San Pascual Elementary principal removed amid concerns by parents and teachers

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Entrance of San Pascual Avenue School in Highland Park, Los Angeles, Ca. Friday, April 12, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

On Friday, April 5, Paula Cordoba, principal of San Pascual STEAM Magnet Elementary School (SPSM), was temporarily removed from her position as head of the school after a number of complaints of harassment, favoritism and neglect from students, faculty and staff. A teacher hired by Cordoba took a leave of absence from the school following similar complaints. Cordoba arrived at SPSM in 2014 after being removed from her position as principal at Aldama Elementary School, according to SPSM parent Pamela Chow and others.

At an April 2 town hall meeting, parents and students said that Cordoba harassed, humiliated and mistreated several students at SPSM during her tenure there. In total, 25 people came forward. A parent said that his son broke his arm this year but Cordoba failed to call 911 for hours and had non-medical personnel move his son’s arm around. One former student, Calvin Benito, said that Cordoba had singled him out, repeatedly called him a bully and yelled at him during his time at the school. Calvin, now 15 years old, said that the problem became severe enough that he started asking his grandmother if he could skip school.

Teachers said that Cordoba yelled at them in front of their students, gave unequal treatment to the faculty and unfairly took credit for creating the school’s magnet program. Three teachers at the elementary school agreed to speak out under the condition of anonymity because they were afraid of retaliation by the school and the community. The teachers said the issues with Cordoba started when she did not allow them to speak at a symposium for the magnet program that they said they created.

“No one confronted her because everyone was afraid. Everyone had seen how she treated [one of the anonymous teachers]. It was just always talk amongst ourselves and no one felt brave enough to file a grievance with the union, ” an anonymous teacher said.

That teacher said that she thought Cordoba was withholding privileges because the teacher had questioned the principal’s leadership style. The teacher who had been allegedly publicly mistreated said she was punished for speaking up against Cordoba during the principal’s early years at SPSM.

“She became very hostile, like when I would ask for things like, ‘Can I go to this training or go to that training?’ There was always a reason why I couldn’t go,” the teacher said.

Former student Calvin said that his family had been filing complaints with the district since Cordoba’s first year but had not seen any response until now. Multiple parents at the town hall said through translators that they thought Cordoba was targeting them because they did not speak adequate English.

School parent Chow, a lawyer, said that her family has never had a negative experience with Cordoba or any of the teachers Cordoba hired. According to Chow, a lot of parents had not heard about any issues with the principal until Cordoba was removed from the school. Chow said that SPSM was the perfect fit for her kids until this issue started.

Playground and classrooms of San Pascual Avenue School in Highland Park, Los Angeles, Ca. Friday, April 12, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

“It was an idealistic educational area,” Chow said. “Her [Cordoba’s] vision is clear. Community leadership, empathy, academic integrity and reflection. The district should be ushering in change, not blowing it up because some parents are afraid of change.”

Chow said she was afraid to share her side of the story at the town hall meeting because the hostile atmosphere in the room made her feel unsafe. A parent who spoke in favor of keeping Cordoba as principal was interrupted repeatedly by other parents in the room during his time at the podium.

Occidental education professor Ronald Solórzano, a former LAUSD teacher, said that a school district will traditionally try to keep on a principal unless they violate serious protocol. With personality issues, a school district will have to weigh whether the issue is serious enough to cause removal, according to Solórzano.

While many parents and students said that Cordoba’s leadership created an unwelcome environment for the school, Chow said that she thinks that the people coming forward only represented a small group out of the approximately 300 families at SPSM.

Cordoba will remain on leave while LAUSD investigates. LAUSD officials have not yet responded to interview requests from The Occidental.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a teacher was being formally investigated by LAUSD.