Bill Boyarsky
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September 18, 2009

An evening with Norman Corwin

The enthusiastic gathering at Barnes & Noble’s Westside Pavilion store honored Norman Corwin, a Los Angeles literary treasure. In turn, he made the event a celebration of writers and writing. Acknowledging the tribute to him, he also called out the names of some of the authors in the crowd and praised them and their work.

We had assembled recently for a signing of his new book, “Norman Corwin’s One World Flight: The Lost Journal of Radio’s Greatest Writer.” Norman, who is 99, had written the journal during his flight around the world in 1946. He had helped rally the nation during the war with his radio broadcasts and went on to write books and films as well as memorable radio scripts.

The flight was his reward for winning the first Wendell Willkie Award, established by admirers of the 1940 Republican presidential nominee. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Willkie a special envoy and sent him around world, visiting America’s allies. When he returned, Willkie wrote a best selling book, “One World,” whose goal is still far away.

One of benefits of teaching at USC was the opportunity it gave me and my wife Nancy to get to know Norman, joining a huge army of friends he has accumulated, probably starting shortly after his birth in Boston in 1910.

Norman, now wheelchair bound, couldn’t be heard at first. Barnes & Noble, possibly unaware of his star power, had not provided a microphone. Instead, his words were delivered to the crowd, by Michael C. Keith who, with Mary Ann Watson—both professors of broadcasting history—had brought the long- forgotten journal to publication. After a while, bookstore personnel, sensing the importance of their guest, located a microphone and brought it to the table. Norman took over the remarks.

His voice, while soft, is as clear and as sharp as his mind and wit. He took note of writers in the audience, including his USC faculty colleagues Jack Langguth and Joe Saltzman, and urged another to get working on a book. And he was pleased to note the presence of another L.A. literary treasure, Ray Bradbury, who made his way through the crowd to greet Norman and chat with him briefly. Bradbury also gets around in a wheelchair. Undoubtedly it wasn’t easy for him to get to Norman. When he made it, Bradbury and Norman provided a wonderful moment in Los Angeles literary history, and I hope someone got the picture.

Reading from the book were Norman’s friends Eva Marie Saint, the great actress, and her husband Jeff Hayden, the director. They alternated reading from passages of the book. All their selections were fine. This one about St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square gives a good sense of the great writing and wit that went into the book:

“I saw the church sitting under a distant cumulus cloud of overwhelming magnificence—a mighty towering cauliflower head crowned and studded with white, ivory and golden botryoids, the peaks rouged here and there by the rays of a sinking sun. The trunk of the cloud shaded to blues and purples out of the night that was advancing over the plains to the east. This apocalyptic mass sat, excessively and redundantly, on top of the most grandiloquent cathedral in the world, itself an architectural curiosity. I have seen some great skies in my years of looking up and down at clouds, but there never had been one to match that vision of tufts and battlements, that nest of hail and thunder, rising above the vari-colored, spiraling domes and cupolas built for a mad emperor.”

Afterward, we wanted Norman to autograph the book. The crowd was dense with others headed to Norman’s table on the same mission. But I still had enough of a reporter’s skill—and rudeness—to push my way through.

He wrote, “For Bill and Nancy. The best. Norman Corwin.” Actually he printed it. But his small, careful printing was somewhat similar to the neat cursive with which he wrote the journal. Brief handwritten excerpts begin each chapter.

“There was quite a throng to see us off,” he wrote as the journey began. There was quite a throng to see his book off, too.

September 11, 2009

Cortines and Villaraigosa

Depending on how you look at it, school superintendent Ramon Cortines'̻ schedule for implementing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s school reform plan is either a great way of getting parents involved or a classic example of bureaucratic delay.

Curious about how the mayor’s plans to turn over 250 Los Angeles public schools to charter organizations, I went to the Los Angeles Unified School District web site and found Cortines’ implementation plan, contained in a letter to teachers and staff.
Amid all the criticism of the district from Villaraigosa and others, people forget that Cortines is the mayor’s guy—or at least was. He was Villaraigosa’s education advisor, and then was sent over to take the reins from a failing superintendent.

Since becoming superintendent, of course, he has assumed control of the districts many teachers and bureaucrats and can’t insult them in the media, like the critics do. It’s sort of like being manager of a fractious baseball team while working for a headstrong, know-it-all owner. Joe Torre, formerly of the Yankees and now in charge of the Dodgers, knows all about this.

The school district, non-profit charter organizations, unions, a teacher collaborative or other non-profit groups, said Cortines, can seek to run a charter school. In other words, any group, except for a profit-making organization, can come up with an idea for one of these schools, which are part of the district but are free from many of its rules.

If you want to start one, you first need community support. It’s unclear how such support will be determined, except Cortines speaks of community meetings. I’ve been to enough of those to know they can quickly turn into shouting matches—or worse—between hysterical parents, implacable neighborhood activists, and anyone who just happens to wander in.

After passing this obstacle, a charter school founder must then win approval by department bureaucrats. If that happens—think an IRS audit—then you go back to the community. If the community approves again, the plan goes to Cortines, and if he approves, to the board, which makes the final decision.

“Parents and community members need more information and time,” Cortines said. I agree with him on that. But this process could take years.

Meanwhile, I found a report that sheds some light on charter school performance compared to non-charters. It comes from Ed Source, a non-profit founded in 1977 by the PTA, the League of Women Voters, and the American Association of University Women.
Based on an analysis of various 2009 California test scores, Ed Source said charter high schools score “moderately higher” than non-charters, outscoring them in English but not in math. Middle schools charters beat non-charters but the “differences (are) relatively small.” Charter elementary schools score lower than non-charters.

In addition, there are all sorts of models for charter schools around the state, ranging from home schooling to academic boot camps.

Being a parent is never easy, but figuring out all this out and making the best choice will be really tough.

September 3, 2009

E-mails from readers: one irate, one intelligent

I received some provocative e-mails from readers after my column urging Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to give a clear explanation of his plan for charter organizations and other private entities to take over many Los Angeles public schools.

One was from David Abel, a public affairs consultant and managing director of New Schools Better Neighborhoods, which promotes construction of smaller and better schools. "You've written another poorly researched column for LA Observed," he wrote. "Your column would benefit from even a cursory review of the 1000's of articles/papers that have been written about charter school pedagogy/results ect."

Abel missed the point. I wasn't saying charter schools were good or bad. I just want the mayor to explain them to parents. I think parents have a lot of questions. One mother, a public school mom, e-mailed my daughter (also a public school mom) that I was expressing what was on a lot of parents' minds. Abel should realize the importance of explaining the complexities of school reform to such families. He should have learned something by watching President Obama damage himself by being too vague on health reform.

I received a much more thoughtful e-mail from Robin Kramer, Mayor Villaraigosa's outgoing chief of staff. She objected to my implication that the mayor was sort of a goof-off and answered some of the school questions I asked. I'll let her speak:

"Hi, Bill. Nice to hear your cybervoice.

"However I believe you've missed some important facts in your recent musings under the headline, 'Mayor, Please Explain This School Reform Thing.'

'The first and most important point - considering the sweep of Los Angeles history that you have observed over these many decades, and given the often desultory pace of progress we have collectively seen in our town on significant challenges ...come on! I disagree strongly with your suggestion that Mayor Villaraigosa has not made definitive strides during his first term to address nagging city problems and serious challenges -- to name four areas of marked success: growing the Los Angeles Police Department and its significant turnaround in community relations and protecting civil rights; creating what is now a national strategy to successfully reduce (yes it is true, not yet end) gang violence through parallel focused efforts on intervention and prevention; securing voter support in the middle of macro-economic meltdown to tax ourselves to provide homegrown funding for mass transit and mobility; and taking definitive action to make public education reform come to life. These tangible realities occurred because of a great deal of hard work by the Mayor, who has brought together people who often disagree to achieve these goals and milestones.

"The public school choice legislation passed by the LA School Board last week was a breathtaking, actual and historic turning point for LA's students and for all of us -- parents and students, along with business, union, education and civic leaders -- who have worked for decades to make our schools beacons of excellence and opportunity. The legislation means that the 50 new schools and the approximately 200 current schools that are most in need of academic improvement will be opened to a competitive process to operate them and turn them around.

"This process will be overseen by the Superintendent and will be open, transparent, and inclusive. As I type, the Superintendent is creating criteria for potential operators to apply to run the new schools. He will then share this criteria with the School Board, parents, and other community members for public scrutiny and review. Following this, potential operators (which include charters, teacher collaboratives, pilot schools, university sponsors, current operators, and other civic icons such as organizations like the Urban League) will submit plans to run the schools. After plans are submitted, the Superintendent will recommend to the School Board the operator he found with a proven record of success and metrics-based plan for the new school. (We could and should spend a lot of time discussing what measures matter and are meaningful.)

"The operators chosen to run the schools will be held accountable for results. If after a period of time, they do not succeed in meeting the goals articulated in their plans, the Superintendent and district should change operators.

"The measure passed last week is a prologue, aimed at improvement; ultimately, it will be the human enterprise and systems brought into existence, including bright light review, sharp accountability and our collective voice, to ensure there is follow-through and smart execution. The ultimate goal here is a more educated citizenry, workforce and community -- with the very future of our city bound up in the futures of these students and their families.

"Education has always been a top priority for the Mayor. Your questions have not fallen on deaf ears and I hope I've answered many of them here.

Kind regards.
Robin Kramer"

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