More magnet programs, more bilingual education programs, more attention paid to preparing the youngest students in L.A. Unified's system. Above all, more graduates.
L.A. Unified Supt. Michelle King — her contract newly extended until 2020 — laid out her priorities Tuesday morning in a speech that promised to push ever harder for her goal of 100% graduation but offered few new proposals.
The superintendent's State of the District address, delivered this year at Garfield High School in East L.A., is an annual tradition. The event is part pep rally for the 1,500 administrators in the audience, who will begin a new school year on Aug. 15, and part political performance.
Last year, King used her platform to announce that L.A. Unified's graduation rate had broken records. It had soared to 77% for the class of 2016 from 72% the year before. It was an ideal introduction for the then-new superintendent and welcome news for a district that has struggled to convince families it should be their first choice for schooling.
This year, King did not reveal the 2017 graduation rate, saying instead that she would wait for the state to put its stamp of approval on the final figure. More than 26,000 high school seniors had earned diplomas, about 85% of their class, she said, offering a statistic that is considered a less comprehensive metric of a district's academic performance than the graduation rate.
Rather than trumpeting this year's graduation rate, King emphasized L.A. Unified's falling suspension rates and increasing success with students learning English, as well as the district's ever-expanding number of magnet programs.
She announced that the district is opening 28 new pre-kindergarten programs and that there are plans for 10 new dual-language programs for 4- and 5-year-olds with instruction in either English and Spanish or English and Korean.
"Students have the right to realize their full potential," King said. "And we collectively have a moral obligation to get them there."
Throughout her speech, King kept to familiar ground. In the year and a half since she was chosen to succeed Ramon C. Cortines as superintendent, she has emphasized incremental progress while setting aspirational — some say unreachable — goals. At the heart of her vision for the system’s roughly 514,000 students is the 100% graduation rate, which no large urban school district has ever achieved, and a 100% attendance rate.
This focus on making a high school diploma attainable by each and every student has raised questions about whether the district is graduating students who haven’t mastered basic skills. Critics say the district has made it easy for failing students to earn credits by completing online or in-person courses that aren’t as rigorous as a typical class.
King did not address some of the thorniest issues facing the school district.
Squeezed by a growing number of charter schools, a declining birthrate and rising housing costs that have forced some families to move outside the district, L.A. Unified's enrollment has been dropping steadily since 2003. The loss of students has meant a loss in state funding at a time when the district's pension and retiree healthcare costs are climbing.
About 16% of district students attend charters, which are popular with many parents and compete with traditional L.A. Unified schools for students.
The district has forecast that its enrollment will continue to fall for the next several years, potentially forcing King to propose unpopular cuts to staff and school programs.
Some of that pain is already being felt at the school level. More than 100 library aides, clerks and other support staff were laid off at the end of the last school year.
Although outgoing school board members succeeded in extending King's contract until June 2020, questions remain about how she will handle her relationship with the new board.
Unprecedented campaign spending by charter school supporters last spring helped upend the balance of power on the board, which had tilted in favor of public sector unions. After all the ballots were counted, King had lost an ally, former school board President Steve Zimmer.
With the addition of Kelly Gonez and Nick Melvoin, the board now has a charter-backed majority. Several of its members have expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of change under King.
On Tuesday, new board President Ref Rodriguez, a member of the new majority, assured King that she would have his support and that he expected the board to unite behind her.
"Superintendent, I commit to you and to the people of this district that I will build bridges to support your vision," Rodriguez said. "I got your back."
5:05 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details, remarks from the speech.