KPCC's LA school board candidate survey: Kelly Gonez, District 6

Kelly Gonez is running for the Los Angeles Unified School Board in the March 7 primary election. Gonez hopes to represent District 6, which covers the east San Fernando Valley.
Kelly Gonez is running for the Los Angeles Unified School Board in the March 7 primary election. Gonez hopes to represent District 6, which covers the east San Fernando Valley.
Campaign Photo

Kelly Gonez is running for the Los Angeles Unified School Board in the March 7 primary election. Gonez hopes to represent District 6, which covers the east San Fernando Valley.

Gonez is one of six candidates running for the District 6 seat. Click here to view survey responses from other candidates in the race.

KPCC lightly edited all responding candidates' answers for spelling, grammar and style. KPCC is presenting candidates' answers in full, but does not vouch for the accuracy of any statements they make. Here are Gonez's responses to KPCC's candidate survey:

Why do you want to be a member of the L.A. Unified School Board?

I’m running for the L.A. School Board because I know there is so much more that we as a community can and must do to ensure that every child in LAUSD has access to a great school. I care about this so much because I grew up in the Northeast Valley in a working immigrant family. My mom is an immigrant from Peru, and I saw her, throughout my childhood, face many barriers to education and employment. But she never gave up and was eventually able to enroll in an LAUSD adult school, the Pacoima Skills Center. I saw from that experience the impact that education can have, not just on one individual, but on an entire family and eventually an entire community. And that’s what drove me to teaching in the first place.

As a teacher, I’ve loved the experience of working with students individually, but I felt that people on the ground in the classroom every day don’t have enough of a voice or role in the policy making process. And that’s why I was so happy in 2014 to be appointed to join the Obama administration to work on these issues, to have a voice in the policy process, as a former teacher and as someone who grew up in circumstances similar to many of our students. But I also learned from that experience just how local most education policy is. The most important decisions when it comes to education are made by local school districts. As a classroom teacher now and the only teacher running, I feel an obligation to be an advocate not just for my students but for all the students in Board District 6 and LAUSD. I’ve been an advocate for kids and families all my life, and it’s just that kind of advocacy that I want to continue as a member of the LAUSD Board of Education. 

Superintendent Michelle King is in her thirteenth month in the district’s top job. On an A-F scale, how would you grade her first year? Please explain your answer.

I would grade Superintendent King as a B, although I don’t think the A-F scale is the best way to assess her. I support her efforts to collaborate, listen to our diverse stakeholders, and share best practices across different schools. I appreciate her deep experience working with the District, which I believe has helped her work well with schools and the District as a whole. But we also need her to be a driver of change, and I would like to see her set out more of a vision for our schools. One example is LAUSD’s strategic plan. We need meaningful goals, and even more important, we need concrete plans for how to achieve those goals. Many of the District’s bold plans have suffered in execution, so we need to lay out in detail an ambitious and achievable plan that will put all of our kids on a pathway to success and set meaningful, transparent benchmarks along the way to measure our progress; so far the strategic plan misses the mark.

Please name one idea or policy you don’t see Superintendent King, district leaders or the school board discussing often enough that — if elected — you’d work on either implementing or expanding in L.A. Unified?

One issue that I don’t believe the Board discusses enough is our special populations of students — that is, the unique assets, needs of, and challenges faced by vulnerable students and families. In LAUSD, vulnerable students make up a significant portion of our overall student body and, I believe, in order to improve performance of the district overall, we need to make sure that the unique needs of every child are met. We know that a one-size-fits-all approach will not help all of our diverse students succeed.

With my background in advocating and leading policy work for special populations of students for President Obama’s Administration, I would be a strong voice to ensure we are increasing opportunity and improving outcomes for historically underserved students like English language learners and students with disabilities.

Do you believe expanding “school choice” policies (giving parents more ability to choose the school their child attends) is a force for eliminating or exacerbating the educational opportunity gap between privileged and less-privileged racial, linguistic or socioeconomic groups? Please explain your rationale.

Increasing options for parents, including magnets. high-quality public charter schools, and other schools of choice, have helped many families get access to a great education. There are many high-quality public charter schools in the Northeast San Fernando Valley and across Los Angeles where children are getting an excellent education. In those ways, school choice has lessened the opportunity gap for low-income students, students of color, and other vulnerable student populations. There is still more we can do, however, to ensure all charters and other schools of choice are serving all students and providing a high-quality education for all. When I worked for President Obama, I focused on vulnerable populations such as immigrant students, English language learners, students in foster care and homeless students. We need to make sure that those students are not pushed out and, when they attend charters and other schools of choice, that there is meaningful accountability and transparency to ensure that vulnerable students are receiving the services to which they are entitled and that there are no significant within-school learning gaps.

How, if at all, would you change L.A. Unified’s approach to “authorizing” and overseeing charter schools? (Your answer may touch on any facet of the relationship — from vetting applications to open new charter schools; renewing or revoking existing charters; monitoring charter schools’ performance, governance and finance; handling Prop. 39 campus-sharing arrangements.)

I would start by increasing transparency, so charter schools and all stakeholders within the charter oversight process know in what ways we are measuring success and have a meaningful chance to respond to any issues that arise during the authorizing and renewal processes. For all parties involved, we need to do much more work to ensure that the benchmarks we are setting are clear – I am concerned that many charter operators are finding the renewal or approval process to be much more negative than it has been in the past, and often without needing to be. Accountability is important, and closing schools is a tool, but we should also work collaboratively with charter partners to see if we can improve their practices before recommending that we shut them down given the instability that causes for kids and families.

As for how I would approach new charters and charter renewal, I would take each school on a case-by-case basis and decide, not based on ideology, but on the facts of that school. And I would look at the school across multiple measures: their academic performance, whether they are supporting the whole child, their discipline polices, their financial management and operations. These would inform my views of whether individual charter petitions should be approved or denied. 

L.A. Unified faces long-term financial challenges, including declining enrollment and rising costs for pensions and employee benefits. A blue-ribbon panel in Nov. 2015 also highlighted further issues that cloud the district’s financial future. If elected, what immediate steps would you take to address these financial challenges?

In order to solve the financial crisis our district faces, we need to look at both increasing revenue and decreasing costs. On the revenue side, we need to look at how to boost enrollment. That doesn’t mean demonizing charters, it means investing fully in and improving our traditional schools and replicating instructional models that work, like small career academies, dual-language immersion schools, magnet schools, and pilot schools, among others. We can also find ways to advocate for more funding from the state and federal level. While working for President Obama, I worked to secure $50 million additional dollars for vulnerable student populations. That’s the kind of advocacy I want to bring to the District. 

From a cost side, we also need to budget to our realities. That means working with our labor partners to find real ways to reduce our healthcare and pension liability, while ensuring that we are meeting our obligations to workers and honoring our commitments to the hard-working men and women who dedicate their entire lives to our schools and our kids. We need to transition to making budgeting decisions based on evidence of what works and based on the feedback of those implementing policies. The Independent Financial Review Panel laid out several examples that haven’t yet been acted on, including boosting student attendance, tackling chronic absenteeism, and managing our lunch program better. If we could get these operations on par or surpassing state averages, we could begin to make a dent in our financial challenges.

There is no easy answer or singular solution as to how to address the financial issues LAUSD faces. It will take a lot of little changes and some big ones, but my experience as a teacher and as an education policy advisor help prepare me to meet that challenge.

The L.A. Unified board has set a district-wide goal of a 100 percent high school graduation rate. How, if at all, would you change the district’s approach to meeting this goal? (Or would you change the goal itself?)

LAUSD’s 100 percent graduation goal is an ambitious one – one that no urban district has ever achieved. So, the board and superintendent need to have a real plan for how we are going to reach that goal. I support 100 percent graduation, but I also think that a diploma should be meaningful.

We want our students graduating prepared for college and careers. 

Credit recovery programs are helpful, but if they are not actually teaching our kids what they need to learn in order to succeed, then we need to rethink their value. If students are graduating without meeting the requirements to attend a Cal State or other university, then we need to think about how meaningful 100 percent graduation really is. I don’t want to reach 100 percent graduation at the expense of our students getting a great education.

Our goals as a district therefore should not simply examine how many of our students attain a diploma but what that diploma actually means in the real world: Are our students enrolling in, persisting in, and completing postsecondary education? Are they taking remedial coursework? Are our students graduating workforce ready and entering good, stable jobs, especially in high demand industries?

I believe that it’s critical for our district-wide graduation goals to take into account these qualitative measures, as well as the overall 100 percent goal. I also believe our district-wide interim goals should be focused not just on the overall percentage of students graduating, but on special populations of students and ensuring that we are closing the gaps these student groups have persistently faced.

I hope to see more details from the Board on how they would work to improve graduation rates, and I hope to be a part of that important planning if elected to the School Board.

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KPCC lightly edited all responding candidates' answers for spelling, grammar and style. KPCC is presenting candidates' answers in full, but does not vouch for the accuracy of any statements they make.