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Popular principal's dismissal leaves a South L.A. school divided

Irma Cobian was highly regarded at Weigand Avenue Elementary in Watts. But under California's 2010 trigger law, she was ousted last week. 'It devastated our morale,' one teacher said.

May 24, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Irma Cobian, principal at Weigand Avenue Elementary in Watts, hugs first-graders Amy Mukul, left, and Shelly Canul. The school board voted last week to accept a parent petition to remove the popular Cobian from the low-performing school. In a show of loyalty to Cobian, 21 of 22 teachers have requested transfers, causing more turmoil for the campus.
Irma Cobian, principal at Weigand Avenue Elementary in Watts, hugs first-graders… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Third-grade teacher Kate Lewis said Irma Cobian is the best principal she's had in nine years at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts.

Joseph Shamel called Cobian a "godsend" who has used her mastery of special education to show him how to craft effective learning plans for his students.

Los Angeles Unified Supt. John Deasy praised a plan developed by Cobian and her team to turn around the struggling campus — where most students test below grade level in reading and math — calling it a "well-organized program for accelerated student achievement." He thanked Cobian for her commitment and hard work.

So why did the school board oust Cobian from her job last week?

That question has raged on the Weigand campus ever since board members voted 5 to 2 to accept a petition demanding Cobian's removal.

Under California's 2010 trigger law, parents at low-performing schools can force out staff, change the curriculum, close the campus or convert it to an independent, publicly funded charter. At Weigand, the district verified signatures of parents representing 221 of 420 students, or 53%; 35 signatures were thrown out as invalid.

It was the state's first successful campaign to remove an administrator, and a sign of the power that can be wielded by a group of disaffected parents. But the outcome has prompted elected officials and education groups to call for closer monitoring of trigger campaigns.

Parent leader Llury Garcia said that although her second-grade daughter has done fairly well at Weigand, Cobian was inaccessible and rude. She and other petition backers were assisted by Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles nonprofit that lobbied for the parent trigger law and is aiding overhaul efforts at several other Los Angeles campuses.

"We want strong leadership," said Garcia, who has kept her daughter at Weigand instead of her neighborhood school because of concerns about bullying. "We support our teachers."

But in a show of loyalty to Cobian, 21 of 22 teachers have asked for transfers to other schools. Several said the petition campaign has poisoned the campus. Profanity has been scrawled on walls and even on Cobian's car. Others said they have no desire to stay without the leader who inspired them.

"It devastated our morale," said Robyn Hernandez, who followed Cobian to Weigand in 2010. "It felt like a betrayal of something we had worked so hard for."

Kathleen McGrath, a district instructional director who works with Weigand, said it could take three years to rebuild a team and get the campus back on track.

This week, parents voted to accept Cobian's turnaround plan as the next step forward. Although a Parent Revolution statement quoted Garcia as saying that parents "spent several months carefully reviewing" the plan, she told The Times last week that she had never read it and disagreed with key elements, such as its focus on reading and writing.

The day after the removal vote, Cobian, 53, made no attempt to mask her emotions.

Trying to cheer herself up, she dropped by Lewis' class to give prizes to those who have read 25 books this year. Cobian whooped for Andrea's 28 and encouraged Joseph to push his 11 to 15.

"I need happiness today," Cobian told the bright-eyed students. "What do I do when I'm sad?"

"Come here!" the students sang out.

For a moment, her sadness gave way to smiles. But later, she said: "I am crushed."

More than two decades ago, Cobian walked away from a high-powered law firm to teach. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she said she was inspired by a newspaper article about the low high school graduation rates of Latinos and wanted to make a difference.

Her passion for social justice led her to Watts in 2009.

When Cobian arrived, Weigand was beset with conflicts over a dual-language program and low parent participation. The school presented challenges associated with lesser achievement: All the students come from low-income families, more than half are not fluent in English and a quarter turn over every year.

She focused right away on morale, sprucing up the campus with a new school logo and banners. She offered prizes and popcorn parties to entice students to read more and initiated good-behavior incentives. Last year she eliminated student suspensions.

Aaliyah Harrison, 12, said Cobian is a special principal who gives her hugs and understands her struggles, such as losing her father to cancer last year. "She is a wonderful person," Aaliyah said.

From the start, Cobian laid out her belief that literacy is the gateway to academic success and she helped teachers boost their classroom skills.

Fourth-grade teacher Hector Hernandez said Cobian is the first principal he's had who frequently pops into classrooms to model good teaching herself. Recently, he said, she demonstrated how to teach about different literary genres by engaging students in lively exercises using characters from the "Avengers" comic book and film.

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