Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Lennox school board member accused of pulling strings for daughter

Lennox school board member accused of pulling strings so credit-deficient daughter can walk stage at graduation

Commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. School board members, including Mercedes Ybarra, are seated at the far right end of the front row. Photo by Jeff Gritchen / Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)
Commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy. Photo by Jeff Gritchen

This was the first in a series of stories about the dysfunction of a low-income school district whose leaders were using their influential positions to punish enemies and reward friends and family. The series was awarded first place by the California Newspaper Publishers Association for local-government coverage in the large-newspaper category. 

Originally published on June 11, 2013

A Lennox school board member is under fire for reportedly pulling strings to allow her daughter to participate in her high school commencement ceremony even though she did not earn nearly enough credits to walk the stage this past weekend.

The tiny community has been buzzing all week with claims that the daughter of board member Mercedes Ibarra was able to enjoy senior privileges when she didn’t earn them at the Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy — a high-performing charter high school.

(Related story: More details emerge on Lennox Academy uproar)

The school district refused to release the student’s academic records and Ibarra did not return calls from the Daily Breeze this week, but a colleague on the school board, Juan Navarro, confirmed the rumors are true.

Navarro said the privileges included not only walking the stage at graduation on Saturday, but also attending the annual GradNite celebration in Disneyland in May.

“Let’s not forget: When you become a board member, you’re not there just for your own child,” Navarro said. “You’re there for all the children. You can’t be asking favors or asking administrators for favors for your own children. That’s not right.”

Dignitaries, including Mercedes Ibarra, center, congratulate graduates during commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy Teacher at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)
Dignitaries, including Mercedes Ibarra, center, congratulate graduates during commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy Teacher at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)

(Related story: Lennox school superintendent says 2 board members ‘usurped’ her duties)

Widely considered a model for serving disadvantaged student populations, Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy is a consistent presence on the U.S. News & World Report’s list of top American high schools. In April, the school ranked 39th nationwide and sixth among schools in California.

In past years, Navarro and others say, administrators at the school have strictly enforced a rule enshrined in the school handbook: seniors who are significantly credit-deficient cannot participate in commencement or any senior activities. For whatever reason, that rule was thrown out for this year’s seniors, allowing Ibarra’s daughter and a handful of other students short on credits to partake.

(Related story: Lennox school board election a referendum on year of turmoil)

In all, of the 135 students who participated in the ceremony, six hadn’t met the criteria, sources say.

The abuse-of-power accusation over graduation privileges is just the latest chapter in a saga of division this year in the Lennox School District, which has become a fractious environment since the July hiring of new Superintendent Barbara Flores.

Although Ibarra could not be reached for comment, the superintendent who works for her, Flores, returned calls from the Daily Breeze late Tuesday to issue a statement about the matter.

“As superintendent, my job is to protect the rights of every student,” she said. “After examining all the relevant factors, six students were allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony because they met the policy limit. Even board members’ children have rights. To elaborate beyond that would be to violate the privacy rights of every student.”

Asked if the directive came from Ibarra, Flores said no. Asked what led to the policy change, Flores declined to comment beyond what was in her statement.

Reached Tuesday, the school’s principal, Armando Mena, declined to comment, referring calls back to Flores.

But Navarro said he believes Ibarra and other higher-ups pressured the principal to change the rules.

“Mercedes didn’t do this alone,” he said. “She had to have the support of the superintendent and (deputy superintendent Kent) Taylor.”

School officials say Ibarra was involved in a similar situation a couple of years ago, at Lennox Middle School. Margaret Sanchez, a veteran assistant principal at the school who is retiring at the end of the year, said Ibarra asked administrators at the school to allow another of her children to participate in the school’s end-of-the-year promotion ceremony, even though the student hadn’t met the academic requirements. In that instance, Sanchez said, the administrators denied the request, and were backed by then-Superintendent Fred Navarro.

In another element of this year’s graduation furor, Ibarra and an ally on the board — President Marisol Cruz — publicly requested to attend the May 17 trip to Disneyland, and to ride in the same bus as the students. But the women were late for the bus, which left without them, Navarro said.

Sources say the board members then demanded that the school provide some other form of transportation, and were ultimately taken to Disneyland in a school van driven by a school employee.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Cruz declined to comment on the specific events, but said she doesn’t believe the Daily Breeze’s coverage of the district’s recent troubles has been fair.

“It’s just disappointing to continually hear negative slants being covered when not all the facts are there,” she said, declining to elaborate because she believes the academic record of Ibarra’s daughter is a private matter. (Ibarra’s daughter is 18.)

Cruz did say, in apparent defense of Ibarra, that “any mom would fight for her child.”

“Why should we break a student’s right because their mom is a board member?” she asked.

The dust-up over the graduation activities is just the latest controversy to roil the tiny district this year.

Situated directly beneath the flight path of passenger jets landing at Los Angeles International Airport, the Lennox School District serves a highly disadvantaged student population. The district — which is composed of five elementary schools, one middle school and the charter high school — has racked up accolades over the years for its success relative to other districts in California with similar demographics.

Marisol Cruz, Mercedes Ibarra and Kent Taylor. Photo by Jeff Gritchen
Marisol Cruz, Mercedes Ibarra and Kent Taylor. Photo by Jeff Gritchen

But the district this year has become a political battlefield, with factions lining up for and against the controversial new superintendent. Before Flores was hired in July, 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.

Supporters say she has improved relations between the administration and teachers, and done a good job of shielding teachers from cuts.

“We’ve been able to keep 20-to-1,” said Cruz, referring to the once widely adopted practice in California of keeping class sizes at or below 20 students in grades kindergarten through third grade. “Nobody in the county has been able to pull that off but we did.”

Mirroring the divisiveness districtwide, the Lennox school board has been split on Flores’ leadership, with a slim majority in support. Navarro and Ibarra are on opposite sides of that dividing line.

The tension publicly erupted in November, when Brian Johnson, an administrator with 35 years of experience in Lennox, was placed on administrative leave. In a memo circulated to district employees about his departure, Flores — without mentioning Johnson by name — wrote that construction money might have been misspent, and, if so, “any parties” involved would “subject to legal action.”

Long-timers in the district came to Johnson’s vigorous defense, vouching for his integrity.

From that point on, the environment has been toxic, fraught with finger-pointing, rumors, accusations of nepotism and charges of retaliatory firings.

At times, the accusations have been nasty, suggesting an undercurrent of racial and class tensions. In February, a group of employees, in an anonymous complaint to the District Attorney’s Office that included a long list of allegations against the pro-Flores camp, accused Ibarra of not being a U.S. citizen or a resident of Lennox. Ibarra vehemently denied it, likening the accusations to claims made from the fringe that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen.

Late last month, a separate complaint was sent to the Fair Political Practices Commission. This one — also anonymous — alleged that Ibarra advocated to have her husband hired as a custodian. Indeed, the school board on Feb. 12 did vote to hire him as a substitute custodian. The complaint further alleges that Flores saw to it that he use a pseudonym. The minutes of that meeting list him as Francisco I. Perez.

“The Superintendent directed secretary and Human Resources Department to not use his official legal last name of ‘Ibarra’ so that it would not be noticeable,'” the complaint states. “The Board of Trustees took action and hired Mrs. Mercedes Ibarra’s husband, not connecting the two because of the different last name on the agenda.”

The accuser believes the act violates the a conflict-of-interest law — Government Code 1090 — which states that elected officials are not to have any financial stake in a contract made by them or by the board on which they sit.

The FPPC received the complaint, but will not pursue it because the Government Code that was allegedly broken (1090) is not within the agency’s jurisdiction, said Gary Winuk, chief of the FPPC’s enforcement division, in an email to the Daily Breeze.

“You may be interested to know we are sponsoring a bill, AB 1090, to give us some jurisdiction over this,” he added.

Meanwhile, the high school graduation ceremony has been generating enough buzz in Lennox to reach the ears of other graduating students, a couple of whom called the Daily Breeze to voice their displeasure.

“I don’t know how it happened or why, but I do want to say it’s insulting to me,” said Laura Rosales, who graduated in the top 15 percent of her class. This fall, Rosales will attend Cal State Long Beach.

Today, Lennox Middle School will hold its own promotion ceremony for eighth-graders moving on to high school. Apparently the district isn’t extending the same pardon to the credit-deficient students there. Staff members at the school confirmed that 70 of the 520 students in the class will not be able to participate in the ceremony.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English

Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English

Nov. 24, 2012

Julian Ruiz of Torrance has been classified as an English learner even though he doesn t speak Spanish, or any other language besides English. His mother, Millie Ruiz, has unsuccessfully been trying to get him redesignated as fluent in English. (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)
Julian Ruiz of Torrance has been classified as an English learner even though he doesn t speak Spanish, or any other language besides English. His mother, Millie Ruiz, has unsuccessfully been trying to get him redesignated as fluent in English. (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)

Julian Ruiz is an English speaker who doesn’t know a word of Spanish or any other foreign language.

Yet when the 7-year-old entered kindergarten in Torrance three years ago, he was classified as an English learner – a student not fluent in English.

This shunted him into a category that his mother, Millie Ruiz, says he shouldn’t be in, and triggered a dispute with the school’s administration.

Ruiz says her son is trapped in the school district’s English Language Development program, giving him a label he doesn’t deserve.

“There comes a point where we need to introduce some common sense into the whole scheme of things,” Ruiz said.

Related story: California’s English language learners getting stuck in schools’ remedial programs

In California, about 23 percent of K-12 students are English learners. Some believe the number is too high.

A 2011 UC Berkeley study concluded that California districts are misidentifying large numbers of kindergarten students as English learners, in part because the test that determines whether they deserve the label is too difficult.

The result: Scarce resources earmarked for the purpose of helping nonfluent students are being spent inefficiently.

“There is that unfortunate opportunity for these kids to be identified as English-language learners and be locked into a program that’s not appropriate for them. I guess the criteria needs to be changed,” said Gil Navarro, a member of the San Bernardino County school board.

Some English-learner advocates see it differently.

Dan Fichtner, president of a nonprofit support group for teachers of English learners, said it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“We believe that it is better to err on the side of being conservative than to make a mistake and lose those first formative years,” Fichtner said.

As for Julian – a second-grader because he was held back in kindergarten – he must keep the designation until at least third grade, like all students in the program.

In California, it all begins with a language survey, filled out by every parent sending a child to kindergarten at a public school. It includes four questions:

* What language did the student use when first learning to speak?

* What language does the student use most frequently at home?

* What language does the parent speak when talking with the student?

* What language is most often spoken by adults in the home?

Ruiz answered the first three questions with “English.” But her fourth answer – “English/Spanish” – triggered the language test requirement.

Like about 90 percent of state kindergartners who take the test, Julian failed to score high enough to avoid the English learner label.

Jose Collazo, 22, of Pomona came to the United States with his family when he was little more than a year old. He remained in ESL classes throughout elementary and high school in Pomona Unified.

Collazo took the English-fluency exam four times, and although he was under the impression he had passed, he was never taken out of the ESL program.

That became a problem in high school, he said.

“I didn’t understand why my other friends were taking college prep and I didn’t,” Collazo said.

After speaking to a guidance counselor, he was able to take college preparation classes, but was still required to take ESL courses.As a result, Collazo said, he was unable to take some of the college preparation classes he needed.

In the summer of 2011, Ruiz decided – after two years in the program – she didn’t want to participate any longer. She refused to take time off work to bring her son to the district office to take his mandatory annual California English Language Development Test.

The school sent her a letter that Ruiz took as a threat. It said, in all caps: “Please note that your child will not be put on a class list in September if he/she does not complete this testing process prior to school starting in the fall.”

Ruiz did not have him tested that summer. That fall, the school pulled Julian out of class to take the assessment.

The results came back a few months later: “No change for this school year.”

Staff writers Rebecca Kimitch and Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report.

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.’”

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

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 Shifting Paradigms

California’s English language learners getting stuck in schools’ remedial programs

California’s English language learners getting stuck in schools’ remedial programs

Melanie Perez wishes she could have played the saxophone. Octavio Reyes would have liked to take a computer science class.

Both students at San Pedro High School say they can’t sign up for these electives because, at some point in their school careers, they were stuck having to take remedial classes for English learners – even though both speak English fluently and have performed reasonably well on English tests.

“I actually feel retarded when (the teacher) says, `What is this (word)?’ and it’s a carrot,” Octavio said. “It’s pointless. I already know it, and I don’t think it helps me.”

Their complaints highlight a wider problem that, although little known, could be among the state’s most pressing educational challenges: Students stuck for years in the state’s remedial programs for English learners are often denied the opportunity to take enriching electives or the more rigorous courses required for getting into college.

Related story: Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English

It’s a problem that has been attracting more attention of late, leading to a raft of reforms that some say could make California a leader in the field – which would be fitting, considering a third of the nation’s English learners attend California public schools.

But as is, the state is failing many of these students.

Low odds for success

Numbering 1.4 million, English learners make up nearly a quarter of all K-12 students in the state – and nearly 40 percent of all California’s kindergartners. One in four quits school – the worst dropout rate of any demographic group in California. Only 60 percent graduate high school within four years.

Several pieces of legislation addressing this mammoth bloc of at-risk students were signed in late September by Gov. Jerry Brown. All take effect Jan. 1.

One, authored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell, seeks to prevent English learners from languishing in the system for years by compelling the state Department of Education to reveal the number of “long-term English learners” at each school district.

Another, by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, will force the state to come up with more consistent guidelines for deeming kids fluent. The implication here is that many students are unnecessarily stuck in remedial classes when their command of the English language is sufficient.

A third bill, also by Padilla, takes school districts to task for banking state money earmarked for getting these students on track.

School officials chafe at some of these characterizations, in particular that last one, especially at a time when schools are suffering from historic shortages of state funding.

Meanwhile, advocates of English learners say large numbers of them – for whatever reason – get stuck in the system, and that, at some point, their very status as English learners seems to inhibit their chances for success.

“If kids haven’t been reclassified (as fluent) by fifth grade, they have pretty much been tracked, and are not going to be able to go to college,” said Oscar Cruz, the head of Families in Schools, a nonprofit advocate for parents of low-income and minority families. “They’re on a path where they’re just taking remedial classes.”

Lara’s AB 2193 would create a consistent definition for long-term English learners and force school districts to not only keep track of such students, but also students at risk of earning the distinction.

Studies show that some 60 percent of English learners in grades 6-12 are considered long term, meaning they’ve carried the label for at least six years.

Padilla’s SB 1108 – co-authored by Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton – aims to create a more consistent set of requirements for deeming students academically fluent. As is, the state provides minimum guidelines, but allows school districts to tack on additional stipulations, arguably creating more barriers to reclassification.

“The criteria are just all over the map,” Padilla said, adding that he would prefer to see districts err on the side of removing the label.

Padilla’s other bill, SB 754, is a transparency measure that seeks to pressure individual school districts out of the practice of stashing the extra money they receive to provide services for English learners. Specifically, it would compel them to prominently post online their budgets and carryovers in these accounts, as well as explain why the money hasn’t been spent.

School districts generally receive $300 to $500 a year in state dollars for every English learner they designate, but they don’t spend it all. (This amount doesn’t include the additional funds they receive from the federal government.)

In 2010-11, the state gave California’s school districts a total of $915 million for helping English learners and low-income students. Known as the “Economic Impact Aid” fund, it lumps the two allocations together. By year’s end, the school districts’ combined ending balance from this fund amounted to $382 million – or 42 percent of the annual apportionment.

The 2011 carryover for LAUSD alone was $61.5 million, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

That money, Padilla said, “should be spent; it should not be hoarded.”

Octavio and Melanie

Octavio is a good example of a student who could be fluent by state standards, but isn’t due to an unique additional local requirement.

A senior at San Pedro High, Octavio still bears the “English learner” label even though he cleared the state-set hurdles for fluency. These include passage of an exam taken annually by English learners until they pass, and demonstrating a basic level of proficiency on standardized tests.

But the Los Angeles Unified School District also has another requirement for shedding the label: Students must maintain at least a C average in their English classes. That has been Octavio’s hang-up.

“It was mostly because I didn’t try,” said Octavio, who has been an English learner since emigrating from Mexico at age 10. “I would get bored.”

Other districts have their own tack-on requirements. The K-8 Hawthorne School District requires its English learners to pass a written exam. In Torrance, English learners must score higher on standardized English tests than what the state requires.

As for Melanie, who is a freshman at San Pedro High, she has been successfully reclassified as fluent but says the year and a half spent taking remedial English classes at Dana Middle School in San Pedro denied her the ability to take desired electives, such as band. While she was born in the United States, many other students were immigrants.

“There were times that I didn’t care to do my work,” she said. “I was like, `Why am I in this class if I know English?”‘

New master plan

Even as several pieces of English-learner legislation have become law statewide, LAUSD has its own new initiative.

The nation’s second-largest school system has more English learners than any other district – nearly 31 percent of its 650,000 students. Officials estimate that nearly 40 percent of those are considered long term, unable to attain proficiency after five years in a program.

LAUSD’s strategy for teaching English to these students is detailed in its 150-page master plan, which was overhauled last year after a federal civil rights investigation found that English learners weren’t getting the same quality education as other students in the district.

Under the new plan, the district is more closely monitoring the progress of its English learners, with tutoring and other forms of intervention available to those struggling with either language or academic lessons.

“The goal is to increase proficiency in elementary grades, before students get to middle and high school and get mired in the long-term category,” said Hilda Maldonado, director of LAUSD’s Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department.

“We’re using more of the district’s data system to be able to monitor the progress and achievement of our students.”

The district also wants to remove the roadblocks impeding students who can’t test out of the English-learner programs despite their obvious fluency. Beginning next year, Maldonado said, teachers will be assessing middle and high school students with the goal of getting students reclassified even if they can’t hit the academic benchmarks on report cards.

The disconnect

Statewide, there is an apparent disconnect between the number of English learners who demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests and the number of students who matriculate out of the English learner program.

In 2010-11, nearly 40 percent of California’s English learners made the grade in English on standardized tests, but only 11 percent were reclassified as fluent, according to the California Department of Education.

A South Bay district with a lower-than-average reclassification rate is the K-8 Hawthorne School District. Here, just 8 percent of English learners were deemed fluent in 2010-11, even though nearly 50 percent scored proficient or better on standardized English tests.

Hawthorne schools Superintendent Helen Morgan – whose schools are generally strong performers given their high rates of low-income families – makes no apologies for setting the bar high for reclassification.

“In our instance, the writing component is more of a hurdle, but we want to make sure they are good writers before we drop all the support,” she said.

Torrance schools

Torrance Unified seems to do a better-than-average job of getting students out of the program in a timely fashion.

For instance, in 2010-11, the latest data available, while just 11 percent of English learners in California were reclassified as fluent, in Torrance the figure was 14.4 percent.

Kati Krumpe, the district’s director of state and federal programs, says reclassified students in Torrance tend to outperform many of their peers who were never in the English learner program.

“I think that shows that the program is working,” she said.

As for the 39-year-old Padilla, he himself was an English learner as an elementary school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District. That was before California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, thereby ending mandatory bilingual education.

“My textbooks in first grade were 100 percent in Spanish,” he said.

He is the rare example of an English learner who thrived, eventually earning a mechanical engineering degree from MIT.

Taking a step back, Padilla says the crux of the problem is a lack of urgency on this topic.

“English learners are a segment of the population that continues to grow,” he said. “If the trend is on the way up, and the educational attainment level of English learners continues to stagnate, I think we have a perfect storm for a crisis. And many would say the crisis is already here.”

Oakland Tribune / Argus

Power of love: A Will with No Limit Finds its Reward

East Bay Press Club, Light feature, 3rd place, 2002

For love of his life, Fremont man risked everything: He met her during Vietnam War — and couldn’t let go

FREMONT — You can’t talk sense into a young man in love.

But John Kangas was more than just smitten by the woman from the Philippines he met during the Vietnam War. He was hypnotized.

So obsessed was Kangas with finding and marrying Cristita Sampaga that –after serving his time in the war — he re-enlisted. It didn’t matter that the young Marine didn’t know where she lived. And it didn’t matter that she was completely unaware of his intentions.

More than three decades later, Kangas, now 59, recalls how he hurdled obstacle after obstacle in an attempt to find, court and marry the woman who, as they celebrate Valentine’s Day today, has been his wife for 32 years. He sneaked on planes, criss-crossed the Pacific, disobeyed orders and even cheated death.

But it was worth it, he says. Today, the couple lives in a home on Mildred Drive. They have four children, two of whom still live at home, and are raising five grandchildren. This is the story of how they were married, as they remember it.

It started as an epiphany in 1963. Kangas, having returned from duty in Vietnam, was in his barracks in Jacksonville, Fla. In the middle of a bitter divorce, he had just hung up the phone after talking to his lawyer. “I knew I wanted to get married again,” he recalls. “So I thought: ‘What qualities am I looking for?'”

Lying in his bunk, Kangas waxed thoughtful and conjured an answer: Honesty. But his ideas didn’t stop there.

“Then I get this flashback,” he recalls. “I’m in the Philippines, in this restaurant. I had had a date to meet her at noon there. She didn’t show up
until one. So I asked her, ‘What happened?'”

At the time, he didn’t like her answer: She had been on a date with another man. It didn’t matter that they were only friends — her answer still grated him. Now, lying on his bunk, Kangas realized why: He loved her.

Thus began a six-month odyssey to find her.

His first move was to return to Vietnam.

The Marines thought it was odd, but Kangas went back and resumed his duty as an electrician aboard a bomber.

During his first week of “rest and relaxation,” Kangas didn’t relax. He went back to the Philippines.

He booked a hotel in Sampaga’s hometown of Olongapo and called a taxi. When the driver inquired about Kangas’ destination, the young man uttered a name, not a place, and offered the driver a 20-peso bill — worth well more than the price of a typical cab drive.

“It’s yours if you find her,” Kangas said.

The driver nodded and drove slowly through the streets with his window down, talking to passers-by and shop owners, gathering clues.

Within 30 minutes, the driver found her home, a dwelling with no electricity or running water.

“There wasn’t even a door,” Kangas recalls.

The driver left Kangas in the taxi and approached the home. Sampaga appeared in the doorway. They spoke for a few minutes, then the driver returned to the taxi and brought Kangas to the doorway.

Kangas looked at her, and slipped the driver the money.

She looked at him, and invited him in.

“I had both an engagement ring and wedding ring in my pocket,” recalls Kangas, who didn’t waste much time. After engaging in small talk for a while, he proposed.

“He told me: ‘I want to get married again,'” she remembers. “I say: ‘Who’s the lucky girl?’

“He say: ‘You!'”

She said yes, but recalls that she never really expected the wedding to happen.

“I was already engaged with an American, but he never came back,” she says. “I don’t trust Americans. When I got (Kangas’) ring, I took it to the pawn shop.”

Still, they spent what both remember as a wonderful week together. When it ended, Kangas returned to the war and Sampaga thought him gone forever.

Little did she know.

Kangas’ second Vietnam tour ended in 1966. Still desperate to marry the skeptical Sampaga, he requested an extension. This time, however, he was turned down. He later learned he likely would have died with his crew had the extension been granted.

Still determined to see Sampaga, to convince her to marry him, Kangas sought a passport and visa so he could visit her in the Philippines. But more problems arose. To get the passport, he needed to travel to Hawaii. To get the visa, he needed to travel to Japan.

His only chance was during a month-long furlough before he returned to the States. He used 18 days of it running errands on the Pacific Ocean — retrieving his passport and visa — and spent the remaining 12 days with Sampaga.

This time, they made plans to be married — as soon as he could finalize his divorce.

When he left, she again assumed he would not return.

Kangas, however, was determined. By 1967, the divorce was final. Now, he needed to get to the Philippines, so they could get married. But there were no flights to the Philippines. The closest Kangas could get was Hawaii.

Once there, he met some members of a Philippine navy crew on their way to Guam. They learned of his plight and offered him a seat aboard their plane. In Guam, he got word of a plane that was leaving the next day for the Philippines, where he wasn’t allowed.

“The pilot had flown it there to wash it,” he says. “It was a VIP plane.”

In the Philippines, Kangas talked his way past an officer who tried to stop him but missed a ride he had lined up to take him to Sampaga’s home. Finally, after hopping into the side car of a motorcycle taxi, Kangas reached his destination, exhausted.

But Sampaga was not there. She had moved to a nearby city to work, her father told Kangas.

“She didn’t believe you were coming,” her father said.

Kangas gave her father a $20 bill, this time in American money, to find her.

“He left that night, about midnight. At about eight the next morning, he was back with her,” Kangas remembers.

Soon after, they were married in an open field by the town’s mayor.

“We fed 2,000 people,” Kangas says. “We danced all night.”

Once again, though, Kangas returned home alone.

In 1968, the couple had been married almost a year when the red tape was finally cut. But a big problem remained: getting word to her and getting her here. Her family had no phone, so Kangas could communicate with his wife only through letters.

Once in awhile, she would go into town to call Kangas, who was living in Southern California, about 30 miles south of Los Angeles. But just before she flew to Los Angeles, Kangas moved from the barracks into an apartment, and was unable to tell her his new phone number. In the end, Kangas drove to LAX. “I couldn’t find her,” he recalled.

So he called the barracks. “Did she call?” he asked the officer. “You could say that,” the officer answered. “She’s at the main gate.”

“Somehow,” Kangas recalls, “she figured out how to catch a bus to the barracks. She made it to the main gate of the base. Meanwhile, I’m in L.A. International.”

He drove the 30 miles to the gate, where she stood waiting. After a five-year struggle, they were together at last. Eventually, they settled in Fremont, where Kangas landed a job as an engineer and they started a family.

“I promised the mayor (who married them) we would have 12 kids,” Kangas says over the voices of two of his grandchildren. “We got almost halfway there.”

On April 2, they will celebrate their 33rd anniversary.

Roseburg News-Review / Seattle Times

Vet’s Hunch on Hitchhiker Proves Costly

(Oregon Newspaper Association, Spot news, 3rd place, 2001. Also appeared in The Seattle Times.)

Giving a Lift Brings Vet Down
Favor to hitchhiker proves costly to cancer patient
Possessions stolen: Suspect takes off with man’s truck and U-haul containing $30,000 worth of items.

He had never heard of Roseburg before, but he will remember it now, to the end of his numbered days.

Forty-nine-year-old Thomas Carver hadn’t picked up a hitchhiker in 15 years, but this one seemed different.

“I saw truth in his eyes,” he says of a young hitchhiker standing on a northbound Interstate 5 exit in Shasta, Calif.

So he stopped.

The hitchhiker, who looked to be in his mid-20s, hopped into Carver’s white 1992 Ford F250 truck, which pulled a U-haul carrying all his possessions. Carver then continued his trip from Buckeye, Ariz. to a new home in Buckley, Wash. Thursday.

By Friday afternoon, all Carver’s possessions have been stolen for more than 12 hours. The Vietnam veteran sits in a room at the Super 8 motel in Roseburg, chain-smoking and bewildered.

“What you see is what I own,” he says, holding out his hands.

Now, all Carver owns is a T-shirt, a pair of blue jeans, some credit cards and $250 cash.

“That’s what blows me away,” Carver says. “He went into my blue jeans to get the cash, but he left all that money. Maybe we’re talking about some kind of gentleman bandit.”

After taking Carver up on his offer to get a double room, the young man who called himself Robert Keller simply waited for Carver to fall asleep before stealing his keys and a $100 bill from his jeans Thursday night.

When Carver awoke at around 4 a.m., he said he knew something was wrong. The bed next to him was empty – and still made.

“I ran outside to look for my truck, and it was gone,” the former hunting guide and contractor said.

So was the trailer, which carried about $30,000 worth of uninsured possessions, including three rifles, three handguns, a shotgun and the mount of a four-horned goat’s head, Carver said.

Carver said he sleeps a lot because of his terminal lymphoma cancer.

Doctors in Phoenix recently told Carver he had one year to live. Carver said he was on his way from Arizona to Washington for better cancer treatment.

“The waiting rooms in Phoenix are overwhelmed,” he said.

Carver said he was poisoned by Agent Orange while serving as Navy flight mechanic in the Vietnam War. He got so sick, he said, that he couldn’t work as either a hunting guide or contractor.

“I lost my business; I lost everything,” he said. “Now I lost the last bit of stuff I own. I had to walk two miles up the street just to get a comb and toothbrush.”

According to a police report, the hitchhiker is white, about 5 feet 7 inches, weighs 170 to 180 pounds, has short brown hair, large brown eyes and is missing a right incisor. He has tattoos of a long, thin cross on his right forearm and peace sign on the web of his left hand.

The hitchhiker said he was headed to Olympia for a disability check but would eventually return to Modesto, Calif. Carver said the man seemed very familiar with Roseburg.

“We seemed to have so much in common,” said Carver, whose eyes were red because his cancer medication had been stolen.

Despite the tattoos, Carver said the hitchhiker’s clean-cut appearance and honest-looking face caused him to stop.

“Because I was a hunter and a guide, I thought I could trust my instincts,” he said. “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Early Saturday, a cab dropped him off at the Greyhound station, where he planned to catch a bus to Tacoma to meet his brother.