Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ousted Inglewood Unified leader took $100K buyout, district still spiraling down

Ousted Inglewood Unified leader took $100K buyout, district still spiraling down

The state-appointed leader of the Inglewood Unified School District was removed after only two months on the job back in December, but still received a $100,000 buyout.

Now, the district Kent Taylor left behind is continuing to spiral downward, with teachers and other employees facing the prospect of layoffs and double-digit pay cuts to stave off further financial disaster.

The discrepancy between Taylor’s buyout and the looming pay cuts prompted consternation among union officials this week, when the district held a special board meeting to address issues stemming from the buyout.

“When our people do something wrong, they get fired,” said Chris Graeber, field representative for the classified union representing custodians, clerical workers and other nonteachers. “This guy walks away with 100 grand in his pocket after two months of work. We can’t figure out how this is all adding up. ”

In September, fiscally insolvent Inglewood Unified became the ninth school district in the history of California to be taken over by the state. With expenditures exceeding revenues by some $16 million annually due to plunging student enrollment, the state in October floated the district an emergency loan of $55 million – an extreme measure that required firing then-local Superintendent Gary McHenry and stripping the locally elected school board of its legislative powers.

Around that time, Taylor was thrust into a high-profile, high-pressure situation when California state schools chief Tom Torlakson recruited him from the top job at the Southern Kern Unified School District in hopes Taylor could rescue Inglewood Unified from the financial quicksand.

He was hired at a salary of $16,670 a month, plus $600 every month for expenses, amounting to about $207,240 annually. Two months later, he was pressured to resign for making financial commitments with the teachers union without approval from the California Department of Education.

In mid-March, Taylor took a job next door, as deputy superintendent of the K-8 Lennox School District. Because he’d asked for his $100,000 buyout to be paid off on a monthly basis, he has essentially been earning two executive paychecks for the past three months. The issue came to light this week, when the Los Angeles County Office of Education notified the Inglewood school district that Taylor appears to be employed by two districts at once.

On the one hand, the issue is merely technical. To take care of it, the Inglewood Unified essentially just needs to cut Taylor a check for the balance of what he is owed so it can get him off the books.

But union leaders see the buyout as an issue of fairness. Inglewood’s classified union expects a round of layoffs in coming weeks and the teachers union faces a possible 15 percent pay cut.

“If the state believes (Taylor) made mistakes, why are they taking it out on us?” said Pete Somberg, president of the Inglewood teachers union. “And why are they taking it out on the kids? ”

Asked this week why he was allowed to resign, and why the deal included a $100,000 buyout, state officials were terse.

“The payments he has received were pursuant to his contract,” said a spokeswoman with the California Department of Education in an email to the Daily Breeze. Taylor did not return a call from the Daily Breeze early this week.

The state replaced Taylor with the school finances leader serving directly under him, La Tanya Kirk-Carter. That was supposed to be a temporary assignment until the state found a permanent hire, but it’s been nearly half a year and she remains at the helm.

Now, Kirk-Carter is in the unfortunate position of trying to persuade the teachers to back out of an agreement they’d signed with Taylor; it includes several furlough days but no significant concession on salary or benefits.

That deal, Kirk-Carter has said, failed to save enough money: just $1 million when the district has been deficit-spending by $16 million or more every year.

Teachers union President Somberg says it isn’t the teachers’ fault that Taylor wasn’t authorized to bargain. Inglewood teachers, he added, cannot afford a pay cut.

“We’re already the lowest-paid teachers in Los Angeles County,” he said. (Teachers in Inglewood do enjoy an unusually generous benefits package, though.)

Somberg said he’s been told that if teachers don’t accept a pay cut, the district faces an ominous prospect: running out of money from the state’s $55 million bailout loan before the end of the 2013-14 school year. That could mean dissolution of the district.

“They’re telling the teachers we need to take a 15 percent pay cut, and if we don’t, they’re holding the wrath of God over our head,” Somberg said. “Even though we didn’t mess up – they did. In order to save the district, it’s going to have to come on the backs of the employees. That’s just not OK. ”

The matter of Taylor’s ill-fated relationship with Inglewood Unified resurfaced Monday, when the district held a special board meeting to discuss a few issues, one of which was listed on the public agenda under a litigation header titled “Taylor vs. IUSD.” It turns out Taylor is not suing the district. Instead, the Los Angeles County Office of Education is asking for Inglewood to pay out the remainder of his monthly balance in a lump sum. (However, sources say there is a dispute between Taylor and the district about what he is owed.)

Next door, the Lennox school board is pleased enough with Taylor’s performance to make it official. On Tuesday night, it approved his contract, which codifies his $165,000 annual salary. School board President Marisol Cruz gave a rave review of his performance since taking the district’s No. 2 job on March 20.

“He gets things done, and fast,” she said, noting how Taylor swiftly made two important hires – fiscal director and the food services director. “If the board wants to get something done, we give a directive, and he tells us how to get there. It’s very clear, it’s very transparent and I love it. ”

Still, the sentiment apparently isn’t unanimous: the Lennox board – currently a fractured body – approved Taylor’s contract on a narrow 3-2 vote, with board members Juan Navarro and Angela Fajardo dissenting.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Torrance vocational program among 72 in state facing closure

Torrance vocational program among 72 in state facing closure

The Southern California Regional Occupational Center or SCROC is facing state budget cutbacks. SCROC is one of the most robust vocational training facilities in Southern California. Sayah El-Habbal takes blood pressure of fellow student Jiyeon Park during Principals of Biomedical Science class. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)
The Southern California Regional Occupational Center or SCROC is facing state budget cutbacks. SCROC is one of the most robust vocational training facilities in Southern California. Sayah El-Habbal takes blood pressure of fellow student Jiyeon Park during Principals of Biomedical Science class. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)

Mollie Penny is an aspiring hairdresser who, come June, will not only graduate from Torrance High, but also complete the 1,600 hours of hands-on-hair experience necessary for obtaining her California cosmetology license.

Jessie Gonzalez does not have the option to take art or video production classes at City Honors School in Inglewood, yet the high school senior has been offered an internship at Northrop Grumman because of his developing skills in 3-D imaging.

Both are among the 9,000 South Bay students who annually attend the Southern California Regional Occupational Center in Torrance – a hulking hub of vocational education activity whose official shorthand moniker is SoCal ROC, but which is better known by its earlier acronym: SCROC.

At a time when career-tech education has become increasingly scarce in public high schools, the 46-year-old center remains one of California’s most thriving vocational campuses.

But now its very existence is in jeopardy.

SoCal ROC and other regional occupational programs across the state appear to be in danger of having to completely close come July – a potential consequence of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed school-funding overhaul, coined by the governor himself as the “local control funding formula.”

“That would be a travesty to the South Bay,” said Christine Hoffman, SoCal ROC’s superintendent, adding that the center has educated half a million residents since its inception in 1967. “SCROC is an icon here.”

Hoffman believes the problem she discovered – namely, that SoCal ROC is slated to receive zero dollars next school year under the governor’s proposal – is a fixable oversight. But she isn’t taking any chances.

She has written letters, traveled to Sacramento and appealed to sympathetic state legislators such as Sen. Ted Lieu and newly elected Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, both of Torrance. She discovered the problem in January, but her efforts to get the word out have been picking up.

Muratsuchi, in particular, is in a position to help. Despite his newcomer status, the former Torrance school board member landed a spot on the Assembly’s five-member subcommittee on education financing.

“I have a hard time believing that the governor intentionally wants to eliminate such a successful career-tech education program,” said Muratsuchi, who was elected to the post in November. “But I’m fighting to make sure we save SCROC.”

To that end, he has written and plans to soon introduce a bill, AB 1214, that would spare the program. He also plans to broach the topic at the next subcommittee meeting on Tuesday.

With its cluster of large, boxy buildings set back from Crenshaw Boulevard near Wilson Park, SoCal ROC almost resembles the campus of a community college, but one whose primary customers are high-schoolers.

Campus serves 6 area school districts

While it is among 72 regional occupational programs across the state, SoCal ROC operates under a model so unusual there is only one other like it in California.

Unlike the other programs, which offer courses on the campuses of existing high schools, SoCal ROC exists as a campus unto its own, serving ninth- through 12th-graders from the six school districts in its joint powers agreement: Torrance, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, El Segundo, Inglewood and Palos Verdes Peninsula.

(The other one with its own separate campus, Metropolitan Education District in Santa Clara County, also serves six school districts.)

For decades, SoCal ROC has bused in and educated – free of charge – high school students from those six districts. (The Centinela Valley high school district serving students in Lawndale and Hawthorne was once a part of the consortium, but pulled out in 2011-12.)

The students typically come to SoCal ROC after their regular school day to take career-oriented courses not on the menu at their high school campuses. They receive high school credit for the courses, some of which satisfy requirements for the state’s two major university systems.

But the main attraction is the eclectic offerings themselves, which include plumbing, banking, auto shop, nursing, dental assisting, engineering, welding, fashion design, video-game design and even pet health and grooming, to name a few.

Adults can attend for a modest tuition, and high school students from districts outside the consortium can enroll free of charge, provided there is space and they can find their own transportation.

Classes are typically taught by industry professionals. Bob Schuchman, who teaches 3-D character design and animation, has an impressive portfolio of high-profile logos that includes Smirnoff vodka, Vintage Chevrolet Club of America and the Rug Doctor carpet-cleaning machine. He said SoCal ROC can be a great fit for the student who is ambivalent about the traditional high school setting.

“We don’t have a sports team, we don’t have to worry about the big man on campus,” he said. “None of that exists here.”

Unpleasant surprise in budget

And yet, a rising number of college-bound students are enrolling in SoCal ROC from the affluent corners of the consortium, including places such as the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

“Those students you normally wouldn’t expect to see taking career-technical education, they are seeing the value of getting that head start,” Hoffman said.

As for the scare over funding, Hoffman said she discovered the issue at the beginning of the year. For decades, the state budget has included a line item for the state’s 72 regional occupation programs. Normally the annual allocation falls somewhere between $400 million and $500 million, about $7 million of which goes to SoCal ROC.

But in January, Hoffman was stunned when she saw, in Gov. Brown’s proposed budget, the amount assigned to regional occupational programs this year: zero.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that that’s a problem,” she said.

So does the goose egg mean SoCal ROC will be no more come next school year?

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance, was noncommittal.

“We recognize there are some unique situations, such as this joint powers agreement,” he told the Daily Breeze. “We are willing to have further discussions with them as this process moves forward.”

The zeroed-out budget is the result of the governor’s attempt to simplify the state’s Byzantine school-funding formula by bringing more local control to individual school districts.

What’s changed?

Historically, about 30 cents of every dollar that has gone from the state government to local school districts has come with strings attached to a long list of mandated programs, such as school safety, gifted and talented education (known as GATE), summer school, special education, and, of course, regional occupational programs.

Brown contends that the model – with its layers of bureaucracy, mazes of regulation and deference to test scores – is wasteful and wrongheaded, as well as overly top-down.

“The higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students,” Brown said in his State of the State Address in January.

His proposal to cut the strings attached to certain programs – known in education speak as “categorical programs” – means individual school districts will receive larger lump sums to spend as they see fit.

Brown’s proposal actually builds on an earlier move by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008-09 to temporarily remove the spending requirements on many of those categorical programs. Brown’s plan does two things: adds more spending flexibility by stripping away even more categorical programs, and seeks to make permanent the terms of Schwarzenegger’s initiative, which was set to expire in 2014-15.

In response to SoCal ROC’s Hoffman, Palmer pointed out that the strings attached to the regional occupational programs had already been snipped by Schwarzenegger back in 2008-09.

“In other words, there’s no change,” he said.

But Hoffman disagrees. In every year prior to this one, she said, the budget has included a line-item for regional occupational programs to the tune of about $450 million. This is the first time it has actually been zeroed out.

In previous years, school districts and county offices of education across California continued to run most of their regional occupational programs, even though they had the option not to.

“Flexibility for the ROCP (regional occupational centers/programs) was in name only,” she said. “What is different now is that there is no money budgeted in the state pot for ROCPs. That is a huge difference.”

Alternatives for students

To make up for this potential cut to career-tech education, the governor’s proposal does include a request to give individual school districts a boost – to the tune of $215 per high school student. But Hoffman says even if all six school districts in the South Bay consortium opted to hand over their entire allocation to SoCal ROC, the center would find its annual budget nearly chopped in half. In other words, it would still need to close.

This would mean that hair stylist students like Penny would have to find another way of earning her hours of experience. That can be completed at many private schools, but tuition runs upwards of $17,000 a year.

Sarah Muller, a senior at South High in Torrance, has been taking medical-assisting and other classes oriented in health care at SoCal ROC. She now knows that she wants to be a pediatric nurse, and she will take courses to that end next year at California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson.

“I wouldn’t have gotten all this hands-on experience at my high school,” she said. “The teachers all work in this field, so they know what they are doing.”

Follow Rob Kuznia on Twitter at

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Some employees at Lennox School District accuse superintendent of long list of misdeeds

Some employees at Lennox School District accuse superintendent of long list of misdeeds

A faction of employees at the Lennox School District is on a campaign to discredit the district’s new superintendent, claiming her inexperience and incompetence is jeopardizing a district long known for producing laudable results despite its location in a high-poverty area.

In a letter to the Daily Breeze, the anonymous group of six employees accuses the new superintendent, Barbara Flores, as well as her three supporters on the elected Lennox school board, of committing a long list of misdeeds. One of those veteran employees on Friday also sent a separate packet of accusations to the Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

The group accuses Flores 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, falsifying her resume and over-compensating for her inexperience by taking vindictive measures against subordinates, among other things.

The letter to the District Attorney’s Office insinuates that a Flores supporter on the school board is not a legal U.S. citizen, and even suggests that Flores herself, a Latina, harbors a bias against white males in a district where more than 90 percent of the students are Latino, but where many of the top administrators in recent years have been white.

“We believe that the Lennox School Board hired someone with no administrative experience who is now making it a practice to hire consultants and relying on (a law firm) to make up for her lack of knowledge, experience and integrity,” the letter to the district attorney states.

“That is why I am writing to you, recognizing the successes you have had in many communities of ridding them of corrupt, unethical public servants.”

Flores, 65, is a veteran professor of education from California State University, San Bernardino. Before her hiring in July, she had never worked as a school administrator, although she serves as president of the elected school board in San Bernardino, from where she commutes. In Lennox, she is generally supported by many parents and leaders of both of the district’s employee unions but is opposed by other employees, including managers. Like her predecessor, Fred Navarro, she earns about $177,000 a year.

Flores herself denies the accusations, chalking up the discontent to the difficulty of change.

“I believe in First Amendment rights, though I would prefer it not be anonymous, and that they have the courage to face me instead of making allegations that are untrue,” she said. “We are responsible to the children in our community – to provide the best education we can for our children. That means making everybody accountable.”

If nothing else, the complaints against Flores highlight a deepening schism in a once closely knit K-8 school district. The detractors – composed of longtime employees who decline to identify themselves for fear of losing their jobs – paint her as an under-qualified leader brought on by a slim majority of a school board that is taking an award-winning district on a fast-track to ruin.

Flores’ supporters credit her for placing the concerns of teachers, students and parents above those of higher-ups in the administration.

“We have claimed for years that district management is very top heavy,” said Brian Guerrero, president of the Lennox teachers union. “We have complained for years about perks in the administrators’ contracts – car allowances and stuff like that. … We’ve always been told, `No that’s irrelevant, no, no, no.’ She’s looking into stuff like that.”

The disharmony surfaced in November, when Brian Johnson, an administrator in the district for 35 years, was abruptly placed on paid administrative leave amid allegations that construction funds were misused. A group of supporters came to his vigorous defense, saying Johnson – who has since resigned – is a man of unimpeachable integrity.

Located in an unincorporated community in the shadow of the Los Angeles International Airport, the Lennox School District has long defied the stereotype that high-poverty communities and poorly run schools go hand in hand. Here, the whine of landing passenger jets is so incessant that all but one of the district’s schools are completely windowless.

In 1994, the district’s leader, Ken Moffett, was named Superintendent of the Year in California – and, later that year, the United States. In 2009, the Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy – a charter high school run by the district – ranked 21st on the U.S. News & World Report’s list of 100 top U.S. public high schools.

Additionally, test scores in Lennox are relatively strong, especially in light of the disadvantaged population. Two of its seven schools – Buford Avenue and Felton elementary schools – rank in the top 10 percent among similar schools statewide.

Flores’ critics say her leadership threatens to undo decades of good work.

“Less than a year ago most of us were very proud to claim Lennox as our school district,” says the letter to the Daily Breeze. “We are now hesitant to even mention that fact.”

Flores’ supporters say her style brings long-overdue transparency to the district.

Guerrero said a recent audit turned up some eyebrow-raising activity under the last administration: purchase orders written after items had arrived, “ghost employees” who no longer work for the district but remain in the system, and cash advances from credit cards in the hands of unknown possessors.

Whatever is going on – and whomever is to blame – the murky allegations over misappropriated funds have been serious enough to attract the attention of the FBI and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In December, one agent from each agency showed up together at the district office to interview employees.

Parent volunteer Teresa Canche said when it comes to listening to parent concerns, Flores is a breath of fresh air compared to her predecessors.

“If a parent went to submit a complaint, they would just leave it on the desk and we’d never hear anything about it,” said Canche, president of Lennox Middle School’s English Language Advisory Council, a parent group that advises the principal about programs for English learners. “They were so very disrespectful to us.”

Regarding the allegations of racial bias, the letter to the District Attorney’s Office brought up a specific incident.

It states that the Lennox School District’s former director of technology, Todd Barker, resigned this fall, shortly after a public event in which Flores “pointedly looked at him and stated she had been `fighting the white man’ her whole life.”

Guerrero said he witnessed the speech, and interpreted her comment not as a threat but as an allusion to her Chicano-studies background, perhaps in an attempt to connect with parents and employees in the predominantly Latino district.

“I’m white, I work with her all the time – I don’t feel like she hates me,” he said.

Flores said she believes much of the resistance likely stems from the district’s need to trim $6.3 million from its $34 million budget over the next two years. Many of these cuts, she said, will come from the administrative side of the house.

“When someone comes in to make sure you’re fiscally solvent, there is going to be pushback,” she said.

As for the letter to the District Attorney’s Office, its list of accusations is so long the cover letter consumes seven pages.

It accuses Flores of falsifying her resume, which says she earned a doctorate in 1982 from the University of Arizona in “Reading, Higher Education Administration, & Bilingual Education.”

Contacted by the Daily Breeze, university officials said although Flores did earn a doctorate there in 1982, it was only in reading – not the other two fields mentioned. University officials declined to comment further, but Flores told the Daily Breeze the two additional fields mentioned were her minors.

The letter also accuses her of spending, since July, $250,000 on the law firm Leal-Trejo, “a firm that for some reason (known only to the superintendent and board) is slowly taking over every aspect of the decision making process.”

It accuses her of hiring a consulting firm – Achievable Leadership Solution – whose lead investigator, Howard Bryan, was once mentored by Flores when he was an elementary principal in Paramount. Flores said that is true, but added that their working relationship happened about 25 years ago.

The letter even alleges that Flores has a habit of parking her car in one of the two handicapped spots at the district, charging that she has been ticketed for the offense.

Perhaps most provocatively, the letter accuses one of her supporters on the school board, Mercedes Ibarra, of living outside of the Lennox School District – and of potentially being a non-U.S. citizen.

“Because she uses numerous aliases (including Arcina and Delgadillo), it has been difficult to confirm not only her residence, but also her legal status,” the letter states. “If she is not a citizen of the United States, she would be ineligible for a seat on the school board.”

Ibarra could not be reached for comment.

The letter to the Daily Breeze also accuses current and past presidents of the teachers union of joining school board members at local restaurants for illegal secret meetings.

Guerrero says he read the letter, and vehemently denies the charge.

“I don’t know if whoever is sending them has bad information, or if whoever is sending them is making up information just to sell their cause, but my sympathy for those letters took a real dive when I saw that false information about myself,” he said. “The credibility absolutely crashed.”

Follow Rob Kuznia on Twitter at

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Daily Breeze gets documents on 23 cases of teacher misconduct

Daily Breeze gets documents on 23 cases of teacher misconduct

In Torrance, a teacher came to school inebriated.

In Redondo Beach, a middle school teacher was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a minor – a former student – whom he allegedly took on an excursion to Disneyland and met at a football game, where they were seen touching each other inappropriately.

In Hawthorne, a substitute teacher allegedly hit a student on the back to get his attention.

Each teacher either resigned or was fired.

These cases, along with 20 others across the South Bay, were contained in public documents obtained by the Daily Breeze from South Bay school districts.

Triggered by a now-infamous scandal that erupted early this year at Miramonte Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Daily Breeze and several sister papers launched the project to shed light on a topic that often seems shrouded in secrecy: teacher misconduct.

To get a glimpse, the Daily Breeze sent public records requests to a dozen school districts asking for the documents they routinely send the state to report cases of teacher misconduct. (The LAUSD was not part of the investigation, largely because a sister paper, the Los Angeles Daily News, has been looking into the matter there.)

Cooperation among the South Bay school districts was varied, but the vast majority responded in some fashion. In all, the dozen districts turned over about 23 cases dating back five years. Considering the
region employs some 3,700 public school teachers, it’s a small number, and serves as a good indication that South Bay classrooms are, by and large, safe places for students.

This story touches on the details of some of the area’s worst cases. But the Daily Breeze is not naming the majority of the disciplined teachers involved because their transgressions do not rise to a level that warrants violating their privacy. Only the names of teachers who have already been tried in criminal court are used.

As for the Miramonte debacle, it sparked widespread suspicion that teacher misconduct, especially of a sexual nature, might be far more prevalent than previously thought, and that administrators were sweeping allegations under the rug.

There, teacher Mark Berndt, a Torrance resident, was arrested in late January on suspicion of abusing 23 students in the large, urban elementary school. Among the allegations: that he fed third-graders spoonfuls of semen and took photos of students blindfolded, with huge cockroaches crawling on their faces.

The Miramonte story not only went national for its vile details, but also led to a cascade of revelations that have cemented the case’s status as an illustration of administrative failure.

It turns out, for instance, that LAUSD had no knowledge that Berndt had been the subject of a similar police investigation in 1993 looking into allegations of inappropriate touching. Also, the school district had failed to report the latest case to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing – as required by state law, meaning that, as far as the general public was concerned, the teacher, as well as the allegations against him, had simply disappeared.

The case also seemed to confirm the conventional suspicion that it is too difficult to fire a teacher. Last June, six months into the due-process proceedings, the district paid Berndt $40,000 to resign.

The Daily Breeze has thus far turned up no evidence of South Bay school districts suppressing disturbing allegations or quietly shuffling dangerous teachers from school to school.

In fact, union representatives complain of an opposite phenomenon: School districts, perhaps emboldened by a current climate of distrust for teachers, have often been too quick to punish teachers based on anonymous allegations cast by parents and students.

Union officials, for instance, complain that Redondo Beach Unified regularly retains a private investigator to chase leads.

“They are so afraid of appearing in the community to be soft on discipline,” said Sandra Goins, director of the South Bay United Teachers.

Julie Shankle, president of the Torrance teachers union, said the Miramonte case couldn’t have come at a worse time for teachers, whom she believes have been under attack by the public and media of late.

“The increase in the demonization of teachers has just been wrong,” she said.

Shankle defends the lengthy process that exists for firing tenured teachers, which can last upwards of two years and usually requires that teachers on leave receive their full pay during that time. She likens the process to providing defense attorneys for anyone accused of a crime.

“I always hear people in private industry saying, `If they don’t like you (there), they just fire you – get over it,”‘ she said. “I ask, `Why don’t you want the same thing I have? Wouldn’t you like to have the chance to be involved and maybe exonerated?’ Maybe these are things we should all want.”

It isn’t uncommon, she added, for cases to be trumped up.

“Kids will do and say anything about a teacher they don’t like,” she said.

For their part, district administrators defend the practice of paying some teachers to walk away: Doing so can be far less expensive than covering the cost of not only the teacher’s salary, but also attorney fees, sometimes for both sides.

“These processes are extremely expensive,” said Nancy Billinger, assistant superintendent of human resources in the Redondo Beach Unified School District. “If we believe there’s a way to settle the matter as opposed to waiting, we oftentimes will.”

Billinger also defends her district’s tough stance on teacher discipline.

“In Redondo, we have a high standard for teacher performance, and we are willing to do what is necessary to hold teachers accountable who are not meeting our standards,” she said. “We have a superintendent and school board who are willing to finance the process.”

The findings

In any event, the majority of cases uncovered by the Daily Breeze were far from criminal.

Those that involved felony charges have already been extensively reported on.

They include the case of Louis Jay Haddad, 51, a former media-arts teacher at Redondo Union High School who pleaded guilty to engaging in a personal sexual act in front of a student in his empty sixth-period classroom in late 2009. He lost his job and his teaching credential, and was sentenced to 480 hours of community service.

There also was the case of Anthony “Tony” Angellano, 36, a former dance instructor at Palos Verdes Peninsula High, who in February was ordered to stand trial on six felony charges alleging that he engaged in oral copulation and other sexual acts five years ago with a girl who was 16 or 17. Angellano has disputed having a sexual relationship with the girl before she turned 18.

Others involve misdemeanor charges and have not been reported in the news.

The most serious of those appears to be the case of the Redondo Beach teacher who pleaded no contest to having “inappropriate physical contact” with a minor who had been his student in 2005-06.

That teacher, who once worked at Nick Parras Middle School, was accused of taking the girl to Disneyland; holding hands with the student and hugging her; and, in 2006-07, meeting his former student at a football game, where he allegedly began “inappropriately touching her on the thigh and back and allowing her to inappropriately touch him,” according to a statement of charges filed against him by the school district.

The teacher pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of child annoyance. He later fulfilled his probationary obligations and had the case expunged from his record, according to Redondo Beach City Prosecutor Melanie Chavira.

There also was the case of a teacher in Torrance fired in late 2007 after district administrators learned of his misdemeanor conviction for possessing methamphetamine.

Similarly, a teacher in Torrance resigned in October 2006, several weeks after she was placed on paid leave for showing up to class intoxicated.

The teacher “admitted that she had been drinking alcoholic beverages most of the night and that she had consumed her last alcoholic drink at approximately 5 a.m.” on the same morning she came to class, according to the statement the Torrance Unified School District sent to the CTC. She was driven to a local medical clinic and given a Breathalyzer test. Her blood-alcohol content was 0.168, more than twice the legal limit for impairment. It isn’t clear from the document whether the police were involved.

Aggressive behavior

Many of the incidents describe teachers accused of verbal or physical aggressiveness with students. These include:

A teacher in Redondo Beach who had allegedly established a pattern of talking down to her students, occasionally making them cry, calling them “morons,” “fools” and “pathetic,” telling them that her cats are smarter than them and saying they are destined to work at McDonald’s for the rest of their lives.

A teacher in Torrance who allegedly slapped a student on the arm and then placed the student in a timeout for an extended period of time.

Others accuse teachers of exhibiting behavior that is inappropriate. These include:

A tenured elementary school teacher in Redondo Beach who, in addition to being excessively absent, was accused of establishing a pattern of making inappropriate comments to students “concerning her own issues of personal stress, illnesses, depression and dating student’s (sic) parents and other inappropriate matters such as prostitution,” according to the district’s statement of charges against the teacher.

The statement went on to say that the teacher “has been guilty of alcohol or other drug abuse which makes her unfit to instruct or associate with children.” The district in October 2008 recommended that the school board fire the teacher. She ultimately resigned, according to a letter sent to the CTC in March of 2009.

A nontenured teacher in Torrance Unified who resigned after admitting to the principal that he had used his school computer to view inappropriate websites.

A tenured teacher in the Centinela Valley Union High School District who, according to the CTC statement, “occasionally made inappropriate jokes, remarks, and comments in class that were found by some to be offensive.”

The teacher opted to resign six months after the allegations were lodged, telling the district his behavior was related to a medical condition. Although Centinela Valley has a reputation for political strife between teachers and administrators, this was the only case involving a teacher the district released to the Daily Breeze.

The Centinela Valley district released another case involving Leuzinger High Principal Raul Carranza who resigned due to allegations of misconduct, but no details were attached. The Daily Breeze has sent a follow- up request for more information.

A cautionary tale

As for trumped-up charges that can spiral out of control to the detriment of the accused, Torrance Unified has its own cautionary tale.

In 2006, Leslie Stuart, a psychology teacher at North High School, was accused of making suggestive comments to several students. The accusers included a girl who claimed that Stuart – when admonishing her for flouting the school’s dress code – stated loudly in front of the class that he could see her nipples through her shirt. She also said he repeatedly referred to her as a bimbo.

Another student, a boy, made a slew of charges, including that Stuart would run his finger down the boy’s face and call him his girlfriend, and that Stuart would stand so close to the student that it seemed Stuart was trying to put his genitals in the boy’s face.

Stuart was acquitted by a jury.

“The jury deliberated for less than an hour,” said Mario Di Leva, executive director of the Torrance teachers union. Di Leva recalled the students’ testimony crumbling under cross- examination. Regarding the genitals-in-the-face accusation, for instance, the student acknowledged that the teacher was standing about four or five feet away, Di Leva said.

“That’s not a crotch in the face!” Di Leva remembers the defense attorney saying. “The charges were so bizarre in relation to what actually went on.”

Stuart, who could not be reached for comment, later sued the school district for firing him, charging that the move was retaliatory. The case was settled out of court.

“It cost that guy a lot,” Di Leva said. “It cost him his reputation.”

And yet, Di Leva credited administrators at Torrance Unified for their general fairness and professionalism in these matters.

Districts’ disclosures vary

Although most school districts in the area cooperated with the Daily Breeze’s request, their interpretations of what could be legally released varied.

Most forthcoming were the K-12 school districts in Torrance, Redondo Beach and the Palos Verdes Peninsula. These districts provided documents with the names intact.

Others provided documents but redacted the names. These included Lennox, Centinela Valley and Hawthorne. Of these, the Lennox district sent a document with a redacted name and no mention of the allegations against the teacher, rending the document virtually useless. When the Daily Breeze sought further information, the district responded by contacting the teacher, who, the district told the Daily Breeze in an email, would have 14 days to file an action to block the disclosure. Centinela eventually supplied documents that included names.

The K-8 Lawndale district took the most legally guarded approach, arguing that some reports sent to the CTC are exempt from disclosure. Its letter to the Daily Breeze also stated that all investigative processes are considered confidential until “final action” is taken.

Still others – such as Wiseburn, El Segundo, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach – stated they simply had no cases to report.

Only one school district, Inglewood Unified, did not respond at all.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Should Schools Offer Incentives to Students to Try Harder on Standardized Tests?

Should Schools Offer Incentives to Students to Try Harder on Standardized Tests?

Students at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale were filing into a classroom one day this week to find their principal standing before them.

Ryan Smith held a cardboard box and greeted them with a smile; this was a good-news visit.

Andrea Tinajero, 10th grader, holds ipod she recieved for maintaining her advanced CST test scores at Leuzinger High School. The program awards students who show improvement in the standardized test all high schoolers take. Photo by Brad Graverson 4-25-12
Andrea Tinajero, 10th grader, holds ipod she recieved for maintaining her advanced CST test scores at Leuzinger High School. The program awards students who show improvement in the standardized test all high schoolers take. Photo by Brad Graverson 4-25-12

After the bell rang, Smith issued an announcement: A student in the class had made amazing progress on the California Standards Tests, improving in all four subjects tested.

“Can you give a big round of applause to … ,” Smith said, pausing for effect, “Tommy Mai.”

As the class clapped, a surprised Tommy Mai stood up and, at Smith’s urging, came to the front of the room to claim his prize inside the box. It was a portable Nintendo DS, as well as a game to go with it, Mario Kart 7.

When it comes to standardized testing in California public schools, a paradox has long been at play: schools live and die by students’ performance on a battery of exams taken every spring, and yet the students themselves have zero incentive to perform well. That’s beginning to change.

In the South Bay and beyond, more and more schools are trying to motivate students to care about those tests, which, at K-12 schools across California, are being taken next week.

The rewards take the form of electronic gadgets, kayaking trips, gift cards and extra credit, among other things.

Ceara Readeux, 10th grade, chooses a pink ipod from Leuzinger HS Principal Ryan Smith for improving her CST test scores. Photo by Brad Graverson 4-25-12
Ceara Readeux, 10th grade, chooses a pink ipod from Leuzinger HS Principal Ryan Smith for improving her CST test scores. Photo by Brad Graverson 4-25-12

It isn’t difficult to understand why the trend is occurring. Students’ results on the tests – which include math, English, science and history – form the basis of every public school’s Academic Performance Index (API) scores. (The high school exit exam also plays a major role.) The scores boil down to a single number for the entire school, between 200 and 1,000, with 800 as the state-set goal. Over the years, that number has embedded itself in the fabric of public school culture in California, to the point of near-obsession among parents, teachers, administrators, real estate agents and, yes, the media.

In other words, it’s a fixation among virtually everybody but the students themselves – especially the older ones – who, naturally, tend to be more concerned with what comes next for them.

The rewards programs have proliferated over the past couple of years.

At Leuzinger, the raffled prizes include not only the Nintendo, but also iPod Nanos, gift cards, Xbox game consoles and an iPad. At Gardena High – which has long carried the dubious distinction of being the South Bay’s lowest performing high school – students receive gift certificates from Starbucks, Target or Jamba Juice just for showing up on test day. On the more affluent end of the spectrum, at Palos Verdes High School, the incentive is academic. In some classes, students who ace the exams can gain extra credit, and therefore boost their grades.

In each case, the incentives are a new thing, and in each case, API scores have skyrocketed.

But is this a fair practice, when all schools are judged by the same tests but not all schools offer rewards? For example, the four high schools in Torrance don’t offer much in the way of incentives.

Kate Esposito, an assistant professor of education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson, isn’t a fan of testing incentives. But her concerns have less to do with fairness among competing schools than with something more internal within each individual student. Esposito believes that offering students external rewards for strong performance on standardized tests can mess with their intrinsic motivation to learn.

“If you give students a reward for something they were already motivated to do, the next time you don’t offer a reward they won’t be as motivated,” she said.

But what if students weren’t motivated in the first place? Esposito said she doesn’t fault the principals for trying to sweeten the deal; rather, she blames the tests themselves, which she believes are far too generic.

“What does it say about the task itself? It’s so onerous that we have to bribe you to do it,” she said.

But the principals who engage in the practice say it simply taps into a human drive that carries over into adulthood.

“Students need to be acknowledged for their achievements, just like adults,” said Nicole Wesley, principal of Redondo Union High School, which this year launched its own testing incentive program. “I like to be acknowledged – everyone does.”

At Redondo Union High, students who boost their scores on any test by a certain amount – or hit the advanced range – will be entitled to a handful of perks. These include free entry into certain athletic events, invitation to a barbecue and early dismissal to lunch a few times a year. The same students also will enter a raffle for an iPad.

What’s striking is the extent to which the practice seems to work.

After initiating the gift-card program last year, Gardena High’s scores jumped higher than those of any other high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Rudy Mendoza, the school’s principal.

“The participation rates started to just soar when we added the incentives,” he said.

This year, the school is doubling the amount of gift cards it is raffling out. Another new feature: Students who score “proficient” or “advanced” in any subject will enter a drawing for a kayaking trip.

It also seems to work in more affluent areas. Last year, Palos Verdes High’s test scores fell off a cliff and the school found itself under the microscope of the school board and administration.

Educators at the school rounded up kids at random and held focus-group discussions on what might better motivate them to give it their all.

“They said: `If it matters in our college admissions, then it’s going to make a difference,”‘ said Palos Verdes High Principal Nick Stephany. Sure enough, the school offered a few points of extra credit to high performers – thereby allowing them to boost their grade from, say, a C to a B – and the school’s API shot up by nearly 50 points, to 898. That vaulted the school into a tie with its crosstown rival Peninsula High, which didn’t offer the incentives.

Stephany said that while the extra credit was just one of about 10 initiatives taken to boost the scores, he believes it definitely made a difference. And he makes no apologies.

“We were in a position last year where we’d been backed into a corner, and we had to get the scores up,” he said. “And we did.”

At Leuzinger – whose score has jumped an astonishing 67 points over the past two years, to 643 – Smith doesn’t just hand out prizes. He also goes into classrooms and leads a discussion that at first can seem a little uncomfortable.

“I tell them, look, as improved as we are, in the grand scheme of things, we have plenty of schools in the area that are outperforming us,” he said. “And we kind of have an interesting debate about: Is it fair to compare us to Mira Costa?”

That’s Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, right across the San Diego (405) Freeway, whose API score, at 911, is among the top 2 percent of all public high schools in California. (No incentives are offered there.)

“The kids usually start with, `No,’ and then we talk about why,” Smith continued. “And then there’s always a few kids who go, `Well, wait a minute, they are kids just like we are. We can do that.’ And then it always goes to a good place.”

Last year, Leuzinger – long the laggard of the three high schools in the Centinela Valley school district – set a goal to surpass Hawthorne High. It worked. Now, he said, the school has its sights on Lawndale High, the district’s perennial top performer.

Not all principals in the South Bay are comfortable with the intensified focus on API scores. Mitzi Cress, principal at Palos Verdes Peninsula High – one of the highest-scoring schools in the South Bay – said she believes the entire education system places far too much emphasis on the scores.

“It’s a one-day snapshot – one test, one day,” she said. “A school’s API score doesn’t really tell us much about what’s going on in each individual school. The accountability piece has to be much broader. … The pressure to perform on that number has become an obsession.”

Accountability Oakland Tribune / Argus

Argus Investigation: Embattled Former CEO has Left Several Positions Under Pressure

Copley Has History of Turmoil

Embattled Former CEO has Left Several Positions Under Pressure

By Rob Kuznia and Rob Dennis

NEWARK — John Copley was convincing. He had the vision and the experience that seemingly made him an excellent choice to lead the chamber of commerce.

But the man who was arrested Friday on suspicion of embezzlement also had a past that the Newark chamber didn’t know about.

Copley — who resigned as the president and CEO of the cash-drained North Silicon Valley Newark chamber under increasing pressure from its members — left at least three previous leadership positions under cloudy circumstances during the past 12 years, sources told The Argus. He also changed his name at least once, according to Social Security records.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the man the Newark business community knew as Copley was working under the name of John Rodgers and was a volunteer minister at a Sacramento-area church, former associates said. He later worked as chairman of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County and executive director of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, they said.

All of those jobs appear to have ended in turmoil, according to sources and news articles, although some of the same people also said Copley was a hard worker and an able organizer.

Before the Newark chamber hired Copley in March 2000, chamber officials conducted a reference check that turned up nothing questionable, they said. But the chamber did not conduct a background check because it was not standard practice at the time, said the Rev. Ed Moore, a chamber board member who served on the hiring committee at the time.

In October, police began investigating the finances of the chamber.

Copley, two days before he resigned, said he did nothing illegal.

“If I was doing something wrong or illegal with all this coming up, I would have been out of here and gone,” he said.

Copley, 39, who has been working for two months at the Billy DeFrank Lesbian and Gay Community Center in San Jose, refused to answer questions for this story.

“I will respond to those questions in the appropriate manner in the appropriate time,” he said in a telephone message left at The Argus at 1:44 a.m. the day after a reporter tried to talk with him at his San Jose office.

A background investigation by The Argus turned up several instances in which Copley left leadership roles amid controversy, although he never was accused of breaking any laws.

In 1990, a month after a bimonthly newspaper published a story stating that he commonly and falsely claimed to be an ordained minister, Copley — then John Rodgers — resigned as co-chairman of Sacramento’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The newspaper, Mom Guess What!, has been focusing on gay and lesbian issues since its inception in 1978.

Rodgers, according to the article, had served as a volunteer minister at Metropolitan Community Church, a Protestant church for gays and lesbians in the Sacramento area. But he stepped down in 1989 after his credentials were investigated by a church official, the Rev. Ed Sherriff, who determined Rodgers had not been ordained.

Sherriff, who died in 1999, determined that Rodgers was not an ordained Methodist minister and did not have the credentials he claimed, said the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Elder Freda Smith.

“He was very convincing,” Smith said of Rodgers. “He certainly knew quite a bit about churches.”

Then-GLAAD member Mary Smith told Mom Guess What! in the 1990 article, “It never occurred to me to question that he (Rodgers) wasn’t a real minister — he was always wearing that collar.”

After leaving the GLAAD job, Rodgers moved into the political sphere, becoming heavily involved with the Democratic Party of Sacramento County.

Robert Jordan, a party employee, said he met Rodgers at another Sacramento gay and lesbian organization in late 1989.

“He kind of disappeared for a while after those articles came out,” said Jordan, adding he did not see Rodgers again until 1993 or early 1994.

“He was a member of a young Democrats club,” Jordan said. “He said his name was Copley, but I recognized him from before.”

Rodgers had changed his last name to Copley in the early 1990s.

Copley established himself as a talented activist for the party, sources said. In 1997, after managing the campaign headquarters, Copley became
chairman of the county party, a volunteer position in which he performed well, sources said.

“This guy was clearly a hard worker,” said Bruce Pomer, who succeeded Copley as chairman. “I thought him to be a very competent chair who ran a very tight ship.”

Copley, however, left the party on bad terms, and money was the source of the problem, said Virginia Moose, who has served as the party’s treasurer for 17 years.

At issue was about $4,800 Copley used to buy fliers and postcards to advertise candidates the party endorsed, according to bills obtained by The Argus.

Because Copley told Moose the mailers were an in-kind contribution, “we sent out many more mailers than we could afford,” she said.

The party later received an overdue bill from Allied Printing Co. for about $4,800, and a call from an accountant at the shop, Moose said.

“Allied Printing had been told I was out of town and that’s why the bill wasn’t paid,” Moose said. “That was not true.”

Moose never took any formal action.

“It didn’t occur to me to sue him (Copley),” she said. “I just wanted him to get out of here.”

At the time, Copley also was serving as a campaign manager for his roommate, Sam Ciraulo, who was running for the Los Rios Community College Board of Trustees, she said. The pair shared a home in North Sacramento, records show.

Ciraulo, who wound up losing the Los Rios bid, moved to Fremont in August and again was Copley’s roommate. He ran unsuccessfully in November for a seat on the Ohlone College board of trustees.

In Sacramento, Moose and Jordan both said Copley was criticized for allocating more resources to Ciraulo’s race than to those of other candidates.

And the party, whose two-year budget was about $22,000, ended up $5,000 in debt, Moose said.

Moose said she told Copley that if he ran for chair again, she would go public with her suspicions. She said Copley declined a nomination to run
again for chairman in January 1999.

Pomer, who succeeded Copley in the chair position, said while he had a good relationship with him at the Democratic Party, Copley left the office in disarray by taking all of the records.

“It seemed real traumatic at the time,” he said. “I didn’t have anything.”

While volunteering for the Democrats, Copley was working full time as an executive assistant for Roberts & Associates in Sacramento, a company that raises funds for politicians, spokeswoman Toni Roberts said.

“He did a really good job. I completely trusted him,” she said, adding that “John, at the time, really wanted to leave and take another job. He in
essence felt underemployed.”

In 1999, Copley was hired as executive director of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce. But he left in January 2000 and “is not eligible for rehire,” said Laurel Brent-Bumb, who occupies the top paid spot — now called the chief executive officer.

Brent-Bumb would not say whether Copley was terminated, offering only that he did not resign.

“There was not a financial issue here,” she added.

In February 2000 — about a month after Copley left the El Dorado County chamber — he responded to a job posting for the top position at the Newark Chamber of Commerce, mem-ber Mike Donohue said.

At the time, the chamber had been without an executive director since August 1999, when Sandy Young resigned, and one person had turned down its job offer, Donohue said.

A chamber committee of about six members — whose primary goal was an increase in membership — quickly whittled the candidates to Copley and one other person, members say.

“He interviewed well,” Donohue said. “He had the answers we were looking for.”

Moore, another committee member, agreed.

“To the best of my knowledge, we all agreed he would be the best for the chamber.” Moore said. “There was no debate.”

The chamber did not conduct a background search and never had for past candidates, Moore said.

Helbush said she was not sure if the chamber still has Copley’s resume, and she would not provide any information it contains because it is a personnel matter, she said.

“It would be helpful to work with the benefit of hindsight, but we can only move into the future by learning from our mistakes,” Moore said.

Moore said the group checked more than three references listed on Copley’s resume. However, he said, he wishes the group had asked whether the organizations would have rehired Copley.

Shortly after the chamber hired him, Copley changed his title from executive director to president and chief executive officer. The bylaws were rewritten, listing the president/CEO — Copley — as the treasurer.

Under his leadership, the chamber started Newark’s first farmers market. Copley also did a stellar job as head organizer for the Newark Days Parade in September, members said. He tapped into his connections to line up Grand Marshal Mervyn Fernandez, a former Los Angeles Raiders standout.

Another Copley coup came in April, when chamber member Pat Danielson was named one of California’s six Small Business Advocates of 2002.

Copley also became involved with Ohlone College, serving as the fund-raising chairman for the committee supporting its March $150 million bond election. He served as chairman of Ohlone’s bond oversight committee until trustees removed him from the position following his resignation from the chamber.

And after some last-minute maneuvering, Copley wooed Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to town for a speech — although his appearance was uncertain until days before the April event.

But Copley also caused some strain among chamber members, beginning when he decided to change the name of the Tri-City area’s oldest chamber to the North Silicon Valley Newark Chamber of Commerce.

Although state law required the general membership to approve the name change, only the 18-member board of directors voted on it last year, former Chairwoman Helbush said.

But a document filed with the secretary of state in May 2001 indicated the general membership had approved the change. It was signed by both Copley and Sheri Flister, then the chamber president.

The name change — meant to increase membership — angered many members who said it undermined the city’s independent spirit. Membership numbers, meanwhile, remained steady — about 300 — chamber members say. On Jan. 15, chamber members voted to change the name back to the Newark Chamber of Commerce.

Other members were disappointed by the low turnout at the chamber’s business exposition and trade show in April 2002. Several demanded booth fee refunds.

But the discontent did not boil over until June 2002, when chamber members began sending mass e-mails containing concerns about various issues, including money, Copley’s title as treasurer and the name change.

Others were skeptical of his repeated claims that he was a member of the Copley newspaper family, which owns the San Diego Union-Tribune. A Union-Tribune official said John Copley is not part of the Copley family. Copley also falsely claimed that the family at one time owned The Argus.

The city, meanwhile, which had been donating about $50,000 to the chamber annually, grew wary of the organization’s financial state and withheld its 2002 donation, City Manager Al Huezo said. The city never pursued any records to verify its financial concerns, he added.

“You have to understand, for a time, some chamber members were leery of the city’s closeness (to the chamber),” Huezo said. “So we kind of purposefully took a step back.”

But times have changed.

On Jan. 16, the chamber accepted the city’s offer of up to $30,000, plus a year of free rent of a city-owned building — amounting to more than $25,000 — on several conditions, including the resignation of its six executive board members.

The city approved less money than in past years because of the ailing economy, Huezo said.

Now the beleaguered chamber is regrouping.

The two other employees were laid off in October. Helbush and others had been volunteering at the office, which shaved its weekly operating hours from 40 to 15.

The members on Jan. 15 also passed a new set of bylaws that created a separate treasurer position.

Most agree that things seem to be on the upswing. But Donohue, who apologized in a mass e-mail for helping to hire Copley, said the reorganization should have happened much sooner.

“We should have known, we should have known,” he said. “It took two years to figure it out.”