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A matter of education

Questions for the woman who wants to replace Superintendent Jack O’Connell

VC Reporter (Ventura County's Newsweekly)

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.

Surf City native vies for school post

Diane Lenning says H.B. school district should be role model for other cities.

By Amanda Pennington,
Huntington Beach Independent
25 May 2006

Diane Lenning's ties to Huntington Beach are three generations deep, and growing up on the edge of the Pacific Ocean is something she believes had a hand in shaping what she has become today.

The Surf City native will be on the June 6 primary ballot for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, and she hopes the Huntington Beach educational system she went through can be a model for cities statewide.

The candidate grew up surfing the waters around the pier, roller-skating along the city's streets and swinging through the trees in a small forest near Utica Avenue.

"Somebody had hung a rope on the tree and laid a mattress on the ground, and we used to swing through the trees onto the mattress," she said. "I can even remember king snakes around the grass near Beach Boulevard."

After moving from downtown when she was 8 years old, her family moved to the outskirts of town near Beach Boulevard.

"Growing up in Huntington Beach was really special," she said. "We only had about 11,000 people here and we knew, it seems, every family in some way."

The Surf City native was one of five siblings, and she attended what used to be called Huntington Beach Elementary School -- now known as Agnes L. Smith Elementary School. She remembers when the school's current namesake was her principal.

"I can remember in fifth-grade," she said, "I could sit and look across 15th Street, across the water and see Catalina, which was always kind of neat."

As a student at Huntington Beach High School, she spent four years on the honor roll and was a star athlete. During her senior year, the Huntington High campus was closed for remodeling and she became a member of the first graduating class of Marina High School.

"We were still technically Huntington students because that campus was closed," she said. "They called us the hybrids."

Inspired by her grandmother who worked as a teacher, Lenning had lofty goals of following in her footsteps. Customers at the food counter she worked at in a Main Street drugstore knew of her dreams and had a hand in her later success.

"Some of the people liked me so well -- and they knew I was going to b a teacher -- that a couple organizations gave me scholarships," she said.

The scholarships came from a local women's club and from the Assistance League so she could attend Orange Coast College. When she was 20, she married Jerry Lenning, who was in the Air Force and was stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base. She moved with him to the base and finished her studies at Cal State San Luis Obispo in 1966. There she received her bachelor's degree in history, social sciences and music before the couple moved to Long Beach where in 1976 she earned her master's degree in secondary education from Cal State Long Beach.

Lenning did not return to live in Huntington Beach until 1996, after her children were finished with school, but she did still love and miss the city.

She became a substitute teacher in the 1970s, and worked for the Huntington Beach Union High School District, and had an extended stay at Ocean View High School from 1979 to 1980.

Outside Surf City, she worked with the California Youth Authority for eight years. Most recently, she has been teaching at Santiago High School in the Garden Grove Unified School District and is currently in her second year of an online law school. This semester she has taken a leave of absence from teaching to focus on her campaign.

Lenning plays violin and piano and is a writer. Her book, "Call of the American Dream" documents her family's arrival in the United States in the 17th century.

She's been back now for 10 years and she's glad to call Huntington Beach home again.

Living on the wetlands spurred her to join the Amigos de Bolsa Chica and the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, which she still supports but is no longer officially affiliated with.

It took some time for Lenning to get used to the modernization Huntington Beach experienced in her absence. In her eyes, Huntington was still a small rural area covered in farmland, and she still imagined the mom-and-pop businesses lining Main Street.

"In the last 10 years, I have finally come to love and enjoy Huntington Beach for the new city it is ... I still thought of it more like it was when I was a kid," she said about moving back. "Now, when I've come back to live here, I've come to enjoy the rebuilding and the resort atmosphere."

For the top spot in California education, Lenning will face incumbent Supt. Jack O'Connell; Dan Bunting, a Cloverdale School District trustee and retired school superintendent; Sarah Knopp, a political activist, teacher and journalist; and Grant McMicken, an army veteran and teacher.

Diane Lenning on Education

by Diane A. Lenning, Ed.M.

California Chronicle
May 11, 2006

There are many issues facing the next superintendent. A very important one is the goal of all our students to receive a good education, to stay in school, and to graduate from high school. We need to reduce the drop-out rate, improve education, and increase the high school graduation rate, preparing our students for higher education and the work force. All students deserve the opportunity to obtain the skills necessary to pursue their own American Dream.

One of the many ways we can work on these goals is to revisit the class-size reduction program initiated several years ago in the primary grades, bringing class-size reduction to the upper primary grades (4,5,6). The difficulty with class-size reduction is the cost effect. Class-size reduction plans often require building new schools and hiring thousands of new teachers if enacted statewide. However, if a district is in declining enrollment, increased costs would be directed at hiring many more new teachers, and not accrue much financial burden for building construction. Districts in declining enrollment are “ripe” for Class-size reduction plans, keeping teachers in their jobs.

Individual districts can choose to bargain for class-size reduction independently of a state directive. I would encourage districts to work toward that goal within their own budget analysis, even if it is a half or single reduction in the student-teacher ratio each year until reaching the class-size reduction goal. A suggested goal may be approximately 24 students in each class in grades 4, 5, 6. (Currently it is around 20 in primary grades.) Later, class-size reduction could progress through the grades according to assessments and input of stakeholders.

I plan to visit or have communication with as many of the local school districts to help enact adjustments in regards to collaboration with the schools, parents, and community. We need to encourage support from parents and community members to assist in areas that may not be met due to possible budget and staffing shortfalls.

My plan would include statewide mandatory tutoring instituted for all 10th grade students earning a 'D' or 'F' in Math or English. I would choose Math and English first because these are the core academics tested on the CAHSEE (exit exam). Each high school needs a tutoring plan available for students who want assistance and for those who fail the CAHSEE the first time as well.

In districts that experience large numbers of failing students, schools can provide intervention programs that, for example, may choose to hold a class back a year in order to meet grade level standards, i.e. 3rd and 8th grade, rather than holding various students back every grade level. This can be facilitated through summer-school or during the school year at a designated site in the district.

Diane Lenning currently teaches high school English and world history in Orange County, California. Through her teaching experiences, including working with at-risk students, she has gained much insight into the cultural underpinnings of our contemporary American culture.

KXTV - News10 - Candidate Profile

Campaign Contact Information

E-mail: diane@lenning.com
Phone: 714-960-4455
Fax: 714-960-4455

Diane Lenning for CA Superintendent of Public Instruction
Po Box 4306
Huntington Beach, CA 92605-4306

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