Rachel Harris woke up at 6 a.m after making sure to get a good night's sleep. Million Reneau got decked out in a new plaid shirt. And their fifth-grade classmates at Baldwin Hills Elementary in Los Angeles also showed up fresh-faced, with neat braids and bows, new backpacks and books, ready for their first day of school Tuesday.
They were among more than 644,000 Los Angeles Unified School District students who returned to classes this week, supported by the largest funding increase in seven years for hundreds of new teachers, counselors, nurses, library aides and principals.
At Baldwin Hills, four new teachers joined the school as excited families showered the staff with flowers, gifts and wild applause at an opening day assembly.
"I was very excited to see all of my friends and start learning again," said Rachel, 10.
Her class got a special back-to-school visit: California's top cop, state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, accompanied by L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy and Board of Education member Monica Garcia. As part of her campaign to increase attendance, Harris encouraged students to stay in school.
Last year, a study commissioned by Harris found that one in four California elementary students — nearly 1 million total — are truant each year. The "attendance crisis," she said, jeopardized students' academic futures and deprived schools of needed dollars. A follow-up study is scheduled for release next month.
Harris is sponsoring four state bills to ease the truancy problem, including one that would require the collection of statewide student attendance data. The bills are set for a hearing in a state Assembly committee Friday.
As she visited two Baldwin Hills classrooms, Harris quizzed the children about why school was important and gave them big smiles and high fives when they said it would help them learn, go to college and get good jobs. Rachel, for instance, told Harris that she wanted to be a lawyer "so you can help people out when they have problems."
"Will you come work for me?" Harris asked her.
Because of a voter-approved tax increase two years ago, L.A. Unified's budget grew this year to $6.64 billion from $6.2 billion last year. The funding boost, following years of layoffs, helped pay for nearly 1,600 additional staff, including 98 principals, 770 general teachers, 335 special-education teachers, 192 library aides, 127 counselors, 53 nurses and 15 librarians, a district spokeswoman said.
The nation's second-largest school system also received an additional $838 million for students who are low-income, learning English or in foster care. The extra dollars were delivered under the state's landmark 2013 law that gives districts more money for those disadvantaged students — but also requires them to lay out a specific plan on how to use the money to boost their academic performance.
Letitia Johnson-Davis, Baldwin Hills' principal, said the school was using the more generous funding this year in part to train teachers on new learning standards known as Common Core. The standards, which are being fully rolled out statewide this year, are aimed at boosting problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
Johnson-Davis said her school, for instance, will be using more nonfiction texts, such as "African Beginnings" about the history and contributions of Egypt, Mali and other African civilizations.
L.A. Unified also launched an expanded online student information system this month, but it ran into some problems logging attendance and assigning students to teachers.
At Union Avenue Elementary in downtown Los Angeles, for instance, second-grade teacher Scott Johnson said instructors did not receive their class rosters until Tuesday morning — and some of them were inaccurate. That prevented them from figuring out in advance where to seat students to account for behavior problems, academic proficiency, English ability and other factors that would have helped ensure a smooth and efficient opening day, he said.
At Baldwin Hills, Johnson-Davis said the staff was taking attendance by hand and resolving classroom assignments for the 5% of students who had not received them by Tuesday morning.
The teachers union staged a midday news conference, cataloging a list of problems at various schools and calling Deasy "reckless" for the district's pace at changing over to the new student records system.
"The problem with LAUSD right now is a top management problem," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. "The superintendent has run into this headlong... ."
The teachers union is in the midst of contentious contract negotiations with L.A. Unified, and district officials suggested that the union was attempting to gain political advantage by exaggerating the computer problems.
Deasy acknowledged the system's glitches but said a lawsuit required the district to improve its records system. He said staff members are meeting daily to address the problems.
"The result will be far greater transparency for parents," Deasy said of the system, including an ability to check grades and attendance daily.
Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this story.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times