Columnists Opinion

Summit is good start to remaking Inglewood schools

Last week I joined more than 500 Inglewood community members at the Forum for a community summit held by the Inglewood Unified School District.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson invited the community to “join state Administrator Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, board members and district executives for an evening of strategic planning and informative discussions.”

For the community, the summit was long overdue and presented an opportunity to express concerns about how the schools are being managed. Since taking over control of Inglewood schools in September 2012, Torlakson’s administrators have failed to improve the financial condition of the district, been derelict in adequately maintaining school facilities and incapable of making acceptable improvement in student academic performance.

During the same time period, Mayor James Butts transformed Inglewood from a city on the brink of bankruptcy to financial stability based on planning that has spurred a citywide business and housing boom.

In August, Torlakson appointed Meléndez to serve as the fifth state administrator in less than five years. Prior to accepting the job at Inglewood Unified, she was superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District; assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education; superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District; Mayor Eric Garcetti’s chief adviser on education and workforce development; and chief executive officer of the Office of Educational Service for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Unlike her predecessors as state administrator, Meléndez has not wasted any time in seeking solutions for the issues challenging the school district.

Recognizing that difficult decisions involving staff and facilities will have to be made and that community support would be needed to facilitate their implementation, the community summit was conceived with input from board members and school district staff and endorsed by Torlakson.

The Forum, which was a catalyst in the financial turnaround of the city of Inglewood, agreed to host the community summit for an evening intended to be a new beginning for Inglewood schools. Forum management generously treated the attendees to food and beverages and the Inglewood High Marching Band, flag corps and cheerleaders kicked off the meeting with a performance that got everyone in the community spirit.

Attendees were greeted by school staff and asked to sign in. Complimentary child care was provided so that parents with young children could more easily participate. Arranged on the floor of the Forum were tables seating about 10 persons and on each table were the materials that would be used to direct the input from community attendees.

Encircling the meeting area were exhibits created by school district partners and Inglewood schools showcasing enrichment programs being offered like robotics, dual immersion, and career pathways.

Carliss McGhee, president of the Inglewood Board of Education, opened the meeting by welcoming those present. She then introduced Mayor Butts.

In his comments, Mayor Butts talked about the city of Inglewood’s turnaround and how the development fees from the city’s construction boom will improve district finances. He pointed out that families moving into the district as a result of new housing projects could help improve school enrollment.

The mayor announced that he had obtained a commitment from the company developing town homes on the shuttered Daniel Freeman Hospital site to pay $2 million in school district development fees earlier than scheduled.

Butts welcomed Melendez to the podium by saying that she was “the right person, at the right time to head the school district.”

This recognition by Inglewood’s mayor is important because historically there has been little collaboration between the city and the school district, but the fact is both entities will benefit by working together.

In her remarks, Melendez provided a rundown on the issues facing the school district that can’t wait to be resolved. She must deal with a significant budget deficit, declining student enrollment, facilities in need of upgrading and academic performance not living up to the potential of Inglewood students.

After she finished speaking, the moderators for the community summit guided the participants through a series of presentations and exercises designed to collect the community’s thoughts about the organizational structure of the district’s c schools, administration and policies in order to highlight the school district’s strengths and identify areas needing improvement.

Working at tables with up to 10 people, teams of parents, teachers and community members engaged in community asset mapping and developed academic planning priorities for the district. Using smart phones, those attending participated in online polling with the results available in real time.

I sat at a table that included Bishop Robert Douglas, president of the Inglewood Area Ministers Association, Apostle Chris Ward and former school board members Zyra McCloud, Henry Brown and Rene Talbott.

Listening to comments from these community leaders about the summit and based on my own observation, the event was a successful first step toward remaking the future of Inglewood schools. It appears that under the leadership of Melendez, a serious effort to turn around Inglewood Unified is underway.

The theme for the community summit was Moving Forward Together to Transform Our Schools. The meeting at the Forum was just the first round of opportunities for the community to engage with the school district.

A series of local meetings hosted by members of the Board of Education are planned. The schedule can be found on the school district website:

Joe Bowers is a public education advocate. He is a retired engineer and business executive and a graduate of Stanford University.