In Partnership with 74

Commentary: ‘Miscommunicating’ and the decline of LAUSD enrollment

Guest contributor | December 11, 2015

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Parents and students protest outside of Playa Vista Elementary

Parents and students protest outside of Playa Vista Elementary

By Nicholas Melvoin

If members of the LAUSD Board of Education are curious as to why the district’s enrollment is declining, they should review how the district treated parents over the last few days in the Playa Vista and Westchester neighborhoods for some clues. In a tale that is unfortunately all too familiar to many LAUSD parents, district leaders publicly promised one thing, parents relied on that promise, the district broke the promise at the eleventh hour, parents were left scrambling.

It is no way to treat constituents — let alone run a school district. And the response from Board President Steve Zimmer acknowledging that parents may have felt communication was “inconsistent and at times confusing,” is quite the understatement. Parents were “confused” because they were misled.

In negotiations over the past year, the district promised parents in Playa Vista that, in exchange for relocating some grades to a nearby campus, the district would help them create a new middle school, open to residents of neighboring communities, that would have its own administrator and greater autonomy.

Late last week, these same parents learned that LAUSD would no longer honor these promises. Superintendent Ramon Cortines acknowledged that there were “promises [he] maybe should not have made.” And yet, they were made. Instead, the board on Tuesday passed a resolution allocating $10.25 million to “define and approve project definitions” at local school campuses — i.e., study the feasibility of a new plan.

Not only did district leaders agree to an enrollment growth plan only to then reverse course at the last minute, but even the initial plan was devised without the input of all parents in the community. The district consulted some parents while leaving others in the dark.

If this sounds familiar, it is because a similar thing happened with the Mandarin Dual-Language Immersion Program at Broadway Elementary School earlier this year. After some parents from neighboring cities with higher performing schools sought waivers to get into LAUSD because of this school, the district pulled the rug out from under them and downsized the program.

What can the district leadership do — besides stop bemoaning declining enrollment only to then stifle its parents’ efforts to stay in district schools?

For one, they need to undertake, in a transparent way, an honest accounting of facilities and enrollment numbers. Parents, principals and teachers have been told different things by different LAUSD offices about which campuses are under-enrolled, which are over-enrolled, and which campuses have the capacity to facilitate more students and even multiple instructional models. In his letter to parents this week, Zimmer admitted that they “do not yet have a plan that meets all community needs.” This seems like an oversight, to say the least.

An overall plan would not only ensure equitable use of space, but would also reduce the in-fighting between schools that occurs mostly as a result of the district’s failures. When there is no leadership from LAUSD, parents are led to believe that space is a zero-sum game and if one school wins, the other must lose. That does not have to be the case, but without a comprehensive plan for space and pipeline for parents who would like to avoid making stressful decisions about schools every year or two, parents are left to fend for themselves.

LAUSD also needs to reorient itself as a service-provider to parents and not as a bureaucratic entity that has a monopoly over public education. As a parent making the hugely important decision about where to send your kid, you should be able to see all the available options on the district’s website — traditional, charter, pilot, teacher-led. It should be a parent-friendly process, not the Herculean task that it is today.

Finally, district leadership should make decisions with parents, not to parents or for parents. A common thread throughout all these near-successes is that, at the last-minute and without warning, LAUSD leadership has turned on these parents and reneged on commitments. Whether it is politics or bureaucracy that is interfering with student achievement and parent satisfaction, this type of backroom and closed-door decision-making needs to stop. 

The district is facing an enrollment crisis, but the culprit is not just new school growth or demographic trends. Every time district leaders mislead parents or pit one group of parents against another, constituents lose trust and faith in LAUSD’s ability to adequately serve our city’s children. It is time for  the district to bring parents together to improve schools for all kids rather than to be a source of divisiveness and the architect of its own decline. 

Nicholas Melvoin is a former LAUSD middle school teacher and current education attorney and advocate.

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