Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Former Wiseburn schools chief Don Brann will take reins of troubled Inglewood Unified

Former Wiseburn schools chief Don Brann will take reins of troubled Inglewood Unified

Don Brann, who engineered the dramatic turnaround of the tiny Wiseburn School District, was appointed by the state Friday to lead the financially troubled Inglewood schools.

Brann’s appointment, which will be effective Monday, comes six months after the state Department of Education’s first attempt to install a handpicked administrator to run the embattled district ended in disaster.

Don Brann
Don Brann

Brann, 67, spent 40 years in the field of education before retiring in 2008 from the K-8 Wiseburn district in west Hawthorne, where he stemmed declining enrollment, helped push through successful bond measures to rebuild schools and led a turnaround of student test scores.

“There is hope for the Titanic with Don at the helm,” said Dennis Curtis, a longtime school board member in Wiseburn. “He is a wonderful leader. … He can work with the unions, he can work with the teachers, he can work with the administrators – he can work with anybody who will work with him.”

Neither Brann nor the office of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson would comment.

In September, financially insolvent Inglewood Unified became the ninth school district in the history of California to be taken over by the state. The maneuver came with a $55 million bailout loan, but also required stripping the five-member school board of its legislative powers and firing then-Superintendent Gary McHenry.

Appointed by the state to replace them all was administrator Kent Taylor, who – as is custom for districts taken over by the state – served as a one-man board and administration.

Taylor’s tenure lasted just two months. He was pressured to resign in December for brokering a deal with teachers without proper approval from Torlakson. That deal locked the district into a contract that didn’t save nearly enough money, officials say.

As for Brann, so celebrated is his legacy in Wiseburn that the tiny district this spring named an elementary school’s multipurpose room in honor of him and his wife, Sari.

By the time Brann took the reins in 1993, Wiseburn was a shell of its former self, having lost two of every three students since a heyday in the 1960s. The district had closed three of its six schools; enrollment had sunk to 1,000.

By the time he left in 2008, every school in the district had been or was slated to be rebuilt, one of the closed schools – Peter Burnett Elementary – was reopened, test scores were on the rise and enrollment was back to 2,000-plus. (Enrollment there currently sits at nearly 4,000, thanks largely to the addition of Da Vinci charter high schools.)

But Wiseburn is a far cry from Inglewood Unified.

Inglewood in a decade has lost roughly a third of its student population, which now numbers 12,000. It’s a smaller proportion than Wiseburn’s loss, but a much larger hit in terms of raw numbers, given the size of the respective districts.

Whereas the enrollment decline in Wiseburn was primarily the result of an aging population, in Inglewood the exodus owes largely to a spate of charter schools that have sprung up in the area to fulfill unmet demand for good schools. Other Inglewood students have transferred to nearby school districts – such as Wiseburn.

In any case, it’s not the size of the loss that defines Inglewood’s malaise so much as the severity of the root causes.

The district’s two traditional high schools – Inglewood and Morningside – score in the bottom 10 percent of all high schools in California. Enrollment in the elementary schools has dwindled to the point where at least a couple of the buildings are half empty; Freeman Elementary this past year was down to just 158 students – 300 fewer than a decade ago.

The finances have been in a disarray, with the district deficit-spending to the tune of $17 million a year.

Mirroring the academic decline of the schools is their physical deterioration.

Custodians in Inglewood’s schools are in such short supply that the students have been known to take a broom to their own classrooms. During the winter rains in December, a leaky rooftop at Morningside High necessitated lining the gymnasium floor with a tarp and dozens of trash cans to catch the water. (The roof was later repaired.)

Casting a shadow over it all is Inglewood’s gang culture, which has reportedly flared up this year in the Morningside Park area of town. One student this year was shot in the arm in the middle of the day – though not fatally, and not on school grounds.

On the advice of the California Highway Patrol, La Tanya Kirk-Carter, the business administrator who has been holding the top job on an interim basis, is protected by bodyguards at a cost to the district of $200,000 annually.

As for Brann, he will be the first white leader to take the helm of the district in years. Inglewood Unified’s student makeup is roughly 60 percent Latino and 40 percent black. Most of its leaders on the school board and administration have been black.

Brann took an unusual approach to reviving the Wiseburn district, which consists of three elementary schools and Dana Middle School, all located in a roughly 4-square-mile patch wedged between El Segundo and Hawthorne.

It could be said that he brought a charter-school sensibility to the traditional public school district.

While most school leaders are indifferent or ambivalent about admitting students from outside their attendance boundaries, Brann went out and actively recruited them. The reason: the state pays school districts based on enrollment.

To lure families, Brann realized it wouldn’t hurt to have brand-new schools. With the support of the Wiseburn school board that employed him, he authorized several construction bond measures that proved successful at the ballot. These efforts generated some $80 million, which was used to demolish and rebuild all four schools, which to this day are among the newest in the South Bay.

Crystel Coleman is one of the many parents who was won over. A resident of Ladera Heights, generally known as a wealthy black community located within the bounds of the Inglewood Unified School District, Coleman spoke effusively of Brann, calling him a visionary.

“He is extremely good at what he does,” she said. “The (Wiseburn) district has a motto of ‘kids first.’ He lives that out in his administrative thinking and his administrative execution.”

Coleman was part of a group of parents from Ladera Heights who in 2006 tried to escape Inglewood Unified by persuading the Culver City Unified School District to take their enclave into its attendance area. The effort failed.

Brann came along shortly after and said Wiseburn’s doors were wide open.

“It was literally a godsend,” Coleman said. “We felt very orphaned by the Culver City situation.”

For Brann, coming to Wiseburn was a homecoming. Both he and his wife, Sari, attended its K-8 schools. Brann attended Hawthorne High School with the founding members of The Beach Boys, graduating in the class of 1963 with drummer Dennis Wilson.

Prior to taking the job in Wiseburn, Brann was already a veteran in the field. He’d served as a superintendent at three other elementary school districts – Mother Lode in Placerville, Old Adobe in Petaluma and Wilsona in Lancaster. He’d served as principal of Wilsona Elementary and a classroom teacher at Center Street School in El Segundo, among other jobs.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from USC, master’s from Cal State Los Angeles and doctorate in education from USC.

After high school he attended El Camino College, which two years ago named him a distinguished alum.

Education seems to be in his blood; both of his grown daughters are educators.

This isn’t the first time Brann has come out of retirement to lead a district. In 2012, he served as interim superintendent of the San Gabriel Unified School District. He also sits on the board of directors for the Da Vinci charter high school franchise in Wiseburn.

At Inglewood Unified, teachers union President Pete Somberg said he is withholding judgment for now. “I don’t know anything about him, other than he came with glowing reviews from Wiseburn,” he said. “We have to take a wait-and-see approach at this point.”

As for Coleman – the parent from Ladera Heights – when asked whether she would now recommend that families return to Inglewood, she hesitated.

“I would say yes, but conditionally,” she said. “As awesome a man as Dr. Brann is, he also has to work with a team that has to have the same vision and tenacity that he does. … It takes more than one man. Only God can create a universe in a week.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Principal of Miramonte during abuse scandal transfers to Harbor City elementary school

Principal of Miramonte during scandal transfers to Harbor City elementary school

By Rob Kuznia and Abby Franklin

The man who served as principal at Miramonte Elementary School during its infamous abuse scandal in 2012 has been reassigned to the same position at President Avenue Elementary School in Harbor City.

The announcement that Martin Sandoval will be the principal at President Avenue in the fall came as a surprise to parents, who complain they were not adequately notified. The parents say they learned there was a new principal when they received an automated phone call placed to them on Tuesday night. It mentioned two parent meetings to introduce a new principal – both scheduled for Thursday evening.

“Some parents aren’t putting two and two together,” said one parent in an anonymous call to the Daily Breeze. “I wouldn’t have realized it was the same guy if another parent hadn’t been handing out fliers before the meeting saying so.”

Sandoval, who will take the reins at President Avenue from the retiring Milica Mladinich, had been the principal of Miramonte Elementary in South Los Angeles for three years when Mark Berndt, a longtime teacher at the school, was arrested in his Torrance apartment on suspicion of abusing 23 students over a five-year period. Among the allegations: he fed third-graders spoonfuls of semen and took photos of students blindfolded, with huge cockroaches crawling on their faces.

The Berndt case has yet to go to trial. The teacher remains jailed on $23 million bail and has pleaded not guilty. His next court date is set for July 15.

John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, vouched for the professionalism of Sandoval, who during this past school year has worked not as a principal but as director in the North East Service Center.

“At Miramonte, Mr. Sandoval acted quickly when he had information about alleged misconduct to protect the children,” Deasy said in a statement Friday. “These incidents impacted everyone at Miramonte, but we are glad that Mr. Sandoval is healing with the community and returning to a school site – the place where he belongs. He will be an effective leader for the school.”

Attorneys representing the students in a civil lawsuit against the district disagree that Sandoval acted quickly. In fact, Sandoval is named as a defendant in the case.

“It’s very disappointing that everybody from the superintendent to the principals … all fell asleep,” said Luis Carrillo, one of the attorneys. “They did not protect the children.”

Among the plaintiffs’ allegations against Sandoval is one stating that he, in or around 2009, walked into Berndt’s classroom, where he witnessed the teacher videotaping students “with the camera aimed at the children’s groins.” It goes on to say that Sandoval responded by saying, “We can’t be doing this or it could get us into trouble.”

Sandoval couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. But he has been credited for bringing some positive change to Miramonte before the scandal left it in smoldering pieces.

A Spanish speaker, he reached out to parents and saw to it that the students were properly tutored in English and math, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. He started a parent council and a school dance, and even arranged a surprise visit from a member of the Black Eyed Peas.

At the parent meeting at President Avenue School in Harbor City, Sandoval said he intended to start a PTA, which currently doesn’t exist at the school, a parent said.

The Miramonte story not only went national for its vile details, but also led to a cascade of similar allegations about other teachers within the school and elsewhere in LAUSD. It triggered a massive investigation that required putting all of the school’s 100-plus teachers on leave and replacing them with substitutes and other replacements – a transaction that cost $5 million.

Many of the teachers were allowed to return after they were cleared of wrongdoing in the investigation. Sandoval was briefly reassigned to Sierra Park Elementary in El Sereno. But he left that post several days later, in August, potentially to take the director job. (District officials declined to comment further on his employment history.)

The reassignment to Sierra Park Elementary caused at least one parent there to express alarm on Facebook.

“We had the pleasure of welcoming a new principal interestingly enough it was the same principal from Miramonte elementary school … Martin Sandoval,” the parent wrote, according to a blog called LA School Report. “tHANK gOD (sic) he was removed after four days and the LAUSD barely made it public today after the fact.”

But Judith Perez, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, said Sandoval is not only highly capable but also blameless when it comes to the Miramonte debacle. She worries that his reputation will be unfairly tarnished.

“The district did an internal investigation. We understand that he is entirely blameless from the district’s point of view,” she said. “People are accused of things all the time. There are all kinds of lawsuits. That does not imply any guilt whatsoever.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Hawthorne student turns down full scholarship in academic gamble

Hawthorne Student Turns Down Full Scholarship in Academic Gamble

Motivated Nigeria native turns down full-ride award for a chance at the Ivy League

For 15-year-old Hawthorne resident Thelma Godslaw, fear of failure was instilled at an early age, when teachers in her native Nigeria rewarded wrong answers with whacks from a cane.

But the bigger motivator for her was the elementary school’s hard-hearted ranking system. Instead of grades, every child was publicly assigned a number, from one to 35, based on his or her standing in the class.

Thelma Godslaw, 15, moved with her family from Nigeria to Hawthorne to receive a better education than what she could get in Africa. Now, she is set to graduate early from Leuzinger High School and is a finalist Thelma is a finalist for a Questbridge National College Match Scholarship. The scholarship would cover 100 percent of tuition and living expenses at one of the participating universities, which include Yale, MIT, Stanford and Notre Dame. 20111121 Photo by Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer
Thelma Godslaw, 15, moved with her family from Nigeria to Hawthorne to receive a better education than what she could get in Africa. Now, she is set to graduate early from Leuzinger High School and is a finalist Thelma is a finalist for a Questbridge National College Match Scholarship. The scholarship would cover 100 percent of tuition and living expenses at one of the participating universities, which include Yale, MIT, Stanford and Notre Dame. 20111121 Photo by Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer

“I was always second best, or third,” she said. “I always wanted to be No. 1.”

Now, at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, she is.

Though just 15, Thelma is already a senior. She’s enrolled in six Advanced Placement courses. Her end-of-the-semester report card has never been blemished with a B. She’s the only student in the school to have earned a perfect score on the AP calculus test, and by night takes an advanced calculus class at El Camino College.

In October, Thelma was offered a full-ride scholarship to attend the prestigious Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, an award worth $120,000. She turned it down. Why? She has her sights on the Ivy League and is days away from learning whether she’ll get there.

Thelma’s academic success illustrates the inner drive that propels many immigrants out of their social strata, which in her case is a step above poverty. But it also demonstrates how, for high-achieving low-income students, playing the scholarship game can be a high-stakes gamble.

Thelma lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and three siblings, one older and two younger. Though a bit cramped, their living conditions are an upgrade from the one-bedroom unit in which they’d stayed for a couple of years after their 2004 arrival.

Thelma’s decision to say “no thanks” to the Bucknell offer wasn’t easy.

“It’s like turning down a million dollars,” she acknowledged.

On the other hand, saying yes to the award – officially known as the Posse Scholarship – would have meant forfeiting her dream of attending an Ivy League school, namely Yale. That’s because she was given just three days to make a decision that was binding. She decided to hold out.

Now, the rest of November promises to be a nail-biter. Dec. 1 is the day she’ll learn whether she’ll be the recipient of the prestigious Questbridge National College Match Scholarship, which would cover 100 percent of tuition and housing to attend one of several participating universities. These include MIT, Stanford, Princeton and her dream school, Yale.

Thelma didn’t gamble without cause. In October, about a month after she applied for the Questbridge award, word came back that she was a finalist. Winning would be no small feat: Last year, just 310 students across the nation received the honor.

Petite and soft-spoken, Thelma plans to major in biochemistry, with an eye toward becoming a general surgeon. To attain this goal, she spends five hours a night studying at a TV tray in a living room recliner.

“She studies until 2 in the morning,” marveled her mother, Jully Godslaw (pronounced Julie), who speaks in a thick Nigerian accent. “She’s too much.” That, she explained, is Nigerian slang for “she’s excellent.”

Migrating for the children

The family journeyed to the United States in 2004 for the express purpose of providing educational opportunities for the children, Jully said. This required giving up their five-bedroom house and everything else they had in Lagos, Nigeria. Jully sacrificed her college degree in business administration from the University of Lagos; it became void the moment she set foot in the United States.

Upon her arrival, Jully went from working as a public relations officer at an oil company in Nigeria to working as a security guard at an elementary school in Compton.

Now, Jully attends Los Angeles Southwest College, where she studies nursing. She also works full-time as a licensed vocational nurse in the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

Their hardships aren’t confined to the financial. The parents have divorced.

For Thelma, the antidote to life’s trials seems to be to study, study, study.

Her academic counselor at Leuzinger, Judy Grood, said she’s never seen a student so driven in her 20 years on the job.

“She will not leave her class, short of being dragged out,” she said with a laugh. “She feels every minute in class is important, for fear that she would miss a gem or a drop of knowledge.”

Despite her low-income status, Thelma can compete with students of privilege. She scored a 1950 on her SAT, putting her in the 90th percentile nationwide. The average score in California and nationwide is just above 1500.

Helping Leuzinger turn around

Thelma’s academic success also is a boon to her school. Leuzinger High has long battled a sullied reputation, sown from decades of dismal academic performance. But the school, which serves a low-income population, appears to be in the midst of a turnaround, with test scores on a steep upward trajectory.

“I think that she represents what we are trying to accomplish at Leuzinger High School,” said Principal Ryan Smith, who informed the Daily Breeze of Thelma’s prowess. “She is a role model for all of our students, in particular those who are African-American.”

Indeed, Thelma is among 3,100 students across the nation – out of 160,000 applicants – to be named an Outstanding Participant in the National Achievement Scholarship Program, which recognizes outstanding achievement among African-American students.

Jully said other parents initially urged her to send her children to another school. But Leuzinger was within walking distance of their apartment. Besides, she had faith in the school.

“My belief is this: Any child that is smart is smart – it doesn’t matter the school,” Jully said, noting that her son Peter also is thriving there.

Thelma, meanwhile, praised her teachers.

“They take the extra time to help us out after school and during lunch,” she said. “They are always pushing us to do better.”

And all without the use of canes.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Inglewood School District teeters on verge of state takeover

At Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood, it isn’t unusual to see sixth-graders sweeping up their classroom after recess.

That’s partly because budget cuts have taken a bite out of the custodial staff, which now cleans the room just twice a week. But it’s also because classrooms packed with 40 students tend to get dirty in a hurry.

Dr. Carl Cohn, a state board of education trustee, toured classrooms at Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood Thursday to see the over-crowding of the classrooms. Dr. Cohn visits a sixth grade classroom that the students have to sweep the floors themselves, as cut-backs have led to only having janitorial services twice a week. The classroom is also overcrowded, having 40 students when the maximum is to be 33.
Dr. Carl Cohn, a state board of education trustee, toured classrooms at Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood Thursday to see the over-crowding of the classrooms. Dr. Cohn visits a sixth grade classroom that the students have to sweep the floors themselves, as cut-backs have led to only having janitorial services twice a week. The classroom is also overcrowded, having 40 students when the maximum is to be 33.

With K-8 class sizes as high as 40 and some high school class sizes hitting 50, the Inglewood Unified School District is a picture of impending financial devastation.

The beleaguered K-12 district is on the verge of becoming the ninth public school system in California to lose local control to the state since a law authorizing such takeovers took effect 20 years ago. And the Inglewood teachers union is begging the state to do it.

On Wednesday, Inglewood Unified will try to seek a waiver from the state Board of Education to avoid penalties for its large class sizes, which in many cases greatly exceed negotiated maximums. Teachers say it will have the effect of making class sizes even larger, bumping the average size of fourth-through-sixth-grade classrooms to 38.

“All in order to save money so the district can buy a little bit more time, and save a few more months of their jobs,” said Shannon Gibson, a second-grade teacher at Bennett-Kew, while giving one of the state board members – Carl Cohn – a walking tour of the school Thursday.

“(The district) is going to go under. We are sorry for that. We’ve done everything we can. They don’t have a plan in place to recover. It’s time to just let go” and let the state take over.

Although public school districts across the state are limping along financially, none in California appear to be as bad off as Inglewood Unified – so far.

“They are the only ones right now who have declared a fiscal emergency, essentially saying, `We are out of cash,”‘ said Anthony Bridges, deputy CEO at Fiscal Crisis and Management Team, the state’s premier school finance consulting firm. “At this juncture in the budget cycle, no one is parallel with Inglewood.”

But Inglewood could be a canary in a coal mine.

If the state’s tax rolls fall too short of projections – and right now it isn’t looking good – then school districts across the state will be forced to make dreaded midyear budget cuts. This could push more of them closer over the edge.

Inching ever closer to the brink is the state’s second largest public school system, San Diego Unified, which is facing widespread school closures and the threat of insolvency. Here, talk of a potential state takeover has just begun.

Inglewood Unified is also considering school closures. On Thursday,
Dr. Carl Cohn visits a sixth-grade classroom whose floors the students have to sweep themselves, as cutbacks have led to only having janitorial services twice a week. The classroom is also overcrowded, having 40 students when the maximum is 33. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)
Superintendent Gary McHenry sent out a memo revealing a plan to combine Daniel Freeman and Warren Lane elementary schools, each of which enroll just 200 or fewer students.

Going into state receivership is a dubious distinction. On the one hand the state would bail out the district financially. But it also would render McHenry jobless and the elected school board toothless. A state administrator would be assigned by California schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson to effectively serve as a one-person board and superintendent.

In late October, the Los Angeles County of Education sent the district a letter stating, in effect, that it is on track to run out of cash by April.

Inglewood Unified has tried to get a handle on the situation by making Draconian cuts – in one year, the district has lost nearly a third of its teachers, reducing the roster from 650 to 450 – but there seems to be no way to stop the hemorrhaging.

Thus far, no evidence has emerged of fraud or embezzlement, Bridges said. But there have been cases of negligent spending. For instance, an attorney who was fired by the district continued to collect health benefits for a year afterward, said Chris Graeber, president of the classified union representing employees such as custodians, clerical workers and bus drivers.

“It didn’t go over well, let’s put it that way,” he said. “If one of our people gets fired, they cut off the benefits the very next day.”

And in 2009, board members publicly accused administrators of wasting $3 million in taxpayer money without authorization, according to the Wave newspaper. The expenses allegedly included using $4,300 from district accounts to purchase a trip to Sea World and an “unauthorized $800,000 demolition” of an elementary school.

The district also appears to have been caught off guard by a rapid plunge in enrollment, with many students leaving for charter schools. In a decade, the rolls have fallen from 18,000 to just above 12,000. And the exodus is showing no signs of abating: The district this year lost another 1,000 students.

As for the cash flow issue, it is no small matter. The county projects the district to be $1.7 million in the hole by April. The shortfall is expected to grow exponentially, hitting $23 million by June. This, with a district that works with a general fund budget of about $102 million.

Meanwhile, the Inglewood teachers union has decided that at this point, a state takeover seems the best way to avoid further destruction. This fall, the union’s governing board voted unanimously to voice its approval of the state loan.

“Our goal is to enrich the students’ day, and close the achievement gap,” said union President Pete Somberg. “We don’t see how the current leadership is able to do that when all they are looking for is financial daylight so they can maintain local control. If local control means ransoming a generation of kids, we are not for it.”

Inglewood school leaders – including McHenry, school board President Johnny Young and head business official Glenston Thompson – have not returned phone calls requesting comment.

Though Inglewood still has time to pull itself out of the quicksand, the lengthy process for enacting a state takeover is already under way. Back in the spring, the Inglewood school board, acting on advice from a county-appointed fiscal adviser, officially requested a state loan. This essentially sets the gears in motion for state receivership. The request then must travel through both houses of the Legislature and finally to the governor’s desk. The process typically takes four to six months.

On Thursday, Cohn didn’t tip his hand on whether he favors granting the district a waiver for large class sizes. He said he worries that Inglewood could be a bellwether for more ominous times.

“The list of school districts in fiscal distress has gone up dramatically in the last year,” he said. “Ten, 12, 15 years ago, the state actually had money to bail them out.

“Now the big question will be is Inglewood the beginning of a process of a significant increase in the need for bailouts from a state that has no money.”