By Ambar Espinoza, 17, University HS
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Superintendent Ramon Cotines burned with anger as he showed me a chart stating that LAUSD elementary students, mostly minorities, read at the 20th percentile.

When I entered 10th grade, I noticed that my school was being wired for a new PA system and computers. My history class had brand new books. That was a big change. But in other ways, my school still needed help. Most of our books were tagged and shabby. The girls’ restroom in the main building had two useless toilets with no bathroom stalls. Everyone in my geometry class complained about the substitute we had every day. And every quarter our teachers told us we would be getting computers that never came.

I never thought anything would change in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I figured my school would get computers after I graduate and the toilets will never be fixed. Last year we got four new board members who all promised to make a difference. Haven’t I heard that before, though?

One day in February, I walked into the girls’ bathroom in February and what do you know? Our two toilets are working and they have stalls now!
Maybe you’re wondering why you should care about toilets. Maybe you say you don’t care. But if you bother to complain about anything at your school, you might as well bother to know what’s going on in the LAUSD.

Here’s the deal: Drastic change. For a long time, the district was in chaos; people fought and pointed fingers over how to handle things from building new schools to improving test scores. In the meantime, we were put on hold. But now they’re realizing that what they’ve been doing is wrong. They decided to start thinking about us first. They’re trying to get themselves together.

The changes are starting from the top with the new Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines. Cortines is very clever. I noticed many of his qualities when I attended a press conference in January when he had just started his job.

When Cortines answered questions, he responded yes or no. He didn’t beat around the bush or try to sugarcoat answers.

A parent asked Cortines why she had to ask for donations for desks, chairs and copy paper at her child’s school. Cortines told her to have the principal report to him. Somehow, he would fix those problems.

In a passionate tone, he said, "You shouldn’t have to pay for copy paper, you shouldn’t have to pay for desks. And they may not come overnight but somebody should tell you when they are going to come and you should hold us accountable for that. Don’t accept it any longer! You’ve got to raise hell with this system!"

Pretty cool, huh? Has your principal ever said something like that?

The man has a plan

At the same time, what if it’s just more talk? How can anyone take on our district with all its problems? Well, Cortines has a plan and it sounds pretty good to me. He wants to improve our bathrooms (he’s set up a bathroom hotline where students can call to complain) buy more new books, have seats available for all students, and above all, he wants to improve the reading levels in the district.

It’s very clever of him to have these priorities because these changes can actually be seen by everyone. Once we see these changes happening, we’ll all start to believe in our district again.
But that’s not all. Cortines has been working on more stuff that you would have to be reading the paper every day to know about:

• "School Board Kills Troubled Belmont Project," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 26. The Board decided to stop the construction of Belmont Learning complex because the site has dangerous toxins.

• "Meetings on School District Reorganization Underway," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 2. Cortines proposed to divide the district into 11 clusters to make administrators more accountable to the students and parents they serve.

• "Cortines Fires 6 Amid Fight Over Prop. BB Funds," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 5. Because so many schools have not had necessary repairs taken care of, he fired six at the top.

• "Cortines seeks 1,000 Staff Cuts," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 24. In order to make sure that the district serves students, Cortines is giving 1,000 downtown administrators and support staff an ultimatum: either retire or be reassigned to positions at high schools.

Business doesn’t mean talk for Cortines, it means action. When I interviewed Cortines, I asked him if reorganizing the district into 11 clusters would really make a difference.

"It could. I didn’t promise you it would. It could, if it’s done right," said Cortines.

I guess I believed in his words so much because he was real. During the interview he didn’t seem like "the superintendent." He seemed like any other regular guy despite his resume. He was former superintendent of the South Pasadena, San Jose, and San Francisco school districts. He was chancellor of the New York City public school system. The list goes on and on. You’d think that with a resume like this, he probably came from a rich, snooty background with no clue as to what the meaning of struggle is. But he didn’t.

His background is humble

He told me that he was adopted. His mother never knew his father. So she gave him up for adoption because she couldn’t raise him. His adoptive parents weren’t educated. But their number-one priority was his education. When he shared his personal side with me, my mother came to mind. She had me when she was 21 and she didn’t get to finish her education. But she’s sacrificed her life to raise my sister and me. Second to our well being, our education is extremely important to her. So I know that Cortines has a connection in some way or another with most urban students.

In a fervent voice he told me, "I do not believe that children who do not speak English cannot learn how to read. I do not believe that because someone is poor they cannot learn to read. I do not believe that because parents are not very literate at home that children cannot learn to read. I do not believe that because they live in the projects that they cannot learn to read, or that because of the color of their skin they cannot learn to read. That is why we’re going to have a consistent reading program."

Cortines seemed to burn with anger as he showed me a chart that stated that LAUSD elementary students, mostly minorities, read at the 20th percentile level. "That is unacceptable!" he said. Too bad he’s only the "interim" superintendent—that means he’s going to step down in June.

He gave himself a C+

As busy, responsible and hard working as Cortines is, he still grades himself with a C+ for his job as interim superintendent. The tone in his voice changed drastically when he told me why he gave himself that grade. He sounded frustrated and disappointed.

"I haven’t been able to do what I’ve wanted to do. I guess I idealized how I can come here and help," he said. Low scores, year round schedules, crumbling school facilities, 25 percent of teachers have no credentials, poor communication between the schools and the central office—he hasn’t been able to solve all these problems.

But problem solver he is. Before he could finish answering why he graded himself with a C+, he received a phone call. That morning, a mailman placed a note in his mailbox addressing the problems at his daughter’s school. The mailman’s daughter was in a class with 40-45 students, yet the school has two empty classrooms used only for testing. The classes don’t have pencils, papers or scissors. And the school has filthy water fountains. Whether all of these statements are true or not, Cortines didn’t know at the time, but he wanted a status report. He wanted those problems fixed. He didn’t wait for next week to get back to the mailman. He tried to address the problem that same day. Pretty impressive, if I may say so.

My favorite part of the interview was his reply as to why he had granted me an interview in the first place. He said, "I believe that it is my responsibility to make sure that I model the kind of behavior that is responsive. If I want you to become a contributing citizen, I have to show you that it’s worth the time and energy. I don’t think you should take youth for granted."

If adults want young people to be involved as adults, they have to show us that our ideas, opinions and concerns are valued, he told me. "If they are not responsive to you as young people, why should you be involved as adults?" asked Cortines.

Cortines stressed that concerned students in the Los Angeles Unified School District can reach him to discuss problems in their schools at (213) 625-6251. (Ask to speak with Sue—she’ll put you through.)