Archives for category: California

Teresa Watanabe wrote a wonderful story about kids in a public school in Los Angeles who are college-bound, despite their demographic profiles. They don’t have college-educated parents or SAT tutors. What they do have is a school—the DowntownMagnets High School— where the professionals are dedicated to their success. Read about this school and ask yourself why Bill Gates is not trying to replicate it? Why is it not a model for Michael Bloomberg or Reed Hastings or the Waltons? Why do the billionaires insist, as Bloomberg said recently, that public education is “broken”? Despite their investing hundreds of millions to destroy public schools like the one in this story, they are still performing miracles every day.

They represent the new generation of students reshaping the face of higher education in California: young people with lower family incomes, less parental education and far more racial and ethnic diversity than college applicants of the past. And Downtown Magnets, a small and highly diverse campus of 911 students just north of the Los Angeles Civic Center, is in the vanguard of the change.

Last year, 97% of the school’s seniors were accepted to college, and most enrolled. Among them, 71% of those who applied to a UC campus were admitted, including 19 of the 56 applicants to UC Berkeley — a higher admission rate than at elite Los Angeles private schools such as Harvard-Westlake and Marlborough.

This month, the Downtown Magnets applicants include Nick Saballos, whose Nicaraguan father never finished high school and works for minimum wage as a parking valet but is proud of his son’s passion for astrophysics.

There’s Emily Cruz, who had a rough time focusing on school while being expected to help her Guatemalan immigrant mother with household duties. Emily is determined to become a lawyer or a philosopher.

Kenji Horigome emigrated to Los Angeles from Japan in fourth grade speaking no English, with a single mother who works as a Koreatown restaurant server. Kenji has become a top student and may join the military, in part for the financial aid the GI Bill would provide.

“The main thing my kids lack is a sense of entitlement,” said Lynda McGee, the school’s longtime college counselor. “That’s my biggest enemy: the fact that my students are humble and think they don’t deserve what they actually deserve. It’s more of a mental problem than an academic one.”

What the students do have is a close-knit school community, passionate educators and parents willing to take the extra step to send them to a magnet school located, for many, outside their neighborhoods.

Principal Sarah Usmani leads a staff mindful of creating a campus environment both nurturing and academically rigorous; she has scrounged for money for a psychiatric social worker to help with mental health problems, an attendance counselor to stay on top of absences, an intervention counselor to monitor whether grades drop and an additional academic counselor.

And the students have McGee, who since 2000 has helped shepherd thousands to higher education.

On a recent morning, students lined up to see her in the campus College Center, an inviting space with comfortable sofas, a bank of computers, colorful pennants and stuffed toy mascots from dozens of colleges.

Never mind that it was Thanksgiving break. UC and Cal State application deadlines were just a week away, and McGee’s students needed her.
Ms. McGee, I need a fee waiver! I’m not sure about a major. How do I figure out my weighted GPA?

“I can say no to evening, weekend and holiday work, but that means someone won’t go to college,” McGee said. “There are too many kids, good kids who will take themselves out of the process, and they’ll go to a community college with a 3.9. I can’t carry that guilt.”

McGee keeps close tabs on as many students as she can, often suggesting they consider options other than “the religion of the UC,” as she says many parents, particularly Asian Americans, regard the renowned public research university system.

It’s all about fit, she tells them. If you like personal relationships with faculty, consider smaller private colleges. Think about leaving California to stretch yourself. She gently nudges students with low GPAs away from pinning their hopes on hypercompetitive UCLA and Berkeley and suggests well-regarded but more attainable alternatives: Cal State Dominguez Hills, Woodbury University, Mount St. Mary’s College, Dixie State University.

But she also needs to make sure her top students are aiming high enough.

The day before UC’s Dec. 1 deadline, McGee called Nick into the College Center to check in. The soft-spoken senior and his family live on an annual income of $30,000; at one point, when his father lost his job and the family faced eviction, they had to turn to relatives for help. His parents instilled in him an ethic to never waste — not money, not food, not college opportunities.


At Downtown Magnets, Nick entered the International Baccalaureate program, staying the challenging course when his friends dropped out. He tackled his weakest subject, English, by poring over Harvard professor Matthew Desmond’s exploration of evictions and poverty, to master academic language, text analysis and oral expository skills.

Physics is where Nick soars. His face lights up as he describes his hunger to unravel the mysteries of the universe: why it expands and whether it will stop; how stars become black holes.

Nick has earned a 4.47 GPA, making him the school’s fifth-ranked senior. He didn’t realize that until McGee called him in to tell him.

“You are in the top five, and this is a very competitive senior class,” she said. “If you want to apply to the Ivy Leagues, go for it! Know your worth, and give yourself the opportunities.”

Ivy League schools offer large financial aid packages that can make them cheaper than UC for low-income students, a point McGee amplifies by handing out lists of schools that meet full financial need without loans.
Nick had applied to UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and UC San Diego, along with Stanford. But McGee’s encouragement expanded his thinking beyond top California colleges to the Ivy League.

“I didn’t think I could apply to the Ivy Leagues,” he said. “I didn’t have that much confidence. Hearing from Ms. McGee that I can, I’m going to try.”

The story goes on to offer many other stories of students who came from homes where money was scarce. At Downtown Magnets High, they learned to believe in themselves, and they had the support and guidance to make good choices.

Don’t write off public schools. They have been the gateway to opportunity for millions of students, and they still are.

Someone please send this story to Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, the Waltons, Reed Hastings, John Arnold, Laurene Powell Jobs, and all the other billionaires who waste their money on charter schools, instead of paying attention to successful public schools like Downtown Magnet.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the public schools of Los Angeles and San Diego are changing the way students are graded. Critics will undoubtedly claim that this is a lowering of standards and a dumbing down of expectations, but the explanation sounds reasonable.

The article began:

A few years ago, high school teacher Joshua Moreno got fed up with his grading system, which had become a points game.

Some students accumulated so many points early on that by the end of the term they knew they didn’t need to do more work and could still get an A. Others — often those who had to work or care for family members after school — would fail to turn in their homework and fall so far behind that they would just stop trying.

“It was literally inequitable,” he said. “As a teacher you get frustrated because what you signed up for was for students to learn. And it just ended up being a conversation about points all the time.”

These days, the Alhambra High School English teacher has done away with points entirely. He no longer gives students homework and gives them multiple opportunities to improve essays and classwork. The goal is to base grades on what students are learning, and remove behavior, deadlines and how much work they do from the equation.

The changes Moreno embraced are part of a growing trend in which educators are moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups. The trend was accelerated by the pandemic and school closures that caused troubling increases in Ds and Fs across the country and by calls to examine the role of institutionalized racism in schools in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.

Los Angeles and San Diego Unified — the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined — have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines. The policies encourage teachers to give students opportunities to revise essays or retake tests to show that they have met learning goals, rather than enforcing hard deadlines. 

“It’s teaching students that failure is a part of learning. We fall. We get back up. We learn from the feedback that we get,” said Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer.

Traditional grading has often been used to “justify and to provide unequal educational opportunities based on a student’s race or class,” said a letter sent by Yoshimoto-Towery and Pedro A. Garcia, senior executive director of the division of instruction, to principals last month. 

“By continuing to use century-old grading practices, we inadvertently perpetuate achievement and opportunity gaps, rewarding our most privileged students and punishing those who are not,” their letter said, quoting educational grading consultant Joe Feldman….

I am posting this notice after the press conference described here, but the details are important nevertheless. A group called Oakland Not For Sale formed to fight privatization and just won a major settlement. For many years, the Oakland public schools have been a plaything for billionaire privatizers and a succession of Broadie superintendents.

MEDIA ADVISORY FOR: September 23, 2021, 3:30 PM PT

CONTACT: Melissa Korber, 510-541-9669 or Amanda Cooper, 917-930-7552

Parents, Teachers, Atty Dan Siegel Announce Settlement with OUSD Over Police Brutality at 2019 School Board Meeting,

Plans to Donate Funds to Fight Public School Closures & Privatization

Parent and Teacher Members of Oakland Not For Sale (ONFS) Will Hold Press Conference With OUSD School Board Member Mike Hutchinson To Address Settlement, Donation Plans and Update in Kaiser School Fight

Oakland, CA — On Thursday, Sept. 23, at 3:30 pm PT, Oakland Not for Sale (ONFS) will host a press conference for parent and teacher plaintiffs and their attorney Dan Siegel to announce a six-figure legal settlement with the Oakland Unified School District as well as plans to donate toward the fight against school closures and public school-supporting Board candidates in the 2022 election. OUSD School Board Member Mike Hutchinson will also be present.

“We have reached a settlement of our dispute regarding the school board’s October 2019 meeting. We reached an agreement for a total amount of $337,500 in damages,” said Saru Jayaraman, plaintiff in the litigation Jayaraman v. OUSD. “We’re thrilled to be announcing not only this settlement with the District, but our ability to now give a six-figure donation to our fight to stop public school closures and support candidates who will fight the privatization of the Oakland Unified School District. We’re also thrilled that in the same moment, we can declare victory in that Kaiser Elementary, which we fought to keep public, will indeed remain a public facility — and we will build on these victories with resources to continue to fight all future public school closures.”

The settlement resolves litigation filed by the parents and teachers, many of whom are members of ONFS, over police brutality at an October 2019 school board meeting protesting the proposed closure of Kaiser Elementary School. At the press conference on Thursday, parents and teachers will announce that they plan to make a six-figure donation to continue the fight against further public school closures and privatization. They will also discuss their victory in keeping Kaiser Elementary a public facility.

“While it isn’t exactly what we would have hoped, we’re happy Kaiser is being used as a public facility for students and that we were able to resolve the litigation,” said Amy Haruyama, OUSD teacher who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, taught at Kaiser Elementary, and now teaches at Sankofa United Elementary School.

These actions come in the context of a long history of OUSD School Board decisions to close 17 public schools, mostly majority Black and brown schools, almost all of which have been replaced with charter schools. OUSD’s history of closing schools and allowing them to be replaced by charters has been driven by both the state of California, which retains trusteeship over OUSD, and by outside billionaire charter school advocates like Michael Bloomberg and Eli Broad.

ONFS was formed after the announcement that Kaiser Elementary School would become the latest in a long line of school closures that was intended for replacement by charter or private schools. After protracted peaceful public protest by parents, teachers, and students, and despite police brutality as a response to this protest, the School Board recently agreed to a public use for Kaiser Elementary. The school will house public early education .

Peter Greene wonders if you have missed Michelle Rhee, once the Wonder Woman of the edreform biz, but recently absent from the national scene. After her meteoric rise to national prominence, when she was selected to be chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools after two years of TFA teaching, she was a colossus: on the cover of TIME as a miracle worker, featured in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” frequently interviewed on national TV. Her tenure in D.C. was controversial and stormy: she fired teachers and principals and made bold claims about test scores. When Adrian Fenty, the mayor who appointed her, was defeated, she left and started an organization called StudentsFirst, which she said would raise $1 billion and recruit one million members. she never reached either goal, but she traveled the country advocating for charters and vouchers and against teachers’ unions. She allied with Jeb Bush and other school choice advocates. as her star faded, she disappeared from public view.

Peter Greene says she is making a return public appearance at a Sacramento State University event on September27, where she is the keynote speaker. You can watch on Zoom.

It’s true that there are occasional stories of embezzlement or fraud in public schools, but none compares to the sheer audacity of California’A3 online charter chain. Its two cofounders—Jason Schrock and Sean McManus—concocted elaborate schemes and pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds. They both pleaded guilty and repaid hundreds of millions.

Schrock, however, will not spend a day in prison.

SAN DIEGO — 

One of the two masterminds behind a massive charter school scheme that defrauded the state of California out of tens of millions of dollars was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay $18.75 million in fines in San Diego Superior Court on Friday.

Jason Schrock, a co-creator of the now-defunct A3 charter school network, pleaded guilty in February to one count of conspiracy to misappropriate public funds and one count of conflict of interest. He has been on house arrest in Orange County since he was arraigned in May 2019.

Because the law requires that Schrock receive credit for the more than 750 days he has spent on house arrest, he will not spend a single day in prison.

At Schrock’s sentencing hearing, defense attorney Knut Johnson emphasized that Schrock had been wholly cooperative during the investigation, turning over hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and thousands of pages of documents to further the investigation.

It was that cooperation that kept San Diego Superior Court Judge Frederick Link from handing down a stiffer sentence, the judge said. The case centered on what has been labeled as one of the nation’s largest fraud schemes after taxpayers were fleeced out of $400 million meant for K-12 education. Due in part to the cooperation of Schrock and his co-conspirator, Sean McManus, investigators have recovered $220 million…

A yearlong investigation by the San Diego County district attorney’s office determined that Schrock and McManus and their codefendants fraudulently obtained hundreds of millions in state school dollars from 2016 to 2019 after opening a network of 19 online charter schools. Three of those schools were in San Diego County.

Prosecutors accused A3 leaders of buying children’s personal information to falsely enroll them in the schools and of providing incomplete education services while taking tens of millions of dollars for personal use. A3 leaders also manipulated enrollment figures across their schools to receive more state funding per student and manipulated school attendance reporting to get more money for time that children were not spending in A3 schools.

So far, nine defendants in the case have pleaded guilty.

Online charters have a history of poor performance: high attrition rates, low graduation rates, low test scores.

Will Huntsberry of the Voice of San Diego reports here that online charters were once again among the lowest performing schools in that city.

Huntsberry writes:

Virtual charter schools – as well as other charters that don’t use traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms – performed among the worst in San Diego County in a new analysis of test scores that took each school’s poverty level into account.

The analysis compared 632 schools across San Diego County. Out of 14 non-classroom-based charter schools, as they are called in education jargon, five scored among the 20 lowest-performing schools. Nine out of 14 schools scored among the bottom 15 percent.

California’s non-classroom-based schools have lived under a magnifying glass in recent years. State legislators placed a moratorium on new non-classroom schools, after executives from one online charter siphoned more than $80 million into their own private companies. Legislators also temporarily blocked the schools from receiving new funds.

The new analysis, performed by Voice of San Diego and the Center for Research and Evaluation at UC San Diego Extension, did not just look at a school’s test scores. It compared a school’s performance on standardized tests to other schools with similar poverty levels.

Brick-and-mortar charters performed in line with traditional public schools in the analysis. But non-classroom-based charters scored significantly worse.

These findings reenforce the statewide study of online charter schools in California, prepared by “In the Public Interest.” They have a long track record of failure nationally.

I read this excerpt from a new book, published in the Washington Post, and was mesmerized by the account. The book’s author is Lizzie Johnson, a Post reporter. I hope the Post will forgive me for reprinting it. I promise to delete the post if they object. Read it while you can and buy the book to make amends for reading this preview. Subscribe to the Washington Post so you can see the pictures that the two teachers took from inside the bus. The story is moving not only because of the bravery of the bus driver and the teachers and children, but because of the generosity they encountered along the way.

This story is adapted from “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire,” which was published this week by Penguin Random House.

The flames were just a mile from Ponderosa Elementary School when Kevin McKay opened the door of Bus 963 to about two dozen children, their eyes wide with fear.

It was 8:45 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2018, and the deadliest wildfire in California history was tearing toward Paradise, a working-class town in a region once again being devastated by conflagration.

The children being evacuated included the twin daughters of an immigrant couple who owned a local Thai restaurant. The 10-year-old daughter of a bartender. A 7-year-old whose father was in nearby Tehama, painting the small-town mayor’s front door.

Their parents commuted to distant communities or worked low-wage jobs that they couldn’t walk away from, even in an emergency. They weren’t able to collect their sons and daughters as the wind-fueled Camp Fire advanced on their Northern California community of 26,000 with astonishing speed.

School bus driver Kevin McKay was responsible for the safety of 22 children and two teachers as a wildfire tore through Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2018.

McKay, a part-time driver who made $11 an hour, had to find a way to get the children and two of their teachers to safety. He knew that the few roads out of Paradise would be clogged with other motorists trying to escape.

He turned the 35,000-pound bus onto Pentz Road, peering through the dark smoke. Cinders tumbled from the clouds, igniting thousands of small fires along the roadside. McKay planned to cut across town to reach Clark Road — the second-largest thoroughfare in Paradise, able to accommodate 900 cars per hour — then head to Oroville, 24 miles away. Traffic was piling up on Pentz Road, and he didn’t want to get stuck.

Behind him, the 22 schoolchildren on the bus were si­lent, an eerie contrast to the din of his regular route. When the wildfire was reported, he was the bus driver closest to Ponderosa Elementary and offered to help.

The chil­dren, too small to see over the tops of the seats, were nearly invisible in his rearview mirror. McKay, 41, spotted a golden yellow beanie and a blue tie-dyed baseball cap. He didn’t know their names; they didn’t know his.

“Who are you?” Mary Ludwig, a second-grade teacher, had asked when McKay pulled up at the school.

She had never seen him before, which she found odd. Ludwig, 50, had taught in the district since 1994, and she thought she knew every bus driver. She was friendly with a lot of people in Paradise; she and her nine siblings had grown up there.

McKay had spent much of his life there, too, moving to town when he was 12. He’d been captain of the Paradise High School football team before graduating in 1995. Now, he was a twice-divorced father of two who’d worked as a manager at a distant Walgreens until the long hours and commute wore him out. In 2018, he’d quit and gotten the job driving the school bus, which would give him time to start classes at the community college. He wanted to get an education degree and teach history at Paradise High.

McKay told Ludwig that he was new to the school district, but not new to Paradise.

Mary Ludwig hadn’t expected to get on Bus 963 when she walked her last three students out of the building that morning. The fire had swept down from the Feather River Canyon with almost no warning.

Chunks of burned bark were raining down on the playground. A firebrand landed in her hair, singeing it. She guided her second-graders to the bus, as the other teachers had.

“I need you to come with me,” McKay implored. Someone had to look after the children as he drove.
Ludwig was a devoted teacher, who liked crafting creative lesson plans. She’d recently read her kids “James and the Giant Peach” in a bad British accent. Then she’d taught them about the momentum of the peach by having the children toss balls down a knoll, studying how slope affected speed.

Now, with the fire gaining its own momentum, Ludwig wanted to drive home to check on her teenage son. But she knew that if her own child were boarding a bus with a new driver during a natural disaster, she would want a teacher to be with them.

She persuaded Abbie Davis, a first-year kindergarten instructor, to join her.
Davis was 29 and newly engaged. Now, as she boarded the bus, she worried whether she and her fiance would survive to see their wedding day. Ludwig clambered up behind her.

“You’d better be a good driver,” she told McKay.

In his rearview mirror, McKay watched the playground at Pon­derosa Elementary disappear in the distance. He turned off Pentz Road and onto Wag­staff Road, where flames were roaring along the edges.

The air was stifling, greased with carcinogens from burning household products. Embers lunged sideways on the downdraft.

McKay called Ludwig and Davis to the front, pointing out the fire extinguisher and the first aid kit. He gestured to the two emergency exits and emphasized that they were not going to leave the bus unless they absolutely had to. It was the safest place to be.

Ludwig thanked him. He told the teach­ers to take attendance and pair older children with younger ones.

“And handwrite three copies as you take roll,” he said, “so each one of us has a manifest of the kids in our care.”

“Why?” Ludwig asked.

“If something happens,” McKay answered, “authorities need to know who was on this bus.”

“Is it 10 p.m.?’


The teachers walked down the aisle of the bus, following McKay’s instructions.

Rowan Stovall, who had just turned 10, was seated beside a kindergartner. She tried to comfort her.
“You’ll see your mom and dad again,” she said, clutching the little girl’s hand. “The bus isn’t going to catch on fire. We are going to be okay, I promise.”

A boy in a flannel shirt tugged on Ludwig’s shirt sleeve as she passed him.

“Is it 10 p.m.?” he asked. He was confused; it was so dark outside.

Another boy was in a panic, ripping at his hair as he babbled about how his “94-year-old” cat was going to burn up. Even more worrisome were the ones who didn’t speak at all.

“How do I distract the children and reassure them at the same time?” Ludwig thought.


She knelt beside a tiny girl in a zipped fleece jacket, asking her name for the manifest. The girl was so terrified that she couldn’t remember her last name. Ludwig rubbed her back.


Across the row, she saw a backpack resting on an empty seat. A kindergartner had curled up beneath the bench, cocooning herself from the unfolding nightmare outside the bus.


McKay went over different scenarios in his head, trying to fig­ure out the best way to get down Clark Road.

An RV cut in front of him. “How dare you,” McKay thought, seething. “Can’t you see there are children on board?”


He was not going to panic. He knew that children were sensitive to the energy of those around them. He could see the kids’ hysteria escalate whenever the teachers took a break to stare out the windows, or take photos on their cellphones, or call their loved ones. The women’s voices warbled with fear.
Ludwig’s son hadn’t evacuated soon enough and was now trapped on Pearson Road, which dropped into a gully known as Dead Man’s Hole for its lack of cell service.


Davis worried that her fiance, Matt Gerspacher, who was refusing to leave their house until he saw the bus pass by, might die because of his stubbornness.


McKay flicked on the ceiling light so other drivers could see the children in the back of the bus. He asked that Davis be his scout, pacing in the aisle and calling out new spot fires along Clark Road so he would know when to change lanes and keep some distance from the flames.


He learned to read the arc of Davis’s eyebrow and the tilt of her head, the subtle ways she signaled the presence of flames, not wanting to speak aloud and scare the children. Meanwhile, Ludwig continued scribbling down their names.


Two of the school district’s assistant superintendents emerged from the smoke and knocked on the glass door. McKay was startled, then opened it for them.

Their truck had caught fire in the parking lot of Ponderosa Elementary, and they had decided to proceed on foot. It was faster than driving anyway. Boarding the bus for a few minutes, they warned McKay to avoid Paradise Elementary — an evacuation center and for years the town’s only elementary school — because it was already on fire. Then the two got off to continue their walk. They planned to help direct traffic.

Now the blaze was everywhere, scorching the mountains and hillsides with unprecedented fury. The red and blue spin of police lights ricocheted past as officers drove into ditches and around fallen trees, rushing in response to reports about a cluster of people trapped in the basement of Feather River Hospital. They were also trying to track down a woman who had gone into labor in the Fastrip gas station parking lot.

Ludwig pointed out the first responders to the children.
“Look at those brave men coming to help us!” she said.
The children screamed through the locked windows: “Thank you! We love you!” Their noses left smudges on the glass.

They passed beloved landmarks: Paradise Alliance Church, Moun­tain Mike’s Pizza, McDonald’s, Dollar General. The Black Bear Diner, with its carved wooden bear propped out front, holding a sign reading, “Welcome to Bearadise.”
The familiar sights offered a sense of hope. “Who likes pancakes?” Ludwig yelled, smiling broadly and raising her hand. A smattering of small palms followed.

McKay commented that he also kept a wooden bear statue in front of his house. The children laughed, because they knew that couldn’t be true — there was only one “Welcome to Bearadise” sign!
The sky broke, the velvet black fading to light gray. Then the darkness closed in again. They’d been on the bus for two hours now and had gone little more than a mile. Flames cat­apulted onto the roofs of the Black Bear Diner and the McDon­ald’s, then spread towards the KFC restaurant down the block.

Ludwig fell silent. So did the children.

As they turned onto Pearson Road and passed the intersection of Black Olive Drive, an officer directed the bus south, away from the Skyway, the main thoroughfare out of Paradise. They had been one block away. For a short distance, they moved easily, without stopping.

McKay was trying to escape along routes that only a native would know — but he was turned away repeatedly by law enforcement officers with out-of-town uniforms who claimed to know better.

The bus was pushed off Pearson Road to smaller streets: south on Foster, east on Buschmann, south on Scottwood. Miraculously, a text had made it through the cellphone gridlock from McKay’s girlfriend letting him know that his family was safe in Chico. She had gotten a hotel room for his son and mother. A small mercy.

Roe Road appeared before them. It was dangerously narrow, its sides flanked by dead brush and ponderosa pines. All morning, McKay had referred to the timber in Paradise as fuel — a phrase that Ludwig and Davis had never heard.
To them, trees were a source of beauty. Ludwig described the town’s ponderosa pine groves as the “rainforest” of Paradise. But looking ahead, McKay’s word choice made sense. Roe Road was claustrophobic. It was harrowing on an ordinary day because the line of sight was so limited. Now it looked as though the brush could ignite at any moment.

A Paradise police officer flagged McKay down.
“Do you have kids on this bus?” the officer said, peering up as McKay cranked open the driver’s window. “I’m about to shut this road down, but you go first. Get out of here.”

“Hey, man, Roe Road is highly overgrown,” McKay said. “I’m worried about getting through there.”
“Just go,” the officer replied. “There’s no other way out.”

McKay halted in the middle of the intersection of Scottwood and Roe, trying to leave a football field’s length between the bus and the car ahead. The pause also gave him an opportunity to attempt a getaway: He tried, very slowly, to pivot away from Roe Road and take a different route, against the officer’s recommendation. The drivers behind him laid on their horns, livid that he wasn’t moving forward. They wedged their vehicles into the clearance, and the patrolman directed a few more cars forward into the intersection, trapping McKay in place.

In the confusion, an elderly driver scraped the back of the bus, jostling the children from their seats. McKay was stuck. The decision had been made for him: The only way out was forward.

Ludwig, who had been helping calm a student, recognized the road. She walked to the front of the bus.

“What the heck, Kevin?” she said, her voice cracking. “Why are you taking us down Roe Road?”

She begged him to go a different way. “You know it’s a death trap,” Ludwig said. “Please do not take us down this road.”

McKay gripped the steering wheel. They didn’t have a choice, he said.

Davis interrupted, saying she thought some of the children were in shock. She didn’t know what to do.

Ludwig switched places with her, sitting with a young girl who usually had a lively personality but was now morose.

The children grew drowsy, some on the verge of passing out, nauseated by the carbon monox­ide and exhaust fumes. Hours had passed since they’d last had food or water. The bus was unbearably hot.

McKay kept his eyes locked on the road ahead. The canopy ruffled, ready to catch flame. Ludwig squeezed the girl’s hand once more, then walked back to the front of the bus, sliding into a seat with Davis. She was depleted.

For a moment, the two women found solace in each other.

“Look out the window, Mary,” Davis whispered. “I don’t think we’re going to make it.”

They clutched hands, imprinting tiny half moons on each other’s skin with their nails, Davis’s fist as small as a songbird. She revealed that she had already lost one fiance in a riverboating accident — and now the man who had offered her a sec­ond chance at marriage was refusing to leave town for her sake. What if he died while waiting for her?
Together, she and Ludwig whispered prayers. Ludwig wondered whether the school district might later fire her for this public show of faith. Perhaps, she thought, administrators would understand that this was a special circumstance.
“Please,” the teachers pleaded, “let the smoke kill us first.”

‘Way too dangerous’

The brake lights ahead of McKay dimmed, and traffic moved forward. Roe Road, with its drooping oak and pine boughs and tangled brush, lay ahead. Glancing in the rearview mir­ror, he saw the two teachers huddled together in a single seat. He didn’t like seeing them so upset.

“All right, girls, we’ve got a job to do!” he hollered.
Davis, her prayer finished, darted forward and stood by his seat. Her eyes were bloodshot from the six hours she had spent in the smoke.

Earlier, she had told Ludwig that she was worried that they would lose a kinder­gartner to smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Hey, Kevin,” Davis said now, “the kids are starting to pass out. They can’t breathe. What should we do?”

McKay slithered out of his black polo and yanked his extra-large undershirt over his head, tossing it at Davis. She held it gingerly.

“Tear it into 25 squares, so we each have one,” McKay explained, pulling the polo back over his belly. He put his foot on the brake and showed her how to rip the cotton undershirt into rags. “We’ll douse it with some water, and the kids can use them as masks.

Ludwig helped shred the thin shirt into pieces, and Davis soaked them with water from a half-full plastic bottle in her purse — the only water on the bus. She dispensed the dampened masks to the children and instructed them to hold the fabric over their mouths.

“I want you guys to suck on the rag a little bit,” Ludwig told them. “It’ll make your throats feel better. But I have to warn you, I don’t know when bus driver Kevin last washed his undershirt!”
The students giggled.

Davis walked down the aisle with the last dregs of water, giving each child a sip. She would have loved some herself: Her chest ached, her head swam and each inhalation scratched her throat like gravel. But she had to save as much as she could. Some­one might need it more.

Ludwig took over to give Davis a second to rest. As she walked down the bus aisle with the bottle, she tripped, spilling the precious water.

“Kevin, I need to get off this bus to get more water,” she said as she returned to the driver’s seat.
“I’m not letting you off. It’s way too dangerous out there,” he said.

“I don’t care, Kevin,” Ludwig replied. “We need water.”

He knew she was right. He opened the door, and she descended into the darkness.


Feeling her way along Roe Road, Ludwig bumped into a tall, rangy figure. He was a young man in his 20s, inked with tattoos, who had aban­doned his car to see why traffic wasn’t moving.


“Do you have any water?” Ludwig asked, uncertain how he would react. “I have 22 kids on a bus, and we need it badly.”


“Let me check my car,” he said, cutting back through traffic.


“Thank you,” Ludwig said.

A few minutes later, he reappeared with two plastic bottles. They were crunched and nearly empty, as though they had been rolling around his floorboards for a year, but they contained some water. His generosity felt staggering.


She returned to the bus, which hadn’t gone far: Every 10 minutes or so, it would shudder forward an inch, if that. They had been trapped on Roe Road for more than an hour, although they were only half a mile from merging onto Neal Road, which promised a direct route to Oroville — and safety.


Ludwig and Davis were resoaking the rags when McKay noticed an older man hosing down his travel trailer. He asked Ludwig to hop off the bus to fill up their three water bottles. The teacher did, feet crunching across the desiccated grass. Reach­ing the man, she held out the three bottles and asked if he would fill them.


“Of course,” he replied. “How many kids do you have?”


She told him and he ducked inside his home, returning with half a case of water bottles. He handed the flat to Ludwig without a word, then picked up his hose again.

“If the bus catches fire, can we come huddle with you?” Ludwig asked.

“Sure,” the man said, splashing more water onto his trailer.

“Mary,” McKay yelled to her. “Get back on board!”
The bus was creeping forward, and although they weren’t going far, he didn’t want her out of sight.
Ludwig sprinted back. She and Davis drizzled more water into the children’s mouths. Their lips were chapped from the smoke and dehydration, and their faces were pink with exertion.


The students did whatever was asked of them with­out complaint, although they were exhausted. The fire outside had heated up the metal bus like a pizza oven. Ludwig estimated that it had to be at least 100 degrees. The children were sweating through their clothing.


One young boy had undone the buttons on his flannel shirt, exposing his pale, bare chest.


A few rows back, 10-year-old Rowan Stovall couldn’t tear her eyes away from the bus window and the wildfire consuming Paradise.


The days of fishing for bluegill at the Aquatic Park, baiting them with dandelions, seemed like a thing of the past. She feared there would be no more collecting crystals or skipping rocks at Paradise Lake with her mom, no more karate or horseback riding lessons.


Rowan, who was nicknamed Rowboat by her mother, was tough. She never cried when she skinned her knee or bit her lip — she had been raised with male cousins — but she couldn’t hide her emotions if someone hurt her feelings. She loved animals with a tenderness that her mother found endearing: She doted on their three cats and tracked the speckled fawns that munched on their lawn in the evening.

Now, as Rowan stared out at the burning forest, she saw a deer trapped by a burning log. Its spotted body stumbled forward, then slumped to the ground, overtaken by flames.


‘We’re moving!’


McKay cranked open the bus door.
“Do you need a ride?” he asked a young woman who looked lost on the side of Roe Road.


The 20-year-old preschool teacher gratefully boarded Bus 963. Her car had run out of gas a few blocks back, she said, and she no longer had a way out of town. She slid into a seat in the back, passing rows of quiet children, uninter­ested in the presence of a stranger. They were too worn out to care.


The intersection with Neal Road neared. As the car in front of him turned, McKay finally got a glimpse of the crossroads. Vehicles were crammed into every lane. Panicked drivers wouldn’t let the bus merge.


Everything ahead of them was ablaze: houses, trees, shrubs. If McKay didn’t kick the bus into gear, they were going to get caught, too — but there was nothing he could do, nowhere he could go.


In the back of the bus, Ludwig gripped her inhaler, her asthma aggravated by the dense smoke. Davis closed her eyes and thought of her fiance. McKay pictured the 22 children running for their lives, scattering into the forest in every direction.


Just then, a truck cut around the bus and blocked a lane of traf­fic on Neal Road. McKay accelerated into the space and made a wide turn onto the evacuation route. The truck belonged to the Ponderosa Elementary School principal, who had been tailing the bus for miles to make sure the children got to safety.

McKay swung the bus onto the road and hit the gas. “We’re moving!” he exclaimed, incredu­lous.
Davis turned to look out the window. They were passing a fa­miliar property — the home of her future in-laws, where she had enjoyed many holiday meals and Sunday dinners.


She spotted her fiance’s truck parked in the driveway, and his father standing alongside it in a reflective yellow vest. Neither of the men was budging until they knew she was safe. She had argued with Gerspacher about it on the phone earlier, begging him to leave.


“Nope, not doing it,” he had replied. To see him now felt like the greatest gift. Davis waved at him, awash in emotion.


Bus 963’s final stop


An officer by a barricade blocked the school bus from entering Chico, and traffic toward Oroville was gridlocked. So McKay drove 25 miles south to the tiny town of Biggs, arriving around 2 p.m. More than six hours had passed since they’d boarded the bus.


After a food and bathroom break, the children were taken to Biggs Elementary, where Ludwig’s father had once taught. She nearly cried at the sight of the familiar brick building.


Her own school, Ponderosa Elementary, had been badly damaged in the wildfire, which, they would learn later, had claimed 85 lives and 11,000 homes. McKay’s house was gone. So was Davis’s. Ludwig’s had survived, but she knew that Paradise would never be the same.

Kevin McKay’s house was destroyed by the fire. He doesn’t plan to rebuild it and has since moved to Chico, although he still owns the property.
They’d reckon with those losses in the days and weeks to come.

Now McKay locked Bus 963, its ceiling encrusted with layers of black soot and dust, and followed the coughing children into Biggs Elementary.

Some of their parents, including Rowan Stovall’s mother, Nicole Alderman, had spent the past few hours at a Mormon temple in Chico waiting to learn the fate of their kids.

Alderman tried not to give in to fear, but wondered if Rowan “was scared, if she was alone. I was just trying to stay calm and focused, because being panicked wasn’t going to help me find her.”
Then a text arrived. It contained a snapshot of a Bus 963 manifest, the names of the students aboard scribbled in pen on a piece of paper. A school administrator read the list out loud and asked the parents to make the half-an-hour drive to Biggs.
Their children were alive.

Lizzie Johnson is an enterprise reporter at The Washington Post and the author of “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire.”

Jennifer Hall Lee, a member of the Pasadena Unified School District board, wrote recently about the importance of of “high-functioning” school boards where members work together toward common goals and avoid partisan politics.

Case in point: the PUSD board has a higher standard for vaccinations than the state. At a time when many school boards have been split by partisan battles, it is good to hear of a school board that prioritized the public health of students and staff over politics.

She wrote:

Only the Governor of California has authority over the PUSD School Board, and on August 11, Governor Newsom announced. “California Department of Public Health (CDPH) today issued a new public health order requiring all school staff to either show proof of full vaccination or be tested at least once per week.” He is requiring proof of vaccination or, for the unvaccinated, to be tested at least once per week.

The Governor’s plan on testing is less robust than the plan the PUSD is already acting upon: PUSD has a stronger testing plan for students.

  • Because of our strong relationship with the City of Pasadena Department of Public Health and Dr. Ying-Ying Goh, PUSD was among the first districts in our area to offer vaccinations to all teachers, staff, students and family members.
  • 96% of PUSD staff and teachers are already vaccinated: 1,320 through PUSD-run clinics, and another 800 through appointments at clinics at Huntington Hospitalthrough a partnership with Pasadena Public Health.
  • On August 5, the PUSD School Board had affirmed the goals of the Superintendent, Dr. Brian McDonald, Ed. D.: attestation of vaccines among staff and mandatory testing of all staff and teachers.

A sign of sanity, common sense, and responsibility: Culver City schools require all eligible students to be vaccinated. Superintendent estimates that about 1 in 20 parents object. Why should their objection override the public health of all students?

The Culver City Unified School District has issued a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all eligible students — believed to be the first such requirement in California — a move the district superintendent said has the overwhelming support of parents, teachers and staff.
Currently, children 12 and older are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, which remains under emergency use authorization by the Federal Drug Administration. The Culver City requirement has a Nov. 19 deadline, and district officials hope the vaccine will have received full FDA approval by then.


California has ordered all K-12 school employees to be vaccinated or submit to weekly coronavirus testing — and a growing number of school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, are mandating employee vaccines with no testing option. A spokesperson for the state Department of Education said the office is not aware of any other student vaccine mandate among California’s 1,000 school districts.


Culver City Supt. Quoc Tran said the student vaccine mandate was issued after safety protocol discussions with the school board, teacher and employee unions and parents — who agreed that the requirement would help protect their schools as much as possible. The district, which serves 7,100 K-12 students, has 900 employees, who also must be vaccinated. Students go back to school on Thursday.

Carol Corbett Burris was a teacher and principal on Long Island, in New York state for many years. After retiring, she became executive director of the Network for Public Education.

She writes:

Last spring, HBO released Bad Education, which tells the story of how a Roslyn, New York Superintendent named Frank Tassone conspired to steal $11.2 million with the help of his business officer, Pamela Gluckin.  Promo materials called the film “the largest public school embezzlement in U.S. history.”

I did not watch it. I am waiting. I am waiting for HBO to release a movie on how a crafty fellow from Australia, Sean McManus, defrauded California taxpayers out of $50 millionvia an elaborate scheme to create phony attendance records to increase revenue to an online charter chain known as A3. 

Or the documentary about the tens of millions that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) owes taxpayers for cooking the books on attendance. Or perhaps there will be a mini-series about the fraud and racketeering that charter operator Marcus May engaged in that brought his net worth from $200,000 to $8.5 million in five years and landed him a 20-year sentence in jail. 

The truth is, Frank Tassone and his accomplice are small potatoes compared to the preponderance of charter school scandals that happen every day. What is different is how lawmakers respond. 

When the Tassone case hit the news, I was a principal in a neighboring district. The New York State Legislature came down hard with unfunded mandates on public schools.

We all had to hire external auditors and internal auditors that went over every receipt, no matter how small. Simple things like collecting money for field trips or a club’s T-shirt sale suddenly became a big deal. Although there was no evidence that any other district was engaging in anything like what happened in Roslyn, every district transaction came under scrutiny.

Whether those regulations and their expenses were justified or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is that despite the years and years of scandal in the charter sector, state legislatures never change laws or impose new rules. For-profits run schools doing business with their related companies behind a wall of secrecy, and lawmakers do not worry a bit. 

I am puzzled. Why can’t charter schools be as transparent as public schools?  Why is the ability to easily engage in fraud necessary to promote innovation? 

No one has been able to answer my question yet.