Settlement seeks to keep high school students out of 'fake' classes

Jason Magaña always wanted to go to college to become an engineer.

But as a senior at Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles last year, he was enrolled in graphics, a class he already had passed and would not help him graduate. What he needed to graduate was economics. He also had two “home periods” that allowed him to leave the building and placed no demands on him.

Magaña was frustrated and worried about his future. He was one of several hundred students who spent days in the auditorium waiting for their schedules to be assigned following technical glitches.

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Jefferson made headlines for problems with scheduling tied to L.A. Unified's flawed student data system, though many of those issues have since been fixed.

But a lawsuit settlement announced Thursday confirms what attorneys have said for over a year: Jefferson’s problems were more widespread, and many students across California have missed days, weeks or months of learning time because they were sitting in courses without academic content or merely let out early. 

Students in six schools in Oakland, Compton and Los Angeles that are predominantly low-income and minority were taking these types of classes. The schools are Castlemont High School and Fremont High School in the Oakland Unified School District; John C. Fremont High, Thomas B. Jefferson High School and Susan Miller Dorsey High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District; and Compton High School in the Compton Unified School District.

“Generally, students started school at the same time, and the bell to end rang at approximately the same time,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs and director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law. “What was happening behind closed doors was very different depending on ZIP code.”

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FOR THE RECORD:

An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Mark Rosenbaum was a lead plaintiff. He is the lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

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On Thursday, the state Board of Education voted to approve a settlement in the case of Cruz v. California filed in Alameda County Superior Court. According to the settlement, the state Department of Education will update the online reporting system to include codes for “course periods without educational content” and notify districts of the change.

After schools send their course enrollment data to the state for the next two school years, the education department will have 45 days to give the plaintiffs a summary of the number of students in the six named high schools who have enrolled in or completed courses with no academic content.

The settlement also requires that the state provide technical help to the districts as they work to get rid of these courses. It creates a process for the state to investigate a school where a student is assigned to a troublesome course this spring. The settlement, which becomes final when approved by a superior court judge, also states that the education department will pay $400,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement that the settlement “reaffirms my commitment and the California Department of Education’s commitment to help identify and coordinate local resources for districts with significant problems scheduling students.”

These schools have greater responsibilities than others in the state, but a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month, AB 1012, seeks to ameliorate the problem in all California schools.

Under the law, high schools will be barred from assigning students to “any course period without educational content” for more than a week each semester; they can’t reenroll students in classes they’ve already passed; and any noncompliance will be subject to a complaint process.

The case was litigated by Public Counsel, the ACLU of Southern California and others; it was filed in May 2014. The attorneys investigated the schools in question and found that students were routinely spending periods in classes with no academic content.

In schools that had low proficiency rates on state tests and served disadvantaged students, they found students had less learning time. Students were enrolled in classes referred to as “service courses,” but students weren’t learning anything.

Rosenbaum called them “sham periods,” and the students reported spending those periods watering plants, taking out the garbage, sorting faculty mail and making coffee. Some students assigned to “home courses” left school as early as 11:20 a.m.

Last October, the plaintiffs received a temporary restraining order that required immediate intervention at Jefferson and reaffirmed that the state is responsible for ensuring that California students are actually being taught in class.

The lawyers proceeded with the goal of taking the case to trial. Experts consulted for the case told them that they had never heard of these classes.

“I’ve seen study halls that are meaningless before, kids who should be getting something academically,” said Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA’s education school. “But I hadn’t seen such an egregious case where kids are used as help in the classroom.”

ACLU Southern California’s advocacy director David Sapp said as the case was unfolding, state Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-South Los Angeles) approached the plaintiffs to ask about how he could help his constituents. He drafted the bill that passed.

While Magaña ultimately graduated, the effects of the problem continue: He’s a student at Sacramento State and in his engineering class, he said, “Most of the students in there already have the skills and knew what the class was going to be like,” he said. “I don’t.”

Thursday's settlement, he said, “will help my school.” 

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