Scott McVarish, co-founder of the United Parents of Culver City and school board candidate, interviews CCUSD School Board Member Kathy Paspalis (pictured left at the CCEF’s 2015 Tribute to the Stars) on her thoughts on CCUSD school board relations, language immersion at the secondary schools, our Culver City Middle School and her top three priorities going forward. Video at: www.facebook.com/forgreatschools
Scott: Kathy Paspalis has been on our school board for 5 ½ years. She has two kids who are coming into their junior year at the high school. They were at the Culver City middle school and at El Marino previous to that.
SCHOOL BOARD RELATIONS
Scott: Things seem to be going really well in the district and on the board. That hasn’t always been the case but I feel the board is really working well together right now. What’s going right with the board right now?
Kathy: There aren’t a lot of personalities who are more concerned with their next office, or with union politics, or other types of politics. We’ve got five people who are solidly focused on the kids and I think that that’s an important difference. We all are working together well. We worked together to get the bond passed and now we’re working together to make sure that the priorities that were set in the needs assessment and master facilities plan can be achieved.
Scott: I went to the July 2015 Bond Facilities meeting but didn’t hear much about the priorities, How would you like to see the bond money spent and what are your top priorities? Because, obviously, not everything can be fixed.
Kathy: Yes, that’s correct. The master facilities plan indicated we have $165 million in needs. The bond was for $106 million. We may be able to leverage Prop 39 money among other sources, but generally speaking, we know that the $165 million in needs will grow. We’re going to have to make some decisions about where exactly will or won’t get done.
My priority is to start with health and safety. That ensures that learning can happen. Since I started on the board I’ve been looking at the big things that need to be fixed; the albatross formerly known as the Natatorium; the Frost auditorium really needs an upgrade as did the athletic facilities. We’ve already started a lot of that. We added solar which has been a great savings on our electricity bill. Beyond that basics like the bathrooms really need to get fixed, especially at the middle school/high school complex. There’s no reason why a kid should have to wait until they go home to do their business and yet they do. If you’re a councilmember, you always hear about the potholes and the sidewalk cracks. The bathrooms are the school board equivalent to that.
Scott: And the drinking fountains.
Kathy: Yes, and we’ve taken care of those. There are really nice new hydration stations where you can refill your reusable bottles, so it’s great. The bathrooms would be next. Some of it is just basic kind of infrastructure. New windows will mean better retention of heat in the winter and coolness in the summer. After that we put in an air filtration system at El Marino. It’s the soup to nuts. Then we can take a look at what kinds of 21st century classroom technology, science labs, upgrades and fixes we need. There seems to be a pretty good consensus around science labs. The frost auditorium is already in progress. The master plan covers the whole gamut.
Scott: What are some of the things we can do to improve the learning environment — or better said, the teaching environment in the classroom. You talked about 21st-century classrooms. What could that mean?
Kathy: Some of this is really critical but it has nothing to do with the bond– the bond iis just about the infrastructure. We need new teaching materials. We need to continue a whole lot of professional development and there’s more to be done in terms of some of the common core curriculum and some of the new math standards. The bonds money can help us with more computer labs, the regional occupational program, career path classrooms, whether that’s digital photography or upgrading the culinary lab classroom.
We just signed off on 50 to 100 more computers. We’re constantly ordering more computers to replace old ones or to add to the pool of available computers. The new testing’s all on computers so there has to be a way for an entire class to sit down at the same time and take these tests. We’ve invested in that somewhat, including staffing it. We really did not have the IT staff that we should have had and we’re well on our way to getting there. So that’s critical. I don’t think you ever stop doing that.
LANGUAGE IMMERSION AT THE SECONDARY SCHOOLS
Scott: That raises a good issue about staffing. You can’t have laboratories whether they be science or culinary without the proper staff. The same is true with the language program. Kids start at La Ballona and El Marino learning Spanish, or Japanese at El Marino. First it was just elementary. Then you pushed really hard to expand it to the middle school. It now stops at eighth grade. I’ve heard you ask the question “what god is an eighth grade fluency?”
Kathy: My old mantra was, “What good is fifth grade fluency in any language?” And my new mantra became, “What good is eighth grade fluency in any language?” So we keep working on improving the program. It is a staffing issue and it’s also a curriculum issue. We had to find a teacher with the right credential to be able to teach in Spanish and also teach the single subject of social studies. So once we found someone — and now we have two of them — we could expand that program. So staffing is one issue, curriculum is another. The other option that we opened up even before we really started that second class option again, was to have the zero period at 7:15 am when they take P.E.. And that was opened up not just to immersion kids, but any kid who was in a particular kind of program or they wanted to take basically what appears on a schedule as two electives, so that kids can do Spanish and they can do band. They can do remedial math and they can do choir. We tried to go for a period seven rather than a period zero but there are just too many afternoon activities to make that a viable option.
Scott: So is this a problem that the district is actively seeking to solve or is it an issue that you’re championing and hoping you’ll eventually get support?
Kathy: It’s being worked on at the high school level. The high school master schedule is different than what happens at the middle school. There are set curriculum such as the A through G’s for University of California qualification and just the qualifications that the kids need in order just to simply graduate. Where do we plug it in? And how many kids will take it? Now that we have, at least on the Spanish side, kids matriculating from both La Ballona and El Marino into the middle schools that same first cohort of kids will be matriculating into the high school. I hope by then we will have a solid plan at the high school for additional classes beyond Spanish 1, 2, 3, Advanced Placement Spanish, and AP Spanish literature. And then for the incoming immersion kids, it would be Nativos 2, Nativos 3,. At that point, those kids who are actually native speakers, can also jump in. They can jump in at the sixth grade point if they’re not at La Ballona or El Marino and they can also jump in at ninth grade which is a great opportunity for them to become bi-literate in that language that they may be carried with them their entire lives.
Scott: How about the Japanese program?
Kathy: The Japanese program is another kind of work in progress. One of the things that I’ve been pushing for is that the I-Academy provides some options. We’re looking into that, and I believe, may be presenting some options for the Advanced Placement class– that’s kind of the capstone of the whole program. The child has invested 11 years, 12 years in that program and to be able to get college credit is an important opportunity for them. We have the some scheduling conflicts so the I-Academy will provide that opportunity this year.
Scott: Can you explain to our readers the I-Academy?
Kathy: The I-Academy is our online Academy. There are rural districts in this country where kids don’t have A.P. physics, or whatever; how do they get that? The opportunity to get those credits is opening a lot of doors in a lot of different places. We wanted to bring that same opportunity here to Culver City. Some kids want that opportunity period. So they can actually choose to go to our I-Academy. They can enroll there and they can get their classes from the I-Academy. I see it though as a way to enhance our Spanish and especially our Japanese program. Initially there are only two kindergartens on the Japanese side so by the time those kids matriculate to the middle school the number keeps lowering. By the time they get to the high school are they going to continue on? That number diminishes every year and there’s nobody adding into that program. So how do we justify the staffing of that?
Scott: Perhaps if we offered classes in Japanese such as social studies at the high school it might actually recruit people into Culver City because not many other districts are offering that at the high school level.
Kathy: We have high school classes in Japanese — Japanese 1, 2, and Advanced Placement but there aren’t enough kids to fill seats for a social studies course in Japanese.
CULVER CITY MIDDLE SCHOOL
Scott: My daughter’s a year away from the middle school. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve either been a part of or I have overheard of parents at fourth grade going into fifth grade level wringing their hands over the middle school. What is your response to those parents that are wringing their hands and wondering, “Will my kid’s lives will be ruined and now they won’t get into Harvard eliminated?”
Kathy: I’d say, relax. I think every parent goes through that. You go from that cozy place that you’ve been in for five or six years– kindergarten through five– and then you get to the bigger school. But I think the parents are really more uptight than the kids are…
Scott: Yes, what is life like without (EL Marino principal) Tracy Pamelia? I can’t even imagine.
Kathy: Yes, or, any of our other wonderful principals at our five elementaries. Our district does do a lot of work to have a pep rally to invite the kids all to come together and start mingling. There is a certain amount of mingling anyway because you’ve got AYSO, and you’ve got Little League, and you’ve got theater groups. So a lot of our kids know each other anyway. So it’s really not that big a deal other than the parents kind of having their little freak out moment. Academically, we just sent the principal, one of our teachers, and one of our assistant superintendents to Washington DC to receive an award and were one of the very few schools, if not maybe the only school in the entire country, for the fourth year in a row to have a National Schools to Watch Award. So our middle school is doing great and doing great things.
As far as the facilities, that back gym was redone, the athletic fields are redone, the classrooms are going to get upgraded in the same order as all the other classrooms that we are working on. Obviously, the improvements to the Frost Auditorium also affects the middle school because those kids go over there even for some of their theater programs and some of their music programs. The Fineschriber foundation with its very generous donations of instruments, not only benefited the high school but also benefited the middle school. So we’ve expanded our music program, both instrumental and choral.
So there’s just a lot of opportunities at the middle school and a lot of clubs. There’s a student government program, and so forth. It’s a question of getting in there. At the beginning of the school year they have a club fair. Our new principal has infused the school with a lot of energy. She’s actually tinier than I am and she’s just a ball of energy. She’s fabulous. And then we have some steady rocks there with our assistant principals and a lot of staff. So it’s a great place.
Scott: I know my daughter’s looking forward to it and I promote the middle school whenever I’m in those conversations. From what I’ve seen of the faculty, they are really outstanding, passionate professionals. I basically say, “Don’t judge a school by its facilities.” I know we’re about to put in a lot of money and it’s going to look shiny… as much as it can being so close to seagulls.
Kathy: It’s close to seagulls and close to pre-teenagers. They kind of take the shine off things pretty quickly. And they do put a little wear and tear on things.
Scott: So the school board is functioning great. But you’re about to lose 40% of your members. Both Nancy Goldberg and Laura Chardiet have announced they are not running for reelection and so part of that great team that you guys have created is going to have to be rebuilt. What are you looking for in school board members and what would be your message for those who are interested in possibly joining this team?
Kathy: Temperament and good listening skills. In that first year you want to get in there and make some changes. And changes will be made but your best thing to do is to listen and learn because it’s all new. People get onto the board and they want to support teachers… but I hate to tell you, most of the work with the board is not about curriculum. There are five real things that we do: facilities– and we now have bond money to do that– budget, personnel, student discipline and curriculum. And a lot of the curriculum is, frankly, shaped by the Ed code and common core and other things. We did implement a K-12 music curriculum. That’s an important piece of what our kids should be learning. Music helps with math, helps with language, helps with lots of other things, just kids’ sanity. That can be what keeps some kids in school. For some of them it’s music, theater, art, and for other kids it’s the athletics. So we want to be sure to keep those well-rounded programs.
I would look for somebody who will hear multiple sides of an argument. During the height of the recession– which is when I started on the board– we had to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, and you do what you have to do. And you talk about, “Are we going to have enough paper towels and paper and toilet paper to make it through the end?” I mean, it was kind of a crazy situation. Now we’ve got money and we’ve got bond money and people are like, “Me first, me first! This is more important, that’s more important.” And that’s really the board’s decision but you want to listen. You want to take it in and you want to hear from the various stakeholders. But what’s really important is to focus on what’s the bottom line? What do the kids need? What do our students need to get the best education they can from our K-12 system? And so you’ll hear from the elementary teachers, “We need this, that.” You’ll hear from the secondary teachers, “We need this, that.” And you just kind of have to look at the whole and see what you can do at each facility.
Fortunately, we’re not as run down as some places. We certainly do need some shine and so forth but I think we’re really going to pull it together real soon.
TOP THREE PRIORITIES
Scott: You’re going to be on the board for at least another 2 ½ years and then possibly another four-year term. What is your top three priorities for the remainder of your term?
Kathy: First, I want to see us make good use of that first chunk of money from the bond, get working on the priorities. I was a little bit impatient at our last workshop about what we were talking about and how do we get to talk about the needs and what order are we going to address them? The construction manager can tell us certain things but it’s our job as the board to tell them our priorities. “Fix that first,” or whatever. Or, “Improve that first.” Second, I really want to be looking at bathrooms, bathrooms, bathrooms. You know, Nancy Goldberg came on and her mantra was water fountains, water fountains, water fountains. Mine is bathrooms, bathrooms. Not quite as pretty but really, really important.
Third, I’m going to keep working at improving the various areas of curriculum that I can touch on. I think we’ve got a really good opportunity to have a strong K-12 language immersion program. I still have the brochure somewhere I received when my kids started at El Marino and it said we have a K-12 program. Well, we no more had a K-12 program when my kids started than I can fly. But now, I can say we have a good K-8 program and we are getting there and we are working on it. It talkes committed administrators– which we have– and then the staffing. It’s hard to find a teacher who can teach science and Spanish at the same time or teach Japanese and social studies. It’s hard enough to find a teacher that can just teach Japanese at the secondary level much less the ones that we need to fill in at the primary level