Wanna keep your readers? School ‘em

The genesis of a must-read education column

Yeah, I know the L.A. Times is in turmoil. But it continues to publish wonderful enterprise stories, and a new addition I have fallen in love with features the work of a Times Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial writing, Bob Sipchen.

Sipchen now writes a weekly column in the California section called “School Me,” dedicated exclusively to public education in Los Angeles. He is insightful, confrontational and fair-minded, determined to hold the educational bureaucracy accountable.

Wanna keep your readers? School 'em

Wanna keep your readers? School 'em

For any editor trying to figure out what his paper can publish to make itself indespensible to readers, do this: Shuffle your cards, free up a tough-minded reporter and make him or her an education columnist. There’s a power of focusing a column this narrowly that gives it much more punch than the typical general-interest column.

Bob answered some of my questions about how this experiment germinated, but first read a sample of his work. (More will appear after the Q-and-A:

WHEN PRINCIPAL’S A GRIZZLY, CAMPUS LIFE CAN BE A BEAR
By Bob Sipchen
Oct. 2, 2006

Nivi Lifshitz tells the story of her unfortunate introduction to the Los Angeles Unified School District like this: She answered her cellphone on her daughter’s first day of school and was greeted by a scream — “This is the worst-behaved child I’ve ever encountered in my life!”

Only later did the caller identify herself as Woodland Hills Elementary School Principal Anna Feig, Lifshitz says. The kindergartner, Feig told her, had crawled under a table and refused to come out. It seems her teacher, new to the job, had called the principal for help and Feig hauled the child into the office. The little girl spent three of the next four days outside the principal’s office — once, Lifshitz swears, for refusing to use the correct crayon color.

In later meetings, the mother says, Feig shouted that their child was not welcome at her school unless she started taking Ritalin — an allegation the principal denies.

The parents kept their daughter home and looked for another school, even though the software developer and her musician husband, Joerg, had just doubled their rent by moving to the neighborhood — largely because of the school’s high test scores.

When I finally meet the girl, she’s standing with her father outside another Woodland Hills school. She transferred there after what the parents portray as nasty battles with Feig and a week of nonresponse from the district. The girl, wearing a plaid shirt and white pants, chatters cheerfully as she tosses her vinyl Bratz backpack into her father’s Prius, then pulls herself into her child seat.

This pleasant and precocious demeanor has been rattled, her parents say. She has drawn pictures of the principal as a monster, she has imaginary phone conversations in which she asks the principal not to yell, she has nightmares about Feig.

Given this portrait I drop in on the principal with caution, fearing she’ll turn me into a toad with one blistering stare. I find, instead, a small, almost fragile-looking woman dressed in leopard print, with leopard-print jewelry. She’s seated in a cluttered office, the focal point of which is a purple leopard-spot chair.

Before I’ve finished introducing myself Feig accuses me of misrepresenting the nature of my visit. Then, sensing my befuddlement, she softens.

“I know my reputation,” she says. “I also know the good things I do.”

After a short visit, Feig says she has a meeting, and I move outside the school’s gates. Nestled in an upper-middle-class neighborhood and shaded with lots of mature trees, the beautifully maintained campus is the nicest I’ve visited in L.A. Unified. The parents — many of whom say their children attend on permits available to students who live outside the school’s immediate neighborhood — rave about the academics, the attentiveness of the teachers and the high level of parental involvement. They brag that it’s run like a private school — that Feig, as several say using the same phrase, “runs a tight ship.”

I’ve been chatting with child-herding, stroller-pushing moms (and a few dads) for perhaps an hour when Feig approaches. Apropos of nothing, she says: “I feel as if I’ve been kicked in the face.”

Pressed, she says that as principal, she’s always the scapegoat for parents who can’t bear to hear honest assessments of their children.

She can’t discuss individual students, she tells me, then repeatedly brings up the unnamed child in question, saying that even though the girl was extremely disruptive, Feig longed to help her and keep her at the school — if only her mother weren’t so resistant. Feig has decades of experience in L.A. Unified and has been at Woodland Hills Elementary for 11 years — a longevity no other principal was able to achieve, she points out.

I ask why the others fled.

“Because of the parents,” she says.

There’s a teacher truism, it seems, that “south of the Boulevard” parents (i.e., those who live on the richer, hillier side of Ventura Boulevard) are aggressive and demanding.

As Feig leads me on an impromptu tour, she buttonholes teachers and says: “Tell him about the parents.”

Most concur that although the majority are wonderfully helpful, a minority are unpleasant and, as Feig phrases it, “don’t understand boundaries.”

Before Feig arrived, a couple of teachers say, “parents controlled the school.”

“I love Anna,” says Pam Martens, a teacher of 41 years. “Anna will defend us like a mother bear.”

As I leave, I remind myself that the best teachers and administrators have been goal-oriented mavericks who aren’t afraid to offend as they cut through the bureaucracy and simply get things done. But that night Woodland Hills Elementary begins to seem like the realm of some suburban zombie tribe with a dark secret to keep.

“People are scared,” parents and teachers practically whisper into the phone, most pleading for absolute confidentiality as they describe a volatile “tyrant” who rules by browbeating, intimidation and humiliation.

Parent C.J. Josefzon, one of more than two dozen parents and teachers I talk to, was so enraged with the way Feig treated his son that he picketed the school with a sign reading: “Stop the Terror.”

Denise Miller, a fifth-grade teacher, says that when she first arrived at Woodland Hills, she admired Feig as a tough leader. Her view began to change, she says, as she watched the principal ruthlessly weed out students and parents who might somehow undermine Woodland Hills Elementary’s reputation as an academic powerhouse.

“She sanitizes the school,” Miller says, explaining that Feig finds reasons to yank the permits of students who don’t fit her mold. “They just disappear.”

What really turned her against Feig, though, she says, was watching her frighten and embarrass students. “I won’t let my kids go alone to Anna’s office.” Many teachers won’t, she says.

Why don’t her colleagues speak out?

“They don’t want to injure the grizzly bear.”

Feig denies cherry-picking students and says she would never embarrass children.

“The only time I raise my voice,” she says, “is if a teacher comes to me and says, ‘Scare them.’ Or, if I’m attacked, I raise my voice.”

Feig downplays her attention to testing, but no one disputes the results. In a district where the average Academic Performance Index growth score is 658, Woodland Hills Elementary this year scored 951. That’s an extraordinary number, even considering the advantage that comes with drawing from an area with relatively few children who qualify for a free or discounted lunch or have trouble speaking English. Some schools in the district approach 100% in each category. Woodland Hills Elementary’s numbers are strikingly low, even compared with nearby elementary schools’.

Perhaps a mile away, at Lifshitz’s kindergartner’s new school, the percentage of children on free lunch programs and nonnative English speakers is a very low 17% and 10%, respectively. At Woodland Hills those figures are 3% and less than 1%. Lifshitz and her husband are well aware that their daughter’s new school scored almost 100 API points lower than Feig’s. But the last three weeks have put obsession with test scores in perspective, they say.

Their daughter is happy at the new school. The teacher, Lifshitz says, “never, ever, raises her voice at the kids.” Not that her daughter has been a perfect student. But, Lifshitz says, she does smile proudly on those days when her teacher sends her home with stars for good behavior.

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Here are Bob’s written responses to my questions:

Whose idea was the column?

The column was my idea, years ago when I was an editor. I wanted to have someone else write it as part of a series to be called Laptop LA. The idea: Columns written by reporters on laptops as they explored various realms: Schools, Crime and Punishment, Health Care, etc. I almost got [former education reporter] Sandy Banks to do the one I thought was most important-education-when I was editing Current [The Times' Sunday opinion section], but she slipped away. So I’m giving it a shot myself.

What were your marching orders?

I talked to [Times California editor] Janet Clayton about this a while back when she was boss of the editorial pages. We were in total synch. We both agreed that the Times was among the institutions that shared blame for the sorry state of education in Los Angeles. When [former Times editor-in-chief] Dean [Baquet] invited me into the California section, Janet helped me to refine the mission.

What was your biggest concern going in?

The biggest is that people, despite what they say, may not really care enough about education to read a weekly column on the subject.

What were you most confident about?

There are great stories to tell and problems to expose.

What’s been the payoff so far?

Lots of readers are telling me they’ve become followers of the column and plenty are calling and e-mailing with stories from the schools that they think deserve telling. This includes teachers, parents, taxpaying citizens and the occasional student. Also, I’m told that the column and the blog I do with a fantastic June USC grad, Janine Kahn (www.latimes.com/schoolme) has become required reading in certain education and political decision-making circles.

What do you feel you still need to improve?

I’ll always be able to learn more about education. Plus I’m still getting the hang of a weekly column-the tone, the ratio of reportage to reflection, the length, etc.

How have you balanced journalistic fairness and objectivity with the more subjective but enticing structure of a column?

I can’t imagine a form of journalism that doesn’t put fairness right alongside accuracy and pursuit of the truth as the highest, values. So I struggle mightily to be fair. But ultimately I can take sides. Being a columnist is a huge advantage when dealing with bureaucracies. If someone’s obfuscating, dawdling or intentionally stonewalling about something, a reporter often is left twiddling her thumbs-the story’s just not there. I can make a solid column out of that dawdling -and readers (as well as teachers, parents etc.) have responded with a level of gratitude that’s very rewarding. Because in a sense, the obstructionism gets to the heart of what’s wrong with education.

Anything else you think would help education writers and editors, who in my experience chafe under a belief that the audience considers education boring?

It’s very easy to get sucked into the cult, to find yourself believing that all those acronyms and excessively polysyllabic theorems have a special meaning accessible only to a very special class of initiates. I sometimes have to slap myself in the face and chant loudly: “You’re writing about people with human needs and goals, petty and profound.” People are passionate about schools and we can’t let the soul-deadened careerists who too-often control the agenda triumph in their self-interested desire to keep the public from paying attention to education. Clarity in this stuff is like caffeine-it wakes people up and may even addict them.

—-30—-

Two more “School Me” columns evolved from the one you read. Here they are:

UNION RESORTS TO CODE OF SILENCE TO STIFLE THE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE PRINCIPAL
October 30, 2006

Some of the smartest, hardest-working and most caring people I know are public school principals.

That said, education reformers have complained for years that the Los Angeles school district’s bureaucracy either ignores complaints about bad principals or shuffles crummy principals off to other schools. “The dance of the lemons,” it’s called.

A recent e-mail from the union representing administrators in Los Angeles schools offers disturbing insight into why principals who have no business being on campus sometimes continue to reign.

My Oct. 2 column discussed a kindergartner’s troubles with Anna Feig, the principal at Woodland Hills Elementary School. Some parents and teachers praised Feig as a strong leader who “runs a tight ship,” while others called her a tyrant who they say intimidates and retaliates against those who cross her.

Two days later, Mike O’Sullivan, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA) e-mailed his colleagues, calling that column “a piece of journalistic garbage that unfairly trashed the reputation and character of one of our outstanding elementary principals.” Attached to his missive was a copy of a letter to the editor of The Times by the union’s administrator, Dan Basalone, who said I had “demeaned one of our finest principals” and recommended that “no administrator agree to any interviews” with me.

O’Sullivan didn’t return my calls and Basalone hung up on me after I insisted that we talk on the record.

If I were a principal, I’d be embarrassed that the supposed leaders of a professional organization would defend someone without an investigation, let alone declare her among the district’s finest.

In the days after that column, School Me’s blog exploded with comments so voluminous and vehement that it is inconceivable that the union bossmen were unaware that the principal in question is controversial.

Since then, I’ve received dozens of e-mails and talked to dozens of pleasant, decent-sounding people who, without a trace of irony, describe Feig as, among many other things: “a monster,” “extraordinarily rude,” “a bully,” “beastly,” “one of the nastiest persons I’ve ever met” and “a despot” who is “as close to pure evil as I’ve ever seen” and “belongs in prison for her treatment of these children.” Parents and teachers, current and former, report filing complaints almost from the moment she arrived at the West Valley school a decade back. They advised high-level administrators about an array of concerns, including their belief that the principal plays fast and loose with the permit process determining whether some students can attend the school. At least one critic wrote to the district questioning the ethics and legality of the way the school counts tardies and absences to avoid losing attendance money.

When I talked to Feig for my previous column, she dismissed her critics, mainly as parents who didn’t want to hear the truth about their children or wanted to run the school themselves.

She did not return calls for this column. A woman in the school’s office said Feig would not talk to me on advice of the AALA.

Many parents are convinced that cowardice and cronyism within the district explain why Feig hasn’t been removed.

District 1 Supt. Jean Brown has been in her position for only 18 months. She says that since she’s been there, all complaints against any administrator have been recorded, referred, investigated, and that parents receive a response. The associated administrators group, she said, has a role in any discussion of discipline. No principals have been fired during her tenure. But in many cases, “They have received training, mentoring, coaching…. Changing behaviors and leadership skills is something we take very seriously,” she said, adding that confidentiality considerations preclude her from discussing any individual, including Feig.

In our hastily aborted chat, Basalone said, “It’s not your job as a journalist to do her evaluation.” Thank God for that. But I do feel a moral obligation to pass on a small sampling of what I’ve heard to whoever is responsible for that task.

Siri Maness said that she pulled her kindergartner out of Woodland Hills this year — after four days — because, she says, Feig insisted that the student has anger management issues. Maness claims the principal rudely threatened to suspend the child and then pointedly reminded her that the school asks each parent to donate at least $400 per child per year. Apparently because of AALA’s advice to Feig, I couldn’t discuss this matter with her.

A common complaint of parents I talked to is that Feig issues snap medical and psychological diagnoses of children (her husband’s a pediatrician, after all) and essentially demands that some students seek prescriptions for such hyperactivity medication as Ritalin — a pill college students abuse to boost their concentration and test-taking ability.

Rossina Gil, for one, had a conference with the principal and her son’s kindergarten teacher earlier this year about Feig’s belief that the boy should be on medication — something other professionals recommended against, she says. The teacher, Gil says, reported that the boy was “right where he should be in class.”

Gil says she’ll never forget Feig’s response: Imagine how much better he could do if he took the meds. Feig, again, wouldn’t return my calls.

Woodland Hills’ test scores are among the highest in the district. Parents, current and former, say that Feig acts like a college recruiter, encouraging smart public and private school students to apply to her school. They say they’ve contacted the district alleging that the principal tries her best to get rid of students who might hurt the school’s test scores, either by making their lives miserable or, when possible, finding a reason to pull their permits — pawning at least some low-achievers off on other principals.

Jay Fernandez, a firefighter, says that in 1999 he and other parents formed a group to look into, among other things, what they perceived to be a disproportionate number of minority students who had had their permits yanked. The district, he says, assigned a civil rights investigator to the case but refused to tell parents the outcome.

Karen Hunt says her two children had nightmares because Feig made them feel like second-class citizens when they didn’t do well on the standardized tests. Four years ago, when one son tested as highly gifted, Feig took him in front of the class and announced that he was an example of someone who really wasn’t very smart but could do well on tests if he applied himself, the boy told his mother.

Jennifer Tidstrand says that a few years ago she called the district after several run-ins, including one in which Feig “hauled her son into a hallway and made him cry.” Tidstrand was promised her concerns would be kept confidential. She says that within days, however, Feig wanted to know why she had reported her to the district. Feig, again, wouldn’t talk to me about any of this, apparently on the advice of AALA.

“The happiest day for both me and my son was the day he left” the school, says Michael Smith. Jorge Solorzano says he and his wife moved to Woodland Hills specifically for the school’s test scores and moved again specifically to get away from the principal.

“For years,” says Richard Kzemien, “LAUSD has remained deaf to the numerous pleas coming from the community to have her removed. The system’s relentless insensitivity to this problem is one more example of just how serious an overhaul LAUSD really needs.” Most parents, including some of Feig’s critics, love the school. And plenty defend Feig, saying she treats their children well and that they’ve never witnessed her alleged misbehavior. Fair enough.

But what about those callers and blog commenters who acknowledge but shrug off Feig’s “ruthlessness” as if it were a necessary evil, tell teachers who disagree with Feig’s behavior to “LEAVE” and suggest that parents who object to the humiliation of 5- to 10-year-old children are raising “frail wusses”?

To those Feig stalwarts who complain that I’ve paid too much attention to a “vocal minority,” I offer a vegetable parable. Last month millions of people enjoyed the health benefits of California spinach. Should this paper have ignored the relative handful who keeled over retching or dead from E. coli?

Basalone — who didn’t bother to contact the kindergartner’s parents or, from what I can tell, anyone but Feig before writing his letter — maligned all Times reporters, saying we’re “wolves in sheep’s clothing and can’t be trusted.”

O’Sullivan blustered: “Mr. Sipchen has an agenda that is inimical to our purposes and he deserves to be shunned by anyone he contacts.”

Such buffoonish rhetorical thuggery is particularly ill-advised. Most principals probably recognize, after all, that it’s not in their best interests as public servants to spurn those of us who serve as surrogates for taxpaying parents. As for our conflicting purposes, that’s the single point O’Sullivan got right. My “agenda” is to play a small role in assuring that children get a good education.

This union’s purpose is … what?

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SCHOOL REFUSES TO OPEN ITS DOOR ON HALLOWEEN
November 6, 2006

It’s Halloween, but I can tell from a block away that the buffed-out gents guarding the door of Dominguez Elementary School aren’t in costume. Nope, they’re wearing real L.A. School Police uniforms, complete with handguns and cuffs. Officers Ross and Steward politely tell me they were dispatched to keep me off campus at the request of the Los Angeles Unified School District. I politely remind them that I have every right to be on the public school campus and back up my assertion with a memo from outgoing Supt. Roy Romer.

They ask me to please wait for representatives from the local district office to arrive. I nod, and watch as parents and children in fairy and superhero outfits shuffle through the door. Romer seems to have understood that transparency is a benchmark of good government and an absolute requisite for reform. He made inroads in educating his subordinates about the law. But as I stand chatting with the friendly cops, I’m reminded of something school critic David Abel says when he wants to send district mucky-mucks into conniptions. L.A. Unified, he declares, is East Germany before the Iron Curtain fell.

I suspect that this latest outbreak of petty bureaucratic power-tripping may stem from something I wrote last week. In that column, I chided the principals’ union, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, for reflexively coming to the defense of a principal about whom I’d heard (and keep hearing) a chorus of complaints. Union President Mike O’Sullivan and administrator Dan Basalone told their colleagues to shun me.

As it happens, a few days before the column ran, a teachers union leader at Dominguez had invited me to the school to talk with his colleagues at an after-school meeting. He suggested I attend the annual Halloween parade as a way to get a look at the Carson campus. But someone from the district told Dominguez’s pleasant assistant principal, Amita Dave, not to let me on campus.

My children have put in a total of 32.5 years with this school district. I’ve probably attended more Pumpkin Fests and Harvest Carnivals than first-run movies. I loved them. But not so much that I’d subject myself to billy-clubbing or — worse — bureaucratic browbeating to attend another.

On the other hand, I don’t think most parents, teachers and Times readers expect journalists to let themselves be bullied by public servants in need of a remedial civics course. Public access is critically important to any democratic institution. And public schools? These are the places we entrust with our children. Any teacher, principal, lunchroom aide or self-proclaimed Big Shot who thinks we’re going to send our kids through those gates without plenty of public scrutiny should be fitted for a dunce cap. Aside from parents’ narrow experience with their own children, reporters are the only eyes, ears and noses people have to alert them when something smells — which may be why the urge to keep journalists in the dark runs so deep.

Bad rules, for example, allow bureaucrats to protect stinko employees and hide their own incompetence with the phrase “that’s a personnel matter.”

And plenty of educators think they have the authority to decide what people are entitled to know about public schools. Charlene Hirotsu, at Thomas Starr King Middle School, for instance, is just one of the administrators who have told me I’m welcome on campus so long as my reportage is “positive.”

Meanwhile, the fact that administrators migrate from the school district to union jobs and back encourages cronyism. And cronyism breeds swaggering tyrants prone to delusions that they are above the law. Who knows? Some may even imagine they can blackball journalists who don’t toe the line.

Fortunately, the California Penal Code and the California Evidence Code are clear in stating that reporters have a statutory right of access to public schools. As the California Newspaper Assn.’s handbook on public access notes: “The Legislature expressly recognized the right of certain individuals, including journalists, to visit school grounds for ‘legitimate’ purposes and mandated that the legitimate exercise of constitutionally protected rights of free speech and expression not be infringed.”

Soon after arriving in the district six years ago, Romer showed that he understood the direct link between openness and reform by issuing a memo pointedly reminding everyone that a principal cannot keep a reporter off campus unless there is “reasonable and credible justification” for thinking the journalist’s presence will disrupt or threaten campus safety. Merely worrying that educational activities could be threatened by a reporter’s presence does not give a principal the right to say no, the memo says.

Of course, the district is notorious for not always getting word out to the troops, which may explain why Karen Saunders, one of two administrators who show up to try to keep me out of Dominguez, is unaware of the law or of Romer’s memo.

What’s ironic is that spending time on a campus usually softens one’s view of public education. When the district’s emissaries finally “allow” me on campus — did they really think those embarrassed-looking law enforcement pros were going to bust me for exercising my right to attend a Halloween parade? — what I saw was swell. Although I question the fiscal responsibility of assigning district handlers to ride herd on a reporter at an event featuring the tune “Purple People Eater,” the three of us did have fun watching Supermen, scarecrows, Barbies and one dashing young Sherlock Holmes parade across the blacktop.

The incoming superintendent is good at firing up students with motivational chants. Maybe he can take a similar approach with the people who work for him.

Vince Carbino, principal of the Santee Education Complex in South L.A., has a slogan that might help folks understand the importance of public access and scrutiny.

Carbino strikes me as an effective educator (though I’m not done reporting yet).

Wouldn’t it be great if the new superintendent asked every employee to chant the motto Carbino’s mother impressed upon her boy:

“Excellence fears no observation.”