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Steve Zimmer: L.A. Unified District 4 candidate

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District 4 of the Los Angeles Unified School District stretches across most of the Westside as well as the southwest San Fernando Valley and much of Hollywood. The candidates to replace retiring incumbent Marlene Canter are Mike Stryer and Steve Zimmer, both of them teachers.

Steve Zimmer

Age: 38

Personal: Born in New York City. Grew up in Bridgeport, Conn. Graduated from Goucher College in Baltimore. Single, no children. Lives in Hollywood.

Bio details: A 1992 Teach for America recruit who became a fixture at Marshall High in Los Feliz. At Marshall, he founded and runs the Comprehensive Student Support Center to provide health services to students and their families. He also started a teacher-training focus at Marshall through which high school students gained experience working in elementary school classrooms. This year, he splits time between the support center and classroom teaching.

L.A. Times: As a board member, how would you approach helping English learners, who make up such a large portion of the school district?

Steve Zimmer: We've yet to master this puzzle. I think that there are successful and interesting programs out there, like dual-language immersion programs. We need to make sure that all of our teachers don't just have a couple of courses to get a certification in English-language development and literacy. There really needs to be training and an emphasis across the curriculum in how to work with and approach English learners.

The only area where I've seen recently where there looks like there's been a lot of progress is in the Long Beach school district.

Years ago, you campaigned against Proposition 227, which ended most traditional bilingual education programs and replaced them with courses taught in English. What's your current view on this?

We had a lot of problems before Prop. 227. We also had some successful programs, like at Eastman Elementary, that I've been sad to see go. I'd like to see more dual-immersion.

Post-227, we've been so intensely focused on kids learning English quickly. The component that is not successful is having parents learn English. By 3rd or 4th grade, there is a real communication gap between parents and kids.

Political organizing is an element of your nonprofit in the Elysian Valley neighborhood. What do you want to organize parents to do?

The major thing in the neighborhood is still around issues of gentrification and displacement, although this has changed a little with the economy. We want to make sure fair share of L.A. River development money comes to the community for active recreation park space, for example, and for streetlights to create safe passages for children. There are parts of the neighborhood that still have no sidewalks.

You have said that you would like the lowest-performing complex of schools in each area of the district to adopt a reform model. How would you hold such a reform effort accountable?

We have to look at school scorecards in a comprehensive way. I'm not opposed to data from test scores, but it's not a complete picture. We want to look at redesignation rates for English learners. We want to look at middle and high school promotion and failure rates. I want to zero in on gaps in transition years. Ninth grade is a huge drop-off year. I want that report card to be broad. I want it to include a lot of different types of data -- quantitative and qualitative data. We can spend time talking to students and families and teachers about what is and is not working.

But can a school be successful if it has low test scores?

We couldn't call a school successful if it consistently is not showing improvement [on the state tests].

What do you mean when you say charters should offer access to all neighborhood children?

I am a watchful and critical supporter of charter schools. I don't want to make charter schools jump through hoops and hoops and hoops to do good things for kids. But at some charters, in the application process, there is some form of selection. Some charter schools don't serve special education students. In my role on the school board, I would hold them to the same standards as any other LAUSD school.

Are you thinking of any charter school in particular that is guilty of unacceptable practices?

I am not thinking of a particular charter. I have had several experiences where I had students from Marshall High who wanted to go to a charter but couldn't get in because of an IEP [an individual education plan designed for a student with a disability]. The charter school didn't have a special day class or a resource class.

Most charter schools are non-union. Your campaign materials state that a charter school would have to allow for union elections before receiving board approval. Can you explain what you mean?

I'm not saying every charter has to have a collective-bargaining agreement. But I'm going to look at: Do they have a collective bargaining agreement? Have they had an election? I'm not saying that every charter school has to have elections scheduled before I would approve it. I just want to know that if there is that desire among the employees that there would be nothing done to block it. I believe in the coming years that there is going to be an effort on behalf of labor to be organizing charter schools. I want to make sure those efforts are not blocked, and we don't have to have a war.

How would you rate the mayor's involvement in schools so far?

I've not seen the scores yet [for the 10 schools overseen by the mayor's school-reform nonprofit]. I've only gotten anecdotal information. I hear that good things are happening. Resources are coming in to those schools that weren't there before. I support the mayor using his social and political capital to improve schools. But I would look hard at the process. Is it working? Are teachers staying there? I certainly would not be somebody after a year to say this has failed.

Regarding ineffective teachers, the union notes that the school district has trouble following due process and in helping potentially successful teachers master their craft. The district notes that it can take years to remove an unsuccessful teacher. If the district got its act together and managed teachers properly, how long should it take before an ineffective teacher who fails to improve significantly can be removed?

No more than two years. We absolutely need to deal with the question of teacher tenure, but we also have to deal with teacher support. And teacher credentialing classes rarely are relevant and meaningful. Our universities have failed. Beyond that our professional development [ongoing training through the school district] is a failure. And we have no meaningful assessment of teachers. And our teacher evaluation process is worse than a joke.

There's been controversy recently over periodic assessments, standardized tests that are given several times a year to assess student progress. The teachers union has asked its members to boycott these tests. Do you have an opinion on this issue?

I am not convinced that they play the essential role that Supt. [Ray] Cortines says they play. My jury is out. We do not have a comprehensive assessment system at all. Every bubble that a student has to fill on a standardized test should have meaning and right now they don't.

I would bring in parents and teachers and even kids. My charge would be to create an assessment plan that everybody could buy into, that everybody was consulted on. I don't understand why that can't happen.

Your opponent, Mike Stryer, has substantial corporate financial experience, which he says is a needed attribute on the board of education. Your response?

I don't necessarily believe a financial background in a major corporation of the kind that contributed to the major economic crisis we're in right now would be something I'd be promoting. I'm not sure his experience is directly translatable to large public entity budget. My experience with budgets is how they affect real kids in real classrooms at school sites, for eight years [with the student support center]. I dealt with all budgets of all agencies that had services at the center.

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