school board

Coffee Break: L.A. School Board Candidate on Downward Dogs, Underdogs and Finding His ‘Happy Place’

Nick Melvoin is an ed reformer running to represent District 4 on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board. He is a former LAUSD teacher and, as my Jewish mother would say, quite a mensch. Born and raised on the westside of Los Angeles, Nick taught English at Markham Middle School, an LAUSD campus in Watts. Today, in his work for nonprofits such as Teach Plus and Educators 4 Excellence, Nick helps improve the support teachers across California receive before and during their time in the classroom, as well as amplify teacher voice in policymaking. Nick attended the Vergara hearing last month in downtown Los Angeles and took some time afterwards to talk about his election campaign against LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer, who has become nationally recognized for his anti-reform platform. Instead of talking about your coffee preferences and a way to amp up during a stressful campaign, let’s talk about your favorite way to relax. Like a true Los Angeles native, you’re continuing your yoga practice. What’s your studio of choice? People have been asking me how I’m going to keep a level head and withstand the attacks that are going to come. I think yoga and meditation are a big part of it. [My studio is] Maha Yoga, San Vicente and 26th Street—I’ve been going to the same teacher since I was 15. It’s my happy place. In running against Board President Zimmer, your race has the potential to transform the nation’s second-largest school district by unseating a powerful incumbent. For better or worse, Zimmer has become a polarizing figure both in Los Angeles and nationally, as a representative of anti-reform policies. What is it like to take on that kind of leader? People ask me why I didn’t just run for an open seat or why I’m taking on the board president. In Los Angeles, we run based on geographic districts, and District 4 is the community I grew up in, the community I live in now, and the community where I see my future. People in my district are unsatisfied, and that’s why I’m running. The fact that I’m going up against a nationally polarizing figure is not why I chose to run, but I think it does present some nice contrasts. One thing that has happened in Los Angeles, and nationally, is that education conversations have gotten so toxic and vitriolic that we’re about motives rather than policy. And I think this has not only happened on Zimmer’s watch, but that he has been helping to fuel that fire. I do think that there’s a way to have this conversation in a more level-headed way that acknowledges that we all want to get to the same end. What does it mean for you to be a Democrat and also an education reformer? The same thing that draws me into being a Democrat is what draws me into my views on education—ensuring that public institutions work for the most vulnerable among us. If I deconstruct why I’m a Democrat, it’s because I believe in the power of public institutions and government to make people’s lives better, and provide a safety net below which no one will fall. The reason I’m an “education reformer” is because I believe that our schools are the frontline of those public institutions and should be the elevators of opportunity to lift kids out of poverty. Yet [schools] are clearly broken on so many metrics, and so we have to fix them. You have talked about your vision for a common school application in LAUSD. Can you talk a bit more about that? The idea of a common application is intriguing to me for two reasons. The first is parents. It shouldn’t be so complicated for parents to choose the right options for their kids. It’s very difficult for parents to navigate both charter school and district school enrollment systems (particularly the magnet school “point” system). The idea of common enrollment is that you have a common place for parents to go and sort schools based on geography, test scores, enrichment programs, etc. and then apply by filling out all forms online. And then we could have community organizers out in the parts of the city that need it to get parents engaged. This could be a real game-changer. The second is that it allows us to track enrollment data. A common app would be a nice sorting mechanism for Los Angeles to see which schools are popular and which are not. One of the things about the current state of our schools, charters and enrollment is that there are neighborhoods all over the city where a school on one corner has a 600-family wait list and a school two blocks away is, like, 60 percent enrolled. And really being able to see that in real time is one thing the district hasn’t done. You announced your candidacy three weeks ago. What have those three weeks been like? They’ve been very exciting. I’ve been working 18-hour days, and I haven’t slept much, but after being a teacher, I’m prepared to do anything. What’s been most encouraging is the support I’ve gotten from people throughout the district and really even throughout the city who this new vision really resonates with.
Photo Courtesy of Nick Melvoin.
Halli Bayer
Halli Bayer is an attorney and former middle school English teacher. Since she left the classroom, she has been working in public education law, policy and funding. Halli lives in Los Angeles, California.

Join the Movement