CREDIT: FERMIN LEAL/EDSOURCE TODAY
LA Unified Superintendent Michelle King at an April 2016 rally at San Gabriel High to introduce a bill in the Legislature to help more students enroll in college prep courses.

Despite last month’s Los Angeles school board election that will result in a new majority backed by charter school advocates, one certainty is continuity in the district’s leadership.

That will be a welcome change after instability and turnover in the district’s superintendency over the past several years.

The new board majority will take over at its meeting on Thursday. But at its meeting last month, two outgoing board members joined four incumbents who will stay on the board in a 6-1 vote that gives a two-year contract extension to Superintendent Michelle King to lead a district that has had seven superintendent changes since 2000.  King assumed her position in January 2016.

The only vote against the extension was cast by board member Mónica García, who was easily reelected in the March election. She believes that the new board should have made the decision on King’s future.

The two other candidates who were elected to the board in the May runoff with the support of wealthy charter school advocates and had yet to take their seats — Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez — recently made bridge-building comments expressing their support for King.  “The superintendent is incredibly capable,” Melvoin told EdSource. “She knows the district very well.”  Similarly, Gonez praised King for organizing sessions to enable district, charter and other schools to share best practices. “I think that’s a great start,” Gonez told EdSource. She urged “long-term meaningful collaboration to really build those relationships.”

Part of what drove the board’s decision to renew King’s contract was to ensure stability in the district’s leadership. “We need some continuity,” said school board member George McKenna, “I think the superintendent is doing a good enough job to be able to maintain continuity.”

In her 18 months at the helm of a district that had been shaken by controversies in recent years over a failed plan to give every student a computer tablet, charter school conflicts, leadership changes and a looming budget deficit, Michelle King has steered the nation’s second largest public school system to calmer waters. That’s the consensus of several prominent education leaders and others who work closely with the district in a variety of roles.

In a recent interview with EdSource, King said she has tried to unite all interest groups — unions, parents, charter school advocates and students — by connecting with them and searching for common ground.

“My style is a back-and-forth iterative way of engaging with folks to strengthen and build relationships to move forward,” she said. “It’s important for me to hear from all stakeholders directly.”

King cited the expansion of school choice options for parents and students, and an improvement in the district’s high school graduation rate as her signature accomplishments.

Last year a new district high school graduation requirement for students to complete an A-G course sequence needed for admission to the University of California and the California State University went into effect for the first time.  When the district estimated in December 2015 that about half the seniors were in danger of failing to earn a diploma, King responded by having the district offer extra counseling and after school and  Saturday classes as well as expanding new “credit recovery” programs — online and teacher-led classes that enabled students to make up credits quickly. Although questions have been raised about the academic integrity of the online courses, graduation rates last year reached an all time high of 75 percent, up from 72 percent in 2015.

As for offering parents and students more choices, approvals of new charter schools have continued under King and the school board. About 16 percent of students in the district attend charters. Los Angeles Unified has 279 charter schools — more than any other district in the nation. Of those, 224 are “independent” charters authorized by the district and 54 are district-managed charters.

But King is also proud of her role as a promoter of another “school choice” option — magnet schools. Currently, there are 225 magnets in the district. King said the district will expand choice later this year by opening 11 new magnet schools and an additional 35 magnets in the 2018-2019 school year.  These public schools — open to students living anywhere in the district — offer curricula based on a theme or subject matter.

“I feel good about expanding choice for families in the district,” she said. “By listening to what parents want, I feel I’ve been able to deliver on choice.”

King, the first African-American woman to lead the district, was selected superintendent in January 2016 partly because of her deep knowledge acquired through her experiences in the district. She was a Los Angeles district student and served as a teacher, principal and a local district superintendent. She also served as deputy superintendent under the two previous superintendents, John Deasy and Ramon C. Cortines.

She has so far been able to traverse the charter debate in part because she has eschewed us vs. them language, frequently saying that regardless of whether students attend charter schools or regular public schools, “they’re all public school students.”

During her relatively short time as superintendent, she has gotten national recognition for her work.

Citing reductions in school suspensions and the creation of technology-related personalized learning initiatives in the district, the National Association of School Superintendents in June named King Superintendent of the Year.

“Michelle exemplifies what it takes to be a leader,” said Sonny Da Marto, chairman of the superintendents’ awards committee. “She has a mindset in place to confront equity issues and the achievement gap and has a strategy in place to do what is best for all students.”

King called the award a surprise and said she appreciated “that my work and the great work of my team have been recognized.”

However, King must now begin to take on a greater challenge — navigating Los Angeles Unified through mounting financial troubles.  Student enrollment has been falling for more than a decade because of charter school enrollments, private school competition and declining birth rates, which means reduced revenues for the district.  Los Angeles Unified is projecting a balanced budget for next year but could face a deficit of $422 million by the 2019-20 school year.

She must manage these financial issues with the oversight of a school board that will have two new board members — Melvoin and Gonez. King said she has worked well with the board in the past and said she does not expect any major conflicts with the new board members, especially over charter schools.

“I expect to have a great relationship with both of them,” she said. “We already had an opportunity to chat briefly and there will be (more) meetings.”

In interviews with EdSource, Melvoin and Gonez went out of their way to say that they would not push for major charter school expansion. Gonez said her priority is the improvement of all existing schools. Melvoin says the board election results should mark the end of confrontation and the beginning of collaboration on district finances and school improvement issues.

“To me, (what will represent) victory over the next few years will not be charter growth — but across-the-board {school district} improvements,” he said.

“I would concur with those statements because it is about all public schools,” King said. “It’s about ensuring every child receives the highest quality education…I appreciate their comments because I believe those views are in alignment with the board members currently seated.”

Charter critics such as United Teachers Los Angeles question some of the claims of success made by charter school advocates and assert that the loss of students reduces the district’s financial capacity to offer services to students in traditional schools. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has been collaborating with King since she took office, said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl. As a result, said Caputo-Pearl, there have been increases in counselors at middle schools and high schools and improvements in physical education programs “to serve the whole child” in schools in low-income communities.

“She’s been moving in ways to meet the district’s needs,” he said, “by pushing for a community school model with broader curricula choices, more parent engagement and a place at schools for social services to help families.”

Although he expressed concerns about the intentions of the charter-backed majority on the board, Caputo-Pearl said he believed King could address future challenges because “she has a history of collaborating with community groups, civil rights groups and (district) employee organizations.”

King said her reputation as a collaborator will help her address the district’s pressing financial situation.  “Across-the-board, all-stakeholders engagement has been a practice that has assisted me in doing the work I’m trying to do on behalf of kids in L.A.,” she said.

After her selection, King embarked on a “listening tour” to engage key individuals and interest groups in the district. In September, King laid out a three-year strategic plan that proposed an increase in popular school options such as dual-language programs and set new goals for standardized test scores, student attendance rates and student performance on college-prep courses.

When the board encouraged her to present a more ambitious plan, she came back in December with a goal that no urban school district has ever achieved: a 100 percent graduation rate.

The big challenge in the immediate future, said King, is a resolution of the district’s fiscal issues. For example, the outcomes of impending labor negotiations will be “extremely important, she said.

“Our employees worked extremely hard and throughout the great recession we made sacrifices,” said King. “It’s a difficult time because, unfortunately, here we are again — we’re still faced with faced with fiscal challenges and federal challenges…. I’m looking forward to working with all our labor partners to try to see what we can do to reach agreements.”

King said her approach to addressing the fiscal challenges will be guided, in part, by the November 2015 findings of a blue-ribbon independent financial review panel convened by her predecessor, Ramon Cortines. For example, she said she has appointed a task force to find ways to boost turnout at schools with poor attendance records, an objective recommended by the panel.

Sandy Mendoza, advocacy manager for Families in Schools, an organization promoting parent involvement in schools, is optimistic about the district’s future under King.

“Her leadership has a calming effect but she is a force to be reckoned with,” said Mendoza. “The district has a lot of challenges that require collaboration. From what I’ve witnessed, she’s a collaborator with an open-door policy.”

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