Friday, August 17, 2007

ASKED & ANSWERED: DAVID L. BREWER III: ‘First, we want to empower parents’

'The bottom line [is] we have to get the politics out of education,' Superintendent David L. Brewer III says. 4LAKids doesn't want to nitpick semantics with the superintendent in his dialog with parents – but public education is the most politically charged arena out there! There is no stronger political dynamic in play than that at a school – with teachers, administrators, staff, parents, students and the greater community engaged in the debate over policy with rarely seen but not unsilent participants in the local district, downtown, city hall and the state and national capitals – and that's the way it should be. When we parents did battle with the mayor over AB1381 we wore yellow T-shirts that said "PARENTS NOT POLITICS" – what they really should've said was PARENTS AND POLITICS – because the mission of public education is critical to the future just as surely as our children are the future. Parents are the authentic voice for children in the discussion.

By MARISELA SANTANA, Staff Writer Los Angeles Wave

16.AUG.07 - Nearly one year after being named superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, David L. Brewer III is certain of at least one thing: the more politics are set aside, the better LAUSD can perform in the business of education. In a wide-ranging interview that took place as he traveled to San Diego last week for a conference, the retired U.S. Navy vice admiral spoke candidly about matters including his goals for the massive 900-school district, his relationship with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and how he is addressing the issue of African-American student achievement.

You are a strong advocate of parental involvement, citing it as the leading factor in student achievement. How will you help boost parents’ role in their children’s education?

It goes with my guiding principles. … First, we want to empower parents. We’re using an airline analogy: If you are on an airplane, the flight attendant says if we lose oxygen pressure, and the oxygen masks come down, and you’re sitting next to your child, who do you put the oxygen mask on first? You put it on yourself and then you put it on your child. Empower yourself, empower your child. And so what we’re saying is that if parents don’t have an education, then they should get one. And then the second component is that we want you to know how to engage the schools in terms of educating your children. The research shows that at the elementary school level parents tend to be fairly engaged. But as they enter higher grades, parents tend to stop being as engaged. Parent advocacy then needs to turn into parents asking themselves, “What do I need to do in my home to make sure that my child is learning calculus? I don’t have to know calculus to make sure that my child learns calculus, but I do have to understand what I need to be doing to create a homework environment at home, making sure that that television is off, and making sure that the child is getting the research that he or she needs to learn that particular complex subject.”

LAUSD board member Margaurite LaMotte has consistently raised the issue of African-American student achievement. Is this a particular concern for you? If so, are there any special initiatives under way or in the works?

When we look at the research and the data, unfortunately, African-American students are still the lowest performing in our school system. While they only comprise [12] percent, now with over 75 percent being Latino, and of the lowest performers, African-American males are still the lowest performing. As a result we have to focus on that, but obviously you can’t just focus on one race. So when we aggregated all of the data, and we looked at it, it’s basically the lowest performance of boys, both African-American and Latino boys. And so what that is forcing us to do, is to create new paradigms within the context of guiding principle No. 3, have to have innovative approaches to go after this problem. Two of our principals have done this already. I’ve advocated for boys academies. We have to create boys academies in order to go after this problem. Now, I can’t create enough all-boys academies across the system to cover this problem, so what we’re looking at now, is boys academies within the middle schools and high schools. Two schools have already done it.
Jordan High School and King-Drew Magnet High School. … I have this philosophy: Think big, start small, scale fast. Thought big: boys academies. We started small, a few pilots. Once we validate and refine, then we’re going to scale fast, and we’re going to see if this paradigm works, then you’re going to see these types of models at other schools. … But keep in mind, that it still boils down to high-quality instruction.

A 2005 UCLA-Harvard study estimated LAUSD’s dropout rate at 45 percent. Is that accurate? What kind of progress is being made in terms of cutting that rate?

I doubt if that’s accurate. No one has really been able to document that properly. We think it’s about 27 percent. If anything, this is a classic example: I was at an elementary school recently where there were 20 students in a class in the first semester. After Christmas, there were 17 students in the class. So everyone scrambled to find out what happened to these three kids. The school went into the neighborhoods to find out what happened and they found out that the three families all went back to their home countries. You don’t know if a student has moved, or a family has left, or if a family just moved to a neighboring school district. So you don’t know. So it is extremely difficult sometimes to figure out who is a dropout or who has just transitioned out of the area.

Now that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s allies are a majority on the school board, has that necessitated a closer working relationship with him?

The mayor and I had been collaborating long before. People have to understand that. The mayor and I collaborated very quickly to get the crosswalk from two blocks away from Santee High to right in front of
Santee because of a safety issue. And so we collaborated very quickly in response to a request from students at Santee. We were collaborating already. … By creating the Innovative Division, take for instance Loyola Marymount is working with Westchester, to create a family of school concept we’re going to partner with them on. UCLA is going to do something very similar. So within that concept, the mayor will become a part of that overall collaboration and partnership initiative that we have. In a week or two, we’re going to announce a statement of intent with the mayor to form a partnership. … We’re leaning forward on the collaboration side and the mayor will certainly be part of the overall partnership concept.

Have you found that you like your new job, and that you won’t abandon ship considering the massive amount of work that needs to be done to keep the district and its students moving forward?

I have to put it out there that I love my job. I have learned that in
L.A., politics is a contact sport. … If we set aside politics, then I think you can find that I’ll be around for quite a while. But the bottom line, we have to get politics out of education. In other words, we need to focus on children, not adults. We need children issues, not adult issues. … So we just have to get the politics out of that. Once we get the politics out of it and we can get down to the business of educating our children, then I think we’ll get by.

Growing up and given your military experience, did you ever dream of being captain of a ship this big?

No, I never envisioned myself as being the superintendent. Initially, as I’ve said previously, over time I would say back in the ’90s, it became quite evident that school districts were looking toward military officers to find superintendents of schools. I had one personal friend, as well as one who became a superintendent, that was John H. Stanford up in
Seattle. That was back in the ’90s when I became an admiral, and then there was [Lt. Gen.] Julius W. Becton Jr. who became superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. Of course, that was a very highly publicized situation. … But clearly, having been focused on education most of my life, it was not necessarily beyond the realm of possibility that I could have become a superintendent. That has always been an option, but not something I had seriously considered.

You are big on creating leaders for our children in our parents, in our teachers and school administrators. Who were your biggest influences as a child?

First my parents. David and Mildred Brewer had the biggest impact on me, education wise, because both of them were educators. Education was a daily routine in my household. When you have parents like that, it has to be. My father was very good in math and science, even though he was in the culinary arts, he had to take chemistry and all of that and so that kind of engendered my interest in math and science. And my mother was an elementary school teacher, she kept me on task. She had a strong interest in music and so I took music through the 12th grade, as well as did very well in math and science in terms of my academic performance. That leaves me to the best teacher I had, that was Mrs. Lessie Brayboy Weaver, who was my music teacher. She not only taught us music, she taught us about life, she taught us about current events. I remember she sat in front of the class one day and finished a New York Times crossword puzzle in less than an hour. She actually sat there and did it. It was her way of telling us that we had to exercise our minds. It was amazing. That is a defining moment from my school years. That’s not to say I didn’t have other great teachers, there were others. There was Mrs. Audrey Williams and there was Mrs. Butts, I don’t remember her first name.

Have you visited all 900 schools in the
Los Angeles Unified School District?

No, if I visited a school a week, it would take me almost three years to see all of them. Just to put that in perspective, you’re talking about, essentially 920 schools. I will get to as many as I possibly can. But that’s not even the point. It’s my job to empower our local district superintendents. That’s their job, and I will get to as many of our schools as I can. But it’s them, who we’ve pulled more resources for and given them more responsibilities to them. … And even then, the local supes will be challenged. … But rest assured I will be very much involved with student achievement and in the schools, depends on how long I’m here, I should get to all of them over time.

Was there an increase in LAUSD’s graduating classes last year?

Yes, but we will know for sure when we get the results of the California High School Exit Exam later this year. My biggest concern, right now, is that we have 68,000 ninth graders and I graduated about 28,000 seniors. A lot of that is driven by economic migration out of L.A. and some of it is driven by dropouts. But I believe we’re going to have to come up with x-goal. We’re going to start with an x-number of ninth graders, then we want to see a y-number of graduates. And so we know that 28,000 is low. I don’t know if the right number should be 40,000 or 45,000. I’m not sure. We still have to figure that out. But I can tell you that we do not graduate more seniors than we have ninth graders. We usually graduate less. We’re going to change that.

What is the No. 1 hindrance to students’ success in the LAUSD, in your opinion, the lack of quality teachers, gang influence, lack of parental involvement?

The number one priority is to make sure that we have quality instruction taking place in the classrooms. In the final analysis, along with everything else that we do, if we don’t have high-quality instruction in these classrooms, and we are not facilitating learning in these classrooms, nothing else happens. The number one priority is always going to be high quality instruction. Teaching and learning. They are what we call eternal principles. They are principles that span the generations and when it comes to education, there’s two principles that are eternal. That is teaching and learning. Socrates, centuries ago said it, that as long as there is a teacher with something to teach, and a child with the will to learn, education will occur. That is the bottom line. That relationship between the teacher and the student, that’s what’s going to drive education. The parent’s job is to motivate that child to learn. You have to have a child that is motivated to learn and a teacher who wants to teach. When you have that combination, you have learning. Parents, and community, have to create a learning environment in the home for the children. I say community, too, because the community plays a major role as well. Children are tangible. You can stand up all you want and talk about being a successful doctor, or person, but a child is not going to believe you until he or she sees it. I just had four students shadow me for a day. I wanted them to see what … I’m not trying to brag here, but to see what a successful person does on a daily basis. They had to get up with me at
6 a.m. and go work out with me. I explained to them why I do this everyday. I said, if you are not physically fit, then you are not going to be mentally fit. You’re not going to be able to deal with the stress of a job. … I wanted to get kids to ask themselves “can this be my reality, I don’t see this in my environment, but can this be my reality?” My point is I want to encourage the community to engage our children at that level, let them shadow you. But more importantly, let them see, not only what you do at your job, but who you are and what you did to be who you are.

Students told me, and the others who were there, that they really didn’t think that adults cared about them until that day. What they saw that day, showed them that [adults] really cared about them. “We are so inspired by what we saw,” they said. It wasn’t a show or anything like that. It was just interaction. We showed them how hard we worked for them. We went with Supervisor Yvonne Burke to a children planning council meeting and we were talking about disadvantaged youth and foster care kids. [School Board member] Yolie Flores Aguilar was there, too. And so I went to that meeting, to talk to them about some of things we’re doing for those kids. The kids shadowing me, got to see what we as adults were thinking about, and how much passion we had for this and how we were struggling with the tougher issues and how we were forthright and determined to find solutions. So they saw that. In fact, one of them got up at the end and told us, that she didn’t know how much “you all cared about us” until she sat through that meeting.

What are your thoughts on the explosion of charter schools in and around the LAUSD?

Well, it goes back to a theory in physics. If you create a vacuum, something is going to fill it. And so, the bottom line is that the vacuum is some of our lowest performing secondary schools and so if you have a significant number of low performing secondary schools, in essence, someone is going to come around and fill it. It goes back to 2001, when it was said that if the district wasn’t going to change, then the district would be surrounded with charter schools. And so, at that time, we had a lot of low performing schools. We have much fewer low performing schools now because we’ve had this tremendous increase in performance at the elementary school level. Our elementary schools are doing extremely well. They’re not quite up to state average, but their progress has been significant. But we’re still having problems at the secondary level, the middle schools and the high schools and that’s where you see the explosion of charter schools. My job is to see that the charter schools are here. What we need to do is partner with them. But let me clarify, that the best schools in the school district are not charter schools. The best schools in the district are still some of our traditional schools. … The problems is that we have 65 secondary schools which are not doing well. So we are going to focus on those 65 schools and create what we call, an Innovation Division, to try new paradigms and models of school governance structure as well as instructional practices inside of those schools. More importantly, we’re going to take all 65 of those schools and put them into a Transformation Zone and basically restructure them. Part of that is going to require us to partner with some charter. We’re already talking to [Green Dot founder] Steve Barr. You’ve heard about the Locke controversy. The Locke controversy was not so much of a controversy, because I’m the one who basically introduced the idea to Steve. Why not come in and partner with us, instead of sitting outside, why not come inside so we can basically benchmark and replicate what you do across the system. That is the problem in education. We have some of the best students in the nation here in L.A. Unified. It’s been well documented. … We’ve won National Academic Decathlon 10 times out of the last 19 years. You don’t do that unless you have some of the best students in the nation. So how do you benchmark this across the system. This is the challenge, this is why we’ve created the Innovation Division, so we can start looking at some of these paradigms and models. … If it works there, why can’t it work here. Absolutely.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered so far?

It’s been something that wasn’t anticipated. But the biggest challenge has been changing the culture to a culture of performance and results. More importantly, changing the culture to teach the culture how to change. In my previous [career] in the Navy, we found ourselves in a crisis, in terms of retaining sailors. That’s when we realized that we hadn’t changed our culture. … Once we learned how to change, then you go on to do those things that will help you to change to a much higher performing organization.

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