For Great Schools – Scott McVarish

mp4_ph240-1We have great schools here in Culver City. Can they be better? Yes. How do we make that happen? This blog series and accompanying videotaped interviews proposes to find out. Our first interview was with Culver City Unified School District (CCUSD) Board Member, Steve Levin ( pioctured left.). Steve is the former president of the United Parents of Culver City (UPCC) and has three children in CCUSD schools (4th, 6th & 11th grades). This blog is a heavily edited version of the interview. To see the full interview, please visit I’m Scott McVarish and I’m a parent of a 4th grade student at at El Marino Language school and a co-founder of UPCC and the host of “For Great Schools.”


My first question to Steve was: What are the strengths of Culver High School?

Steve Levin: One of the biggest strengths we have at Culver High is we have a wide range of options for the students, such as Advanced Placement and a wide range of other classes and the after school Academy of Visual and Performing Arts Program. For the bulk of the students we have a lot of options academically to do all kinds of interesting different things, be challenged and do great stuff.

Scott McVarish: how do we build upon those types of strengths to make the high school better?

Steve Levin: There’s always a need to keep an eye out for new classes such as computer programming and gaming; even though we already have great science classes we can still improve the sciences. We do really well for the vast majority of the kids in the middle and who are advanced. But it’s a struggle to find a way to support the kids who for whatever reason aren’t doing as well. Now we’re taking strides in that direction such as Centaur Plus. Centaur Plus is a program where there’s time built into the school day for students to work on what they most need to work on; if a student is struggling in math, they can sign up via Centaur Plus to see their math teacher during that period and work on that with other students who are perhaps struggling. Or, if a student wants to do something extra in a class, they have time specifically set aside to individualize the instruction.

Scott McVarish: So how do we know if Centaur Plus works?

Steve Levin: CCUSD’s phrase ‘Success for all, takes us all” has real meaning. It’s the idea that every single one of us needs to keep in mind every single day that our goal is success for every single student. So we will look at what Centaur Plus accomplishes and ask, are we helping get success for every student? I think there’s already enough information to see that Centaur Plus is certainly helping some students. We can get student testimonials saying ‘I was struggling and I came into Centaur Plus and now I’m doing fine.’ We have teachers who say ‘now I have a way to reach these particular students, I don’t have to pull them aside in class and distract from everybody else.’

Scott McVarish: How do we make that better?

Steve Levin: Sometimes problems can be emotional or a student doesn’t get along with that particular teacher or their circadian rhythm is off and they’re just tired during that class time. If your problem is you’ve got so many things going on in your life distracting you from school then we need a lot of perceptive, dedicated, caring people at the high school to notice that. We do have a lot of people who can spot when we are not reaching a kid. But what we need to do is have systems in place that make it easy for a teacher or a counselor or a custodian or an administrator to recognize when a kid needs something extra. There should be a system in place that they can talk to somebody to arrange extra help or attention. We’re now putting steps in place to pick out the kids who need a little bit of extra help.

Scott McVarish: How does that approach differ from our alternative high school?

Steve Levin: What most schools do is to catch kids who are just about to flunk out of school and say we have a special program for you. In fact, we have one of the best, at Culver Park High School. It does a terrific job with kids who have almost lost it completely and we can rescue them from the brink. But we need to find and help students as soon as we can spot that something is a little bit off. If it’s a student who’s been getting straight A’s and now this semester they’re getting all B’s, sure help may not be as urgent for that child as it is for somebody who’s getting F’s but more or less, that’s a sign. You need to go look at what’s going on with that kid. I’m not claiming that’s easy but that’s one of the next major steps.

Scott McVarish: Teachers are far too busy to embrace any fad project or any dictate from Sacramento or Washington DC or even from the district headquarters unless it actually is effective. Are you finding teachers are positive towards Centaur Plus, are they using it, are they excited by it?

Steve Levin: Yes, but it’s very early and if there’s measured feedback it’s not yet getting all the way up to the school board. We’re not yet getting any kind of statistical feedback, but occasionally a teacher will talk about the value of it.

Scott McVarish: That’s my message to CCUSD teachers: let the school board know and let the superintendent know how Centaur Plus is working… that type of feedback is necessary to tweak or improve the program or– if it’s working as hoped for– then to sustain resources that support and grow the program. Teachers shouldn’t assume that just because they know a program is working that funds and resources will continue to support it. The school board needs to hear that feedback. Ok, Steve, what’s next in terms of improving our high schools?

Steve Levin: Centaur Plus is one tool. But even bigger than any individual program like that is the culture and the attitude. I think our school district does better than a whole lot of school districts in terms of focusing on the student and on success. If we find there is something getting in the way of a student’s success we find what it is and fix it. But there’s still steps we can take in that direction. My goal for the coming years is to look for ways to make it easier and more expected for every single staff member in CCUSD in their re-interaction with every student, to try and make a connection. I want us to try to find something positive that student is doing and give them appropriate praise. And then we must keep an eye out for whether there is something this student needs that we’re not giving them. If we have a single student flunk, that means we failed that student.

Scott McVarish: At one point you mentioned we should probably be doing more things like gaming and programming. It occurs to me that each year in Downtown Culver City, we have IndieCade- the International Festival of Independent Games. We have hundreds of amazing, independent gamers come and show off their ware. Any chance there can be some kind of partnership between that incredible group of independent gamers and our high school students?

Steve Levin: Sounds like a great idea. We are working on adding things like that. I don’t know any of the details, and for all I know we might be already working on a partnership there. I can easily see the connection between people who write games and people who do the kind of stuff I do at work– such as writing scientific programs for space exploration. Working on a computer and learning logical thinking is connected. Learning to organize your thoughts, learning to put together an algorithm– a step by step set of directions– is useful in all kinds of other areas.

Scott McVarish: That’s how you bring the students in, once they’re in they realize, ‘wow, my brain is now going to be trained to think logically, sequentially and creatively.’

Steve Levin: That’s an example of ‘Project Based Learning.’ It fits in really well with the common core. The basic idea is almost anything you do in life, can be used as a way to teach. So, if you take gaming as an example. We say we’re going to have a project for you to build a computer game. For a lot of kids that’s a big, exciting thing, that sounds like fun. Then they learn that to genuinely build this computer game, you need to do this math and you need to do this kind of logical thinking and we’re going to learn keyboarding. Now it’s a win, win for everybody. You get to have fun, you get to build your computer game and we get to teach you something we wanted to teach you without having to make you sit there and stare at the teacher when you don’t want to be there.

Scott McVarish: Let’s talk about parent participation at the elementary schools. It was only 4 and a half years ago that I was a new parent at El Marino. I went to a PTA planning session that I mistook for something that a new parent should go to. I was amazed at all the programs but it took me awhile to figure out how to join in. What are you seeing at the elementary schools?

Steve Levin: I think we’re seeing an upswing in parent participation in elementary schools. I went to an Astronomy night at El Rincon and it was packed. They had a big, all day science fair and there was a lot more parent participation than there used to be. I think parent participation is really important for our students not just in terms of parents raising money for the schools but parent run community events where kids see their parents and their teachers and the staff working together. They get the message that we think this is really important. The fact that I spend time on something says a lot more to my kids than if I pull out my wallet and contribute money. Some of the schools that didn’t always have as much participation as the others are now increasing.

Scott McVarish: So what is your advice to parents new to a school?

Steve Levin: If you’re a new parent coming into a school, any of the schools, start with what’s going on already and look for something you’d love to participate in. Ask some of the other parents, or a teacher or the principal. Or, subscribe to and monitor the email group.

Scott McVarish: And, if you can’t find something, work with other parents to start something. Our schools love to embrace good ideas. With a bit of investment in the beginning, you might be able to find a program that you can grow with over the next 6 years while your child is at that school.

Steve Levin: Right, and if you wish your school was doing something, go talk to somebody. Our teachers and administrators and staff are all people who are there because they want to do the best they can for the kids, so if you come in with a good idea, chances are what you’re going to hear is ‘hey, that really sounds great, how can we make that happen?’

Scott McVarish: What are your top 3 changes or improvements or initiatives you’d like to see for CCUSD?

Steve Levin: Top of the list is finding a way to reach every single child and catching students earlier before they’re failing. When a student is starting to struggle, identify that and find ways to intervene.

Another challenge is all the change that we have happening in CCUSD. We have ‘Common Core’ that we’re still responding to, we have ‘Next Generation Science Standards’ coming down the pipe… we have the new tests associated with Common Core that we have to respond to, we have budget changes, we have a lot of things happening that are generally good changes, but nonetheless changes, things that our entire district has to respond to. Its hard for people to respond to change while you’re trying to do all this stuff you always did. It’s hard to put in place a program that’s going to work great for the kids 5 years from now that still works great for the kids right now, today. So when you impose change and you’ve got students who started in kindergarten, whatever year it is for that child when the change comes, you’re changing the way they learn or changing what they’re supposed to learn, you have to figure out that transition. We’re working really hard on that.

I’d say another challenge is the fact that we passed the school bond. We have a whole lot of work to do with that bond money and we have to figure out which projects are happening first, which things are getting delayed, and which things maybe aren’t getting done at all. We’ve got to do health and safety first and then focus on things that directly affect learning and … we want to make the dollars go as far as they can. There’s also some projects have to be approved by the state architect, we have to take into account how long that takes. Some things can’t be done while the students are in the classroom and we only have so much time during the Summer to get everything done. Some things have to be done together– if you’re going to work on plumbing in this particular building and you also need to go inside the walls for electrical… makes no sense to do those separately and tear the walls open twice. So putting together that whole big plan and adjusting to it constantly is going to be a big challenge. We have a really good consultant hired now as program manager. He’s giving us good advice and working on putting all those puzzle pieces together. It’s their job to give us advice, not make the decisions. As a school board we have to go through all that and work with all the staff, the consultants and the members of the community to figure out which things we’re going to do when and fit all those puzzle pieces together.

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