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Superintendent of Public Instruction: Making the grades count

Rupa Dev | New American Media | 10/27/2010, 5 p.m.

Editor's Note: Next week, California voters will decide who will take over the daunting job of leading the state's public school system. Larry Aceves, a Latino, is a former superintendent of districts in San Jose and the Central Coast. Tom Torlakson is an assemblyman from Contra Costa County who taught for 10 years in the 1970s and '80s. Both are Democrats. This interview is a round-up of questions posed by ethnic media editors and reporters.

Given the mess California schools are in, what are your top three priorities as state superintendent of public instruction?--Rupa Dev, New America Media
Tom Torlakson:
Stabilizing the budget: The legislature and governor have abandoned education as the top priority it once was. About $11 billion is owed to schools, and we need to return money back.

Accountability: We need to bring school boards, school administrations, teachers, and parents together to create a better system of measuring school success. For example, if a teacher is identified as not effective, can mentoring and professional development improve the teacher? If not, how do we hold the school accountable to move that teacher out of the profession?

Dropout Rate: We know the drop-out rate correlates with the achievement gap. We know African-American and Latino students are disproportionably affected. We need programs like preschool, early literacy learning, and career education. We need to protect the arts, music, and drama from being cut so young people feel motivated to stay in school. I also have a healthy students program to get all youths enrolled in health care because investing early in a child's wellbeing will help prevent dropouts later on.

Larry Aceves:
Dropouts: We have talked about the dropout rate for years. We need to look at dropouts from the perspective of what works in the classroom. What are we teaching, and why is our curriculum not engaging Latino, African-American, and Native American students?

Teaching quality: We need to retrain our teachers. We need to collaborate with universities to make sure teachers are culturally literate, and that they understand the needs of the children they're serving.

Student Assessment: All the standardized tests need to be revised, changed, or dropped. We need more robust testing.

Parent involvement is crucial for the success of low-income students. Some kids--like children in foster care, in poverty, or those with incarcerated parents--simply don't have support at home. How do you plan to support this population?--Yolanda Arenales, La Opinion
TT: From teaching and coaching cross-country for 25 years, I learned kids thrive, when engaged in a positive afterschool activity. Back in 1998, I authored the afterschool bill that serves half a million students in 4,000 schools today. Students participate in art, music, drama, and one hour of academics. The program really supports students whose parents are working, traveling, commuting, or aren't a part of their lives.

LA: Obviously, any adult support is very critical for kids. Students need role models, and parents are the first line of support. However, we need to make sure that within our communities, we have role model programs to serve all children--especially those kids without parental figures. Community-based service programs like Big Brother, Big Sister are essential to low-income, urban schools.