December 30, 2015 :: Ref Rodriguez, the newly elected Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) School Board Member for District 5, faced what he called “a sort of surreal” day on December 15th when all schools in the LAUSD were closed due to a perceived terrorist threat that was later revealed to be a hoax.
“Ultimately, I felt that it was handled really well,” said Rodriguez. “If we had done nothing and [the threat was acted upon,] parents would have been thinking, ‘What were you doing playing with our kids’ lives?’”
Rodriguez acknowledged that there were problems in alerting parents and teachers in a timely manner, but that the LAUSD is working to improve that process.
On more typical days, Rodriguez has been working with the schools in his district that includes Silver Lake and Los Feliz to the northeast, and to the southeast, Vernon and South Gate.
“Because the needs and the communities and context are so different, we approach [these areas] in different ways,” Rodriguez said.
In the southeast—which Rodriguez is less familiar with than the northeast where he lives—Rodriguez’s team is working to better understand the area and “to help people determine what are the best approaches to do great work.”
In the northeast, it’s more about helping to facilitate programs and ideas already working well and supporting new ones, he said.
As an example, Rodriguez pointed to Silver Lake where some parents are considering starting a middle school.
“I love the fact that we have a parent initiative that the district is supporting,” he said, “rather than a district initiative that we’re trying to get parents to support.”
A native Angeleno who, in 1999, partnered with another educator to open the first public charter middle school in Los Angeles, Rodriguez went on to create 15 more charter schools under the “Partnerships to Uplift Communities” banner.
Elected to the school board last May, Rodriguez—who beat incumbent Bennett Kayser—has been targeted by critics who say that he is too beholden to the charter school movement to be impartial on the issue.
Rodriguez says that is not the case.
“I look at schools,” he said, “through the lens of, ‘[Which] are the schools that are doing the most innovative things and getting results?’”
Rodriguez said that he believes charter schools—which are publically funded and accountable to the district, but are managed independently—can be a great vehicle for the overall district to learn innovative educational and management approaches, but that there are too many charter schools that do not live up to that promise.
Conversely, Rodriguez said, he has seen some outstanding models within the traditional LAUSD system.
“What’s interesting to me is that in places where you have parents and teachers who feel empowered in L.A. Unified,” he said, “they are doing some of the most innovative things that I’ve seen—even compared to charter schools.”
Close to his heart are middle schools, which typically serve students at an impressionable and often difficult age.
Rodriguez has spearheaded a proposal to create a team of educators, researchers and parents who, within six months, will study current best practices and imagine new ones that will be the most responsive to the needs of those in grades 6 through 8. Areas under study will include grade level configuration—that is, which grades should be combined in a school, social emotional supports and practices that motivate and engage middle schoolers. His proposal is on track to be passed by the School Board in January.
But more recently, Rodriguez and his fellow six LAUSD school board members have been focused on the search for a new LAUSD Superintendent. The new leader, he said, will face a host of serious challenges, but Rodriguez said he believes the first priority of the new superintendent is to address the hundreds of millions of dollars in budget deficits the LAUSD will face in coming years.
“The job requires a leader who sees the situation as an opportunity [and] knows how to bring people together,” said Rodriguez. “Because when there are financial issues, it means that we need to do things differently.”
Rodriguez referred to the powerful teachers’ union.
“[L]abor has to think of themselves differently. The bottom line with our labor partners and all these folks who have long-term commitments is, ‘Either we fix this together or there isn’t going to be anything to fix,’” he said.
Rodriguez acknowledged that the public may not have a lot of faith in the district, but that many people stood by its decision to close schools on December 15th, which caused a potential loss of $29 million for the district, but which is expected to be covered by the state.
“They’re not willing to give up on [the district] just yet,” Rodriguez said. “That’s an opportunity.”