Yolie Flores Aguilar: Where Los Angeles Schools Go From Here

Yolie Flores Aguilar, Los Angeles School Board member and long-time children’s advocate, thinks that the city’s school system will implode if something dramatic isn’t done—and soon. The ouster of Superintendent David Brewer is a regrettable, but necessary part of that change, in her view.

Last weekend, we reported Brewer’s views on his ouster and the prognosis for the Los Angeles Unified School District in “LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer Speaks After Ouster.” Midweek, Brewer himself, along with 4LAKids’ Scott Folsom, laid out a vision for what he had hoped to achieve as superintendent in “Nuttin’ for Christmas.” This article presents one perspective from the board that ousted Brewer and now must develop a new course for the district.

Learning to Read Early is the Key
As a relatively new member of the Board, Yolie was elected in June 2007 while still serving as the Executive Director of the LA Children’s Planning Council (CPC). She felt her role in the nonprofit sector advocating for children’s rights prepared her to take on the assignments as board member for the LAUSD. Although she intended to fill both roles, after a couple of months she saw that there weren’t enough hours in the week to do both, so she gave up her well-paid position at the CPC.

“To do the job right on the board, you’ve got to put in the hours,” she said.

Born in El Paso, Texas, she lived with her immigrant parents, first in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and then to Los Angeles, where she attended public schools. Yolie understands the challenges LA’s school children face. “I’ve always had a passion for helping children, especially those in the inner city,” she said. “Perhaps partly because of my background.”

At the CPC, she made some inroads. “But at the end of the day, as the “Director,” I always had to be the diplomat,” she said. “There were times I could not voice my opinion or take a position on what I thought was best for children. My job was to staff and lead the children’s collaborative, made up of leaders with different viewpoints and political persuasions. I sometimes felt gagged.” Serving as a board member would give her greater freedom to express her own beliefs and positions, she hoped.

“Our kids are not reading at grade level,” she says incredulously. “Just 27% of third graders in LA schools are reading at their grade level. And just 9% of English learners can read at grade level in third grade—and 3% in fourth grade when you look at national data. That’s an absolute shame… if kids can’t read, they can’t learn!!”

“Studies have shown that there is only a 10% chance that a child will ever read at grade level if they aren’t there by the first grade and nothing else changes.” she continued. “This is why we need to start earlier and focus on pre-literacy skills and on what is happening in the first 3-4 years of school.”

Yolie laid out the four ways she’d like to see the problem addressed:

  • Expand early childhood education: Lay solid pre-literacy skills in preschool and at home.
  • Engage parents: Help parents understand that the desire to read starts at home; give them the tools and information to help mold their children’s reading habits.
  • Support and enhance teacher quality: We need to increase salaries and support teachers so that we keep our most qualified teachers in the classroom.
  • Focus on the needs of English language learners: Children who are English learners need special attention and greater supports.

Yolie, who served on the LA County Board of Education for five years, now represents the LAUSD on the board of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 66 of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, including New York City, Chicago, and Boston. The council is the only national organization exclusively representing the needs of urban public schools. Its mission is to promote the cause of urban schools and to advocate for inner-city students through legislation, research, and media relations. The council also provides a network for school districts to share common problems and exchange information.

Through networking, collaborating, and using the research provided through this organization and others, Yolie has concluded that the LAUSD isn’t basing its reading instruction on a solid foundation. “I was amazed to discover that the LAUSD had no policy on ensuring that teachers had the foundation or the skills to teach kids to read.” According to the former Superintendent of Elementary Instruction, Yolie learned that LAUSD does not assess the capacities of teachers that are placed in K-3 classrooms for their ability to teach children how to read. It simply doesn’t ask, and yet we expect children to read at grade level.

Her mentor, Ralph Smith—a senior V.P. at the Anne E. Casey Foundation and reformer of Philadelphia’s schools in the 80s—told her that most colleges and univerisities don’t adequately teach teachers how to teach children to read.

“The average school of education requires only one course in teaching how to read,” she says, noting that universities often consider education schools cash cows because they don’t require elaborate facilities or expensive equipment, and will only change their curriculum under pressure from school districts – like Boston did. There’s no other reason for them to step it up.

Why Brewer Had to Go
Yolie was excited to enter the school board race in 2007. “There was a new mayor who cared about education, a new superintendent, and new board members,” she said. “The time was ripe for change.”

Her first impressions of Superintendent Brewer were positive and she was optimistic. She believed he would make a difference. She wanted him to succeed. But early on, her doubts began to grow.

“After I was elected, I approached Brewer and suggested that he bring in an expert to focus on the needs of English learners,” she said. She offered to do some research and provide him with a list of names of people across the country that could be considered or could give him advice. She spent hours researching and preparing a report that included recommended experts.

“We met on a Thursday,” Yolie says, “He took the list I prepared and said he would consider my input and get back to me. But the following Tuesday, he presented to the Board the name of a person he had already identified. He never got back to me. He never mentioned that he had already made a selection. He didn’t keep his word.”

By January 2008, she began to doubt his ability to run the second-largest school district in the nation. Brewer’s lack of leadership and follow-through was a problem. “He lacked a background in education and that that was a liability as well,” she said of the retired Navy admiral.

“Brewer was brought to the district for political purposes,” she says, “That was a big disservice to him, to the District, and to the children.”

“David Brewer was energetic, powerful, and had the courage to put the issue of race on the table—an issue avoided by past superintendents to the detriment of the students,” Yolie said over lunch in Pasadena last weekend. “He said all the right things, but the issue was implementation—his lack of follow through. That was always the problem.”

In the final analysis, Brewer wasn’t showing evidence of progress, according to Yolie, who voted with the majority of the Board to buy out his contract. “I wasn’t convinced that another six years would have made a difference.”

Deputy Superintendent Ray Cortines, who was hired early in 2008 at the Board’s insistence, was named interim superintendent and quickly had an impact.

“When Ray Cortines came onboard, you knew someone was in charge,” she said. “Emails were coming out, decisions were being made—you could just feel the impact and accountability immediately.”

“Still, Ray comes from another generation,” Yolie says. “He thinks we should not be involved in preschool education, even though everything we know from brain research and even leading economists says that’s where we make the most difference.” She added, “He also doesn’t always speak to the unique needs of poor kids and children of color – particularly African American and Latino children. I believe he understands their circumstances, but these need to be voiced and the issues need to be on the table.”

Yolie is committed to putting a spotlight on early education, an area that has been neglected because it is still widely disconnected from the K-12 school system, but an area that experts insist is one of the keys to improving the educational trajectory of low-income and disadvantaged children, which account for over 75% of LAUSD children.

Yolie has asked Cortines to lead the board on a retreat in an effort to unify the board members and get them all on the same page of reform. She believes that a solid, well-functioning board and a top-notch administration – with the support of Labor and the community, can make the change we all want for kids. She would like to see Ray stay as superintendent for three or four years to bring stability to a turbulent situation and because of his ability to inspire change and get things done.

Dick Price and Sharon Kyle
Editor and Publisher, LA Progressive

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Comments

  1. says

    My wife teaches preschool and since I retired from business I’ve been teaching in graduate school. In these educational settings (and probably all the education in between) the key to successful learning seems to be finding time for one on one or small group interactions with learners. Sharon Toji’s response just emphasizes this.

    One simple challenge in finding time for this is keeping the children from taking all their toys or materials out and spreading them around. This leads to the daily (or hourly) clean up ritual, not only a time waster but a source of conflict. I built this storage cabinet that keeps the other items until the child puts one back. See a video of how it works. Prevention is usually a better option than solving problems. By preventing this one small time waster not only can education become more effective, but the idea of making improvements by preventing problems is illustrated.

    What do you think?

  2. Esther Jantzen says

    I cheer, whoop, and holler for Ms. Flores Aguilar’s strong position on the importance of expanding early childhood education. We need MUCH greater emphasis on parenting education and family literacy, if we want kids to read and be successful in school. We must support parents in doing the simple yet crucial things that produce readers, like talking to/conversing with kids a lot. To achieve widespread literacy, we’ve got to understand that the home more important than the school.

  3. Phil Lawler says

    A great article – Yolie should read the release by Dr John Ratey from Harvard, SPARK.

    If you investigate the research by Dr Ratey brain research specialist, he will give you tips on improving the students reading ability by giving them more physical activity. Cutting edge research that is exciting.

    Physical education can not only help solve the childhood obesity crisis, physical activity can improve academic performance, including reading, plus another bonus, physical activity will improve student behavior.

    After finishing Dr Ratey’s book, pick up Brain Rules by Dr John Medina. A must read for anyone connected to public education.

  4. Sharon Toji says

    My mother, who died in 2004 at the age of 94, could teach anyone how to read. As a six year old in her class of 45 children, uprooted from their homes during World War II, living in a trailer camp, with their fathers away at war and their mothers working at the ammunition depot, I saw her teach everyone, even the most deprived child, even a child who was developmentally disabled, even a girl so traumatized she did not speak, how to read at least at some level. She had no assistance, and fortunately was not held to the strictures of “no child left behind.” She continued to do this for 35 years, and the night before she had a stroke, at the age of 91, she had just agreed to teach a child in our neighborhood, who had multiple disabilities, to read. I think she would have done it.

    How did she do it? I was privileged to be in her class, so I know first hand. She used a combination of phonics and sightreading, for one thing (a necessity for readers of English, where phonics is not always the key). She focused on rapid recognition of words and phrases so students became fluent readers. She backed this up with library books, always available on a table in her classroom. She told stories to the class, (she could have read them, but she was a great story teller and added so much drama and expression that the book would have been an impediment!) so that they would recognize the rhythms of the English language, and would look forward to the drama to be enjoyed from reading.

    The class was divided into reading groups. My own group had only three children, all of whom were natural readers who had already grasped the key to reading on their own. Every day, each of six groups came and sat in small chairs at my mother’s knees to read and be helped by her. The materials were chosen by her from available resources for appropriateness to each group. She spent hours making her own materials, flash cards and phrases, for instance. In our group, we read from books borrowed from higher grades or from library books. The whole class participated together in drills where phrases were displayed and read, sometimes individually, and sometimes as a group. She demonstrated sometimes by putting a word ending such as “ill” up before the class, and then having people read what resulted when she put different letters in front, such as “P,” “B,” and “H.”

    When each group was in front of the room, all the other children worked quietly at their desks, either reading silently, writing, or perhaps working with puzzles or other available materials. I know there were children who had difficulty with this, and my mother worked constantly with children who could not sit still, or had mental or emotional problems. I know that all her students spoke English, so she didn’t have that problem to deal with when I was her student. Later, she had all those problems as well. However, until the end, she continued to work with small groups, to meet individual needs, and to teach many generations of students to read and to enjoy reading. She was honored as a master teacher of reading. I know that she had many special gifts, but I think her methods could be duplicated by many others, especially with the help of classroom aids, and I think they would bring a great deal of success. My mother would have been horrified by “No Child Left Behind,” because she would have felt crippled by the lock step behavior it would have forced on her. With reading instruction, you need to use what works, and what will always work is small group instruction on the level of the individual student, with plenty of practice and with enthusiasm on the part of the instructor.

    Sharon Toji

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