A matter of education

California Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Diane Lenning knows a thing or two about education. Above being a graduate of Cal Poly, the former chair of the Republican Educators Caucus and a mother of two (and a grandmother of five), she also teaches English and world history at a high school in Orange County. Now, she hopes to pull the entire state out of the dregs of the national education barrel. She spoke with the VC Reporter about how she plans on doing it.

Ventura County Reporter: What do you feel is the biggest problem facing California’s schools today?

Diane Lenning: We need accountability in education at all levels. It’s shared by all stakeholders involved, including parents, staff, students and the legislature. I think we’re going to need everyone involved in California to help improve our schools.

Obviously, keeping schools a safe environment to learn is important. How do you suggest we make schools safer for children? Metal detectors?

One thing we’ve done in our district which is very helpful on the high school campuses is we work with the local police. We have two police on our campus; they have their own office. It would be in a low-key, unobtrusive manner, similar to the method school administrators use on high school campuses, standing on the campus during breaks. I am not saying all campuses, and it can be decided on a campus-by-campus basis. I wouldn’t go so far as metal detectors without trying other means first.

But isn’t the drawback to having police on campus that it creates an almost prison-like environment for students?

That’s a misconception. We have a presence of administrators around the campus all the time, and [the police officers] are just included in that presence. Whenever the students are outside, we have four counselors and four administrators, and they’re placed around the campus every time the students are out. We have two [officers], but we don’t have many police around. High schools are usually larger campuses, and rather than providing anything like a prison, it gives more a feeling of safety. I have worked in a prison, and it is completely different. What would give the affect of a prison is a 20-foot fence around it, where kids can’t get out. That’s a different issue.

Are effective local schools boards a crucial part of improving education in California?

Decisions can occur more quickly and more in line with the specific needs of the local community when the local board is allowed to interact directly with the community and make decisions that are relevant to their schools. Different schools have different needs, and a distant leader, state board or superintendent of a state is a long distance away. We live in a large state, and it would be difficult for someone to respond to all the needs as fast as they would need to be if everything was directed from the state level. That said, there needs to be some basic general guidelines on a state level, and one of those is the high school exit exams. In order for a diploma to have validity, we need to have a minimum level of requirements for students to meet. It’s not a punitive thing to meet a minimum level of requirement. It helps students be equipped to pursue higher education and a job, and it gives them the skills and abilities to pursue their American Dream.

Why are you in favor of English immersion rather than bilingual education?

Our school district has proven [English immersion] is the best model. Many of our teachers speak a little bit of Spanish, but we have interpreters in the office who can talk to the parents. Even the kids who are “English language learners” can speak English. It’s just they have a deficit in reading and writing it. It’s more the parents who need the interpreter than the students do. Almost all of them can [speak English] as far as social communication. If these ELL students are in classes with mainstream English students, they are going to be learning many of the new vocabulary words at the same time as the English speakers. So they may have a little bit of an advantage instead of a huge disadvantage from when they learn it in Spanish and then they have to learn it again in English. At least in the English class, they’re going to be hearing it, reading it, writing it, drawing pictures about it, working in groups with it, doing projects, and I’ve seen first-hand that it works. It just makes logical sense.

What is your position on Proposition 82, the Preschool for All Initiative?

I’ve taken “No” on that. Even though preschool may be a good idea, this initiative does not address it well. It’s much more expensive than the current kindergarten system. We also have the aspect that kindergarten is not even mandatory in our state. We can increase the length of the attendance days for kindergarten students to meet the academic deficits anyone might fear. This plan can take credentialed teachers that are needed in K-12. It also provides unfair competition to existing preschools. It would put many of them out of business. Why do we want to add to the already heavily layered bureaucracy of a failing educational system? We’re in the bottom three in the nation as far as statistics.

But there have been studies that insist going to preschool helps students as they advance through the education process.

In comparison to kids who don’t have preschool, they all balance out in about third grade. But if people are concerned with that, it would be much more economical and make more sense to just lengthen the day of kindergarten and make kindergarten mandatory. There’s not 100 percent attendance of kindergarten-age children. Why don’t we solve that problem first?

Why do you call AB 606 the “Education Tsar Initiative”?

Because it gives too much power to one person. The state superintendent can decide, for whatever reason, if he or she wants to withhold funding from a district if they don’t happen to teach or include one particular item in their curriculum. What if a district, for example, didn’t have the money to include that in their program? They would be penalized. It’s more difficult than most people think to change the curriculum in a district. It can be interpreted in different ways of how to include it. It could force people to teach things that they may not decide to do at a local level. That’s one of the reasons I’m in favor of local decision making.

In regards to SB 1437, you’ve stated that “societal engineering” is not the job of public education. But wouldn’t ensuring the inclusion of important gay and lesbian figures in textbooks help foster understanding and tolerance of homosexuals in people that are going to be future members of society?

Our National Education Association has already addressed this issue, and we’re working on it. They have an intervention program against harassment and bullying. And there are many other segments of our student population that are more prejudiced against and more harassed than gays and lesbians. The danger of putting labels to people’s gender identification in textbooks is that it may lead to all historical figures being identified by their gender identification. How are we going to cover required academic basic knowledge that we’re going to need to cover if we’re sidetracked by having to talk about that with every individual? Believe it or not, many [students] ask about it already. I’ve been hearing this for over 20 years. If students ask about it, you talk about it. It’s not that you shouldn’t be able to talk about it; it’s that it’s not really necessary to be mandatorily included in textbooks. It’s just another requirement to an already overloaded program that would make it difficult to complete all the necessary items to be covered.

If elected, what specific things do you plan on doing to improve education in California?

It would be good to have mandatory tutoring for 10th graders — because that’s the first year they start taking the exit exams — who are failing math and English, and for those who have failed their first attempt at the test. Each school should provide some kind of tutoring program that meets their specific needs. For those students in K-8, rather than holding students here and there at any grade, it might be good to think about an intervention programs at grades 3 and 8, where they can hold back any of the students who are not meeting the grade level requirements. They can do it a couple ways, either do it in a summer school program or, depending on how low they are, hold them back the whole next year with a class of students. That way, it would meet the needs that they’re specifically behind in. Grade 3 to 4 is a real crucial year in reading. When we lose students in grade 3 to 4, it’s often to do with comprehension level. Eighth grade is really important because [students] need to be up to grade level before they approach high school. I’m really strong on focusing on reading, writing and speaking English. When you focus on those areas, it changes the direction of your strategies and methods. When you can read well, it transfers to all subject matter.