PaliHi’s Hiring Practice under Scrutiny

2018 Palisades HIgh School graduates were accepted to prestigious colleges.

PaliHi College Center Undergoes Changes

Last spring, Palisades High School seniors were accepted to elite colleges/universities, such as Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton and Stanford, as well as UC schools, such as UCLA and UC Berkeley, and various two-year colleges.

About 97 percent of the 2018 class was accepted to either a four- or two-year college or both.

The four counselors at PaliHi’s college center–Ruth Grubb (head of the center), Melissa Rangel, Diana Hurst and Karen Ellis–wrote letters for the almost 700 students applying to four-year private schools (letters of recommendation are needed from a counselor).

Additionally, the women met with students/parents to make recommendations for colleges or universities where a student most likely would be accepted.

At the end of July, Ellis, the least senior of the college center advisors, was promoted to head of the center. She has two children who graduated from college.

Grubb, whose three children attended PaliHi and graduated from colleges around the country, was told she was being reassigned as a regular counselor.

Hurst, who has three children, two of whom graduated from PaliHi and were/are college athletes, was the lead counselor for students who were interested in playing sports in college. She was told eight days before she was supposed to return in August that her contract would not be renewed.

Melissa Rangel kept her position and Kristi Morrow, new to PaliHi, was hired.

Dr. Pam Magee, PaliHi’s executive director/principal, had no comment about the changes.

When Dr. Chis Lee (director of academic planning and guidance services) was asked, “Why did you make a change, especially since 97 percent of kids go to college?”  he responded, “We just wanted to try something different.”

By trying something different, did administrators follow the rules?

All non-classified positions are at-will, which means a person can be dismissed for any reason and without warning (as long as the reason is not illegal).

A Palisades High School senior led the Pledge of Allegiance at the graduation last June. Executive Director Pam Magee (right) joins in the pledge.

But PaliHi does have set rules for hiring. Its charter specifies that hiring should be done by a committee consisting of the executive director or a designee, the supervisor and/or other representative member from the appropriate operational department, “and at least one member each from the parent and pupil stakeholder groups.”  (Page 77 of the PaliHi Charter).

The hiring committee, assembled in late July just for the college center positions, consisted of five administrators: Magee, Dr. Chris Lee (director of academic planning and guidance services), Amy Nguyen (director of human resources), Monica Iannessa (director of student achievement) and Tami Christopher-Hooker (director of admissions).

The remaining five members included classified representative Gio Stewart (unification director), teacher Joel Jiminez, 2018 PaliHi graduate Amir Ebehadj and two students, whose names were not made public.

Christopher-Hooker, who was a teacher last year and joined the administrative staff this fall, had a son who entered PaliHi in August. Circling the News was told she was considered the parent on the committee. Ebehadj, who was counseled by Ellis last year as a senior and entered Berkeley last month, was deemed the community member.

Circling the News contacted Nguyen to ask why community members or a local parent was not on the interviewing committee.

Nguyen wrote in an August 7 email to Circling the News, “Based on the reasonable judgment of PCHS management, all panelists were selected based on their experience and ability to meaningfully contribute to the selection of the new Head College Advisor.”

Of the eight adults on the hiring committee, only Nguyen and Christopher-Hooker have children. None of the other administrators, the teacher, the classified staff or the community rep (Ebehadj) do.

In addition to being Ebehadj’s college counselor, Ellis also serves on the board of PaliHi’s Fuerza Unida with Jimenez and Iannessa.

Three people were interviewed for the head position, and Circling the News asked to see the applicants experience or questions asked during the interview.

Nguyan wrote, “PCHS will not disclose these interview questions given that they reasonably fall within recognized exemptions to the PRA [public record act], including at Government Code section 6254(a) [preliminary drafts, notes, or intra-agency memoranda not retained by the school in the ordinary course of business]; as well as section 6255. To the extent this response denies any request you have made pursuant to the PRA, the PCHS administrator responsible for such denial is Executive Director Pamela Magee.”

Circling the News learned that some parents had complained because they didn’t feel counselors suggested the right colleges for their seniors.

But, counselors understand the college application process is a numbers game. If a student has a 3.9 and a 31 ACT, it might be marginal to get into a UC school, such as UCLA or UC Berkeley, because those students join students with similar scores who are applying from all over the city, state, country and internationally.

The students who apply for UC schools are “ranked” with the scores (combination of grades and standardized test scores), and then, extracurricular activities and essays come into play to determine who is accepted. A talented athlete may be chosen over someone who has a higher score, but mostly it is a simple numbers game.

Additionally, at PaliHi, records have been kept for years of students who get into an “elite” school such as Columbia or MIT and what stats are most likely needed for admission. As much as a parent might not want to hear that their child is not Harvard material, counselors have a good idea of what constitutes a “stretch—and beyond” school.

Even if administrators want to make changes, as they are allowed to do with at-will jobs, there is a prescribed method of hiring in the Charter. In the case of the college center, it appears it was not a fair search. Additionally, the college center no longer has a counselor who can make recommendations about Division-I, D-II or D-III sports.

A PaliHi student was accepted into Harvard last spring.


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3 Responses to PaliHi’s Hiring Practice under Scrutiny

  1. perry akins says:

    It is not the percent of HS graduates that are accepted into college from PaliHi that is important, but the number who actually graduate. There are many career opportunities available to HS graduates other than a 4 year degree which lead to well paying and satisfying professions. In the Los Angeles Unified District 60% of the HS graduates enrolled in college 2010 only 20% of those had graduated with a bachelors after 6 years (source-LA Education Research Institute –August, 2017. Maybe we can do a better job, schools and parents, in advising our young people about career opportunities.

  2. Jack Allen says:

    Without getting into the hiring process, something definately needed to be done to improve the performance of the College Center. My gripe, which others shared, was that the Head Counselor was late in submitting transcripts and letters of recommendation to colleges and that it sometimes required repeating the request. Naturally the Head of the Center gets blamed but my impression was that the Center was beleaguered by the number of requests that had to be responded to and that perhaps the problem was not with the College Center but with the School Administration.

    Part of the problem is perhaps organizational. Colleges request an evaluation of a student from a School Counselor which in most cases is the Center Head. But the Center Head most often is being asked to comment on a student that the Head does not even know. Each student does have a School Counselor who is the best member of the School Staff to know about the student and the one member of the Staff who should be writing the letter of recommendation. But what I experienced was that the Center Head asked me to give the evaluation which was used to prepare the letter of recommendation. Asking a parent to do that defeats the purpose of the recommendation.

    Another thing that was troubling is that many schools ask for the student’s class standing but Palihi does not provide that information. Instead information is provided from which the applicant must guess at his or her class standing. Not being able to provide the actual class standing puts the student in an awkward position and can work to the student’s disadvantage. Whether this is a School policy or just a policy of the College Center, it needs to be fixed.

    Whether an employee of the College Center has had children who graduated from Palihi and/or college is irrelevant. That would exclude candidates who are single. Candidates should be judged only on their experience and training as school administrators, particularly in counseling, and their character.

  3. Sue says:


    I respect you immensely, but there are a few inaccuracies in your statement. I worked pro bono in the Palisades College Center for the past three years as a writing coach. Any kid that couldn’t afford a college counselor or any kid that wanted a second eye on an essay, could sign up and I’d work with them. I sat in the center around three mornings a week from around 8 a.m. to around 1 p.m. There are four counselors, with the head overseeing the center. They are supposed to work in tandem. They invite usually more than 150 college admission officers, who visit the school. Kids can obtain a pass, go to the center and talk to the college rep. The college center counselors are also tasked with overseeing the AP fees and exams, a herculean task in the spring. The school is proud to have so many kids taking APs, but the administrative oversight requires more manpower than the college center, and that is not acknowledged by administration. It also takes the four counselors away from strictly dealing with college counseling and starting to work with juniors/incoming seniors.

    Let’s go through your allegations one by one.

    TIMELY MAILING–The transcripts and letters of recommendations had to be requested by the kids to have them sent out. If a student doesn’t follow up with the college center, then the problem rests with the student. With 700 students for four counselors, the student really has to be the one to follow through. Additionally, I saw disagreements between parents/guardians and the students about where the kid actually wanted to go. Once a kid is 18, they are considered an adult and the ball is in their court. My third child, although admitted to seven of the nine colleges he applied to, enlisted. As much as parents would like to have control and feel we know what is best for the kid, the law says differently.

    LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION: You are right about a letter of recommendation being needed from a school counselor and that it would be impossible for a counselor to know each and every kid. That’s why they send out a detailed questionnaire to parents and a separate one to the kid. They take what they learn from those papers to write a recommendation. So, the more information you and your kid provide,the better the letter that can be written.

    CLASS STANDING. Up until this fall, class standing was given to students. At a School Board meeting in the spring, the center received permission to do away with handing out rankings. Two reasons were given: 1)the amount of stress and anxiety among students over the rank was a problem, and 2)colleges said they rarely looked at that information. We in the Palisades tend to be myopic. We feel if our kid is fifth in a large public school it has to mean something. But how about the kid from Georgia who comes from even a larger public school and is ranked fourth? I graduated second in my high school. Pretty impressive, right? Not really, my GPA was a 3.4. and I attended a Reservation school, no APs. But I scored practically perfect on the ACT, which earned me a year of free tuition and board. Once again, even though Harvard is now under fire for their admissions process, it goes back to test scores and grades–not class ranking.

    PARENTS. I was the best parent in the world, and then I had kids. Unfortunately, most of the administration at PaliHi doesn’t have children, which is why I think it has taken so long to fix the math department and deal with other problems like the bathrooms aka the Juul Rooms. People in the Palisades are viewed as helicopter parents, rather than someone who has a legitimate concern. But, we sit with our kids, we know the homework, we hear the stories, we see our kids working. Mine were straight A students in middle school, scored in the 90th percentile on 8th grade standardized testing in math, and all of sudden they’re in high school and they’re dunces. I was told my kid, who was struggling with one math class, basically wasn’t smart enough. As a parent you start to believe them (because they are professionals, right?), you hire the tutor, then your kid gets into college and receives a math degree and an engineering degree. Another kid, who worked so hard, but unfortunately got a teacher that shouldn’t be training dogs was also told that they weren’t bright enough. Hired another tutor. The kid decided on a private college (among many to which they were admitted), had to take a math placement test, but easily tested into the highest level. But when colleges use mainly grades and test scores, a D in math or in another subject, really impacts a kid. Administrators don’t get it, they don’t have kids.

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