Sandra Lyon

A public schools superintendent, a private school dean and a charter school official walk into an auditorium.

No joke.

In an event hosted by Lincoln Middle School, Santa Monica-Malibu schools Supt. Sandra Lyon joined Harvard-Westlake head Jon Wimbish and Knowledge Is Power Program Los Angeles (KIPP LA) chief Sarah Hughes for a panel discussion Feb. 26 about the state of education in the region, the similarities and differences between their respective campuses and the common challenges of teaching in the 21st century.

Lincoln principal Suzanne Webb served as moderator.

What follows is a sampling of the administrators’ comments on several key topics, edited for length and clarity:

Holistic approach

The three administrators agreed that social and emotional development have become critical aspects of education.

Hughes said her network of free, open-enrollment public schools in underserved Los Angeles communities integrates seven pillars into academic settings: grit, zest, gratitude, optimism, self-control, social intelligence and curiosity.

Lyon said students must learn not only how to approach academic challenges but also how to mature individually and interact with others.

“We’re in the business of raising children, and partnering with families to do that is something we take seriously,” Wimbish said. “Issues seem to appear younger and younger. Students feel more out of control, more pressure. There are so many things to keep up with.”

Achievement gaps

Although they oversee dramatically different student bodies, the administrators found common ground in the difficulty of meeting the needs of students across the performance spectrum.

KIPP LA schools have implemented computer software that allows students to read news clippings at their comprehension level, Hughes said. She added that it’s important to recognize a student’s strengths in one particular discipline — robotics, for example — even if the student is struggling in language arts.

At Harvard-Westlake, a private school for students in grades 7-12, students and teachers have overlapping free periods to facilitate tutoring for both struggling learners and high achievers. Independent study options are also available, Wimbish said.

“It’s always a challenge,” Lyon said. “Every child has unique learning needs. Even students who are not struggling … may have one approach that works better for them. We have to think about how we give them an experience in a variety of settings. There are four questions: What do we expect kids to know? How will we know when they do? What do we do when they don’t get it? And what do we do when they already know it? No class comes shrink-wrapped at grade level.”

Scholastic scopes

Perhaps not surprisingly, Santa Monica-Malibu schools, KIPP LA sites and Harvard-Westlake vary greatly in their academic systems, from Common Core implementation and length of school year to foreign language and elective opportunities.

At Harvard-Westlake, where a typically year includes 160-165 days of instruction, nearly three-fourths of students stay after the final bell at 3:05 p.m. for athletic or other extracurricular commitments. And although the private school is not bound by Common Core standards, Wimbish said teachers there “use quite a bit of it because it’s good stuff.” The school requires each student to complete three levels of Latin, French, Spanish or Mandarin Chinese.

The charter network, meanwhile, provides an extended school year — mid-August to the end of June — and a day that goes from 7:30 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m., Hughes said. She added that KIPP LA educators are embracing the transition to Common Core standards. Spanish is offered to all students at KIPP LA schools, which have numerous English learners.

Of the three entities, SMMUSD probably has the least wiggle room. The school year includes a state-mandated 180 days of instruction, and close attention must be paid to Common Core standards. Lyon said the district is interested in developing foreign language instruction for its elementary schools.

Magic number?

If you believe smaller learning groups contribute to academic success, then Harvard-Westlake might be attractive. Its classes typically have 13 to 17 students, some of its specialty arts classes are even smaller.

For the KIPP LA charter network, facilities often dictate class sizes. Hughes said elementary classes typically carry 25 to 30 students, while middle school classes have up to 32.

“Longitudinal studies have not shown that class size has the impact on learning that we think it does,” Lyon said. “You have to get down in the 13-to-15 range to have a huge impact. There is an impact, sure. I was a teacher. I taught English. When you’re carting home 150 or 180 essays, there’s an impact on what you’re able to do. We work hard to address class sizes.”

Lyon said it’s an ongoing challenge to monitor enrollment data, determine what staff is needed at each site and manage interdistrict transfer rates.

“I really don’t believe there is a magic number,” she said.

Administrators noted the advantages of breaking larger classes into partners or groups for certain activities.

Causes for concern

When asked what keeps them up at night, the three administrators veered in different directions.

Lyon focused on keeping Santa Monica-Malibu district employees inspired in what can feel like a 24-hour job

“How can our staff continue to support all of the adults to have the same vision for our schools?” she said. “What do we need to do to do better? And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm our staff?”

Hughes said she worries about finding qualified teachers and adequate facilities as KIPP LA expects to serve some 10,000 students by 2020. These obstacles will be faced in what she said has become a highly politicized environment.

Wimbish said his main concerns revolved around students’ interactions with each other.

“The fact that we’ve been given this charge to make sure we’re raising the next generation of upstanding citizens, adults who will form a community, who are empathetic and kind and trustworthy — getting students to develop those characteristics is what keeps me up at night,” he said.

Wimbish added that efforts to curb bullying have become even more difficult as children flock to social media sites.

“What you used to have to say to someone, see their reaction and watch their feelings get hurt can now be said anonymously from quite a distance,” he said. “It can be much more damaging and much more public. It’s a constant battle.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.

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