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‘Do what works for your schools’ — A new year kicks off in Los Angeles with a new superintendent looking for change

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | August 13, 2018

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LA Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner at Charnock Road Elementary on Monday visiting school staff the day before school starts. (Courtesy: Justin Frank/Los Angeles Unified School District)

LA Unified kicks off a new school year Tuesday, with a new superintendent looking to lead in a new way.

Here are some reasons why Superintendent Austin Beutner says change is needed in the district:

  • Of every 100 students who enter LA Unified high schools, 12 will drop out.
  • Of every 100 students, 77 will graduate from high school.
  • Of every 100 high school graduates, only 12 will graduate from college.
  • Less than 60 percent of LA Unified’s graduates are eligible for a public four-year college.
  • Not all students have access to great schools and thus are not on a path to college or a 21st-century career.
  • If nothing changes, about $450 million of the $700 million in district reserves will be spent to cover the deficit in the 2019-20 school year.
  • Only half of LA Unified schools offer both high-level calculus and physics.
  • Only 1 in 10 students take high-level, AP STEM courses, and of those students, only 1 in 4 females will achieve a college-going score.
  • Of the nearly 63,000 students in gifted programs, only 3,300 — or about 5 percent — are African American.
  • LA Unified has almost 70,000 students with an individualized education program (IEP); about 7,000 students are severely disabled. The rest — 63,000 students — can learn on grade level, yet nearly 50 percent are segregated from their peers for much if not most of the day.
  • Less than 2 percent of students with an IEP who are in segregated settings are proficient in reading or math.

This year, the traditional superintendent’s back-to-school address broke the mold of being a formal “state of the district speech.” Instead, it was a simple message — and shorter than in previous years. The whole event lasted a little over an hour and included a sports celebrity guest speaker.

Unlike other years, there was no big screen with an elaborate powerpoint presentation or video showing the district’s accomplishments and data. There were no department head speeches, no announcements of a strategic plan or particular campaign or goals. Five of the six board members were in attendance, but this time they were seated with the rest of the audience and not on stage.

There was just Beutner on stage, committing to reducing bureaucracy and to letting school leaders lead their classrooms without having to “ask for permission.”

“All great schools start with a good leader, and I’ve never met a leader who asked for permission to lead,” he said. The administrators and principals seemed unsure whether to break into applause, and some laughed nervously trying to understand what they were hearing as most of them are used to the centralized district’s culture where decisions are made at the top — “Beaudry,” where the district headquarters building is located.

“The answers are in your classroom in your schools. We at Beaudry don’t have all the answers. Do what works for your schools,” Beutner said. “This chapter will be built on simplicity and focus, not on quick fixes and new programs. We need to build on the things that are working and change the things that are not.”

Superintendent Beutner with school administrators after his speech Thursday at Hollywood High.

Beutner, as the new leader of over 1,000 schools serving almost 600,000 students, outlined his priorities Thursday:

  • Boost attendance: Starting Monday, parents will be getting recorded messages by phone from sports celebrities from LA teams such as the LA Lakers and LA Clippers encouraging them and their students to be in school every day.
  • Reduce bureaucracy: The superintendent noted that an average principal receives in a month from the bureaucracy about 300 emails totaling thousands of pages of materials. “We’re going to cut that in half by simplifying communications and communicating only what matters. Starting Monday, school leaders will receive a comprehensive, biweekly email from their director.”
  • Empower school leadership: Beutner wants to reduce the time school leaders spend on managing bureaucracy and compliance and increase the time and focus on getting results for students. “We need to rebuild schools where students and schools are the center, not Beaudry.”
  • Increase community and family engagement:As we enter this new chapter, we need to ask the community and parents to help us with our commitment. This commitment has to be embraced by the entire community of LA — students, families, teachers, school leaders, civic and grassroots organizations, the business, labor and philanthropic communities, faith-based communities, and city, county, and state elected leaders. Public education is the common ground on which we all stand,” Beutner said.

LA Unified board member Richard Vladovic, who represents schools in the South Bay and South Los Angeles, said after the event that he looks forward to seeing those changes happen. “We can do better, and I agree with everything he (Beutner) said. We’re going to move forward, and I don’t want any more going back. I believe the kids can do it if we expect them to. I’m excited!”

Board President Mónica García added, “I heard the superintendent say ‘back to basics’ and it reminds me when I got on the board, we said embrace change. And when I think about embracing change, it is about knowing that the greatness is in the inside.” Her goal for the new school year is “inspiring self-efficacy from our students, our parents, our leaders. And this district is about closing the gap, equity, and the students and getting to graduation, doing what we need to do.”

Board member George McKenna said, “Improving the underperforming schools is the only reason why I joined the board of education” and that will continue to be his focus in the new school year. “I think that my role is to empower us to be knowledgeable on how to do it as opposed to how to address the problem. I want to solve the problem.” He said he soon will present a proposal for a plan that “makes sense” to change an underperforming school to become one that is thriving. “There should be a plan,” McKenna said.

Board members Scott Schmerelson and Kelly Gonez, with her newborn son, were also present. Nick Melvoin was the only board member not at the Thursday meeting.

For the first time in at least two decades, the event had a celebrity guest speaker. LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers delivered a short motivational speech especially for school principals.

“You’re trying to inspire a group of kids to dream and believe, but there’s no guarantees for them and you still have to inspire them every day. I’m trying to inspire guys that make millions of dollars,” Rivers told the school principals. “You can win every day by inspiring someone to be successful. That’s the world championship for you.”

Beutner reiterated his vision and invited the school leaders to take part in it.

“I invite you to be a rule breaker and help change the status quo. Leadership matters. Be bold. Don’t wait for me or someone in Beaudry. Start doing whatever it takes to improve results for your students,” Beutner said.

He closed by saying that “I accepted this job because I believe in the potential of every single student that attends our schools. I will be a relentless advocate for you and the students in LA Unified.”

Late Friday,  Beutner announced in a statement that the district will develop a specific plan to provide more resources to schools and improve student learning by moving decision-making from the central bureaucracy directly to schools, so school leaders, teachers, parents, and the school community can be the ones identifying the needs of schools and students.

The effort will be led internally by Vivian Ekchian, LA Unified’s deputy superintendent of schools, and an external team formed by longtime LA civic leader Miguel Santana, who is currently president and CEO of Fairplex; Peter Taylor, president of ECMC Foundation, a national foundation that makes investments in postsecondary programs and initiatives focusing on college success; and  Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and a former Los Angeles County supervisor.

LA Unified will hire two firms, Kitamba and Ernst & Young, a consulting group, to help in the initiative. Kitamba is an education organization that designs strategies to produce learning improvements for students. Their work will be funded by the Fund for Equity and Excellence, the Ballmer Group, California Community Foundation, California Endowment, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and Weingart Foundation.

Disclosure: The 74, the parent organization of LA School Report, receives funding from the California Community Foundation and The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

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