This is Part I of a multi-part series that will be running this week on the Centinela Valley School District.
Graduation was only eight days away for Kenny Hoang when former Lawndale High School Principal Damon Dragos walked into his class during a final exam.
Dragos interrupted the silence of the exam room. Hoang paid little attention to Dragos' entrance until he saw a classmate point at their AP literature teacher, Linda Lai, who just had read a note from Dragos.
“She put a paper over her face and started crying,” said Hoang, headed to the University of California this fall, referring to his teacher. “She is someone who has a lot of composure. You would never expect her to cry.”
She had just gotten the word that other teachers in the four-campus Centinela Valley Union High School District also received this spring: she'd been transferred out of her school. Hearing that their favorite teachers wouldn't be there when classes resume in September set off a spontaneous march that sent hundreds of students out of their classrooms and on to the school track on the west side of campus – the closest they could get to the CVUHSD school district building – to loudly chant in unison against a district administration that has invoked a level of distrust, suspicion and fear among school staff, parents and even students.
"There is an atmosphere of fear in teachers and administrators," said Kimberly Merritt, an English teacher at Lawndale High School who has been transferred to Leuzinger High School. "I feel like I’ve gone from a place where I was proud to work – where I cared what I did – to a place I don’t want to be. The only reason why I am here is because I feel it is important not to abandon our students."
The situation at Centinela Valley, an approximately 7,300-student district nestled near Los Angeles International Airport, has reached a near-breaking point. Teachers and parents talk about a school district that has taken full advantage of the autonomy granted by the state to school districts. And when they talk, there is fear about what will happen to students and their education and teachers and their jobs.
Those affected have decided to speak out against district officials, especially Superintendent Jose A. Fernandez and select school board members who opponents claim are intent on seeking revenge on district personnel who dare to question authority in any situation. They've contacted elected officials, as well as state and Los Angeles County education leaders, in hopes of getting some help, but to no avail.
Criticism comes at Fernandez and a school board majority that has lent a tremendous level of support to him and his administration. Current and former employees of the district said that in the two and a half years Fernandez has served as superintendent, the district has created an environment that has led to an exodus of longtime dedicated and talented personnel, harassed those who would stand up for accountability and educational progress, operated in a manner that has undermined educational progress at Lawndale, Leuzinger and Hawthorne high schools, and has held board meetings in violation of the Brown Act, the state open-meeting law.
“You’re playing these kid games for power,” said Frank Divanagracia, a 13-year employee of Leuzinger before he moved to DaVinci Charter School in the nearby Wiseburn School District last year because of what he called a lack of educational support – and excessive interference from a school board member – at the district level. “They make these power plays, and it’s the students that get hurt in the short-term and long-term.”
The Centinela Valley Union High School District got its start in 1905, first called the Inglewood Union High School District. Through the years, some areas have splintered off, forming their own district. It now houses students at the three traditional high schools, and in Lloyde High School, a continuation school.
Compared to the surrounding more affluent student population in Torrance, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Redondo Beach, CVUHSD is diverse, with students coming from the more economically challenged Hawthorne, Lawndale and Lennox areas.
A few years ago, CVUHSD was on the brink of financial collapse. After years of financial instability, the district brought in Fernandez, a former Inglewood city councilman, to help change direction. It worked. While wealthier nearby districts are struggling financially, being forced to lay off teachers and increase class size, CVUHSD enters the new academic year financially healthy.
Fernandez parlayed his temporary role in the district to a higher position, even though he had originally stated he would only stay on in an interim capacity. A call for a nationwide superintendent search – recommended at the time by Los Angeles County Office of Education Superintendent Darline Robles — was never conducted, despite repeated requests made by a minority of board members.
Throughout the course of Fernandez's career as superintendent, board members Gloria Ramos, Sandra Suarez and Rocio Pizano have been integral in his rise to superintendent and continued support of his agenda, those interviewed said.
“We had eliminated his position,” former school board member Frank Talavera said. “He then went away to I don’t know where."
Within weeks of a new group of board members taking office in November 2007, with Talavera and Rudy Salas on the board, Ramos and Suarez joined with Pizano by a 3-2 vote to relieve then-Superintendent Dr. Cheryl White of her duties. This came not long after the previous board had extended White’s contract a year earlier. The decision at that time was supported by the South Bay Union of Teachers Executive Director Sandra Goins and union representative Jack Foreman, a Hawthorne faculty member.
By late January 2008, Fernandez was named interim superintendent. Within a year, he would become the full-time superintendent.
In 2009, Fernandez signed a new contract – signed by all of the board members except Ramos – that extended his term until June 2012. Fernandez salary of $236,000 is as much as superintendents in neighboring districts, those four times as large. Over the course of his three year contract, Fernandez will earn $81,000 in bonus, taking into account a nine percent annual “longevity pay salary adjustment… for his long-term service to the District.”
His contract also stipulates that Fernandez work year be 215 days and that he cannot be terminated unless there are four votes against him, an increase from the three votes that dismissed White.
But the cost of a Fernandez administration is more than money, his critics charge.
In the process of building Centinela Valley back from near fiscal insolvency, Fernandez has gained critics. Faculty members, former district employees and former board members speak in absolute terms: the district will not turn around and achieve academic success under the leadership of Fernandez. All say Fernandez has no academic vision to pull one of the lowest-performing districts in the Los Angeles area from its current standing. Those that have worked with the district said that Fernandez has idly stood by and allowed district employees and school board members to fulfill personal retribution against employees of the district that has undermined educational progress.
Leuzinger High School ranks near the bottom of the schools in the state in the standardized Academic Performance Index (API) test scores, scoring 577 in the latest report available, and the state could take it over. Hawthorne High School isn't far ahead with a 636. The shining gem in the district, award-winning Lawndale, scored 730 ― still far behind some other local high schools. In nearby affluent neighborhoods, students with more resources are performing at an expectedly higher level: El Segundo (861), Palos Verdes Peninsula (885) and the four Torrance district schools (793 to 852). Leuzinger scores are similar to some other Los Angeles County schools, including Gardena (575); Centennial (533), Compton (558) and Dominguez (564), all in the Compton Unified School District; and Morningside (589) in Inglewood.
All of this has come under the cloud cover of operating in a district with a disproportionate minority population with a college graduation rate that is below that of the state average. Given the high minority population, poor academic history, and high number of low income parents with children who do not use English as their first language, the board and district personnel have been able to work in near anonymity.
For two years, former board members Rudy Salas and Frank Talavera said they listened to Fernandez talk about nothing outside the budget, even as Leuzinger and Hawthorne ranked in the bottom 20 percent of high schools.
Salas said even when results of state-mandated STAR Testing and CAHSEE exams were released, the board would not hear anything on the matter.
“The conversation about student achievement was non-existent,” Salas said.
For the prior two years, Salas and Talavera worked under former superintendent White, a 10-year Centinela Valley employee before becoming superintendent in 2004.
White has been described as a micro-manager who always had an open door for employees, students, and parents. She also brought the district near financial collapse because she failed to have someone look over the finances at the department, former board members said.
“I wasn’t satisfied with the progress, but we were starting to see programs,” Salas said. “Programs were starting to go into the implementation phase.”
Talavera and Salas, both voted out of office in November 2009, said that after Fernandez came on board, the two were almost immediately sidelined from the discussion. Discussions during board meetings invariably turned toward money.
“It was frustrating," Salas said. “It has to be about academics. The budget is there to support the academic plan. If you don’t have an academic plan – all you are doing is looking at numbers—then you lose sight of what you are doing for business.”
Talavera said that the budget dominated discussion, even as he asked for information about educational plans being implemented or on specific issues such as how administrators were working to quell a truancy problem.
“I didn’t see anything,” Talavera said. “They did not even bring a plan to show they were dealing with the truancy issue. They said they were, but whenever we asked for data, we never got anything. “
Fernandez, current school board members Ramos and Suarez, and other district administrators all have declined requests for interviews.
Of all the issues facing CVUHSD today, the most talked about undoubtedly deals with teacher transfers.
Entering the 2010-11 school year, it is expected that 50 teachers -- or 16 percent of the district's teaching staff -- will be involuntarily transferred, according to the Daily Breeze, which reported that Centinela officials say their decision is aimed at improving student achievement.
Faculty and those associated with Centinela over the last two years question the district’s motives with these transfers.
Department chairs, union leaders, and those in leadership positions who work directly with the district, say they are especially susceptible for transfer, demotions or release if they speak out. Faculty members say that the mere presence at a board meeting can turn people into targets for retribution. Employees who speak out against the district, even if it in the best interest of the students, are put out of the running for a job promotion, or worse, they said.
Moves made by the district over the years have made for a poor teaching environment.
“I don’t think there is an incentive to keep anybody there, no matter how good they are, no matter how outstanding their reputation,” said Goins, the South Bay Union of Teachers director. “It doesn’t matter. They don’t care. They are not trying to retain anyone. “
Teachers' union leaders said the transfers violate their contract and decisions coming from the district have created a gulf of distrust between two groups that should be working as partners.
Erik Carlstone, a Leuzinger English teacher and the former president of the Centinela Valley Secondary Teachers Association, said trust and a lack of experience from senior personnel at the district level are two sources of concern that need to be addressed.
“Whether it’s laying off teachers when you have a 10 percent reserve (in May 2009), whether it’s contesting the outcomes of collective bargaining or refusing to bargain, whether it’s saying the transfers were a mandate from the county when it is plainly not, all of these are examples how (Fernandez) has destroyed trust between faculty and the district,” Carlstone said.
By many accounts, most of these personnel transfers and demotions have been instituted without any word of explanation to the employees.
“Here are people who stood up, who spoke out, who even raised their hand in board meetings – or were involved in board meetings or attended a protest – and they’re transferred, their programs are cut, their positions are no longer available,” said a Leuzinger faculty member who requested anonymity.
Divinagracia said he saw firsthand how quickly teachers could become targets for seemingly insignificant reasons as a faculty liaison at Leuzinger administrative meetings. Despite a strong relationship with Suarez prior to her becoming a board member, he was quickly sidelined after a meeting attended by Fernandez. He said he asked no questions at this meeting, but was still falsely targeted by Suarez.
Divinagracia said Suarez became “standoff-ish” with teachers who started to question Fernandez, even if it was done in a casual way.
“This has become their MO, where if you did something, said something or you were even perceived as doing something against their actions, then you were blacklisted," Divinagracia said.
Vincent Bravo, who spent three years as principal of Lawndale High School, was demoted to teach an E2020 class, a transfer credit course, at Leuzinger High School next year, after a year at the district office. It is widely believed that he was moved from the high school level to the district office to keep him out of the public’s eye for a year before the district extracted retaliation against him.
Former Lawndale associate principal Jennifer Garcia, who has been praised and credited with bringing the California Distinguished School Award to Lawndale High School, was demoted to a faculty position at Leuzinger this previous school year after more than a half dozen years as an associate principal.
Debbie Johnson, now a principal in another district, was supposed to be demoted to a PE teacher last fall after serving as director of instruction and curriculum for a number of years in the district office. She left the district instead.
Three teachers who have played a pivotal role in the highly successful Lawndale High School Marine and Science Academy – Merritt, Julie Ichiroku, and Tali Sherman— all were part of a recent round of transfers. Sherman and Merritt had worked together to oversee the program.
With Sherman and Merritt being transferred to different schools next year, the fate of a program that has sent students off to some of the top East Coast schools — like Williams College, Amherst and MIT — is now in jeopardy.
In the fall, Ichiroku will be teaching at Leuzinger. The program she helped grow for the last several years was pulled out from beneath her supervision when Dragos informed her with her class watching that she would be transferred.
Sherman, Merritt, and Ichiroku were not offered a position with an academy, despite their previous success.
In 2008, Centinela Valley had five national board-certified teachers. Of those five, only one of them still teaches in the district, according to sources.
“We look at those who we respected, and who we feel we have worked well with that are making progress for the school and they are not in the district anymore,” said the same Leuzinger faculty member who requested anonymity.
Last June, several teachers, such as Lai, were notified about transfers during class hours in front of their students. Others were summoned to the administrative office via the in-class telephone to get the news; officials sent security to oversee classrooms while the teachers were away.
This September, Lawndale will have had three principals -- four if you count interim principal Kelly Santos, an assistant principal who is filing that capacity while a search is going on, since 2008. Lawndale will have had seven associate principals (two of them because one assistant principal was on maternity leave) since 2008. Since 2008, Leuzinger High School has had five principals and nine associate principals walk through the school. This fall, Leuzinger will have three new associate principals to bring that total to 12 since 2008.
“Since there is no consistency, there are no set policies or procedures in place, and every year something changes,” said another Leuzinger faculty member. “It makes it impossible to know what is going on.”
Centinela Valley Union High School District has never publicly explained the procedure behind the hiring and demoting of staff.
A lack of an explanation isn't a surprise. This, after all, is a school district that critics contended doesn't always live up to the requirements of the Brown Act, California's open-meeting law.
Former board members Salas and Talavera spoke about how the board routinely broke Brown Act violations.
Notice of regularly scheduled board meetings must be posted at least 72 hours in advance; special meetings must be called no more than 24 hours in advance, and news of the meeting must be disseminated to local media.
Salas said meeting requirements would be routinely broken to avoid public scrutiny. At the average board meeting, Salas said only two people would regularly attend.
“When the students and community members started attending community meetings and vocalizing their disagreements with Fernandez and the board, we changed the meeting dates, meeting hours, and changed the frequency we met,” Salas said.
Faculty members have also said the current board will extend “closed session” for hours to keep interested participants waiting.
A former assistant superintendent who requested anonymity echoed the sentiments.
Fernandez "would tell me, ‘No, no, no. Trust me, trust me. I was in Inglewood a long time. Trust me on this stuff.”
Fernandez also rarely asked for feedback on the agenda from board members. Board members would not be notified until the day of the board meeting what was put on the agenda. The former assistant superintendent said she would not review the agenda until the night before the board meeting. Even when she suggested items be put on the agenda, there were times she said Fernandez would leave the information off.
“Jose never shared the agenda with us,” she said. “He would ask our input, but we never got a chance to review it until the night before the board meeting.”
Lack of input in decisions has proved a trademark of CVUHSD.
Instead, decisions are now handed from the district level down to the schools with little discussion. Programs that have been built up over many years are being pushed aside, even with a track record of proven success. Faculty members also said that the policy coming from the district aims to bolster graduation numbers, even if this is to the detriment of preparing college-ready students.
A summer reading program at Lawndale High School, which had been built up over six years, was disbanded this summer by Laurel Fretz, director of curriculum and instruction at CVUHSD. A Peer College Counseling program, designed to have upper-level high school students share advice with other students on how to get into college, implemented by former Leuzinger principal Sonia Miller was also put to an unexpected end last year.
Employees at Lawndale and Leuzinger both said they have been instructed to advance students to the next level in various subjects even if a student hasn't mastered their class, all in the name of moving students along to graduation.
“I think they know they need to show progress,” said Sherman, the former coordinator of the Marine Science Academy at Lawndale. “The easiest way is an increase in graduation rate. They are not concerned about improving the quality of education or graduate we produce.”
This summer, teachers have been asked to read a book called, “The Homework Myth: Why our kids get too much of a Bad Thing,” by Claudia Wallis. The book was assigned to teachers by Benjamin Wolf, assistant superintendent of educational services. While Sherman acknowledged that there are studies that say homework is a reason why students fail high school, she also said that there are other studies out there that show that homework is beneficial.
Goins, the director of SBUT, said she has approached district personnel several times to explain that teachers should be included in the conversation on changes instituted on education policy.
“I tried several times to talk to Benjamin Wolf, and I might as well have stood and banged my head against the wall,” Goins said. “I talked to him several times about including teachers in the changes he wants made.”
Critics also look at instituting an online credit recovery program, or E2020 course, as further evidence that the district is looking to promote graduation over a college-ready student.
The E2020 course will allow students to make up credits to achieve graduation in a lab setting while monitored by certificated employee. The class is not transferable to a California State University or University of California campus.
In January 2009, a needs assessment was conducted by the LACOE District Assistance and Intervention Team. In the report, recommendations were made in the area of fiscal accountability, curriculum, instruction and assessment to state standards and leadership.
Eighteen months later, faculty members said that the problems continue to persist, even though in April 29, 2010, the DAIT Lead, Dr. Yvonne Contreras, said that the district “has made major progress toward implementing the DAIT recommendations,” according to the letter.
According to many accounts, there was varying degrees of optimism when the county sent the District Assistance Intervention Team to CVUHSD to re-focus the district on education last year
“My immediate reaction was, ‘Thank god,’” said Carlstone, the former teachers' association president. “My immediate reaction was, ‘Great! Maybe somebody will provide academic focus because it had been severely lacking.”
“I was thrilled to have them come in,” said a former assistant superintendent. “I had felt the cavalry had arrived. We knew what we were doing. We knew we were on the right track. We thought here they were coming, they’re going to back us up and we won’t have to argue anymore (with Fernandez). We would get extra money to do these things.”
After several months of interviews with principals, key district staff, teachers, students, and teacher representatives, the needs assessment released by LACOE DAIT noted several statements: that resource allocation by the district was not aligned to measurable student achievement and instruction goals; the district does not work in a transparent fashion where accountability is held; the district is not aligned in the “establishment of instructional priorities” from the district level to the school level; and the district lacks an organizational structure that supports improvement from year to year.
Faculty members have expressed frustration and suspicion with Contreras' inability to reign in Fernandez from committing actions that could be destructive to school climate, resulting in short- and long-term lower academic performance. In recent months, parents and faculty said Contreras has stopped responding to e-mails sent to her.
“I just didn’t believe that she was strong enough to stand up to Jose,” said the ex-assistant superintendent.
Last year when a half dozen faculty members asked the two DAIT leaders, which included Contreras, for a private session at a Manhattan Beach restaurant to discuss concerns over stalled DAIT plan implementation, no more than several minutes after the entire group arrived at the restaurant did they see Fernandez walk inside and take a seat at a booth.
When members expressed shock and consternation about Fernandez's unexpected arrival to this impromptu meeting, Contreras brushed off concern.
Contreras refused to comment outside of a prepared statement.
“The state laws that have created and articulated DAITs give them no direct governance or administrative powers. Although the law states that districts are required to implement DAIT recommendations, the DAITs themselves cannot rescind or overrule a district’s executive actions and decisions… The approach that I have taken with this DAIT is to uphold its integrity at all times, to be direct and fair in doing its work, and to be transparent in its interactions among all the involved district parties.”
During this period, the district also updated the schoolwide Local Educational Agency Plan, to keep the state-mandated document in compliance with the findings of the DAIT assessment and state and federal mandates. The District Site Leadership Team, a team of nine individuals, met over a period of several months to brainstorm what would be included and what was already in place.
Of the LEA authors from a year ago, three have been supposedly targeted by the district. One of the district's top administrators was publicly fired during a board meeting in July 2009. Johnson, the former director of instruction and curriculum, left rather than be demoted to PE teacher. Jennifer Garcia, the former associate principal at Lawndale High School, will be a history teacher come fall.
The only one of the four LEA leads who remains with the district is Hatha Parrish, who is director of federal and state programs.
Discontent and exasperation with the district has grown as teachers say the district has become more aggressive in retaliation against teachers.
Merritt, the former co-coordinator of the successful Lawndale MSA program, said she was suspended in June with no thorough investigation for events related to the student protest in June. She has denied the charge that she had anything to do with the protest. A student leading the protest also said she had nothing to do with it.
Still, Merritt said she was prevented from attending graduation or setting foot on Lawndale on a flimsy case. She said a review of video tapes would also clearly show that she was not involved with inciting the student protest. She said the decision from the district was made without looking at evidence that would have instantly acquitted her.
"There is a culture of fear on the campuses after what the district has done. The culture is where administrators are afraid to say anything; where teachers are afraid to talk," she said. "Unfortunately, that is what has built Lawndale to where it is now. Teachers talked. They were not afraid to say when something was not working, so they could come up with a solution that does work."
Even students feel the frustration.
"It's not the parents, not kids, not the teachers," said Pablo Plata, a June graduate of Leuzinger, recounting how two of his most respected school mentors were transferred. "It's the district. It's them making moves, whatever they want. I want to have some hope that this is not true. I think there has to be some kind of change at the school. Either teachers have to do it, students, or parents have to stand up to the district."