of her term, Hernandez could wind up the swing vote on some weighty issues.

For now, the most pressing question is what becomes of Flores, who seems to have been hanging onto power by a thread.

The 2012-13 school year began with the hiring of Flores, largely at the urging of Cruz. Flores had been a longtime professor of education at Cal State San Bernardino and a trustee on the San Bernardino City Unified school board — to which she was just re-elected last Tuesday. But she’d never been a school administrator.

The first public controversy erupted about a year ago, when Flores sent out a mass internal email that all but accused Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Brian Johnson — a 35-year Lennox school district employee — of mismanaging public funds. He was later quietly cleared by a district-hired auditor of any wrongdoing.

The backlash from that move was furious.

Flores’ detractors accused her of hiring friends to serve as consultants, fostering an inappropriately cozy relationship with the district’s employee unions, spending large amounts of public money on attorneys and over-compensating for her inexperience by taking vindictive measures against subordinates. They sent a letter detailing these and other allegations to the Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

For a time, Flores could count on the backing of her three supporters on the five-member board. But she eventually had a falling out with two of them — Cruz and Ibarra. Now, Cruz and Saldana have been voted out of office. This means all three of Flores’ original supporters have either been ousted or — in the case of Ibarra — are no longer on the best of terms with her.

However, Allen — the parent volunteer — last year was a Flores supporter from the sidelines. Asked last week to share her thoughts on Flores, Allen said, “I would love to see her back (from medical leave) and engaging with the board — not only the board, but with the community.”

Navarro was more direct about his position on Flores.

“I’m not happy with her performance,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with a new superintendent who’s not going to target our employees, who’s not going to have any personal agendas and vendettas against anyone, and who’s going to look for the overall well being of all students in the school district. Not just a few.”

Allen and Navarro favor allowing the academy to become an independent charter, meaning the Lennox school board and administration would lose virtually all authority over the high school.

Last month, the board rejected the academy’s bid for independence in a 3-2 vote. Now, a board majority apparently favors the bid.

Allen has been an organizer with a group that calls itself the parents union. The Lennox parents received training from a regional organization called Parent Revolution, which formed to lobby for the parent trigger law. Back in 2012, the Lennox group, with Allen as a member, demanded changes at Lennox Middle School, where they felt that instruction for English learners wasn’t strong enough. The school now has new leadership.

“I know there is a big controversy about the parent trigger law,” she said. “We never wanted to trigger our middle school. We took the trigger law and used it as leverage so we could get what we wanted for English language learners.”

On her election to the board, the mother of six said she still can’t believe her good fortune. But what she lacked in union endorsements and campaign contributions, Allen made up for in door-to-door canvassing.

“I so appreciate the community of Lennox for listening to me,” she said, “and for saying, ‘We’ll give you a chance.’”

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Torrance political slate mailer using ‘P.T.A.’ acronym infuriates the real PTA

Torrance political slate mailer using ‘P.T.A.’ acronym infuriates the real PTA


The campaign literature looks innocent enough: a glossy mailer from a Torrance organization called the P.T.A. Voters Guide — complete with decorative apples — that endorses about a dozen South Bay candidates in various races for the Nov. 5 election.

But the slate mailer has stoked the fury of the PTA that everybody knows — that is, the one that raises money for schools with bake sales and school carnivals.

The reason? The P.T.A. does not equal the PTA. The former is an organization called the “Parent Teacher Action” Voter Guide, an organization that to date exists solely to endorse the candidates who paid for a spot on the mailer.

The latter acronym stands for the Parent Teacher Association. By law and by design, this well-oiled, 105-year-old organization — whose logo is trademarked — does not endorse candidates for office.

Last week, as the glossy ad landed in the mailboxes of South Bay residents, irked local PTA affiliates wasted little time in sending their complaint up the flagpole to statewide headquarters in Sacramento. The statewide chapter, in turn, promptly relayed the complaint to the organization’s legal team at the national level.

“The PTA has great credibility because we are nonpartisan and nonsectarian, and so it’s very important to us to maintain that nonpartisanship,” said Colleen You, president of the California State PTA. “In this particular case, I think the group or the individuals circulating the mailer are trading on the credibility and reputation of the PTA.”

Michele Nadeau, a parent volunteer at South High in Torrance, was less diplomatic.

“I think it’s horrible,” said Nadeau, who was careful to mention that she was speaking as a parent, not a PTA representative. “It’s a direct attempt to mislead the voters. They’re vying to represent us yet they are hoping we are uninformed. It’s insulting. I think it’s disturbing that we have candidates resorting to these tactics — deliberately trying to deceive us.”

Slate mailers often take liberties in an effort to provide a certain snapshot portrayal of what they stand for. But this dustup raises questions about how far they can go before crossing an ethical or even legal line.

The creator of the mailer is Liberty Campaign Solutions, a political consulting company run by Patrick Furey.

A representative of the company who declined to give his name said the group is well within its legal right to use the acronym.

“We have never given any false claim to being affiliated with that organization,” he said, pointing out that the literature includes a disclaimer, on the bottom of the back page, stating that the group is not affiliated with the “National PTA nor any Parent Teacher Association.”

By way of comparison, he cited the well-known California slate mailer “COPS Voter Guide.”

“The people who put it out are not law enforcement in any way whatsoever,” he said. “However, I am sure that they support safe neighborhoods and protecting families. That’s their thing. That’s what they are advocating for.”

Likewise, he said, the P.T.A. Voter Guide is advocating for quality education and safe schools.

“When we speak to candidates, we ask them, ‘Do you support safe schools and quality education?’ ” he said. “It is a pledge.”

Among the candidates who took this pledge is Sergio Mortara, the only one of five contestants for the Hawthorne school board whose name and bio is on the mailer. Mortara, who has never run for political office, said he was taken aback by how, just days after he filed his campaign papers, he was flooded with solicitations from slate mailers and consultants.

Of the seven or eight mailers that came his way, the P.T.A. slate seemed like the best fit.

“The other ones were either Republican or Democrat,” he said. Asked if he thought it is misleading to use the P.T.A. acronym, he said, “It never dawned on me, the similarities, to be honest.”

Also on the mailer is John Paul Tabakian, who is running for a seat on the Torrance school board. Tabakian says he did not pay to be on the mailer. Instead, his spot was purchased by some other organization or individual that supports him.

“I don’t know who did,” said the political science instructor at Los Angeles Mission College and L.A. Trade Tech, who is supported by an alliance that includes unions and Republican groups alike. “The way I see it, I cannot refuse to be on the slate.”

Tabakian likes to say that he is a professor, not a politician, and he views the situation with a degree of detachment. In fact, he used the slate mailer as a discussion piece in one of his classes.

“One of my students said, ‘I think that is misleading,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘In politics, perception is everything.’ ”

One Torrance school board candidate who is not on the mailer is Michael Wermers, currently the board president. Liberty Campaign Solutions repeatedly solicited him to purchase an ad. (The participation cost reportedly varies according to the race, but one source said Liberty asked for $1,000.)

“It seemed like a capitalization of the PTA’s logo,” Wermers said. “That’s what turned me off.”

Terry Ragins, a Torrance school board member with a long history of PTA involvement, said one galling aspect of the mailer is that some of the candidates, in her opinion, are definitely not friends of schools. In particular, she was referring to Rick Marshall, a candidate for the El Camino College board, who in the past has been criticized — by school people and judges alike — for filing frivolous lawsuits against Torrance Unified.

But she expressed surprise that the mailer includes an ad for Torrance school board member Mark Steffen, whose bid for re-election she has endorsed.

“I’m guessing he was not clear about what he was getting into,” she said of Steffen, who couldn’t be reached for comment.

Ragins is also puzzled by the mailer’s inclusion of an advertisement for the Torrance mayoral candidacy of Pat Furey, father of Patrick. That election won’t happen until June 2014.

“He has been a huge friend of the PTA,” she said of the elder Furey, noting how the Torrance City Council member is working with the organization to find more foster parents in Torrance. “He’s a friend of mine, and I’ve always felt like he’s an honorable person. That’s why I’m withholding judgment.”

Furey also couldn’t be reached for comment.

As for the slate mailer, the blow-back from the PTA has been enough to persuade Liberty Campaign Solutions to begin the process of changing the P.T.A. logo.

“We have our graphic artist working on it,” the representative said, adding that the new logo will be ready by the next cycle of elections in 2014. “We don’t want to piss off the PTA. That’s not our goal.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Common Core standards put focus back on critical thinking

Common Core standards put focus back on critical thinking

Torrance Unified School District is implementing new Common Core curriculum that aims to take a more critical thinking path to education. West Torrance High English teacher Jim Evans talks to freshmen class. 20130917 - Torrance, CA -- Photo by : Robert Casillas / DAILY BREEZE
Torrance Unified School District is implementing new Common Core curriculum that aims to take a more critical thinking path to education. West Torrance High English teacher Jim Evans talks to freshmen class. 20130917 – Torrance, CA — Photo by : Robert Casillas / DAILY BREEZE

In Julie Shankle’s English class at North High in Torrance, the Macbeth unit is no longer just the study of a 17th century play about a man who commits murder in a bid to become king and maintain power.

Now, her 12th-grade lesson has an added element: Students must mine data to produce an essay based on the prompt, “Is killing ever justified?” This means making a compelling case and citing credible sources — perhaps a news article on euthanasia, or a TED Talks video of a professor expounding on the death penalty.

The adjustment typifies an oncoming sea change in education known as the Common Core standards, which have been gradually creeping into the classroom and are to be fully implemented in California by next fall. The idea is to emphasize real-world relevancy and critical-thinking skills over rote memorization, with an eye toward preparing students for college and jobs.

In some respects, it is a kind of backlash against the culture of testing that has intensified over the past decade.

“I can now say I’ve been in the profession long enough to see things come full circle,” Shankle said. “It’s bringing back the focus on critical thinking that sort of disappeared in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind. Now, we’re trying to blend critical-thinking skills with testing, testing, testing.”

Unlike previous education reforms, Common Core is not a mere tweaking of teaching methodology; it is a sweeping revamp that will touch every K-12 classroom of all 45 states that have adopted the standards.

In devising the standards, the creators started by determining what students needed to know to be successful as freshmen in college, and worked backward, step by step, all the way to kindergarten.

Tim Stowe, chief academic officer of Torrance Unified, said he expects Common Core to underscore an important concept in education: the textbook is not the class. In an age where any fact is but a few keyboard clicks away, students will be required to synthesize information using a variety of sources besides the textbook — including the Internet.

“For history, that will really tie into the use of primary sources,” Stowe said. “For science, it gets into ‘What does the latest research say?’ ”

The changes will be significant, and some are already in effect.

For instance, elementary school students in the South Bay and beyond are already reading more informational texts — about geography, say, or planets — and fewer stories featuring old standbys such as “Clifford the Big Red Dog” or “Beezus and Ramona.” The change is in keeping with the Common Core recommendation to split fiction and nonfiction 50/50.

In math, deriving the right answer won’t be good enough; students will be expected to understand the underlying concepts. Middle schoolers may ponder the question, “What is multiplication?” (Answer: repeated addition.) High school students may ask, “What does the word ‘number’ mean?”

In English, a key aim is to improve the ability of students to formulate a well-thought-out, well-written argument.

“I don’t care if they are for or against, or whether it jibes with what I think,” Shankle said. “I care about: ‘Do they have a thesis, do they support the thesis, and do they bring in credible sources.’ ”

Much like the No Child Left Behind Act — which was co-sponsored by President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — Common Core is in theory a bipartisan initiative, endorsed by both the Obama administration and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

But in practice, controversy — while slow to materialize nationwide — has been percolating among many conservatives, who believe the movement to be a pretext for a takeover on the part of the federal government. Not unlike what happened with health-care reform, several states have put up resistance. Indiana, for instance, has cut off funding for the initiative. Similar fights have broken out in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

However, the pushback is largely missing in California, even among some of the more conservative districts.

Some say this is because California’s first standards, established in the late 1990s, were among the most ambitious in the nation. The new Common Core is not seen as a radical shift.

“We’re used to the idea of having standards that we have to teach toward,” said Gerardo Loera, who heads the curriculum office of the Los Angeles Unified School District. “We’re not questioning the philosophical ‘why,’ just the practical ‘how.’ ”

To be sure, there are critics in California. Among them is Bill Lama, a Palos Verdes Estates resident who spearheads a grass-roots group that is trying to persuade the school board of the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District to opt out of the Common Core program.

“P.V. has a very good school district,” said Lama, who adds that his group, Concerned PV Parents, has at least 100 members. “The kids graduating from high school go on to the best colleges in the country, then go on to grad school, become professional people and do well. So what is the problem we are trying to fix?”

Kathy Santarosa, a science teacher at Miraleste Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes, doesn’t see it that way.

“Are we going to wait until we fall behind everybody else?” she said. “Why not stay ahead? Why not stay at the forefront? That’s where we want to be in P.V.”

Santarosa, who is president of the Palos Verdes Faculty Association, added that Common Core is the product of an industry that, by necessity, is always changing.

“We are always trying to master how to disseminate information to our students,” she said. “How do we get through to our students? How are we connecting their world to the information they need to know? That is truly what Common Core is about.”

Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, believes Common Core is viewed by many teachers in California as a breath of fresh air, in part because it is “more realistic and smarter” than the state’s 1997 standards, which are often criticized as a mile wide and an inch deep.

It also recognizes the educator as the expert, he added.

“From our point of view, this is a powerful antidote to the increasingly obtrusive, top down, ‘this is what you have to do’ view of reform,” Vogel said.

At Torrance Unified, teachers are trained by other teachers. One teacher trainer is Jim Evans, who spends half his day working with teachers and the other half in his ninth-grade English classroom at West High School.

On a recent day, he geared his students up for a lesson that would culminate with them writing a letter to the Torrance school board. They started not with a page from a textbook, but a video on YouTube, of a high school student respectfully criticizing the Alhambra school board.

As teacher, Evans’ role was less about telling them what to do than helping them find a focus. Adopting a practice known as the Socratic Method, he posed open-ended questions to the class: What is the purpose of school? What role does online education play? What is right with Torrance schools? What is wrong with Torrance schools?

“We’re moving away from a value on recall, and more toward the skill of synthesizing ideas,” Evans said after the class. “In the old days, I might have done a quiz on your reading last night: ‘Let me catch you on what you didn’t read.’ ”

Now, he said, the class might study how author Ray Bradbury creates suspense, and then might try to emulate his methods in their own narrative writing.

Stowe of Torrance Unified said teachers will be encouraged to spend less time dwelling on details.

“We don’t want English teachers, for example, to go through and grade every punctuation mark and every spelling error,” Stowe said. “When kids get that piece of paper back, they’re not thinking, ‘Oh man, I missed that period. That should have been a comma.’ ”

He added: “Not that it’s not important; it absolutely is. We need to find ways to make sure students are learning those skills, but in the context of this more challenging, higher-level critical thinking work.”

Pat Wingert of The Hechinger Report contributed to this article.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

LAUSD teacher placed on leave after profanity-laden outburst is recorded by student

LAUSD teacher placed on leave after profanity-laden outburst is recorded by student

An audio clip of a high school English teacher repeatedly dropping the F-bomb during a classroom outburst has gone viral on the campus of Narbonne High in Harbor City.

In the clip, which was recorded by a student on Sept. 26, the teacher yells “I know my f–ing s–t. Don’t f— with that. I’m tired of trying to educate you, and you guys resist every step of the f—ing way. Get the f— out of here.” (Listen to the audio clip).

The outburst occurred in the classroom of a fledgling new school for performing arts that is located on the campus of Narbonne High. Called Humanities and Art Academy — or HArts Academy for short — the school officially broke away from the comprehensive high school this fall.

Although students at Narbonne and HArts know the teacher’s name, the Daily Breeze has decided not to publish it, believing that wide dissemination would cause years of damage to her reputation, far outweighing her transgression. The teacher has been placed on paid leave while Los Angeles Unified School District administrators investigate.

Reached at home, the teacher said she is deeply sorry.

“You know, I had a weak moment,” she said. “Forgive me.”

The teacher added that the clip was recorded by a student who had been heckling her in front of the 12th-grade class. That student then allegedly brought the recording to a Narbonne High faculty member with whom the teacher has had an adversarial relationship. The HArts Academy teacher contends the Narbonne teacher began disseminating the recording to others on campus.

“This girl took my moment of weakness and used it against me,” the teacher said of the student. “And then the teacher (at Narbonne) egged (the student) on to send it to her, and then they disseminated it. It’s just cruel.”

The episode is the latest example of how students using their cellphones to take pictures or recordings of what is happening in the classroom can have a profound effect on campus. It also raises questions about what constitutes inappropriate behavior on the part of a teacher in the classroom.

Several weeks ago, a teacher was placed on leave at Da Vinci Science charter school in Hawthorne after a student snapped a photo of a test question that took a jab at crosstown rival Hawthorne High.

Said the prompt: “Little known fact: the early years at Jamestown were characterized by violence, a lack of knowledge and the presence of many women of questionable moral character. A little like modern-day Hawthorne High School.”

The prompt was photographed by a student at Da Vinci, who emailed it to a friend at Hawthorne High, who in turn posted it on Instagram. The photo eventually made its way to officials at the Centinela Valley Union High School District.

Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said the incidents are a reminder to teachers — and, really, to everyone — that these days, every human interaction has potential to be public.

“Technology has led us into a conundrum,” said Rosen, a leading scholar on technology devices and their effect on the human psyche. “On the one hand, you get to know everything, everywhere, anytime you want. But the price you pay is your privacy.”

Rosen said he bears this in mind when delivering his lectures, though he says has hasn’t allowed the presence of mobile devices to alter the way he teaches.

“I still swear in class,” he said with a laugh. “But I knew that if I didn’t tame my language, somebody could have complained about me long ago. But I think (swearing) can provide a hook for some students to remember material.”

Of course, college and high school are different environments, and their standards for what constitutes acceptable behavior by teachers differ accordingly.

LAUSD’s code of ethics includes a dozen behaviors for teachers to avoid. Among them:

“Engaging in any behaviors, either directly or indirectly with a student(s) or in the presence of a student(s), that are unprofessional, unethical, illegal, immoral, or exploitative.”

Ellen Morgan, a spokesperson for LAUSD, said that, generally speaking, a violation of the code will trigger an investigation.

“At the outcome of the investigation, he/she will meet with the individual and conference, reprimand, discipline and/or move to recommend dismissal,” Morgan said in an email.

She added that, in situations similar to the one in question — provided no other information surfaces to contradict the action — the employee will often be issued a “notice of unsatisfactory act” for the behavior.

The HArts Academy teacher did point out that the girl who recorded the outburst broke school rules just by having her cellphone on in class. Indeed, LAUSD policy prohibits the use of cellphones during class time.

In any case, the teacher was leading a classroom discussion about race and ethnicity when the confrontation erupted. The teacher said she was trying to make the point that the term “African-American” is, in some respects, a misnomer.

“You’re an American first,” she said, adding that her forebears were Italian, and she doesn’t refer to herself as Italian-American.

The teacher — who worked at Narbonne for many years before switching over to the new school — said the girl repeatedly told her that she was wrong. “I was trying to explain the difference between race and ethnicity, and this girl kept poking the bear,” she said.

“I’ve always felt safe with my students,” said the teacher, who attended Narbonne herself. “That’s why it hurts so much that someone would do this.”

The teacher said she was feeling burdened by two major stressors that day. First, she was in physical pain, and soon after had an appendectomy. Also, HArts has been locked in a bitter fight with Narbonne High over 90-plus students who are reportedly being kept from switching from Narbonne to the new school. The dispute has forced the new school — which enrolls 385 students — to shed four of its 16 teachers. Meanwhile, Narbonne has added three teachers to its roster.

The resulting tension has had the effect of pitting some teachers against each other on the same campus. The teacher in question said she believes this atmosphere of distrust added incentive for teachers at Narbonne to pass the sound clip around.

“These are people who used to be my friends,” she said.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Lennox school superintendent says 2 board members ‘usurped’ her duties

Lennox school superintendent says 2 board members ‘usurped’ her duties

In the latest twist of a saga that has roiled on all year, the embattled superintendent of the Lennox School District has written a letter accusing two school board members — once her two closest supporters — of overstepping their authority by trying to make personnel decisions over her objections and without the authority of the board majority.

The Aug. 6 letter from Superintendent Barbara Flores, which was obtained Monday by the Daily Breeze, says board members Marisol Cruz and Mercedes Ibarra maneuvered to make at least a half-dozen personnel changes on a day when she missed work due to an illness. On that day — Aug. 2 — Cruz and Ibarra allegedly directed the district’s deputy superintendent, Kent Taylor, to make the changes.

“The usurpation of my duties by two board members is a breach of contract,” Flores wrote. “I am seriously concerned about reprisals and retaliation from Ms. Cruz and Mrs. Ibarra and their aggressive tactics in the workplace.”

The letter goes on to quote Cruz saying, “I am the President of the Board and the sole authority and leader of the District.” Similarly, Flores quotes Ibarra as saying that she and Cruz “run the show” in the Lennox School District.

The letter by Flores, addressed to every board member, underscores the turmoil that is increasingly undermining the stability of the district’s leadership. Just a few months before, Cruz and Ibarra were the closest supporters of Flores, who has been a controversial presence in the district and on the board ever since her tenure began in July 2012.

Before Flores was hired, the 65-year-old veteran professor of education at Cal State San Bernardino had never worked as a school administrator. Critics say she has led with a heavy hand, hiring friends as consultants and firing or demoting anyone seen as a potential detractor.

This summer, in the wake of last year’s turmoil, four of eight principals moved on.

But her supporters have credited her for giving parents more of a voice. Until now, those supporters have included Cruz, who declined to discuss the letter in much detail, other than to say that it is the product of a political environment during an election year.

“I brought her here; I fought for her,” Cruz said. “When I did that, I was a hero to some people. And now when I raise concerns regarding her performance, I become a corrupt official to those same people who applauded me for bringing her.”

As for the two board members’ alleged attempt to make unilateral personnel decisions, the most politically significant among them was a purported effort to reassign Armando Mena, principal of the school district’s charter high school, to Moffett Elementary School.

All that spring, the two women had been feuding with Mena, who leads the Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy. Mena has said he was pressured to change school rules to allow Ibarra’s credit-deficient daughter to walk the stage at graduation as well as attend a grad night field trip to Disneyland. He also says the two board members had demanded that they be allowed to attend the field trip, and after the school bus left without them because they were 25 minutes late, Cruz had yelled in his face.

The letter from Flores doesn’t explicitly accuse Cruz and Ibarra of retaliation against Mena, but Mena himself has said that he believes the effort amounted to as much.

In any case, it’s unclear whether the letter will jeopardize Flores’ employment. Cruz said she believes Flores, who has been on medical leave for several weeks after getting in an automobile accident, has done a good job.

But she added: “I would just like to see her more present in the district. It’s hard to carry out your roles and responsibilities when you’re not present at the work site. I just want to get the job done.”

This past July, the board extended her contract by a year at a salary of $178,000.

Flores also accuses Cruz of having a conflict of interest related to the Nov. 5 election. Flores said the school district’s public relations officer — Adrian Alvarez, a district employee — is serving double duty as Cruz’s campaign manager.

Cruz said that isn’t true.

“He has nothing to do with the running of my campaign at all,” she said. “I don’t have a campaign manager.”

Ibarra declined to comment for this story.

Word of the letter first went public at a public meeting in August when one of the five board members, Juan Navarro — a political foe of Cruz and Ibarra and a critic of Flores — began reading it aloud during the open session of a well-attended board meeting. He was gaveled down by Cruz after a few sentences and the board immediately adjourned to closed session. Not long after, the Daily Breeze tried to obtain a copy by sending the district a public records act request.

In a response to the newspaper, the district has argued that the letter is not a public document that relates to public business, but rather is a “personal correspondence to the members of the governing board.” The response also said the letter — written on district letterhead — was composed by Flores on a computer at home, not on district-owned equipment.

On Monday, a copy of the letter arrived by mail at the Daily Breeze from an anonymous sender. Flores declined to comment other than to say she believes the letter is a private document, as it had been discussed in closed session.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Home-schooling families take play seriously

Home-schooling families take play seriously

A dozen or so parents — mostly moms — sit in a wide circle on the grass at El Dorado Park in Long Beach.

As the adults chat, their kids do whatever the spirit moves them to do.

This could be flipping through one of a handful of educational books in the center of the circle. More likely, it’ll be an improvised activity of some sort, perhaps working together to produce an impromptu play. Or playing a game of touch football — an all-ages, low-stakes game in which, at some point, an older kid might carry a younger kid clutching the ball across the goal line.

Related: Home-schooling enters mainstream

It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon for the Dragon Tree Home Learners, a group of home-school families who meet once a week so their children can socialize and play.

Mind you, this isn’t recess; Dragon Tree takes playtime much more seriously than that. To them, playing in the park for as many as five hours or more at a time is an important part of school.

“Those long hours of uninterrupted play — nobody ringing bells and telling them to stop right in the middle of something — lets them develop very elaborate things to do,” said Pam Sorooshian, a founder of the 18-year-old group who shows up every Wednesday even though her own three daughters are now college-educated young adults.

Sorooshian herself subscribes to a form of home schooling known as “un-schooling,” which rejects the highly structured approach taken by public schools and many private ones. She argues that the public school system has actually become more cookie-cutter than ever, which in turn is driving record numbers of people to educate their children at home.

“Back in the ’80s, you had whole language, constructive math, multiple intelligences,” she said. “With the advent of things like (the federal) No Child Left Behind, that all went out the window. Now it’s all about being ready for standardized tests.”

The Dragon Tree group is definitely a nontraditional crowd. Some of the boys in the group wear their hair long. Every summer, the group celebrates the birthday of Harry Potter with a potluck and wand-making party.

But in the years since the group’s 1995 inception, most of the students have wound up attending four-year colleges and obtaining their bachelor’s degree, Sorooshian said.

Why home schooling

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, several parents at the park shared their reasons for home-schooling their kids.

Laura Jane, a yoga therapist from Long Beach, said traditional schools can have a way of squeezing the passion out of learning.

“I love the idea of my kids just loving learning,” she said. “To come out of it loving writing, loving reading, loving math. It’s a really exciting idea. Perhaps that can happen more easily if it wasn’t something that was forced or structured or judged or evaluated.”

Jane herself has a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State and a master’s in psychology from Pepperdine University. Although she all but disavows it.

“Now I can see how that system got me off track,” she said. “I spent another 10 years trying to figure out what really was my way.”

Angie Williams, a hairstylist in her late 30s who colors her own tresses pink, didn’t like high school until she was allowed to complete a year at home through independent studies.

“I didn’t like learning from books,” she said. “I didn’t like being cooped up in a classroom. I didn’t like being told what to learn and when to learn it.”

It was then that she decided she would like her own children to learn at home someday. Now they do. Williams says she plans to home-school her 10- and 6-year-olds all the way through high school, unless they request otherwise.

“My son knows that he has that choice, and he is not curious about school at all,” she said.

In part, that’s because his friends who do attend traditional school have all that homework.

“He gets perplexed by the idea that they can’t come out to play until 5 or 6,” she said. “He’s like, ‘My gosh, they go to school all day and have to come home and do more school?’ I’m like, ‘Yep.’ ”

Some home-schooling parents opt for more structure than others. A parent named Melinda — who declined to provide her last name — said she and her two children don’t divvy up the day by subject area.

“When we’re home schooling, we’re not really focused on whether it’s math or history or social studies,” she said, noting that the kids do occasionally attend classes for home-schoolers. “But they get math and history and reading and language — it could be all coming from one source. They like to watch YouTube videos. They like to play video games. They don’t know it, but they really do like math and logic. Puzzles and games.”

Conversely, another parent, an anthropologist from Sweden who declined to share her name, joined an independent charter school called Sky Mountain that provides some curriculum. Every 20 days, an education specialist from the charter school pays a visit to ensure the students are on track.

“We like to start off with that, to make sure we are not completely losing our way,” she said.

The Dragon Tree parents tend not to fret much about college.

Melinda said that because her son wants to be a pilot, a four-year school might not be necessary.

“We kind of live in a day and age where college may not be as important as maybe going to a tech school,” she said.

Her husband, she adds, is a successful network engineer who never finished college.

Jane feels the same way, although she said her 12-year-old daughter has already expressed a strong desire to go.

“Not because she thinks she should or has to and won’t be a success if she doesn’t, but just because it sounds fun,” she said. “Which is kind of the way we like to live.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

More details emerge on Lennox Academy uproar

More details emerge on Lennox Academy uproar

Principal claims school board member was ‘in my face’ over trip to Disneyland

A dispute between a Lennox school board member accused of abusing her power and the high school principal at Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy is escalating, and the situation could come to a head tonight.

Speaking up for the first time since the controversy erupted in June, Lennox School Board member Mercedes Ibarra said widespread rumors that she pressured Lennox Academy Principal Armando Mena to allow her credit-deficient daughter to participate in last year’s graduation ceremony aren’t true.

“I would like him to show proof in public where I pressured him,” she said. “Because when you accuse someone, you need to have proof.”

Ibarra added that the uproar has taken a heavy toll on her family. She said the rumors have been particularly difficult for her younger daughter, who still attends the school.

“She cries every morning,” Ibarra said. “She doesn’t want to go.”

But Mena and his staff say they indeed were under pressure to rewrite the rules for the daughter of Ibarra, and not just on that one occasion. Last week, they provided more details about the long-simmering dispute.

Tonight the board will discuss the possibility of allowing Lennox Academy to break away from the K-8 district by becoming an independent charter. The high school, which was founded by Mena and a handful of others 11 years ago, is currently a charter school that operates under the authority of the school board and superintendent.

Because the meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. as a study session, the board isn’t expected to make a decision about whether to allow the school to secede. But the workshop could prove cathartic in a district that seems poised on the breaking point due to pent-up tensions resulting from a solid year’s worth of unprecedented political infighting.

At stake is the future of a school — the Lennox Academy — that is considered a nationwide model for preparing a high-poverty population for college. Long a fixture on the U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of best American high schools, the 500-student academy has always taken a strict approach when it comes to ensuring that students are on track for graduation.

“Students here have to take more credits than they would at a traditional high school,” said history teacher Rodney Michael. “Conversely, we’re able to get most of our students into four-year universities. The integrity of our programs are being compromised by favoritism.”

It’s unclear how the five-member board will vote on the matter, but historically Ibarra has been part of a slim majority bloc that also includes school board President Marisol Cruz and Sonia Saldana. And Ibarra is leaning against allowing the split.

Also opposed to it is the Lennox teachers union.

“The school was never designed to be an independent charter and there are too many unknowns for us to support such a rushed plan,” teachers union President Brian Guerrero said in a statement.

Regarding the school’s tradition of stringency on graduation privileges, Mena and his staff say that all changed when they started feeling pressure from above. Mena acknowledges that Ibarra didn’t directly strong-arm him to allow his daughter to walk the stage on June 8.

But he said he received firm direction from his supervisors, Superintendent Barbara Flores and her deputy, Kent Taylor, who both serve at the pleasure of Ibarra and the four other board members.

Flores did not return a call to her cellphone Monday to answer whether Ibarra applied any pressure on her. Ibarra says she did not pressure Flores.

“I have never pressured anyone,” she said.

However, Mena said Ibarra on at least two other occasions prior to Graduation Day had contributed to an atmosphere of intimidation.

The first confrontation happened in April, when every member of the senior class must give a presentation to a panel of teachers. The presentations — meant to mimic the rigor of defending a thesis — occur in public, with family members and friends in the audience.

Mena said he tries to attend as many presentations as possible, but can typically make it to maybe 20 of the 135 or so given. He did show up for the presentation put on by the niece of Cruz, the board president. Ibarra, who is friends with Cruz, was there, too. By Mena’s telling, Ibarra confronted him, demanding to know why he skipped her daughter’s presentation.

Ibarra admits she was upset, but not because he neglected to go to her daughter’s presentation.

“Mr. Mena just went to the presentations of the students that had straight As,” she said. “As a principal, he needs to show support to all the kids.”

The second dust-up was connected to the school’s annual grad-night celebration in May, in which seniors who qualify and a handful of faculty members go to Disneyland. A couple of weeks before the trip, Ibarra requested that her daughter be able to attend, even though she was short on credits.

An assistant principal at the school told her that her daughter did not qualify, but added that she could make an appeal before a panel of teachers. Ibarra chose to appeal. The panel unanimously decided against allowing Ibarra’s daughter to go, said Vanesa Mateu, a Spanish teacher and a member of the panel.

But with one caveat: Should their denial be overturned by the powers that be, the other five or so students who also didn’t qualify should get to go as well.

“There were secret meetings, between (Lennox Academy administrators), Kent Taylor and Dr. Flores,” she said. “Who would care? Which board member? Obviously, the one who has a daughter here.”

The appeal was overturned by the higher-ups, and, for the first time in the school’s history, all seniors were able to go to Disneyland regardless of their academic standing. What came next has become a topic of much intrigue in Lennox.

Mena said Ibarra and Cruz demanded to come with the students and chaperones to Disneyland — along with some of their children who weren’t in the graduating class. The board members requested to be taken on the school bus with the rest of the group. Ibarra and Cruz were reportedly late. After 25 minutes, the bus left without them, just as the two women were arriving. The women, Mena said, were furious.

“Cruz approached me and was in my face,” he said. “She demanded that I would be taking her in my own private vehicle.”

Mena said he arranged for them to be shuttled to the theme park by the school library technician. The technician, Oscar Cux, said under normal circumstances, he would have declined on the rationale that his shift was almost up.

“But he’s an amazing person to work for,” he said of Mena. “I could see the need in his eyes. Things were just overwhelming that day, with those ladies screaming at him and going ballistic.”

The third clash came in June, with the graduation ceremony. According to Ibarra, even though her daughter was short on credits, she was working hard to catch up via the school’s new online credit-recovery program. The goal was to walk the stage in her cap and gown. Ibarra said her daughter was making good headway when, a couple of days before the ceremony, the system crashed.

Mena, she said, phoned her daughter personally to tell her she could walk the stage, so long as she promised to make up the credits within two weeks of the June ceremony.

“I’m quoting exactly what he said,” Ibarra said. “He said: ‘I’ve seen that you worked hard, and I see you really want it. You deserve to walk.’ ”

The day after the June 8 ceremony, she added, the computer system was back up and running, and her daughter resumed her catch-up work.

“She finished in one week,” Ibarra said.

Mena said confidentiality laws prohibit him from commenting on the girl’s academic record. But he offered to discuss it in more detail if Ibarra was willing to sign a release form allowing him to divulge such information. She declined.

“I just want him to admit I never pressured him,” she said, adding that she doesn’t feel comfortable signing a release form because her daughter already feels bad enough.

Although Mena could not discuss the academic record of Ibarra daughter’s, he and his staff vehemently insist that the online credit-recovery system never crashed.

So does Daniel Martin, one of a handful of students who was using the online recovery program to catch up on time. Martin said he was using it all the way up until the day before the event.

“The program, it never stopped — it was always on,” he said.

However, the IT department did reportedly discover — and fix — an intriguing glitch.

Lennox Academy officials say one user — Mena wouldn’t say who — had been logging onto the system using multiple computers simultaneously. That person was able to complete as many as 40-plus hours of instruction during a 24-hour period — a mathematical impossibility.

That glitch was corrected about two days before the graduation ceremony.

“They would log in under one computer just fine,” said Veronica Jimenez, a counselor at the school. “But if they logged in under a second one, the system would log them off (the first computer).”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Redondo Beach school leader debuts in star-studded reality show

Redondo Beach school leader debuts in star-studded reality show

 50 Cent and Dr. Steven Keller - in the Sundance Channel original series "Dream School" - Photo Credit: JC Dhien
50 Cent and Dr. Steven Keller – in the Sundance Channel original series “Dream School” – Photo Credit: JC Dhien

Imagine walking into class on the first day of high school and learning that your teacher is 50 Cent. Or Oliver Stone. Or Suze Orman. Or David Arquette. Or Jesse Jackson.

That’s what really happened to a group of high school dropouts from around Los Angeles in “Dream School,” a soon-to-begin reality TV series that prominently features Steven Keller, superintendent of the Redondo Beach Unified School District, as the principal.

The premise of the show: Fifteen wayward students are given four weeks to pass four tests and earn 10 credits in what amounts to their final chance to graduate high school on time.

How Keller got involved with a production that has no ties to his suburban school district is one of those things that can happen only when you live and work in close proximity to Hollywood. Keller was minding his own business when he got a call from an old boss, whose daughter is a producer on the show.

“I chuckled at getting the call,” Keller said. “I haven’t been a principal for 15 years. My first question was: Do I have the ability to get back on the bike?”

He decided to go for it. And so it came to pass that Keller became a key character on the cast of a six-part, unscripted series that premiers Oct. 7 on the Sundance Channel. The veteran educator stresses that he took vacation days or weekends to work at the school, whose classes took place in a mansion in Eagle Rock this past spring.

In addition to capitalizing on the everyday dramas of high school life, “Dream School” aims to shine a spotlight on how, for millions of students across the nation, staying on the path to graduation is like trying to walk across a greasy balance beam a mile long.

Nicole DeFusco, a vice president of original programming at the Sundance Channel, said the aim is also to convey a message of hope.

“One person can make a difference,” she said. “I hope the audience remembers how to be awe-inspired and to remember that people can overcome rough starts. People can overcome being given not a great chance.”

The pilot opens with a flash on the screen of the number 26. To wit: So large is the dropout rate among U.S. high schools that one student gets the boot or calls it quits every 26 seconds.

(The nation’s dropout rate — that is, the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential — has actually improved in recent years, from 12 percent in 2007 to 7 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Education.)

Regardless of the veracity of the 26-second statistic, the struggles of the 15 students are all too real.

There is Mary, a single, teen mom who has lost too many friends to violence. Alan, born Alyssa, a transgender teen who was once a good student until bullies chased her out. Devon, who dropped out after eighth grade to care for his cancer-stricken mother before she succumbed. Tyla, who has been kicked out of seven schools for fighting. And Mike, who was expelled for punching a principal.

Not all of them are poor. Sam was kicked out of a private school for smoking.

The students agreed to participate in the show knowing only that they would be on TV, and that their teachers were highly successful in their fields. So when they arrive fresh off the bus to meet Keller on the steps of the school, they appear merely curious, maybe even a little eager. But it isn’t until Keller introduces them to their first teacher — Curtis James Jackson III, aka 50 Cent — that they become visibly amazed.

At the cue, out of the school’s front door and down the steps hustles a sport-coat clad Mr. Jackson, creator of such mega-hits as “In Da Club,” whose video features him shirtless, covered in tats and grinding with women on the dance floor.

(Jackson is also one of the show’s two executive producers, the other being celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.)

“How many of you like money?” Jackson asks, prompting a chorus of affirmation among the teens. “If you don’t actually graduate, chances are you’ll make a million dollars less than someone who does graduate in your entire lifetime. … Whatever you’re passionate about, this is your opportunity to get to it.”

Celebrities or no celebrities, it wouldn’t be reality TV if the drama didn’t kick in quickly, and on this score, the pilot doesn’t disappoint. The first hint of it occurs not long after the ringing of the first school bell.

Jackson — who counts among his youthful indiscretions the selling of crack cocaine — finds himself thrust into the unfamiliar role of rule enforcer when trying to collect the students’ cellphones. One of the students, a tough-looking dude wearing earplugs, claims not to have one, putting the “teacher” in a position of having to assess the validity of the claim.

“How about you buy me a phone and I’ll give it to you,” the kid cracks.

One theme that emerges: no matter your level of fame or success, teaching is not easy.

Students, for instance, are initially wowed to meet one of their history professors, Academy Award-winning director Oliver Stone. But halfway through the first lesson, which Stone delivers in conjunction with American University historian Peter Kuznick, the students are snoring.

With a wink to the euphemistic syntax of the education world, Keller refers to the teachers’ history lesson as “content rich.” Putting a finer point on it, he adds: “They can finger-point all they want, but honestly, they’re both failing.”

A school that is filled with disadvantaged students means the teachers, too, start off with a disadvantage. The students in Stone’s history class appeared to be starting from scratch, unaware of some of the most basic givens. One student thought World War II was fought during the 19th century. (“No, that’s the Civil War,” corrects Stone.)

DeFusco said watching the masters of certain domains learn the ropes of another — teaching — is part of the show’s appeal.

“Some of them came out of the first day sweating,” she said, but she noted that those who stumbled also adjusted their approach. “We didn’t have one teacher who failed to really reach the kids.”

Sadly, not all of the students earned the right to participate in a graduation ceremony at the end. DeFusco said the production company put those students in contact with resources to help them continue their studies.

As for Keller, if the pilot episode is any indication, “Dream School” kept him plenty busy. Over the course of it, he chases down underage students smoking on campus, deals with a difficult parent over the phone, consoles a student after the death of two friends and sternly addresses a girl who made a fantastical excuse for playing hooky. (“A hawk kidnapped my dog.”)

“I’m one of those people who tends to be more on the critical side,” he said. “But I believe (the show) is pretty authentic. … People might be critical and say, ‘They know there’s a camera on them.’ You ask any kid, after the first day, the cameras become just window blinds. They blend in.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Mind Over Matter: Torrance Man Finds New Path After Traumatic Brain Injury

Mind Over Matter: Torrance Man Finds New Path After Traumatic Brain Injury

Originally published on July 19, 2010

Francisco Sanchez fell during work and hit his head twice; causing a severe brain hemorrhage that led to a coma. When he awoke he was unable to speak and lost some of his memory. On Thursday evening, Sanchez defied the odds and graduated from ITT Technical Institute with an AA in Computer Drafting and Design.  Sanchez holds his diploma, a certificate for academic achievement, and a certificate for being the salutatorian of his department, as he poses for photos after the ceremony. July 08, 2010. Photo by Steve McCrank.
Francisco Sanchez fell during work and hit his head twice; causing a severe brain hemorrhage that led to a coma. When he awoke he was unable to speak and lost some of his memory. On Thursday evening, Sanchez defied the odds and graduated from ITT Technical Institute with an AA in Computer Drafting and Design. Sanchez holds his diploma, a certificate for academic achievement, and a certificate for being the salutatorian of his department, as he poses for photos after the ceremony.
July 08, 2010. Photo by Steve McCrank.

Three years ago, Francisco Sanchez of Torrance was working as a train welder at the Port of Los Angeles when he inexplicably passed out and fell backwards into the empty boxcar six feet below.

His head slammed into a metal bar on his way down and banged against the floor of the train. His brain began to bleed. He was rushed to St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, where, despite an emergency craniotomy, doctors expected him to die.

When Sanchez awoke from his coma nearly three weeks later, surrounded by friends and family in the hospital, he struggled to speak, and was blind in his left eye. He tried to write his family a note, but it came out as gibberish.

Although his speech soon returned, Sanchez had to relearn a slew of frustratingly simple words, like “knife” and the number “three.”

And how far he’s come.

Earlier this month, the 36-year-old Torrance native graduated from ITT Tech in Torrance, where he specialized in computer drafting and design. Sanchez enrolled two years ago against the advice of his doctor, who feared he wasn’t cognitively ready for such a rigorous mental workload.

He finished second in his class of about 40 students with a 3.9 GPA. At the graduation ceremony on July 8, Sanchez picked up not only his AA degree but also a salutatorian certificate. Now he’s going for his bachelor’s in the engineering division of ITT’s computer drafting program.

“I was knocking on the door of the Grim Reaper,” said Sanchez, whose closely cropped hair reveals the line from a question-mark-shaped scar covering the left side of his head , tracing the path of the incision made on that fateful day – May 21, 2007 – to release the pressure from the gathering blood.

“But I was positive from the beginning. I had hope – I didn’t look at the negative side. As soon as you become negative you become just a blob, sitting there.”

Sanchez is among about 700,000 Americans who suffer traumatic brain injury every year, according to the Brain Injury Association of America. The victims tend to be young; most are 15 to 30 years old. Many cases are the result of blunt trauma, such as car accidents, hard falls or acts of violence.

But sometimes the tragedy creeps up quietly in the form of an aneurysm, stroke or even the occasional sinus infection gone awry.

Almost always, the damage and resulting debilitation is largely permanent. But, as Sanchez has proved, that doesn’t preclude the injured from making significant accomplishments.

His story demonstrates how a person’s life can come crashing down in an instant, but also underscores the power of determination and the strong support network of a loving family.

“I personally don’t let him say he can’t do something,” said Andrea Sanchez, his wife of nearly 12 years, with whom he has had two girls, ages 4 and 10. “I won’t let him say, ‘I can’t or I won’t or I shouldn’t.’ I’m like, ‘If you’re not fine, then I’m not fine.”‘

As for Francisco, the injury fueled his determination to not only heal, but grow. Until now, he’d never obtained any formal schooling after graduating from Narbonne High School.

New skill needed

In a sense, his hand was forced. Shortly after Sanchez returned home from the hospital, he suffered two massive seizures. This disqualified him from ever again plying his trade, which required working from tall heights. He needed to find a more suitable skill.

Sanchez, the son of an aerospace engineer, recalled excelling in a high school drafting class. This led him to enroll in the computer drafting and design program.

Meanwhile, he still needed rehab. Many who suffer head trauma opt to first rehabilitate and then move on to rebuild their professional lives. Sanchez chose to do both simultaneously.

About 21/2 years ago, he enrolled in the Acquired Brain Injury program at Coastline Community College in Costa Mesa. He concurrently enrolled at ITT. For two years, he attended the former by day and the latter by night.

Progress didn’t come without a struggle.

For starters, the accident seems to have altered Sanchez’s personality.

An outgoing man with an average build, amused eyes and a ready laugh, Sanchez said he’s always been the kind of guy to chat up a stranger in line at the grocery store. But ever since the incident, he and Andrea said, Sanchez has occasionally exhibited the tendency to grow overly excited. Not in an angry way, but sometimes in a manner that suggests he is anxious or frustrated.

“I get excited for whatever we’re going to do, so I start talking fast or start talking loud,” he said. “And my wife’s like ‘Hey, don’t yell at me!’ I’m like ‘I’m not yelling at you.’ I can’t sense myself when I’m being loud to them until they tell me. So I tell my kids: tell me. Don’t just walk away – I need the information from them to help me.”

Personality changes aren’t unusual among victims of brain injury .

Posted on the website for the program at Coastline Community College is a good-natured essay by recent graduate Scott Newbry, who, after a devastating motorcycle accident, came to with a newly acquired Southern accent.

Another major issue is money. Sanchez’s accident had the effect of cutting the family’s income in half, even though Andrea Sanchez says their insurance company has been very cooperative. One of their cars was repossessed and the family had to move into a smaller apartment.

Andrea Sanchez, an office supervisor at South Bay Orthopaedic Specialists Medical Center in Torrance, started working six days a week instead of five. And while workers’ comp paid $10,000 towards his education, tuition ran $20,000 a year.

Scariest of all are the eerie health complications that can accompany a serious brain injury .

One night, Sanchez was studying for a test when he noticed a numbness in his hand. It slowly spread to his fingertips, then crawled up his arm and into his neck.

“Then I started feeling half of my face. Numbness,” he said. “And then all of a sudden, I started feeling it in my tongue, and in my mouth and I was like, you know what, it doesn’t look right.”

To be safe, they went to the hospital. Doctors figured he’d had a stroke, and increased his seizure medication. He hasn’t had another episode since, though the heavy dosage makes him tired.

But Sanchez – who regained the sight in his left eye after surgery – persevered and plowed through, in spite of the splitting headaches and the stress of studying in a house with two small children.

“He was a very pleasant student,” said Frederick Poblete, the dean at ITT. “He did very, very well academically. And he had very good attendance.”

Survivor program grows

Celeste Ryan, co-chair of the Acquired Brain Injury program at Coastline, said advancements in treating aneurysms, strokes and brain tumors – as well as victims of car crashes – have had the unintended effect of boosting the number of survivors who suffer from severe brain injuries .

When the Coastline program first opened in 1978, it served 19 students. Last year, it accommodated 230.

The idea of the program isn’t to heal the brain – oftentimes, Ryan said, the damage can’t be undone. Instead, the goal is to help students cope with their newfound disabilities. Students are taught to use personal digital assistants (PDAs) to keep track of appointments, for instance.

“They forget all the things you and I do, but the incidence is much higher,” she said.

Sometimes, the impairments are tragically severe. A person, for instance, might lose track of time and spend hours in the bathroom getting ready for work. The program might then encourage him or her to equip the room with a timer.

Usually, victims of traumatic brain injury have no trouble remembering skills acquired long ago, Ryan said. But forming new memories can prove daunting.

For this reason, she said, Sanchez’s case is remarkable.

“Francisco is an extremely hard worker,” she said. “He also has a very exceptional support network – there’s a high incidence of divorce after a brain injury .”

The bond between Francisco and Andrea Sanchez runs deep. Both attended Narbonne High, though Andrea – whose maiden name is Waack – is six years his junior. They married when she was 19 and he was 25.

She still remembers the fateful day all too vividly.

She’d prepared his lunch – leftover stir fry – and called to say hello while he was eating it. Not long after, during her own lunch hour, she got a call from his boss, saying there had been an accident.

For his part, Sanchez has no memory of that day or the day before. Andrea Sanchez jokes that this a good thing, because it was the first batch of stir fry she’d ever made, and it turned out terrible. The day before the accident, he tried to reassure her at the dinner table.

“He said, ‘No, it’s really good.’ I said, ‘No it’s not, but I’ll make you lunch tomorrow.’ That’s what he ate for lunch.”

rob . kuznia