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‘Change must happen’ — Austin Beutner is introduced as superintendent and vows to start with LAUSD’s culture

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | May 2, 2018

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Austin Beutner with members of City Year Los Angeles and LA Unified board Vice President Nick Melvoin, left, before Beutner’s introductory news conference at Belmont High School.

*Updated May 2

Austin Beutner is ready to make hard choices to bring about change.

“It starts with culture. LA Unified has to become an institution that looks at each issue with the mindset ‘We can do this’ and is willing to change to achieve that objective,” the new superintendent said Wednesday at his introductory news conference at Belmont High School near LA Unified’s downtown headquarters.

“The district has to be more transparent and accountable to the communities it serves. The choices the district makes about resources need to take into the account the views of the community.”

Beutner was introduced by LAUSD board President Mónica García and described by community leaders as someone “whose soul is committed to the future of children.” Board Vice President Nick Melvoin said the new superintendent “can get things done” and that “he is the right choice for this precarious moment in LA Unified.”

The former investment banker and LA deputy mayor acknowledged he is an “unconventional choice” for the position, after his lack of experience in education came under criticism at Tuesday’s board meeting before the board announced he had been elected in a 5-2 vote.

He vowed to make the “hard choices to unlock the enormous potential in schools across the district,” because “the status quo isn’t good enough. … Change must happen.”

Beutner signaled who his primary audience is as his first words were directed to a group of Belmont students. “Why start this job speaking with students at a school campus? Because you, students, and your future is what matters most.” The students surrounded him with enthusiasm and even created a banner placed in the backdrop reading “NEW Superintendent” and a drawing of a superhero.

He had started his day at three other campuses with board member Richard Vladovic: Leland Street Elementary School, Dodson Middle School, and Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy. 

Belmont was a fitting example of the challenges Beutner will face. Last year only 11 percent of its students were proficient in math and 39 percent in reading. It was even lower for English learners (30 percent) and Latinos (38.7 percent). And Belmont just landed this week on a new list of the most struggling schools in LA Unified that will get additional support next year, possibly even a waiver from having to hire teachers sent from the district. It is one of 106 high schools in the highest-needs category on the new Student Equity Need Index, which ranks schools based on student demographics, the academic status of incoming students, and community indicators such as asthma and gun violence.

He said he has some innovative ideas to tackle the district’s biggest challenges, including declining enrollment and chronic absences, but he wants to discuss his ideas with the students first.

“Let’s start with having these conversations with students not in Beaudry. Beaudry, where the LAUSD’s headquarters are located, reminds me more of the county jail than it does of a place where the magic happens, and this is where magic happens.”

In finding some common ground with the more than 600,000 students he will serve starting May 14, he said, “Each of you comes to school each day with your own story, your own experiences that inform you and your dream for the future. To help you understand where I’m coming from, I want to share with you my own story.”

He told them his father came to this country as an immigrant as his family fled the Nazis in Germany. He also shared that his mother was a reading teacher and that he attended public schools.

When asked about public school choice and how he will address the growth of charter schools and declining enrollment in the district, he said that his own parents had the choice to be in a community that provided the best options for their children.

“It’s not about charter or not charter, it’s more about making sure that all kids in Los Angeles receive the best education possible.”

• Read more from The 74: Can a Few Simple Letters Home Reduce Chronic Absenteeism? New Research Shows They Can

• Los Angeles Schools Pay a Price for Absent Students: How Rising Chronic Absenteeism Cost LAUSD $45 Million

One of his first steps to bringing in more funding will be to reduce chronic absences, something the task force he co-leads has studied.

He said 80,000 students in the district are missing 15 or more school days and that the district can reduce that by following what school districts in New York and Cleveland have done by using direct mailers to inform parents how many days their children were missing.

If LA Unified did that, “8,000 to 10,000 kids would be better attenders, they’ll learn, and absenteeism matters to the whole classroom because the revenues come back — probably $10 million of revenue for the district as a whole next year, so we can try simple things like that.”

*The name of a school Beutner visited, Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy, has been corrected.

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