It bears repeating that the beleaguered Los Angeles Unified School District – the nation's second largest, with two-thirds of a million school-kids – is on its ninth change of superintendent in 20 years [one man served three different times]. After some off-the-chart outsiders, like a Colorado governor and a former vice admiral, the newest superintendent couldn't be more of an insider. Michelle King has worked nearly 40 years in the district, as student aide, teacher, parent, principal, and chief deputy superintendent. After working in the shadow of so many others, what light of her own will she shine?
As you know, there are many people -- some of them are parents, some of them are public officials, there are even some teachers – who think that the LA Unified School District is a mess. One of the candidates for the job that you got used the word "mess" when he took himself out of the running. Why do they think that, and what can you say to help change their minds?
I think they might say that because they're on the outside, and they're not actually immersed or part of the LAUSD family. And so like any family you don't know necessarily the inner workings until you are engaged and involved in it. And as you know, I've been part of this district for a very long time, from a teacher through the administrator ranks, and I would say no, it isn't a mess.
As a matter of fact, I think LA has some of the most efficient processes and systems in place, and I believe in our district, I believe in our teachers, and I believe we're going to be able to get it done. Yes, it's the second largest school district, it's complex, it's a complex place to be, but it's a great district, and I look forward to the challenge
Yours is the ninth time in twenty years that the district has had a new superintendent. How have these course changes affected the district?
You know I think when you don't have stability, it's impactful. And when you have change that is occurring every two or three years, that's difficult for the system and instead of moving forward, I think it's more of a stop and start, a stop and start. And so to be able to bring sensibility to the system I think is important. It's important for the morale of the employees, it helps them have a sense of comfort so they can focus on what I need them to do which is teaching and learning in the classroom. Otherwise you're always looking for the next thing that's going to happen, and that's disruptive.
Parents want the best for their kids, of course, and there are parents who want the best for their kids who have gone to charter schools , charter school options – about 100,000 students in six years. What is your take on charter schools and how they fit into the LAUSD plan?
LA, as you know, authorizes more charters than anywhere else in the country, and charter schools and charter schools students are part of LAUSD. It's one LAUSD family, and all the kids, all the students -- we want the best for them. I think that it's detrimental for us to have entities pitted against one another when our common goal is to have our kids be successful and prepare for the 21st century.
Many parents, particularly when your kids get older -- you seek what their interests are and you try to find the best fit for them. And so I believe that should be available for all parents. Some folks are interested in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math studies], some are in the performing arts, some are interested in a different approach, the way of project-based learning. And so I think it behooves us as educators to make sure that we have the variety of options so that our kids are able to connect. Because what we don't want to happen is [for] our kids not to connect to any of the organizations or institutions and to find themselves dropping out of school.
You studied biology; you were a science teacher, and you're unusual in that you're an African-American woman in the sciences. What would you like to do about enhancing STEM study and getting students excited about that?
I think we have to instill it at a younger age. I think we have to go to the elementary school and we have to reintroduce the idea of inquiry and curiosity and exploration because that's what's fun about science.
Is that what got you excited?
It did. Because it's hands-on.
Cutting up frogs?
I did! In my classes they did that, they did dissection and they loved that. But we have to go back to that because I think children are naturally inquisitive, they naturally want to know about things and how they happen, about the animal kingdom and what's happening in astronomy, and we have to really tap into that and build on that at a young age.
And then, as they move through middle school and certainly into high school, afford them those opportunities for engagement and exploration and inquiry – hands on, not just about the textbook and what we read in textbooks. But you've got to really make it what I call real science. Real science is digging into it and not necessarily always coming to the answer, which is a piece that folks don't really realize: it's really about the search for answers and it's that process of searching and not necessarily, like in math, ending up with the right answer.
We have a number of STEM schools opening. We have an all-girls STEM school opening up in the fall which I am excited about. I met with a group of students yesterday, and one of the things they said is, Ms. King, what can we do about girls getting more involved in STEM and how can we push girls?
And when I told them about the school, they were so excited that we were going to have this opportunity. And one of the girls said, You see, this is important because sometimes it's hard for us to perform when we have boys around us.
Why is that?
Well, you know, it's girls. Girls want to be thought of as a different way from guys, and they want guys to see them a different way, and sometimes they don't want to be perceived, I think, as the smart one, the know-it-all. Girls, I think, behave differently sometimes when they're in the company of boys, particularly boys they might like.
There are problems with test scores, problems with graduation rates compared to other districts.
Actually our graduation rate is up and it has been increasing steadily. So when we say problems, I think when you see movement in a forward direction and a trajectory upward, I wouldn't say that there are problems. But is there work to be done? Certainly. Our goal is 100 percent graduation.
You're confronting this proposal that's coming, to enroll half the students in charter schools in eight years. You said, ''I'm not for or against the plan, I'm about LA Unified's plan.'' But that proposal could affect LA Unified's plans.
It could, and that's why as I said before I'm not about either/or. I don't support anything that says, This is the way, this is the only way, because I don't believe there is such a thing, that you can say if you just do X, this is what will happen, this is the best thing. I again feel that it's important to have a variety of possibilities.
And so I don't feel it's right to promote something like that because I don't want parents to believe, If I just go here then this is the silver bullet that will solve all of the ills and the problems.
We know that, like all schools, there are really outstanding charters and there are some that need a lot of work. There are outstanding traditional schools and some that need some work.
The goal of making all the graduates eligible for admission to state colleges -- there are a lot of good and important jobs in society that aren't college jobs. So why do you think that goal is important?
It's about making sure that students, when they leave LAUSD, have the choice to go to a Cal State or a UC if they select to apply to them or go to a career. But it's not okay, I don't believe, to put them on a track where once they get to the time for graduation in the 12th grade, that that option's not available to them if they so choose.
You know, teenagers change their mind every day, almost, and so in ninth grade I might not want to go, [but] in eleventh grade I might decide, Hey, I want to do this.
Such a range of students in LAUSD: kids who have just arrived from Central America who may not even speak Spanish, kids who come from homes where they don't know their colors or their numbers, and don't have clothes to wear, versus kids in the West Valley who are very well off. One size fits all doesn't work for that.
That's a significant piece that it's not a one size fits all. I believe in a decentralization and really empowering school sites for school site decision making and designing and creating what works best for the community just for that reason. And so what might work in the West Valley might not work at a Hawkins [high school in South LA] or an LA High. You really have to go in and understand the culture and the stakeholders in a community, and then build the program that works best for them.
Does that address questions of breaking up the district because it's simply too big?
I don't agree that it's too big. Maybe it's because I have been in this district and it's served me well and served certainly my children well. And small doesn't necessarily mean it works better.
You've been an LAUSD parent, LAUSD teacher – what are the most profound differences from those days to now?
What I remember most as a student, I had choices like electives in school.
And so when I was in junior high, I remember I took cooking, and I remember I took some other things –painting, I think, things that were interesting, of interest to me. But over the years, with budget reductions being one and the need to try to put in many intervention programs, those started to disappear to the point where students didn't have opportunities for those types of choices any more. That's a big shift that I see that happened.
In addition to some of the extracurricular opportunities, I remember a plethora of clubs that would happen when I was there – activities. We have some at some schools, but not like it was for my memory when I was growing up. So I think we want to certainly and -- as I talk to the students, that's something we need to recapture, because that's what made school, school for kids. It engaged them, made them want to come, made them want to be involved, and I think it helped to create a more well-rounded individual. So the academic piece is important, but I think so is the other social, emotional, extracurricular pieces because I think they also contribute to your education as a student.