Ron Kaye: La Cañada's education revolutionary

Imagine what it's like to teach in a community with schools that rank No. 2 in California on standardized tests, where nearly everyone is highly educated and very well to do, and where the kids are really smart and highly motivated, and challenge just about everything you do and say in the classroom.

And then one of the best and brightest comes back two years after graduating high school and wins a seat on the school board on a platform that says students should be grading teachers as part of a rigorous evaluation system that leads to paying high performers what they are worth and gets rid of low performers, regardless of seniority, if improvement programs don't bring them up to standards.

For the faculty and administrators of La Cañada Unified, that isn't a fantasy. It's the reality, and a nightmarish one for some. That's because Princeton University junior Andrew J. Blumenfeld is now one of their bosses, commuting 3,000 miles each way for board meetings.

With youthful exuberance and idealism, the 21-year-old wants to turn the public educational system inside-out, but first things first. And most of the changes Blumenfeld wants are far less romantic than an education revolution.

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For the Record: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Blumenfeld as being 20.

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I caught up with Blumenfeld last week as he was waiting to board a plane to go back to college the day after the board voted to move forward with firing a teacher for a series of inappropriate remarks in the classroom — and also got hit with the bad news that there will be $1.5-million less in funding next year, and that the years after will be even worse.

It also was the day he submitted a seven-page memo entitled “Subject: Notes on social media strategy, policy, and mechanics,” meticulously setting out ground rules “to establish more robust forms of communication between the Governing Board and all stakeholders in our community … (and) the creation of additional electronic communication tools for Board use.”

The biggest challenge is money: A $2.3-million deficit this year, $2.8 million the next and then $4 million the following year, when a $150 parcel tax currently in place in La Cañada Flintridge expires. The deficits will deplete the healthy reserve fund, even with hefty $1 million-plus annual donations from the community's education foundation. So “in 2014-15, if nothing changes and the governor's tax increases don't pass, we'd be insolvent,” Blumenfeld summarized.

If an affluent community like La Cañada Flintridge, where parents of many students annually contribute $2,500 to the school foundation, is in so much trouble that 18 employees might lose their jobs, you can bet a lot of school districts are already in serious trouble without having the options that Blumenfeld sees for his community: nearly doubling the fundraising goal and adding a new parcel tax if voters statewide reject the tax proposals in November — and cutting staff if all else fails.

Blumenfeld is immersed in education policy issues and harbors longer-term ambitions in politics or policy-making on a broader scale. But for now, what's important is becoming part of the school board team and trying to communicate the district's realities better to the public.

“Even in a community like ours, which does value education above all else, and which itself is tremendously educated, there's still always so much misinformation or misunderstanding about the way our education system works,” he said. “They work in the private sector in fields that run very counter to the general practices of public education. We have no control of a lot of things that are wrong, that are mostly the result of state law.”

What the district can do is tackle what he sees as serious management- and teacher-quality issues.

“I was a student in the district not too long ago and I saw a lot of these issues with respect to quality for myself,” he said. “We need teacher evaluations that are meaningful, with teacher development as a natural outcome of those evaluations and targeted improvement goals for those teachers underperforming relative to their peers.

“These are all still foreign to public education, even in a district like ours.

“We have to make sure we are running on all cylinders with respect to quality if we expect to get the kind of contributions that we are telling the community that we desperately need. The community has tremendously high expectations for the district, but it's no consolation to them that we are the second-best district in the state on standardized tests if their kid got a teacher last year that failed them.”

The logistics of juggling his education and frequent long commuting trips with his school board role is the “easy part,” Blumenfeld told me.

“It's been a challenge in all the right ways, invigorating,” he said. “Everyone has been very good about it. I've been treated tremendously respectfully. This is an opportunity for all of us to put up or shut up, and everyone's been putting up.”

RON KAYE can be reached at kayeron@aol.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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