The ouster of a Watts principal is wrenching but hardly surprising. Parents lack patience for incremental improvement.
By Jim Newton
June 3, 2013
Irma Cobian, principal at Weigand Avenue Elementary School, gives a thumbs up to 3rd grade students. The Los Angeles Unified School District voted this week to accept a parent petition to remove Cobian at the low-performing school although she has led efforts to craft a turnaround plan this year that was highly rated by the district. (Los Angeles Times / May 15, 2013)
What's happening at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts is undeniably divisive and stressful. A slim majority of parents there, fed up with the lack of progress toward a satisfactory education for their children, signed petitions and exercised their right under California law to oust the principal.
It hardly needs saying that the principal, Irma Cobian, did not much appreciate the campaign. She sees it as the work of politically motivated interlopers and disaffected parents — "a personal vendetta met a political movement," as she told me.
The parents behind the effort don't view it that way. They contend that they've pushed for improvement, only to be met with brusque indifference. Meanwhile, test scores at the school have dropped, adding to the alarm. Just a few years ago, Weigand was on a slow but upward march — its API score rose from 643 to 717 over two years. Since Cobian's arrival, those numbers have turned south, and the score for last year was down to 689.
By the numbers, Weigand is one of the worst-performing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and that's saying something. These parents describe their work as one of necessity, the requirement that they do what they can for their children.
So which is it? Is Weigand's division the result of impetuous parents and outside forces, or an expression of principled disagreement over the future of the school? Is the fight over bureaucratic inertia or competing visions?
I would submit that although the dispute contains elements of all of those, it's really about something else: The fight at Weigand is a contest between school authorities who believe change can only be accomplished over time against parents who have no time to waste. In that, it is emblematic of a fundamental collision that is playing out across California.
Take Cobian's turnaround plan for the school. It's full of ideas and principles, methods of engaging parents and determination to push teachers. But none of it is quick. Indeed, the ideas guiding the proposal are known as the "Six Principles for Gradual Improvement," and the first of those states: "Expect improvement to be continual, gradual and incremental."
Cobian is proud of that plan, and even some of the parents who are unhappy with her like many aspects of it. It relies heavily on fundamentals and stresses the importance of imparting knowledge, values and communication skills to the students.
Where it's frustrating, though, is in the patience it demands. And it's easy to understand why. Imagine being the parent of a second-grade student at the school. For the last several years, that student would have been enrolled in a struggling school that showed signs of getting worse. And the administration's answer to that is a program for slow improvement. Will it come in time for that second-grader to get any benefit? No parent could be expected to be patient in the face of that record or that program.
None of that is a hypothetical to Llury Garcia. Her daughter is in second grade and has received considerable praise from her teachers. But Garcia worries. "They tell me she's doing great, but I see something different," she told me last week. Garcia is concerned about her little girl's spelling, her mastery of reading. All parents worry, but Weigand's record reinforces those concerns.
Moreover, Garcia is not alone. Parents of more than half of the school's students signed a petition demanding Cobian's firing. Under California's "parent trigger" law, that was all it took to force that outcome, so Cobian will soon be out of work. Some of the school's teachers are outraged, and some parents are dismayed. Cobian blames Parent Revolution, a community organizing group that helps parents band together to transform schools using the parent trigger law. Even the name of the group offends Cobian: "It's a revolution. It's bloody. There's violence."
Cobian would prefer a gentler system, an approach to reform that is less divisive, less confrontational. The trouble with that is that too many educators and administrators have tolerated failure for too long. They have allowed too many students — the vast majority of whom are poor — to complete their educations without being able to read or write or master the skills of a modern culture.
When school officials ask for more time, parents whose patience has been tested for too long are unwilling to give it. They will seize the authority they have in order to protect what they care about most: their children. Who can blame them?
As the controversy at Weigand reminds us, education reform may be painstaking, but childhood is fleeting.