By Rob Kuznia Staff Writer, dAILY bREEZE | (Los Angeles News Group ) http://bit.ly/12gHdiK
Students in Dodson's Chorus perform in the Dodson Middle School Spring Concert Thursday evening on campus in Rancho Palos Verdes. (Sean Hiller / Staff Photographer)
7/9/2013 9:21:45 PM PDT :: The principal of Dodson Middle School in San Pedro -- the son of Los Angeles Unified school board President Richard Vladovic -- is under fire from parents and teachers who accuse him of eliminating the school's award-winning choir program in an effort to boost test scores in math and English.
The critics of 36-year-old John Vladovic charge that he manipulated the process used by the school every year to create its master schedule, in which students fill out sheets indicating their preferences for electives.
As a result, they say, the school whose choral program is widely thought to be among the top three of all 75 middle schools across LAUSD is slated to be no more come fall. They add that Dodson's choir enjoyed record-high participation this past year, serving 160 students.
"It is being eliminated at its peak," said retiring choral teacher Carla Pelletier, who ran the program for 16 years. "I think it got to the point where he didn't want to back down; he would lose face if he did."
The dispute hits upon a common tension in the testing-obsessed culture of public education. As schools and their leaders strive ever harder to meet the growing demands of society to boost scores, electives that don't provide a means to that end are sacrificed. Often these courses are in the performing arts.
During his tenure, Vladovic has ramped up a program to assign students who perform poorly on California Standards Tests to intervention courses, thereby removing an opportunity to take an elective.
Vladovic -- who attended Dodson as a child, and took the reins there in the fall of 2011 -- has been on vacation this week. But his boss at LAUSD headquarters said the master schedule at Dodson was constructed around what was selected by the students themselves. And yet, Vladovic's boss, Robert Bravo -- instructional superintendent of Educational Service Center South, one of five service areas of LAUSD -- said Vladovic will be taking another look at how the students selected electives upon his return from vacation next week.
"Sometimes families change their minds about what electives to take," he said.
Bravo also vouched for the younger Vladovic's abilities as an administrator.
"He is a person who comes to the table with a strong knowledge of teaching and learning," he said.
But Vladovic's critics accuse him of using the school as a steppingstone.
"He wants the numbers to look astronomical, so it will pave the way for his next step up the chain of command," contended parent Paul Robak.
Although technically located in Rancho Palos Verdes, Dodson Middle School is really more a part of the adjacent San Pedro community.
A large magnet school for the gifted and talented serving 1,850 students, Dodson boasts strong test scores and has long been known for its rich array of electives.
The choir grew under Pelletier's leadership, from one class of 35 in 1997 to the five classes of students who took part in what could be their final performance in May.
People who attended the show said the stage was packed with kids.
"I mean, it was huge -- it filled up not only the center stage, but also side stages were set up when they did their joint performance," said Art Vanick, who was tapped by Pelletier to videotape the biannual concerts 13 years ago and has never missed a performance. "I really had to take full advantage of the wide-angle lens on my camera to take it all in."
Dodson's choir over the years became a community staple, performing shows at the entrance of the cruise terminal in San Pedro during the holidays, or at the Los Angeles Harbor Masonic Lodge for an annual education night.
Dodson was often the largest contributor to LAUSD's middle school honor choir, with as many of 37 of the honor choir's 120 singers coming from the school. In fact, Dodson's perennial dominance ultimately played a large part in a decree from downtown to cap the number of students from any given school, said Pelletier, who played no role in which students were granted a spot on the all-star ensemble.
This year's uproar first surfaced in the spring, when choir was left off the forms students fill out to indicate which electives they want to take.
Contacted by the Daily Breeze in mid-May, John Vladovic said that the omission had been an oversight and that the school would re-do the elective sheets. Dodson's students later filled out the sheets again, and chorus reportedly did not generate enough interest to stay on the master schedule.
"The way he did that second elective sheet was very confusing to the students," Pelletier said, noting that they had already made their choices once before.
Some parents are making an issue of John Vladovic's connection to his father Richard, president of the LAUSD school board who represents the very district that includes his son's school.
"It's almost like he thinks he's entitled and can do anything he wants because his daddy is going to take care of him," said Gale Kadota, the immediate past president of the school's booster club.
Bravo said the younger Vladovic receives no special treatment.
"Principal Vladovic is working under the same constraints as any other principal," he said. "If anything, this is evidence of that. He hasn't had an unlimited pool of resources he can draw from. He has to live within limits like all principals."
The controversy even spilled over to the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council, an advisory body to the Los Angeles City Council. On June 10, Vladovic spoke before the council to address concerns. Making a rare showing at that particular meeting was his father.
Board members on the council had conflicting views on the younger Vladovic's presentation.
Gary Buss thought he made a good case.
"The presentation was good, and he seemed like he was on top of things," he said.
But Craig Goldfarb, president of the council, was less than impressed.
"He was talking a mile a minute," he said. "Every time you'd ask a question, he'd answer it the same way, with the same facts and figures. ... It just seemed bizarre to me."
Then again, Goldfarb had some skin in the game. His daughter, Anise Goldfarb -- who just finished her freshman year at UC Santa Cruz -- is a former member of the choir. This spring, when she learned of its impending demise on Facebook, she emailed John Vladovic an impassioned plea to keep the program.
"A lot of my memories at Dodson are not fond ones," she wrote. "The only memories that I have that really mean something to me still are of singing in chorus, making great friends, and competing in competitions with other choirs."
Vladovic's response, sent to her that same day, was curt.
"Thank you for your email. In addition to intervention classes, Dodson offers a wide variety of electives. Course offerings are contingent upon a variety of factors. Please feel free to contact me so that I may clarify any questions you may have."
(Vladovic sent the same response, word for word, to Robert Bryant, another member of the Neighborhood Council in San Pedro, who also expressed his concern about the choir.)
Anise Goldfarb said Vladovic's response infuriated her.
"I expected him to care more," she told the Daily Breeze on Tuesday. "I think he thought he could get rid of choir and nobody would notice or care."