Equity for high-need schools — courage and collective action required
Latasha Buck | March 19, 2018
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I believe that most educators who are parents want for their students exactly what they want for their own children — to be academically, socially, and emotionally prepared and supported to thrive in their chosen college and career. My daughter is doing exactly that as a freshman at Hampton University this year, and I work every day to ensure my nearly 800 students at George Washington Carver Middle School in South Los Angeles are similarly prepared when they graduate from Los Angeles Unified in 2022, 2023, and 2024. However, to make success in college and career a reality for Carver students and students from other high-need schools in Los Angeles, equitable funding is needed to provide significantly more tangible resources to schools and students who need it most.
In many Los Angeles neighborhoods, attending college is not a stretch of the imagination. In Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, which also serve students in LA Unified, over 70 percent of adults over 25 have a four-year college degree. However, in my school’s neighborhood of South Los Angeles, only 3.2 percent of adults over 25 have a four-year college degree. That is not a typo — 3.2 percent.
At George Washington Carver Middle School and our neighboring schools in South LA, we are trying to create a vision of opportunity most of our students have never truly seen or felt. Our staff is doing all we can to prepare and support students to achieve goals that could radically transform their futures. High-need schools need more supports — like social workers, nurses, and arts programs — than schools in more affluent areas. And we need courage and collective action from our district leadership and the broader Los Angeles community to help us get there.
Our school is located just a few blocks from a large tent city full of homeless families. Every day I wonder which of our kids spent the night in a tent, broken down motorhome, or crowded camper. Many of our students are living with grandparents or foster parents, many are moving every few months, and many get all of their meals at our school. Over the last two years, on average only 7 percent of our incoming sixth-graders began their middle school career reading at grade level. This means that our students have to work much harder to not only learn grade-level standards, but they also have to catch up on the foundational skills which they should already have acquired. To be college and career ready, our students need dramatic academic, social, and emotional intervention at school each day.
We all know budgets are shrinking, but I believe the LA Unified School Board wants to do more to support our students academically and social-emotionally. For example, as a result of advocacy and collaboration between community partners and the District, George Washington Carver Middle School was selected as an “Innovation School” for the next three years, meaning we will receive additional dollars to support our students’ vast needs. With these dollars, we have created a strong plan that includes restorative justice, academic interventions, social-emotional supports, and enhanced family engagement. We are confident that with these additional resources, progress monitoring, and dedicated staff, our students’ outcomes will dramatically improve during their time with us. The “Innovation School” program is a significant step toward bringing more equity into how the district funds its highest-need secondary schools. Now is the time to carry that same equity to elementary school funding.
In addition, in LA Unified, only 7 percent of the elementary school budget is at the discretion of the school site leadership team. Most funding decisions happen miles away from the neighborhood school, especially staffing decisions, like having enrollment thresholds for allocations of assistant principals (AP). Because of the decision to require 1,100 students in order to get an AP, only three of approximately 450 LA Unified elementary schools receive one from the district. Most hire assistant principals and other necessary positions from limited discretionary dollars that could otherwise go to instructional materials, mental health support, after-school programs, and the like. In addition, the dollars coming from the state’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) targeted student population funds — the dollars intended to be the most equitable — disproportionately favor high schools in LA Unified. High schools receive approximately $1,000 more per student than elementary schools. All secondary schools would benefit greatly if more funds were allocated to the elementary schools so that more students could enter middle and high school better prepared.
As a former elementary school principal, I can attest to the challenges of increasing student achievement (in all its forms) with the small budgets elementary schools receive. As noted in the recent policy brief published by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, many of the highest-need elementary schools in the district lack important supports such as a nurse, a psychologist, a counselor or instructional coach, or intervention programs for struggling students. The result? High-need elementary schools have the least capacity to address the elevated needs of their students’ during the most formative time of their academic career.
If we want to do right by our future high school graduates, we have to make some courageous and collective decisions about redistributing resources intended for the highest-need students in the highest-need communities. In fact, LA Unified is expected to receive $80 million in new funding from the state next year (as a result of fully funding LCFF two years early), and I would suggest the best way to spend this new money is in support of our elementary school scholars. In the coming weeks and months, including on Tuesday, March 20th, the District will discuss the budget, and the community is always invited to give public comment. If you believe as I do that students from South LA and other underserved communities — especially our youngest students — should be prepared and supported to thrive in the college and career of their choice, then I encourage you to elevate your voice for equity.
Latasha Buck is principal of George Washington Carver Middle School.