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Q&A: LAUSD District Superintendent Frances Baez on her challenges and achievements

Nicholas Dinh | October 13, 2022

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LAUSD District Superintendent Frances Baez (Getty Images)

Determined to provide herself with a quality education in the 1980s when opportunities for Latino students were limited, a young Frances Baez endured more than two hour bus rides from her Boyle Heights neighborhood to a LAUSD affiliated charter school in Pacific Palisades. 

“I had to take a bus and go across the city to Palisades High School to get an education that would help prepare me to be competitive and move on to college,” said Baez. “In my local community, I felt like that at the time, there wasn’t enough to provide me that opportunity.” 

For Baez, the long daily trip helped lead her to a lifelong career in public education, first as an elementary school teacher and now as an L.A. Unified district superintendent. 

Born and raised in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in East L.A., and a product of L.A. Unified schools, Baez was recently named 2022 Superintendent of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators. 

In an interview with LA School Report during Hispanic Heritage Month, Baez discussed her career in public education, the challenges she has overcome as a Latina woman, the gains schools have made over generations regarding diversity; how much further they have to go; and her plans to improve test scores.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you initially find yourself working in the field of education and what sparked your interest in becoming an administrator?

When I was graduating from UCLA, I had three different job offers. I worked in the medical field first, but I soon realized I wanted to do something different and more meaningful. And at the time, there was a need for teachers for L.A. Unified. With the opportunity, I applied to a few schools, eventually accepting a position at Hillside Elementary School as a first and second grade teacher with about thirty-three students. I realized right then and there that I had made the right decision….I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people. It was almost like it was accepting an invitation to do something that I didn’t really know I was going to fall in love with. 

It then led me to become an administrator from my experiences as a teacher, where I found myself being involved and taking on additional responsibilities outside of the classroom, helping students in my grade level in addition to the whole school. For example, I saw that there was a need to improve writing instruction and so I began to work on professional development by putting resources together for teachers to use. Little by little, I was assuming a new role throughout L.A. Unified that eventually led me to where I am today. In those 27 years, I held a lot of roles that were really about leading and implementation at a large scale. 

As a Latina what were some of the most obstacles you had to overcome during the start of your career, and what challenges still exist today for Latino students that need to be addressed?

Initially one of the challenges that I faced in this career of education was that the majority of the leaders were male. Being Latina, forces you to navigate a system that’s unfamiliar to you. The organization in education was difficult to understand and so was the political landscape. It became complicated for Latinos. This was seen when Proposition 227 abolished bilingual education in the late 1990s. It was a sense of discrimination that educators felt in the system and we felt we were throwing our students right into mainstream English programs without providing them the language support that research shows students need. This was very difficult for educators, to teach English to students who did not know the language yet but were developing their language acquisition. As a classroom teacher, we saw that we had to quickly mobilize for our students. However, those in power did not understand that there was a process by which we would need to provide our students the proper transition. So there was a lot of advocacy around ensuring that we provided our students primary language support, as well as acquiring the English language 

There was another legislation that came about and just recently dual language was accepted, allowing us to implement language programs that previously were not accepted in the late nineties. This had to do with…how people who hold power in our country tend to be non minorities. Therefore, we had to implement policies by people that did not value the culture of the community that we served. Now bringing awareness to people is important because for years decisions have been made in a vacuum without understanding nor connecting to cultures. Early on in education, there were more non-minority teachers teaching minority students who didn’t really understand our students. Now we’re seeing more people of color teaching our students, but we’re not where we need to be. It really has to do with just a lot of advocacy, being aware of how we are being marginalized and having to break through those barriers to ensure that there’s always access to opportunities for Latinx communities.

How is LAUSD addressing Latino students falling behind in the standardized test scores as this has been a long-term trend? It has been reported that Latino students had the deepest learning loss due to the pandemic, what is the recovery plan of the district focused on these students?

Definitely the learning loss was evidenced nationally and in L.A. Unified. Our Latino students have not shown proficiency in English and math particularly in California for many years. Even before the pandemic, our Latinx students demonstrated a need to perform better on these assessments. To help recover, L.A. Unified is providing tutoring for our students by prioritizing 100 schools that demonstrated the lowest achievement based on different indicators. I have 47 in my local district and what I’m doing with these 47 is ensuring that they have the resources, infrastructure, and a credential teacher. Incorporating credential teachers at every single classroom so that our students are obtaining grade level learning in addition to opportunity for small group instruction. We’re ensuring that our principals are observing the schools that are high achieving and similar in demographics to make sure that they understand how to lead schools into high achievement. We’re meeting with our parents, having workshops with our families to support their children at home, providing those additional learning sessions, intervention after school on Saturdays, really identifying those barriers and making sure that we hear them and provide support. I have provided a lot of training for our principals and worked with teachers to provide different tiers of support for our students so they get personalized learning throughout the day, afterschool, and on the weekends.  

Give students what they need to meet those grade level learning skills, and then also give them access to that test so they understand the domain and how to make that assessment literacy. What does this assessment look like? Where do I click? How do I answer? But mostly it’s just ensuring that they have the skill set. So we have to not just recover, but we have to surpass where we have been in previous years.

What are some gains the district has achieved in serving Latinx students in the past decade?   

I think there’s so much which is why I’m so proud of being a part of L.A. Unified, because we have been able to interrupt policies and reshape this district with new policies that benefit our Latinx community. If we go back to ten years ago, we know that there were overcrowded conditions in our schools, that our Latinx students in particular, were facing a system where they were either trapped and not given opportunity to access college courses where counselors were not approaching Latinx students and not letting them know about college. There was a time where students were being transported far away. I was a student of L.A. Unified growing up in Boyle Heights. I had to take a bus and go across the city to Palisades High School to get an education that would help prepare me to be competitive and move on to college. In my local community there, I felt like that at the time, there wasn’t enough to provide me that opportunity. 

Now today, what we’ve done for students is making sure that all of our students have access to the A-G curriculum, that they understand how to apply to college, and that our families know how to apply for financial aid. There has been a massive construction project thanks to the voters in L.A. who voted for bond measures. Buildings were built to alleviate overcrowding conditions and to end transporting students across the city. There’s also been legislation making sure that our facilities are adequate, that teachers have the right credentials to teach English learners, that we have the necessary materials for every single student in every single classroom. In fact, our communities were one of the last to be offered STEM opportunities. Now our students compete nationally and even globally, bringing back medals and trophies. Performing arts is another area that we’ve also opened doors just recently even opening the George Clooney school there at Roybal Learning Center. A school that serves 100% of students who are free and with reduced meals, a majority Latinx. It’s through the programs that we bring and the fact that people are willing to partner with L.A. to innovate these tremendous changes over the years.

In addition to being named 2022 to Superintendent of the Year, you also recently led 53% of LAUSD schools in receiving the California Department of Education Pivotal Practice Award and more than 50 L.A. Unified School District schools were honored for their excellence in these areas. Can you explain what this amazing achievement means to you as someone who’s been working in this field and your hopes that this leads for future generations? 

This is a really important achievement and recognition because I have to tell you, I worked super hard during the shutdown of March 2020 up to the present. We’re still continuing to work hard, but the initial investment in time and energy and problem solving was intense. It was intense for us to find a way to connect with our students during the most challenging of times. We were doing things I never thought I would do, just to be able to reach our families. We took a lot of risks and I took a lot of risks. I knocked on doors, went to school when we didn’t have the vaccine just to try to reach our families. People were still scared to go out and visit families. I was going out with schools to begin an enrollment process for our kindergarten students when we didn’t have faculty on campuses. So I took a lot of risks because I didn’t want to lose my family. The risks we took, I think it led to a lot of innovation, a lot of collaboration, a lot of problem solving, giving our students the best.

I bet if 100% of our schools would have applied, they probably would have all gotten it. But at the same time, just filling out that application was just a huge undertaking with everything that they were still trying to do. It was a team of us that were helping them to complete that application so that they could receive that recognition because they needed to be recognized for something they were doing behind the scenes. I didn’t want their hard work to be forgotten.  

Lastly, can you share with us your future plans in the next coming years?

What I want to do in the next few years is make sure that there is a network in our communities, a network of parents, a network of partners that can quickly address or come together to solve a problem as it presents itself. That we have an ongoing network where we work with partners and our schools to support our students. That we establish networks within students such as a network of administrators for a pipeline to develop effective administrators that are going to lead schools to success and a network for teachers too. Another goal is to develop a strong support for young Latin American ladies, because that’s another area that the Latin American community faces, is that women are also treated very differently than men are as leaders. When women advocate, they are seen as aggressive or confrontational. When a male advocate advocates, they’re given more opportunity to speak than a female. So those are some of the disparities that do happen to young ladies during their youth. We need to make sure our families know how to have a balance between maintaining our culture, but also provide our young ladies an opportunity to go on to internships or to college and to a profession while still maintaining the traditional values that we hold in our community. I want to invest in the social networks and pipelines so that we can grow, grow our system into one that is responsive to the needs of our Latin community, and that is able to quickly mobilize and activate when there’s a problem that is presented. 

This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.

Nicholas Dinh is a Freshman at the University of Southern California. Originally from Downtown Anaheim, CA, Nicholas is a journalism major at the school of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. 

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