New superintendent hears and misses campus issues during visits

L.A. Unified Superintendent Michelle King reads to first graders at Century Park Elementary School.
L.A. Unified Superintendent Michelle King reads to first graders at Century Park Elementary School.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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Superintendent Michelle King has visited a dozen L.A. Unified schools in her first two weeks in office. The visits were part of her promise to see and hear what’s going on in school district classrooms.

King visited schools from the San Fernando Valley to South L.A. Some of the visits, like that to Century Park Elementary School, were all about interacting with the students.

“The book we’ll read today is titled 'Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns About Courage,'” she said to 17 first-graders whose eyes were fixed on her as they sat on a rug in the school library.

After she finished reading, the first-graders peppered the new superintendent with questions.

“Ms. King, when did you decided to work with kids?”

“Which job did you like the best?”

“Were you in this class when you were in first grade?”

The visit was a homecoming. King had attended the school as a first-grader.

The new superintendent was on campus for about an hour. A lot of people wanted a picture with her. She talked briefly with the students’ teacher, Christy Simpson, and the principal, Kim Polk. Neither brought up the pressing issues on campus.

But later, while King talked to reporters, Simpson said Century Park Elementary does have problems the central office should know about. And she had suggestions about how to fix them. She said teachers are losing nearly half an hour every day when school starts because they have to serve breakfast as part of the Breakfast in the Classroom program.

“I would take breakfast back out of the classroom because it’s impeding on instruction in the classroom,” Simpson said.

She also said the window blinds and other parts of this 1947 campus need fixing.

King answered the concern about Breakfast in the Classroom as she walked back to her car.

“I think those schools that are challenged by it, we need to work with them so we can ensure that our kids are able to eat, I think that’s important,” King said.

She has no plans to eliminate Breakfast in the Classroom, a program founded by her old boss, then Superintendent John Deasy.

King said the school board is approving improvements for some campuses with dilapidated facilities.

The purpose of this visit was to talk to the students not to dialogue with teachers, a spokeswoman said, and Superintendent King will be back to this campus.

There are about 900 schools in the L.A. Unified School District. The dozen that King visited in her first two weeks as superintendent enroll students whose families are struggling financially, like most others in the district.

During her visit to Jefferson High School in South L.A., the school’s principal Agustin Gonzalez and teacher Kathy Harrison did not miss an opportunity to let King know the major issue on campus.

“Jefferson is receiving a large number of newcomer students,” Harrison said. Dozens of newly arrived Central American youth enrolled at the school this year.

“It’s been a big impact on our teaching staff because we only have one teacher who is our ELD teacher for English language development and her class has become quite large, quite suddenly,” she said.

Harrison and the principal are glad they brought it up. A few days after King’s visit, a school district administrator came to the school and said L.A. Unified would provide extra help.

On the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, the superintendent visited Augustus Hawkins High School in South L.A. for a mural painting event. Hawkins teacher Travis Miller wasn’t there. But if he had been, he said, he would have told King that the student attendance function in the new MiSiS student data system is still not working right.

“So all this record keeping time is time that we could be evaluating student work, responding to it, getting it back in a timely manner and planning engaging lessons,” he said.

Miller said he used to call former Superintendent Ramon Cortines to schedule one-on-one meetings to tell him about ongoing challenges.

“I met Superintendent Cortines on five or six occasions that way,” Miller said.

He hopes King has the same liberal policy to talk to teachers.

“I’m sure she will,” said school district spokeswoman Shannon Haber.

It’s very important for the new superintendent, Haber agreed, to have a good pipeline of information from the classroom in order to hear the good news and the bad news.