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A Little School in Crisis, Part 1: How a School Helped Save Their Principal—At Least for Now

This is Part 1 of a series of stories to show how one little school is hurt by the overall budget cuts in the Los Angeles Unified School District. See the other Parts over the next two days.

(Mike Szymanski , the Studio City Patch editor, is the secretary of Valley View's School Site Council and PTA. In this series with his intimate knowledge of the situation, he has tried to present a balanced look at how budget cuts have affected a little local school that both of his nephews have attended. It is an example of what is happening to schools throughout the nation.)

 
As the school year drew to a close last June, Valley View Elementary School Principal Harold Klein got a phone call from a Los Angeles Unified School District administrator who told him he wouldn't be coming back in the fall. After six years of heading the school, his job was being terminated.

And, the administrator told him, he was not to tell anyone until the last day of school.

Klein, 82, honored the request, but within 24 hours the school staff got wind of his dismissal and a rebellion was underway.

Teachers rallied parents to send e-mails and make phone calls to every public official they could think of, including the LAUSD administration, Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

One PTA mother even tried to recruit other moms to join her in standing topless with signs on the nearby Mulholland Drive Bridge over the Hollywood Freeway to draw attention to what they considered an arbitrary and unfair bureaucratic action. The idea was quickly dropped, but such desperate and drastic ideas reflected the frustration of an activist parent population that wants to protect their children's education.

The uproar came because these parents and teachers felt the district was mistreating the man they had handpicked  and pulled out of retirement when searching for a new school leader. Now, their beloved principal was being unceremoniously pushed back into retirement.

It's an example of the dilemma caused by financial woes in a cash-strapped school district and how it is directly affecting one little school—and a microcosm of the dramas being played out on campuses across the country.

Facing a $640 million deficit, the Los Angeles Unified School District was closing schools and some of its principals were still on long-term contracts that needed to be honored. Klein had been on a year-to-year contract, so from the district's perspective cutting him loose was an obvious choice.

Valley View's parents and teachers didn't give up, however, and eventually Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines agreed that Klein's dismissal came too abruptly and was willing to grant an extension.

"It wasn't fair the way we handled the situation," Cortines said, "so Mr. Klein will stay until the end of 2010."

A New Deadline Looms . . . 

And now, as that deadline looms, Valley View is facing an even greater crisis. A lot more has changed since summer—and the situation only promises to be more disruptive to the small school population.

On Dec. 1, an office staff worker of 14 years was reassigned to another school, and the tiny office staff has been effectively sliced in half. The plant manager and custodian both working more than a decade at the school were reassigned. The PTA already picked up the bill to keep their library aide on a fulltime status, but this year, her medical benefits will be cut and the PTA isn't sure how long they can keep up paying for half her salary as well as two assistants needed for the ever-expanding Kindergarten population. The PTA  committed to more than $25,000 for new computers in a sorely outdated lab. Funding for arts programs was slashed, with the PTA picking up a majority of the expenses for creative and instructional field trips, however the school had to drop their popular drama and dance programs.

On top of all that, there were persistent rumors that this school of 11 teachers and 262 students ranging from Kindergarten through sixth grade would be shut down completely, or that the school would have to share part-time principals with another school nearby.

"It's a travesty! What the district is doing to the schools makes no sense at all, and  they just seem to be moving people around without rhyme or reason," Principal Klein said. "Sure, it's happening to a lot of schools, but with a small school like this one, the changes are a lot more devastating. This is a little school that is in crisis. And what the district is doing to this tiny school in the Valley is only making things worse."

One of the smallest schools in the second largest district in the nation, Valley View Elementary School is nestled in the Cahuenga Pass, the gateway to the San Fernando Valley, the legendary suburb of Los Angeles where Valley-speak started, where E.T. landed and where movie stars escape from the hubbub of city life.

The school overlooks the Hollywood Freeway and has existed on the property off scenic Mulholland Drive since 1917. Most of the main buildings were built in the 1950s.

Now, there is a movement at this active little school to go to an affiliated charter system—and LAUSD has a whole program offering help for schools to do so. Nearby, Carpenter Elementary School, which handles most of the students in the west part of Studio City, became a charter school in record time last year and are handling their own money and budget this year.

"Valley View has always been a unique school, but it's never truly reflected the mostly white, upper-middle class and liberal community around it," said Vicki Nishimura, who has worked at the school for 43 years, starting in 1968, then retiring in 2002, and still working as a teacher's assistant and volunteer today. She coaches third graders how to write in cursive and helps put the yearbook together. "People want to come here from all parts of the city, so it is more ethnically diverse than the neighborhood around it, and people like the fact that the parents are so active. Valley View is like one big diverse family."

And the parents are sometimes famous—Nishimura recalls David Carradine bringing children to the school, one of the parents is an actor in the High School Musical family, and famous alum include Ghost Whisperer star Jennifer Love Hewitt, Tom Hanks' wife Rita Wilson and Academy Award-winner Helen Hunt.

The school takes locals from the east side of Studio City and parts of the Hollywood Hills, but open enrollment allows students from anywhere to apply, so 44 percent of the population is economically disadvantaged and qualify for subsidized school lunches. 

Their Academic Performance Index increased substantially to an all-time high of 827 (out of 900) during Klein's tenure and he has encouraged extra-curricular reading and math programs.

The school is 45 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic, 13 percent black and 2 percent Asian and other. The white population, however, also includes a growing Armenians and Russians, with 14 percent of the school speaking a different language at home. The school also has a large Individualized Special Education Program as well, and 12 percent of the school population is special education students, as Klein explained, "because parents feel that their special needs child gets more attention in a smaller school like ours."

The parents are active and vocal, some with connections to the nearby Universal, Warner Bros., Disney, NBC and CBS Studios. But, even having an "in" with the elected LAUSD Board member Steven Zimmer doesn't seem to quite help.

"Valley View has a special place in my heart, one of my former students is very active on the PTA," said Zimmer, who represents District 4 and counts parent Lisette Rivas as one of his stellar students from a high school class  he taught in 1995.

"Mr. Zimmer has been such a big support and help to Valley View, and he met with concerned parents and teachers at the school over the summer which was amazing, but I understand that he has a big, tough job," Rivas said. "I appreciate that he has spent so much effort on our tiny little school."

Zimmer admitted, "In this case, I was able to make the case to the superintendent (Cortines) that Mr. Klein should stay here for the transition and for stability for the school, but it was a hard sell. "

Thanks to Zimmer's negotiations, he bought Klein time for another half a year, and said he hoped that perhaps a search could take a longer time, and Klein could stay on for the rest of the year, but at the moment, it doesn't look too good. Yet, it didn't look good earlier in the year, either, when Klein was given notice of his immediate dismissal.

"These days it's a situation where anything can happen. . . . It's important to stay involved. I always encourage parents get involved, because that is the only way to get attention," Zimmer said.

That being said, Zimmer noted that he gets 800 emails a day about school concerns in his district that extends from the San Fernando Valley to Venice and the Westside of Los Angeles.

"It's only going to get worse before it gets better, and all I can do is try to lessen the impact in situations like this," Zimmer said. "I am aware that these effects are greater on smaller schools."

One of the newer teachers at Valley View, Kindergarten teacher Jessica Hoeschen, transferred from a school that went through four principals in seven years.

"Neither the teachers nor the parents ever had a say in picking any of the principals, so if we do have to lose Mr. Klein, at least we will have some input into the decision of who succeeds him," Hoeschen said.

Hoeschen is part of the team of teachers, staff and parents who will sift through resumes and conduct interviews of qualified candidates for the position of principal at Valley View, in a search that LAUSD is in the process of beginning.

"I would much rather keep Mr. Klein, because he is responsive to the teachers, he knows the students, and frankly, we've had a lot of upheaval in the school recently, and he is a calming, even force," said Hoeschen.

Bored with Retirement . . . 

Klein made a case that keeping him, a retired administrator, actually saves the district money because he is on contract and the district doesn't need to pay his medical coverage or other benefits.

When Klein was hired, he was asked by the parents how long he would want to be principal.

"I have no hobbies, I have nowhere to travel to that I want to go, frankly I'm bored with retirement," Klein said. "I promised that I would give them three good years, I've been here double that time. And, I haven't missed a single day for being sick."

Anger among the teachers resulted in some pointed responses to the district. Fourth and fifth grade teacher Gretchen Garrett wrote, "A school, of any size, is a fragile organism, and yet, with all the delicacy of Sherman's March to the Sea, Mr. Klein has been replaced without even a nod to the parents, teachers and students. With utter disregard, bordering on contempt, our principal has been treated like a spent coffee filter. Mr. Klein has been the heart and soul of our school  . . . . Our students don't deserve this abrupt assault."

In the middle of the cuts of longtime staff members and decimation of the arts programs, Garrett wrote: "In the middle of all this bedlam, the icing on the cake is that we are to lose our principal after the first of the year. . . . Last year, Mr. Klein was unceremoniously placed on the chopping block. It was wrong then for so many reasons and wrong now for so many more. Why is it better to turn our school topsy-turvy in the middle of the school year?"

But, Maureen Diekman, the District 4 School Services Director, who plans to work with the committee of parents and teachers to find a new principal said, "It is set in motion to have a new principal at Valley View. We have already extended his time there. We wanted to do this over the summer. Extending his time there is not an option."

Diekman was warned that Valley View has had a particularly vocal voice of concerned parents, and she sighed, "Yes, well, I'm dealing with that every day from many different schools—I'm prepared for it."

She did, however, assure that the school won't share a principal. The argument worked because Valley View is in such a unique location, just off the freeway and in an area  where three recent brush fires have burned the hills within a mile of the school. Parents successfully made the case that the school must have a full-time on-site principal.

And, the school is in no danger of being closed, as rumored for years about Valley View and other schools of a similar size. With increased enrollment from locals who can no longer afford private schools, and a proposed nearby Universal Studios residential expansion plan which would feed into the school, the need for this school is greater than ever.

And, Cortines, who is 78 years old himself, seemed genuinely sorry that 82-year-old Klein would be retired as a principal once again. Klein had been with the school district since 1957, first as a campus psychologist, then as assistant principal and principal at six different schools.

"I understand that he doesn't want to retire," Cortines said.

But, PTA president Catherine Glandon, who transferred her second-grade daughter last year to the school from a private school, said "I came here because of Mr. Klein, he is such a grandfatherly figure to the children, and he knows each one by name. It's going to be such a major upheaval for them, emotionally and psychologically, especially with all the other changes the school has been facing."

Wiping tears from her eyes, Glandon added, "It's unfair to our little school, it's unfair to our kids. If it made any sense, I'd be OK with it, but it just doesn't make any sense at all."


 

Studio City Patch's series:

Monday: A Little School in Crisis, Part 1: How a Tiny School Helped Save Their Principal—At Least for Now

Tuesday: A Little School in Crisis, Part 2: Losing Back-up Staff Creates Unsafe Conditions at School

Tuesday: A Little School in Crisis, Part 3:  How the PTA Saved The Library 

Wednesday: A Little School in Crisis, Part 4: With More Budget Cuts Looming, What Now?

Susan McMartin December 14, 2010 at 03:37 AM
thank you, mike, for covering this critical moment in valley view elementary's life.
Don Helverson December 16, 2010 at 09:45 AM
It's a snapshot of the national collage of pain and purging currently tormenting public schools.
Don Helverson December 17, 2010 at 06:20 AM
The rhetoric about test scores, at a time when schools are being torn apart by budget crisis and families falling apart (trying to stay ahead of the tsunami of debt and displacement), seems to fit perfectly the mind set of economists and privatizers. Bottom-liners never get the point of a community; it just doesn't compute. Discussing feelings of kids and teachers, community needs, a greater good -- these things are Latin from a priest preaching to a kennel of hungry hounds.
Shelley Hurle August 03, 2011 at 08:04 PM
Is Mr. Z still teaching the Six Grade?
Shelley Hurle August 03, 2011 at 08:13 PM
By mistake I clicked the flag as being appropriate I highlighted and changed it.....That's not what I meant. I went to that school we sang and Pledged to the flag before school daily. That's how the teacher picked who would be in glee :) They would walk around the room and after class ask us if we wanted to join glee. :)
Mike Szymanski August 04, 2011 at 01:25 PM
There's a new sixth grade teacher, Mark Irwin. And we profiled the new principal, Susan Kim, when she took over mid-year... http://patch.com/A-fclq... also check out the ever-expanding ART WALL that's at the school in the photo gallery on the front page today! http://patch.com/A-kd5T

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