‘For Great Schools’ Interviews CCUSD School Board Member Sue Robins

015Scott McVarish, Co-founder of United Parents for Culver City (UPCC) Interviews CCUSD School Board Member Sue Robins on….. See the videos and blogs for the entire “For Great Schools” series at www.facebook.com/forgreatschools

Scott McVarish: Sue Robins has been on the Culver City school board for eighteen months. She was a middle school teacher in Culver City Middle School for over 6 years. I am interested in your perspective as a former science teacher about the modernization of our science labs and what it means for the students of our school.


Sue Robins: One of the things I spoke about quite a bit during my campaign was the importance of having a staff person working in the El Rincon laboratory. It’s a beautiful facility, incredibly well developed, and it has great resources and tools for teachers. But, it needs a person to set up the labs and tear down the labs and plan the labs. It’s not realistic to expect an elementary school teacher with his or her 22- 28 students to have an opportunity to leave the room and go set up a lab and then have the kids come in and do the lab and then clean it up and go back to the classroom.

Scott McVarish: What could possibly go wrong with a bunch of chemicals?

Sue Robins: (Laughing) There are not a lot of chemicals used at the elementary level. But, certainly there’s a fair amount of set up of a lot of the manipulatives and the tools and machines that we use. It was critical that we have a staff person in there and now we do. That resource is now being used extensively in the way it was intended to be used. There’s a drastic need for STEM focused students. This exposure at the elementary level helps students to understand what types of things science involves. One of my favorite things that would happen when I was a science teacher, is students would say, ” Ms. Robins, I don’t like science.” And I would say, “you can’t say you don’t like science. That’s saying you don’t like food because you don’t like broccoli. There are so many different kinds of science, and there’s bound to be one that does pique your interest.” The benefit of providing excellent science education at the elementary level is that students become exposed to the wide variety of scientific endeavors that there are and, hopefully, inspired to pursue a career in STEM.

Scott McVarish: Is this lab just for El Rincon because it’s a Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) school, or are other schools benefiting from it? And, when do parents get to see it?

Sue Robins: Well that’s a great question… Maybe we can create an opportunity for parents to see it. It’s open during Open House night, so anyone can go there during that event. But right now it’s being used primarily by the El Rincon students, not other schools because it’s not realistic to shuttle students around. And, you can do an awful lot of elementary level science in your own classroom. We want to provide technological resources and actual tools and manipulatives in all of the elementary schools.

Scott McVarish: The federal government gives extra benefits to foreign nationals seeking to work in the United States if they have a STEM background, because the demand for jobs is so high for people who have STEM backgrounds that we can’t fill it with the current level of students graduating from our schools. There’s not a single other industry in the United States like STEM that gets such a high demand that we have to seek workers outside of the United States. So, the jobs are there; the careers are there. We just have not produced enough STEM graduates, and it looks like our El Rincon students might be the beneficiary of that in the future.

Sue Robins: Our science labs at the high school are 30, 40 years old. They are not in good shape; they’ve been ignored for the most part since they were built. We need to provide the teachers with the tools that they need to teach science as it is now. Science is different now, and you can’t just teach it with baking soda and vinegar anymore. One way that we can assure that we serve the needs of all students is by starting with improving science labs at the high school. That has 2 phases to it. The short-term phase will happen in the summer, which is mostly repairs like clearing out the sinks that have been clogged for years and making sure the plumbing is working; ensuring that they have the electrical capacity to run any of the appliances and tools that they need to run in the classroom. Longer term, we’re looking at much more significant types of projects, which might even include new construction of science facilities that are designed for the way science is done right now. The rooms need to be very adaptable with modular seating so we can adapt to different sizes of classes, different groupings, different types of activities that they would need to be doing. They also need to have full integration of technology and the internet. There needs to be electricity available to every group in the room; there needs to be water available, especially for biology and chemistry laboratories. This hasn’t come to the board yet, but my discussions with the administration of the district indicate that science labs should be designed recognizing the needs of the curriculum and building the room to accommodate those needs.


Scott McVarish: So what comes first: the building, the curriculum or the professional development? If you have science teachers who have been limited in their curriculum and limited by the facilities that they teach in, and you give them new facilities all of a sudden, how do you bring them up to speed, so that they can teach something that will probably be new?

Sue Robins: Absolutely. There has to be professional development right along with it. However, we need professional development for the science teachers anyway as we move toward Next Generation Science Standards. The standards for science are changing, and our teachers will need to have professional development in order to adapt to that. Our science teachers are wonderful. They’re hungry for that. They want to know how to use all of the new technology,and there are some great tools for them.

Scott McVarish: Teachers will have a very good perspective on what is necessary and what is possible. So any science teachers listening, we would recommend that you get in your wishlist sooner rather than later. Is the district getting the teachers’ input?

Sue Robins: We have to have the teachers’ perspective; we have to hear from the people who will be teaching in these rooms. How are you going to make this work? If you have 38 kids in the room, how are you going to make the logistics of that work? How many gel boxes will you need? How many electrical plugs will you need? How will they fit around a physical space where it’s set up to run?

Scott McVarish: What do you see as the timeline for that? You’ve got curriculum involved, design issues, Next Gen curriculum requirements, facility issues where you have to go to the state architecture board to get approval. What are our realistic expectations to bringing in a new science lab and having it ready for the students?

Sue Robins: It will be a couple of years down the line. But in the short term, we can be working on professional development and some of the tools that the teachers might want. As a former life science teacher, I know the teachers are ready to take on teaching DNA separation techniques, chromatography and other life science tasks. We can be acquiring those things and going through the professional development to use them. That’s not to mention what the Chemistry and Physics teachers will want. We don’t have to wait for a building to do that; we can do that now.

Scott McVarish: I have worked with teachers for over a dozen years and continue to represent them and advocate for them. On the whole, most teachers do not find great value in the professional development they receive. Yet anyone who is looking to improve schools knows that teachers are the single most important part of education. Professional development, if done right, can be a great assistance at supporting those teachers. So how do we get professional development right? What are we doing in Culver City? And what would you like to see done in the professional development area?

Sue Robins: In the past, professional development has been a bit of a negative to many teachers, and I think that’s because in the past professional development in a lot of districts was a matter of box checking, Teachers have to get a certain amount of hours to keep their credentials current. So they go to the one that fits their schedule, and they check the box when they’re done. You didn’t really expect to get much out of it. I often didn’t.

But I’m really proud of what we’re doing in professional development now. Our assistant superintendent of educational services, Dr. Krumpe, has created a professional development program that is entirely goal oriented and teacher driven. First, all of our professional development except for the mandated things like sexual harassment training, is optional. It’s no longer “you have to go to this.” We ask the teachers what they want to learn and if they want to learn it. The training that we provide is based on what we’re trying to do in the classroom. So we’ve been providing training on things like Professional Learning Communities (PLC) and Common Core Implementation. I think this has made a tremendous difference in the quality of our programs at our school. Now everyone who works for the district is in a PLC of some sort. There’s a PLC for your grade level or subject area, and there are regular meetings with a specific agenda to discuss curriculum– what’s working and what’s not. Its data driven, based on what we have seen that worked in the classroom, what we see that hasn’t. It’s sharing of ideas, sharing of curriculum programs. It’s raising the bar and the quality of education in every classroom. Having been a teacher, it’s funny when I hear people say,”Teachers should be allowed to do what they want.”
While I absolutely agree that teachers must control the learning strategy and environment in their own rooms, it’s critical that what gets taught is consistent, across classrooms, across grade levels. There is a certain body of knowledge your child should come away with in each subject area and each grade level. It shouldn’t matter to you which classroom your child is in to learn chemistry in terms of WHAT he or she learns. But HOW that is accomplished is up to the teacher. That’s where the artistry, the creativity and the expertise of each teacher comes into play.


Scott McVarish: Not everyone goes to college. So how do we get kids ready for anything when they’re coming out of high school?

Sue Robins: There needs to be a recognition that the paths of career versus university are very blurred now. Even the line between being in high school and being in community college is blurred. That’s a good thing. It gives us tremendous opportunity to create unique and creative pathways for the kids so that they can pursue whatever interests them.

We have three areas that we’re actively working on right now in terms of career pathways. The first one, the ‘Theatre Tech Program’, has been underway for quite a while now. Students at our high school are taking classes at West L.A. College in Theatre Tech. We now need to take that one more step and create internships so that they could take classes and gain experience concurrently.

Scott McVarish: It would be great to see them working in some of the 99 seat theaters in Lost Angeles, applying the trade and learning from professionals.

Sue Robins: There are a lot of different pathways they can take if they’re in Theatre Tech. We have a lot of graphic arts companies in Culver City as well. The second one which I’m very excited about is in the biotech field. This relates directly to what you were saying about immigration. One of the areas where we as a country are not producing enough workers is in biotechnology laboratories. People who do the diagnostic test– when you have your blood or urine sent to a lab– are coming from other countries. Some of those jobs are very much in what I characterize as the ‘CTE field’ the Career Tech Ed field. They require a 1 or a 2 year certification or AA degree. We’ve been talking to West LA College about developing a program for our students. We’ve already started a little. There is a bio-technology methods class being run this summer at West LA College that’s available to any of our students who finish AP biology.

Scott McVarish: And those students get credit at the high school for those classes?

Sue Robins: We have not been able to put that together because of the short timeframe. But long term, that’s the goal.

Scott McVarish: Well as an advocate for students and– remembering my days as a student in summer school– please make that happen for them.

Sue Robins: At a minimum, it’s a great thing to have on your college application. We’re having initial conversations about concurrent enrollment programs. Students would be getting college credit and high school credit at the same time while learning some of the techniques and taking classes toward expertise in a biotechnology laboratory. I would love to see us be able to develop a West LA “Clinical Laboratory Specialist (CLS) Certification.” That is what is required for any laboratories that collect human biological samples and test them.

Scott McVarish: There are so many hospitals and health facilities in West L.A. alone that this could be a great program. High school students, however, are unlikely to know about these opportunities. How do you make them aware of it? How do you get them interested in this as a viable option when most of them have never even imagined it because they don’t even know it exists?

Sue Robins: That’s why there’s a huge benefit in the concurrent enrollment piece. Concurrent enrollment means that you’re taking a class at your high school and at the same time you are on a path to receive a certification. This is what I mean by blurring the lines. This is the type of path that someone could take whether they want to be a CLS as their final career goal or if they ultimately want to study medical research or even medicine. There are a fair number of people in the industry who started out as a CLS and are now in medical school.

Scott McVarish: They can earn some money and save up for medical school and be a more competitive applicant when they finally decide to go to medical school.

Sue Robins: Absolutely. The third college and career pathway has been put together by our HR Director Leslie Lockhart and the head of HR for the City, Serena Wright. It would allow 20 or so interns from our high school to rotate through different departments of the City to learn how government operates and learn about the wide variety of jobs that are available in government. We’re hoping to start it in September 2015. One of the things that excites me about this is that I recently learned that millennials are not going into either elected or staff positions of public service at anywhere near the rate that previous generations did. We may have a real dearth of people who are passionate about public service and so I think programs like this help students see how public service works, why it’s important, and why this is something you might want to consider as a path.


Scott McVarish: Culver City has such a dynamic economy right now, and our district has dynamic needs. The Culver City Compact is a pretty exciting program not just because of the connection with the city and the school district but because of the potential to bring in local businesses. How do we increase the connection of our current business sponsors, and how do we expand to other businesses?

Sue Robins: I’ve been working with the owner of Tower Insurance, Janice Beighey, and the Chamber of Commerce to market Culver City businesses to teachers and staff. We have a large number of businesses that regularly donate to CCUSD sports teams, clubs, individual PTAs and booster clubs, and silent auctions. They don’t always get recognized. So one of the things we can do to recognize them is to encourage our staff to use their businesses. Therefore, if you’re having a pizza party for your class, we want you to buy pizza from a Culver City business, especially one that’s been giving money to your school. If you’re going to spend that money, spend it with the people that are helping us, to strengthen the relationship. The Chamber decided that they would be providing gift bags to all the teachers at the beginning of the school year that will have gifts from and information about all of the Culver City businesses. So if you need to order pizzas or coffee for an event, please look first at the Culver City businesses. This markets those businesses for people to shop local and helps those businesses to see what’s going on in our schools. I hope that this encourages them to participate with us if they haven’t already or to increase their participation if they are.

Secondly, we’re going to try to collect the information about who is making donations. We don’t need the exact numbers at this point, but we want to know who is giving money to your booster club; who is giving donations to your silent auction; who is providing the coffee and the pizza at your parties. We want to collect who is participating with us already and recognize them at the school board board level, because right now they get little recognition especially if they’re giving in multiple areas. There are organizations that are giving thousands and thousands a year in $50 – $200 increments to all these different organizations, and they deserve to be thanked.

Scott McVarish: My law firm was proud to donate to the El Marino silent auction. I also have on my website that anyone affiliated with CCUSD gets a pretty substantial discount on our legal services, but very few people have taken me up on that. We have a lot of business in Culver City, and I literally have to ask someone: are you a parent at Culver City Unified? And if they are, I will give them the discount and usually they’re surprised about it. I would love an opportunity as a business owner to let people know they can just say the magic words, “I’m affiliated with CCUSD.“ I’d be happy to give them a discount. I bet there’s a lot of businesses who would do that. It’s just a matter of making faculty but also parents aware that these businesses are supporting their schools and supporting the parents of their schools. That’s why I do it. I would love for it to expand past faculty and go to parents.


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