Ex-BMI Mom: Zimmer’s Dysfunction Drove Me Out Of LAUSD

By Jessica Huszar-Yoshimoto

I always attended public school, as did my husband, who is an LAUSD alum, so when the time came for our oldest to enter kindergarten, we knew public school was the way we would go. Unfortunately, touring our home school confirmed it wouldn’t be a good fit for our daughter. After failing to get chosen in the lottery system for multiple magnets and charters, I was in a panic. Then a friend told me about a Mandarin Immersion program that had opened the year before at Broadway Elementary in Venice.  

I headed over and was floored. The principal was charismatic and clearly enthusiastic about the program. The parents of the inaugural class were friendly, driven to make the new program a success and loved the early results. Then there were the children: well behaved in class, reading in English and speaking in Mandarin. It’s quite impressive to see kindergartners, most of whom had no prior exposure to Mandarin, in a classroom where no English is spoken, singing and communicating in Chinese.

This school was a traditional LAUSD public school, not a charter. It was housed on the lovely Broadway campus along with a traditional program -- permanently, I was told -- which was also a plus compared to charters I had toured that risked moving if the district school didn’t have space for them. The seemingly stable environment was appealing to me. I went to the front office and enrolled my daughter that morning. 

Kindergarten lived up to its promises. My daughter enjoyed school, the classrooms were well managed, the teachers wonderful, and lo and behold, she was learning Mandarin. The first inkling of trouble came at the end of her kindergarten year. The program was wildly successful. It easily filled the 96 seats in her kindergarten cohort, up from 48 the previous year, with a wait list. Parents from smaller and often more highly coveted school districts, such Culver City, El Segundo, and even Santa Monica, were permitting into LAUSD to get into this program.  Growing at four classes a year, there would not be enough room on the campus for both the Mandarin program and the traditional program, which consisted of a significant number of low-income English learners. 

The MI parents reached out to our board rep, Steve Zimmer, to discuss the situation and try to find solutions. Zimmer was adamant that he would not redistrict the traditional program children, and the MI parents agreed. That wasn’t our intent. We just wanted to maintain our principal, keep our four classes per grade and team teaching model, and not have the district split the program onto separate campuses.

The MI parents suggested the district drop three bungalow classrooms onto the large campus to allow the in-demand program to grow. Zimmer told parents there was not enough room and that dropping bungalows was not a simple task. It required trenching for water and power, would take over a year to accomplish and just wasn’t feasible. Instead, he wanted to move the program, so it could continue to grow and expand into middle school, then feed into Venice High’s Language magnet. He suggested Marina del Rey middle school as a location, saying the charter located there, Goethe, was vacating.

Planning began the following year, when my daughter was in first grade, and things quickly went south. Zimmer had the facilities planner look at the MDR campus and presented a plan for where the MI program would go. Our program was slightly larger than the charter school and required a few extra classrooms. The facility planner decided to assign us a large room that would be converted into the kinder area. Not doing their due diligence, neither Zimmer nor the facility planner had visited the MDR campus, nor had Zimmer mentioned the idea to anyone at MDR, despite working on the project the latter part of the previous school year, over the summer, and most of the first half the new school year.

He finally filled them in. Not only were MDR parents shocked that they had been left out of the loop completely for over six months, but the large room they chose for us was their newly revamped dance studio. The parents had worked hard to raise funds for special floors and to create space for the performing arts magnet on the campus, and now that would all be for naught.

Once Zimmer and LAUSD realized this, the dance room was pulled off the table, but the damage was already done. The MDR parents were rightfully angry and distrustful and felt the MI kids were being given priority over their kids. Despite continued work, by March it was clear the move wouldn’t be happening. Ultimately, Zimmer said the MDR campus wouldn’t work because it didn’t meet standards for an elementary school (even though the charter was, in fact, an elementary school) -- something he should have looked into prior to spending over a year pursuing that option. He failed to accept responsibility for his poor communication and for not keeping both communities in the loop.

By now, the MI program had maxed out the space at Broadway and would need two extra classrooms the following year. Again, bungalows were not an option, according to Zimmer. Initially, he decided to cut the MI program from four to three kindergarten classes. Due to the nature of the Mandarin program’s team teaching model, an even number of classes is really a necessity. Additionally, there was more than a full class consisting of younger siblings coming in, including my second child, creating an even more limited enrollment for an in-demand program. 

Because Zimmer was trying to claim the success of the program as his own, he kept the fourth class and instead redistricted the incoming kindergartners from the under-enrolled traditional program, which had been struggling for years and would be phased out. The kids currently in the traditional program would remain until they finished fifth grade, but no more traditional program kids would be accepted. This was something he had sworn he would not do. The decision created immense tension on campus, with one program picketing the other program, and the Mandarin program was blamed.

Allowing no more kindergarteners into the traditional program freed up one classroom, leaving the need for one classroom still. My then-second grader was put in the compromise class. There were two Mandarin teachers for second grade, but they shared one large classroom and one storage room, where tables were put in to accommodate a few kids. One teacher taught 11 kids a day in the storage room, and it was billed as “extra-small group time.” The remaining 32 kids were in one large classroom with one teacher and a TA, far above the class-size norm for that age group and not an effective learning environment. We applied to charter and magnets for the following year and didn’t get in.

Zimmer then decided again that the Mandarin program needed to move, and he set his eyes on Mark Twain Middle School. He started working on plans, updating the now-frustrated MI parents periodically. Zimmer also decided to start a Spanish Immersion program on the campus, bringing an additional two classes a year onto an already overcrowded campus.

Instead of waiting for the Mandarin program to move, he started the SI program the following year, bringing in a total of six new kindergarten classes, two for the new SI program and 4 for the MI program. In order to accommodate the growth, two things happened. He reduced the size of the MI third grade, my daughter’s class, to three classes, a difficult number for a team teaching model. There were 27 children in her Mandarin class at a time.

He also dropped three bungalow classrooms on the campus. It took only six weeks over the summer to put the bungalows in, no trenching needed, plenty of room. Turned out, it was as simple as dropping bungalows after all. There was no reason my daughter had to be crammed into an oversized class or spend part of her days in a storage room. Nor was there any reason to move the MI program or redistrict the traditional program.

The original suggestion two years earlier from the MI parents to drop three bungalow classrooms was a feasible, faster and less expensive option that would have prevented the displacement of the traditional program and the upset it had caused.

But now the SI program was on campus, and there wasn’t room for both MI and SI programs to grow. So Zimmer pursued the Mark Twain campus, deciding to build a new MI elementary school on the campus at a cost of $30 million with bond funds slated for new building. The district hired an architect, came up with plans and presented them to the MI program over the first part of my oldest daughter’s third-grade year. The plans looked great. However, in another example of the poor communication Zimmer has exhibited over the course of his tenure, he failed to inform Mark Twain stakeholders until after the plans were drawn. 

This was met with even more anger than the MDR fiasco. Again, many local parents felt the MI kids were being given special treatment. The brand new school would not only be located in an area that took field space away from the school and community, but the shiny new facility would be on the same campus as a building that was in dire need of repair. The new school also would not be accessible to the local community unless they chose to pursue Mandarin for their children and were fortunate enough to gain a spot in the now in-demand program with a robust waiting list. The local community got involved and picketed, formed a coalition citing concerns about traffic, and effectively stopped the project. Again, the MI program did not have a home and was outgrowing the space at Broadway. Again, we applied for charter and magnets and didn’t get in.

My third daughter was one of more than a full class of siblings to start the following year, when more bungalows had to be dropped, and my oldest daughter’s grade had, through attrition, reduced to two classes of 28, losing almost 50 percent of the children since kindergarten. Some had moved, but many had just become fed up with LAUSD and the constant turmoil.

We became one of the fed-up families. We again applied to charter and magnet schools and again didn’t get in anywhere, but this time, we were done. We were worn out from feeling like we were constantly fighting for our children’s education, worn out from the instability, worn out from the hostility from other communities and on the campus. We couldn’t get into another public school, so we made the jump to private school last fall. Our decision was solidified when it was announced the MI program would be reduced to three incoming kindergarten classes going forward, and a new program would be started at Braddock Elementary to handle the demand.

We should not have to fight for our children to get a great education. Programs should not be started without thought of growth and space, and children should not be used as political pawns. Zimmer has shown, time and time again, to be unable to communicate and manage the needs of multiple communities or make wise decisions. It’s time for change.

-- Jessica Huszar-Yoshimoto is a mother of three kids and served as president of DragonSprouts, the former booster club for the Broadway Mandarin Immersion program