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On a first-day district tour, new L.A. schools chief signals his style and intent

On a first-day district tour, new L.A. schools chief signals his style and intent
L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner serves up dishes prepared by culinary students and graduates from San Fernando High School with Principal Flora Mendoza-Warner. He'd like to serve up more such learning opportunities for students. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

On the first day of school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, recently hired Supt. Austin Beutner climbed a firetruck, served out farro salad and gripped a golf club — all part of a whirlwind day in which he signaled some of the ways he hopes to improve the district’s performance and reputation.

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After 12 stops over 14 hours, the message was complicated. But so is the job. The nation’s second-largest school system is spending more than it’s taking in and also must address lagging student achievement, declining enrollment, labor unrest and political turmoil — all while managing 1,000 campuses serving more than half a million students, of whom 4 out of 5 live in poverty.

Although each stop was intended as a showcase of a success, the visits also demonstrated the depth of the challenges facing the businessman-turned-schools chief.

Roybal Learning Center | Reaching out

Because the first stop began at 5 a.m. — to catch morning TV and radio drive time — it was too early for students or classes. So the focus at Roybal, just west of downtown, was on school employees: a food service manager, the plant manager, a teacher setting up his math class, police officers going through roll call in their central office at the base of the campus.

Beutner asked employees what the district could do to make their jobs easier. In the cafeteria, Marie Smith said it would help to avoid untrained last-minute hires. In Room 225, teacher Moshe Molcho spoke of better communication: “It’s a great feeling,” he said, “when everyone understands we are here to help students learn.”

Although most employee groups have tentative or ratified contracts, teachers are the notable exception. And, at a morning news conference at Roybal, reporters repeatedly asked about a possible strike. Beutner repeatedly deflected.

“Today is celebration of the start of school,” Beutner said. As to labor negotiations, “we’ll get to that in due course.”

But he did suggest that the district would address budget problems by making what would most help students the priority.

Wilson High School | Plugging innovation

The Wilson campus looks out across East Los Angeles, and the view got even better for Beutner when he perched atop a full-size fire engine for a photo, joined by new L.A. Police Chief Michel Moore and Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas.

The goal was to call attention to the school’s police and firefighter magnet programs, which offer coursework related to those fields.

Magnet programs, which vie to attract students from across the district, are part of the strategy to improve academic achievement and reverse declining enrollment. The district has 261 magnet programs at 202 campuses — 70 opened over the last three years. The school system also has closed about a dozen magnets in recent years, either for low enrollment or disappointing results.

More than 15% of district students attend magnets.

Other stops also highlighted new or expanded academic efforts. At the newly opened University Pathways Public Service Academy in Florence-Firestone, students will earn community college credits and degrees while still in high school.

Coeur D’Alene Avenue Elementary | Highlighting success

This Westside school has an unusual distinction. Its enrollment has increased 20% over the last decade or so, even as the district has been shrinking steadily. Beutner credited a coherent academic vision and steady leadership. Principal Andrew Jenkins has been in place 10 years. And he’s so respected that he and his staff train educators at other schools.

When Beutner stopped by, teacher Carly Payne was leading her combination fourth- and fifth-grade class through a “book tasting,” in which students “sample” several books for a few minutes each to decide which ones they want to read later.

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A page fell out as Zack Mitchell, 9, perused “Frankly Frannie, Principal for a Day.”

“Uh-oh, this book has been loved,” Payne said.

There were hundreds of others in her classroom library, but Zack kept reading, carefully sticking the page back in.

Beutner wants to stabilize leadership at schools and replicate the best programs. But he acknowledged the difficulty in transferring success from one place to another.

“How much is the program versus the continuity versus the quality of [Jenkins’] leadership?” he wondered out loud.

San Fernando High School | Calling on community

At this San Fernando Valley campus, the destination was the culinary program, which moves students into kitchen jobs at top restaurants while they are still in high school. Jazlyn Corral Bortello, who graduated this year, has a paid internship at Spago and also won a $117,000 scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

The point here was how partnerships with businesses and nonprofits are benefiting students — and how more are needed.

Beutner later revisited that theme at Crenshaw High. Speaking to football players, Pastor David Price talked about spiritual connections that could benefit students. L.A. Rams cornerback Dominique Hatfield told players to be better students than he had been at Crenshaw. And county Department of Mental Health Director Jonathan E. Sherin pledged to expand mental health services.

Beutner grabbed a golf club for a picture with the girls’ golf team. He’s secured lessons with golf pros for them.

Much more outside help is needed, he said, and there is much more help that could be offered.

“People want to help,” Beutner said. “We have to figure out ways to be good partners with them. We also have to keep reminding the community of the importance and value of public education.”

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