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Inglewood educator returns to turn schools around

Kent Taylor hopes to stabilize the insolvent district that he says set him on his course through life. But not everyone is rooting for him.

November 27, 2012|By Kurt Streeter, Los Angeles Times
  • Before arriving in Inglewood, Kent Taylor helped turn around the troubled Southern Kern Unified School District. When he left, the district was no longer in trouble.
Before arriving in Inglewood, Kent Taylor helped turn around the troubled… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

When he was a kid, Kent Taylor bounced from school to school in South Los Angeles until his family landed in Inglewood. In sixth grade, he started classes at an elementary school under the LAX flight path.

Thirty-six years later, he's back where he began.

"This very classroom set me on my course through life," he told students at Oak Street Elementary on a recent day. As some of them whispered, wondering if the slender African American man before them was President Obama, Taylor spoke of how he struggled to read and do math until one teacher singled him out.

"I understand what you are going through because I have been there, sitting right where you are sitting."

Named recently to turn around Inglewood's insolvent school system, Taylor is offering his life as a symbol for the change that can come to a district long mired in trouble.

But not everyone is cheering for Inglewood's would-be hometown hero, who is known for ruthlessly cutting bloated costs in another school district. One critic refers to his "quiet assassin style. You smile and grin a lot, but you are cutting people off at the knees."

Everyone agrees that Inglewood needs help. The district's standardized test scores are among the worst in California. At Inglewood High, for example, just 25% of students are at grade level in English, and 4% are proficient in math. Enrollment is in free fall, largely because students have been lured away by charter and private schools.

Because state funding is calculated largely based on attendance, the decline has left a gaping hole in the district budget. In September, Inglewood became the ninth school system to be taken over by the state. The district received a $55-million loan to shore up debts, and its leadership was stripped of power.

As state administrator, Taylor's mandate is to stabilize the district's finances — and offer some hope to its students.

In that classroom that had meant so much to him, he told the children he would be there for them. He said he'd keep coming back to their school, that he'd check on their progress. He'd even host a pizza party.

"I am you, many years from now," he said. "I want you to know that you can achieve your dreams — and I'm going to help you get there."

Taylor, the youngest of three, had a turbulent beginning. His father wasn't around much. His mother was an office clerk who at times survived on welfare. Nobody in his extended family had ever gone to college.

"Life was very hard on my son in his younger years, there's no way around that," said his mother, Ivory Wilborne, 70. "I tried my best to provide for them, but nothing was ever settled. It was hard just to pay for food. But life settled down once we got to Inglewood."

Taylor speaks mostly of his sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Fletcher, crediting her for seeing his promise. She spent extra time with the rambunctious boy who entered her classroom with poor academic skills.

"She didn't give up on me," Taylor said. "Her diligence pushed me to improve, literally gave me the foundation to succeed in later years.... Before that, honestly, I was headed for trouble."

By the time Taylor reached Inglewood High, he had become an "A" student, bookish and by-the-rules, able to read and do math better than most of his peers. He was named class president his freshman and sophomore years. Inglewood was beginning a hard struggle with gangs back then, but the gangs didn't bother kids like him — "the ones who spent our time lugging around heavy backpacks, proudly marching off to the library," he said. "That's the guy I became."

"There was something special inside him that made him stand out," said Mary Boykin, one of his English teachers. "I recall talking to him a great deal about his desire to go to college, his desire to be somebody. He was one of those you don't ever forget."

Taylor went on to UC Riverside, a big move for a kid who'd rarely ventured outside his working-class, mostly black neighborhood. He began to mix with other cultures and classes, even joining a predominantly white fraternity.

"This was another step, leaving Inglewood, expanding my view of the world," he said. "I wasn't sure if I would ever return."

Taylor's career in education took off in the 1990s. He worked as a special education teacher in San Bernardino, became a principal and then a district supervisor overseeing curriculum and intervention programs for struggling students.

In July 2011, he moved with his wife and three children to the Antelope Valley town of Rosamond, where he was named superintendent of the small Southern Kern Unified School District.

The district was in such bad financial condition that the state was considering a takeover. Officials had already made several tough decisions, the biggest a 10% reduction to its roughly $25-million budget achieved largely by giving furlough days to teachers, custodial and administrative staff.

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