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LA Unified school year begins tomorrow, what has changed?

Craig Clough | August 17, 2015



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Back-to-School2As the curtain goes up tomorrow on another LA Unified school year, many of the problems of last year appear resolved, giving hope that the new year will unfold with fewer headaches despite a flurry of changes.

The last school year featured weeks on end of trouble, including scandal, labor unrest, technology problems, a polarizing school board election and a seemingly never-ending stream of negative headlines. But much has changed since then. So, what’s different about 2015-16?

School calendar

Tomorrow, doors open a week later than last year — but still weeks earlier than pre-2011, when school began in early September.

Last year’s early August start — which was made to give high school students more time to apply for colleges and study for entrance exams — led to complaints about students suffering through blistering heat, and it also sent the district’s energy bill upward. In an effort to please critics, the board moved to push back the start date this year to Aug. 18. But no one on the board seemed happy with the compromise, and several members expressed a desire to go back to a September start date for 2016-17.

The mid-August start has created a few other oddities to the calendar, including an unbalanced number of instructional days in the semesters, with the fist semester having 79 days and the second semester 101. There will also be a full one-week break for Thanksgiving and a three-week winter break.

Staffing increases and decreases

LA Unified will have fewer teachers this year but more administrators, counselors, nurses and librarians.

To head off a predicted budget crunch, the board voted in June to layoff hundreds of teachers and cut programs, including adult education. As a result of the cuts and other changes, there will be 882 fewer K-12 teachers as the year begins, 13 fewer early education teachers and 97 fewer adult education teachers, according to data from the district.

On the flip side, partly as result of the new contract the district signed with the teachers union, UTLA, there will be 96 more school counselors, 12 more nurses and six more librarians.

The biggest eye-grabbing change is in principals and assistant principals, which shows an increase to 1,564, from 1,187 last year. But the big increase is mostly a mirage. As a result of an agreement reached in January between the district and the administrators union, AALA, the roles of assistant principal and “instructional specialist” have been combined, leading to a large increase on paper in the number of APs.

“When we run our numbers this year, the number [of APs] is much higher because it encompasses those employees as well,” said Maria Voigt, director of Administrative Assignments for LA Unified.

But in addition to the consolidation, 70 more assistant principals have been hired and they will all be assigned to schools that did not have an AP last year. The AP is a critical role that helps a school function better, Voigt said.

“With the increase of assistant principals, the principal can assign everyday duties and responsibilities to the AP so that the principal can have time to focus on other critical matters and mandates, “Voigt said. “It also provides more time for classroom observation and evaluation and of supporting new teachers.”

iPads, but not for all 

LA Unified began last school year still moving forward with its controversial plan to provide every student and teacher in the district with an iPad. But the plan crumbled due to increased scrutiny of the bidding process, a problematic rollout and glitchy educational software, all of which contributed to the resignation of former Superintendent John Deasy in October.

After taking over, Superintendent Ramon Cortines cancelled the entire iPads-for-all program known as the Common Core Technology Project and rebranded it. As a result of the purchases that were made before it was cancelled and the purchases of other laptops and tablets to accommodate online standard tests, the district now has roughly 230,000 computer tablets. Principals who want to use them must submit detailed plans.

“We’ve now revamped the one-to-one project and are deploying thousands of tablet and laptop computers that were part of the initial technology pilot,” Cortines said in an email to LA School Report. “We have also been working to ensure that wireless networks are operational, that teachers have received appropriate training and that technical support is available. In addition, the principals at each of these schools have had to submit a plan for how teachers will integrate technology into classroom instruction. We remain committed to using technology as an instructional tool, and to making sure that Los Angeles Unified moves forward in a way that best serves students and the entire school community.”

MiSiS — will it still be a crisis?

At the beginning of last year, LA Unified launched its new district-wide computer information system, MiSiS. Needless to say, it was not ready for primetime and caused an array of problems while the initial $29 million cost soared to over $133 million. But Cortines said the extra money has been well spent and has issued assurances that schools will not be plagued with the same computer problems this year. With over 14,000 students still without a schedule as of last week, all fingers are crossed to see if his promises come true.

Labor peace

Aside from the iPads and MiSiS problems hanging over the beginning of last year, one other dark cloud was the strong possibility that teachers were going to strike. The strike threats continued throughout the school year until a new contract agreement was reached in the spring. The district also signed new contracts with its other major unions, so while other problems may arise in 2015-16, it should prove to be a year of labor peace.

New organization

Cortines has made a number of fundamental changes over the last 10 months in the organization of the district and in its leadership. He has eliminated a number of positions at headquarters, which has led to an exodus of top administrators. He also restructured LA Unified’s Educational Service Centers into geographically based offices, a move that added two new centers and eliminated the Intensive Support and Innovation Center that worked across the district.

New leadership

Another monumental change from last year is in the superintendent. Deasy was still at the helm last August, although under increasing pressure and scrutiny until he resigned.

As his replacement, Cortines returned to lead the district for the third time and has generally received high praise for his leadership from the board. Cortines has expressed a desire to retire in December, meaning the board will have to move fast to find a replacement, and it only began the formal process recently.

LA Unifed also has a reconfigured school board since July, with Tamar Galatzan being replaced by Scott Schmerelson and Bennett Kayser being replaced by Ref Rodriguez. But while the personalties are different, the board has maintained the same ideological balance.

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