By Cynthia Gibson
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King delivered her first State of the District address Aug. 9 at Garfield High School.
Her appointment to the superintendent’s post last January catapulted her overnight into a highly recognized public figure, quite a change for the career educator who, for over three decades, quietly worked her way up the ranks at LAUSD and managed to stay largely out of the spotlight.
The high profile position has made anonymity a thing of the past.
“It’s surprising how many people know who I am,” says King. “I get stopped in restaurants and stores. People want to take pictures and selfies with me. Most of all, they want to talk about their children’s education.”
In her speech, King touted the district’s 75 percent graduation rate, a new record; along with notable notable increases in proficiency rates in math and English. She also outlined major steps planned for the district in coming months, including the introduction of 16 magnet programs at various campuses, expansion of dual-language and bilingual programs and a commitment to bolstering arts programs.
“Students who complete these demanding programs are positioned for success, whether their post-secondary plans include community college, a four-year university or a career,” she said.
The busy superintendent visited about 20 schools and held a retreat as part of her “Listen and Learn Tour.”
The outreach to scores of students, parents and community leaders was created to help develop a strategic plan to guide the future of LAUSD.
The Independent recently caught up with King to discuss her first six months on the job and her plans for the future.
The Independent: How have your skills as a teacher and principal helped you as superintendent?
Michelle King: Having the experience of working with young people in the classroom, understanding what that’s like, and what needs to happen to motivate and spark the interest of kids, is important as the person responsible for working with the Board of Education, setting policies for the district.
I have an understanding of what it takes to run a school and the challenges that come with running a school. As superintendent, I do have an understanding with my principals in terms of what that means. I’m also able to give recommendations and suggestions because I walked in those shoes. It’s not foreign to me and I’m able to relate.
Independent: What are some of the biggest takeaways from the Listen and Learn Tour?
MK: Certainly, that a parent wants what’s best for their kids and they want to see their kids succeed and be prepared to go to college. I would say that would be the number one thing.
For parents, it is important to be communicated with, accepted, involved and engaged in their child’s education. That’s another piece that we’ve heard loud and clear.
Students want choices. They want electives and they want opportunities to have exploration on their campus in terms of different pieces. One student said, “we understand that we have to attend math and English, but can’t we have something we can choose?”
Independent: What are some of the biggest challenges facing LAUSD?
MK: Money — adequately funding public education — is the number one issue in public education right now. We have to invest in what’s important and what’s a priority.
We do have to deal with issues and barriers that our kids face. We get kids that are homeless, kids that are in foster care and kids that are incarcerated and then come back home.
Having programs in place to deal with and mitigate the challenges our kids face before they get into a classroom, I think that’s an important piece. I also think that we just have to believe in public education again as a state and as a country.
Independent: When you speak to students, what is your core message?
MK: I tell them to dream big and go for it. Never, ever give up.
Independent: What affect do charter schools have on LAUSD?
MK: LAUSD is the largest authorizer of charter schools in the country. I see independent charter schools as part of our portfolio of schools at L.A. Unified.
It’s about different governance modeled choices for parents and students. I am a person that doesn’t believe the one size fits all model. I believe in a variety of different options and choices. Charters are one of many options for parents to choose from. It’s good and it’s healthy to have that available and to have that as a choice.
We can learn and share from all the different models whether it’s magnet, charter or pilot and all the other types that we have. There are many ways and paths to get to excellence. It’s incumbent upon us to teach and to share with one another.
Independent: Standardized testing and assessments have come under fire lately. Do you find they help or harm in the classroom?
MK: I think assessments have their places, and I think they are beneficial in gauging where you are. It’s hard to know where you need to go unless you know where you are. Assessments should inform us, then inform our practice and instructions. I see it as another piece of our instructional practices as what we do to educate kids.
I’m a strong proponent of what we call formative assessment, and those are benchmark tests that measure if the practice or the instructional strategies being used are working for your student. You are able to make adjustments based on the results that you get.
Finally, I think there are different types of assessment. Yes, there is standardized testing. That’s one type, but it’s not the only type. There are portfolios, there are interviews, and there are observations. Assessments come in many forms, and I am a believer in multiple measures when looking at and trying to determine and assess the performance of our students.
Independent: What is the future for LAUSD?
MK: This district is on the move to do great things for our students. We have an incredible, incredible wealth of support and expertise in the field, in our classes, from our teachers, administrators, and support staff, who are all dedicated to ensuring we have the best in the country and in the district. We are working hard to achieve that. Keep an eye on us. Great things are going to happen in the future.