La Cañada schools' leader earns high marks

Survey says: The local schools superintendent has earned the faith of teachers, students and staff.

La Cañada Unified School District Supt. Wendy Sinnette, entering her second year on the job, earned high marks in a district survey taken this summer of students, parents, teachers and staffers.

The survey, the first in what will be an annual effort, included statements that were rated true or false on a scale of one to five, with one the lowest score and five the highest. Thousands of students, roughly 750 parents and more than 200 school teachers and staff participated.

Sinnette received scores of 4.5 to 4.8 from the different groups of participants on the statement that she “maintains professionalism and composure.”

“I think it is a great reflection on the fact that Wendy stepped into a position held by someone who was already very highly regarded,” school board member Susan Boyd said, referring to former Supt. Jim Stratton. “Not everyone would want to step into that role. She healed a lot of relationships that were a little rocky. Kudos to her. We're very happy that she scored as high as she did.”

While Sinnette received some of the survey's highest marks, teacher morale was low. Teachers offered a 2.2 rating for the statement “staff morale is high at this school.”

Sinnette, who presented the survey findings at Tuesday's board of education meeting, said low teacher morale was likely the result of an especially challenging school year in 2011-12.

One of those challenges was a controversy involving math teacher Gabrielle Leko, who was publicly accused of calling a student a “Jew boy” during the 2010-11 school year.

The incident raised questions about Leko's conduct, the district's ability to discipline faculty and communication between parents, teachers and the district. After a nine-month process, the district and Leko forged a settlement in which she agreed to leave her post at the end of the 2011-2012 school year.

La Cañada Teachers Assn. President Mandy Redfern, a kindergarten teacher at La Cañada Elementary School, pointed out that teachers offered positive responses to survey statements about how much they like their work and the quality of education students receive.

“Last year's media coverage of teacher issues were handled in a way that affected teacher morale,” Redfern said. “What speaks to me from the survey is how supportive teachers were of one another and how this can help us handle any situation that we are confronted with.”

Belinda Randolph, one of six parents who served on the district survey committee alongside teachers, administrators and school board members, said teachers “rated morale pathetically low, but they were very positive about their personal experiences.”

Teachers were hard on the school board. They gave a score of 2.8 to the statement, “The governing board's decisions reflect the best interests of students.”

The statement, “The governing board provides effective leadership to the district schools,” earned only a 2.6 from teachers.

Boyd said the scores reaffirm what board members already knew: “There wasn't enough communication from the board to the parents” in the past, she said.

The board is changing that, she said. Improvements include appointing a communications committee, producing a regular online district newsletter, starting an upgrade of the district website and launching the survey.

Randolph said she was disappointed that the statement asserting that bullying is “discouraged” and “discussed” at schools received a 4.2 rating.

While that is a good result, “we're not seeing a 5,” Randolph said. “An awful lot of kids wrote ‘somewhat.' What that says is somebody is being bullied, and it's not an insignificant number.”

The survey was conducted by Yale University-based Panorama Education.

Randolph said the results will be a helpful tool for all stakeholders. Teachers can see where they may have failed to get a message across, principals can see how students and teachers feel about different campuses, and parents have a new way to weigh in.

“I think it's going to help all sorts of parents,” Randolph said. “We have vocal ones, we have some that would never say anything, and there are parents who think, ‘We have just one year so I'm not going to say anything.'”

Boyd said some of the relatively low ratings, in the 3.5 to 3.7 range, should be taken with a grain of salt.

“If you were any other district, they would have those marks as their highest,” Boyd said. “It says we're doing an awful lot of things right.”

The complete results are available at

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