Popular principal’s dismissal leaves a South L.A. school divided
Third-grade teacher Kate Lewis said Irma Cobian is the best principal she’s had in nine years at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts.
Joseph Shamel called Cobian a “godsend” who has used her mastery of special education to show him how to craft effective learning plans for his students.
Los Angeles Unified Supt. John Deasy praised a plan developed by Cobian and her team to turn around the struggling campus — where most students test below grade level in reading and math — calling it a “well-organized program for accelerated student achievement.” He thanked Cobian for her commitment and hard work.
So why did the school board oust Cobian from her job last week?
That question has raged on the Weigand campus ever since board members voted 5 to 2 to accept a petition demanding Cobian’s removal.
Under California’s 2010 trigger law, parents at low-performing schools can force out staff, change the curriculum, close the campus or convert it to an independent, publicly funded charter. At Weigand, the district verified signatures of parents representing 221 of 420 students, or 53%; 35 signatures were thrown out as invalid.
It was the state’s first successful campaign to remove an administrator, and a sign of the power that can be wielded by a group of disaffected parents. But the outcome has prompted elected officials and education groups to call for closer monitoring of trigger campaigns.
Parent leader Llury Garcia said that although her second-grade daughter has done fairly well at Weigand, Cobian was inaccessible and rude. She and other petition backers were assisted by Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles nonprofit that lobbied for the parent trigger law and is aiding overhaul efforts at several other Los Angeles campuses.
“We want strong leadership,” said Garcia, who has kept her daughter at Weigand instead of her neighborhood school because of concerns about bullying. “We support our teachers.”
But in a show of loyalty to Cobian, 21 of 22 teachers have asked for transfers to other schools. Several said the petition campaign has poisoned the campus. Profanity has been scrawled on walls and even on Cobian’s car. Others said they have no desire to stay without the leader who inspired them.
“It devastated our morale,” said Robyn Hernandez, who followed Cobian to Weigand in 2010. “It felt like a betrayal of something we had worked so hard for.”
Kathleen McGrath, a district instructional director who works with Weigand, said it could take three years to rebuild a team and get the campus back on track.
This week, parents voted to accept Cobian’s turnaround plan as the next step forward. Although a Parent Revolution statement quoted Garcia as saying that parents “spent several months carefully reviewing” the plan, she told The Times last week that she had never read it and disagreed with key elements, such as its focus on reading and writing.
The day after the removal vote, Cobian, 53, made no attempt to mask her emotions.
Trying to cheer herself up, she dropped by Lewis’ class to give prizes to those who have read 25 books this year. Cobian whooped for Andrea’s 28 and encouraged Joseph to push his 11 to 15.
“I need happiness today,” Cobian told the bright-eyed students. “What do I do when I’m sad?”
“Come here!” the students sang out.
For a moment, her sadness gave way to smiles. But later, she said: “I am crushed.”
More than two decades ago, Cobian walked away from a high-powered law firm to teach. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she said she was inspired by a newspaper article about the low high school graduation rates of Latinos and wanted to make a difference.
Her passion for social justice led her to Watts in 2009.
When Cobian arrived, Weigand was beset with conflicts over a dual-language program and low parent participation. The school presented challenges associated with lesser achievement: All the students come from low-income families, more than half are not fluent in English and a quarter turn over every year.
She focused right away on morale, sprucing up the campus with a new school logo and banners. She offered prizes and popcorn parties to entice students to read more and initiated good-behavior incentives. Last year she eliminated student suspensions.
Aaliyah Harrison, 12, said Cobian is a special principal who gives her hugs and understands her struggles, such as losing her father to cancer last year. “She is a wonderful person,” Aaliyah said.
From the start, Cobian laid out her belief that literacy is the gateway to academic success and she helped teachers boost their classroom skills.
Fourth-grade teacher Hector Hernandez said Cobian is the first principal he’s had who frequently pops into classrooms to model good teaching herself. Recently, he said, she demonstrated how to teach about different literary genres by engaging students in lively exercises using characters from the “Avengers” comic book and film.
Her staff says she has built an open and collaborative culture — and boosted what Hernandez said had been “atrocious” morale with gestures of appreciation like hauling in her griddle to make pancakes for them.
In Cobian’s first year as principal, Weigand’s state test scores dropped in both reading and math. But some bright spots are emerging, McGrath said. Reading scores increased among all students last year, and district assessments so far this year show particular growth in reading comprehension. Math scores have dipped overall but rose for African Americans and students with disabilities.
Cobian also has focused on boosting parent participation. The percentage of Weigand parents returning district surveys has increased from 4% the year before she came to 51% this year. Answering specific questions, 93% of parents said they felt welcome at the campus and 94% reported that the staff treated them with respect; 95% felt their concerns were taken seriously.
On a recent day, the school’s parent center was filled with more than a dozen mothers — and a few fathers — who said Cobian has welcomed their involvement. All but one opposed the petition; that mother said she now regrets signing.
But Cobian has offended some parents.
Alicia Cardiel, a petition supporter, said Cobian failed to help her second-grader for more than two years with his behavioral and academic problems. Six months ago, she said, he finally received an individualized learning plan and is now receiving psychological help — but she questioned why it took so long.
The parents behind the campaign have denied allegations that they misled or harassed anyone into signing, as some have alleged. As they noted, the petition — printed in both English and Spanish — clearly stated the demand to remove the principal.
Ben Austin, Parent Revolution’s executive director, said the move against Cobian was justified. He said the school had “academically flat-lined” and that the children could no longer wait for improvement.
“The kids will be better off under new leadership, not someone who has presided over abject failure,” he said.
But the Cobian case has prompted calls to rethink the process.
Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, said the campaign was an unjustified attack on an outstanding administrator and urged the district to better support targeted campuses. Weigand teachers said they were prevented from defending Cobian’s record by district instructions not to speak to parents about the petition while it was being circulated.
“There needs to be a rigorous approach because the stakes are so high,” Perez said. “You’re talking about a whole school and all of the children.”
Board member Richard Vladovic, whose 7th District includes Weigand, said Cobian — who will stay on as principal through the end of the school year — was “a good person” but that he had to follow the law and approve the verified petition.
“Basically we had no choice,” he said.
But he added that greater monitoring could help ensure that parents clearly understood petition campaigns.
“Another pair of eyes wouldn’t hurt,” he said. “Everybody should be told the truth.”
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