New school year, new leaders; familiar and serious challenges for L.A. Unified

Magnet programs such as the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, in Mid-City, have proved so popular that officials are opening more of them. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The nation’s second-largest school system kicks off a fresh year Tuesday with dozens of first-time programs to spur student achievement and recapture enrollment.

But not everything new at L.A. Unified was planned, including recent leadership turnover at the top. As for details of plans to deal with intractable problems, including deficit spending and lagging achievement, they haven’t yet been publicly laid out.

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This year’s additions include dozens of magnet schools and language programs developed over the last two years under former Supt. Michelle King.

King left in September on medical leave and never came back — which was not anticipated at this time last year. Nor was the downfall of former school board member Ref Rodriguez, who stepped down as board president last year after being charged with political money laundering and resigned from the school board last month, when he pleaded guilty.

The new schools chief is businessman turned philanthropist Austin Beutner. The new school board president is longtime board member Monica Garcia. As for the board, for now it now has six members, not seven, until it decides how to replace Rodriguez.

New programs

There are 36 new magnet programs this fall — and 70 have been created over the last three years. The original goal of magnet schools was to offer special programs that would attract white students so that campuses would become or remain integrated. But in these days of declining enrollment and competition from charter schools, magnets are intended more as a general lure to keep any kind of student in the school system.

“Our parents love them, our students love them, and the results speak for themselves,” Beutner said in an interview Monday. “It’s something we want to nurture and continue to grow.”

The district’s dual-language programs will increase by 45 this fall. They offer students regular instruction in English as well as in a second language. The goal is to have them emerge fluent in both.

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Some schools have more than one dual-language program. Kittridge Elementary in Van Nuys, for instance, now will offer Armenian and Spanish. In all, there will be 137 programs at 120 schools.

“We’re in earlier stages, but we think this is a really powerful way to increase student achievement, increase enrollment and prepare students for a job of the future,” Beutner said.

Coming attractions

The district has been talking for years about making it easier for students and their parents to find out about — and sign up for — its schools. That’s supposed to get easier starting Sept. 5, when the district rolls out the next phase of “unified enrollment.” The idea is to provide one online location to find and compare programs and schools.

Parents will be able to use the system to enroll in magnets, dual language, so-called permits with transportation (which, in rare cases, provide transportation for students to attend a school in a different part of town than where they live) and schools for advanced studies (accelerated programs within neighborhood schools). Some campuses with admission criteria, including an all-boys and an all-girls school, also will be included on the site.

Not every public school option will be available. The site won’t for now include independently operated charter schools.

The district’s online school finder, a separate widget on the same starting page, is getting better. It’s now able to provide basic descriptions of schools and lists of schools by category and location, but the information provided still is limited, and comparing schools and navigating through the education jargon is difficult.

The best way to get started is by going online to apply.lausd.net. Trying to get to it from the district’s homepage remained next to impossible during a recent trial run.

Long-term agenda

Beutner has yet to unveil his plan of action for the district’s ongoing problems, which include labor unrest and the ongoing tension between district-run campuses and independent charter schools.

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The growth of charters and demographic changes have led to a steady drop in district enrollment. Last year, K-12 enrollment in district-operated schools was 583,173; this year’s forecast is 571,855, a 2% decrease.

Beutner’s top two priorities appear to be resolving the district’s long-term budget problems and breaking through at schools in which academic achievement has been low for years, even generations.

On Monday, he said a third priority would be to get the entire community invested in the fate of the school system.

He also pushed a novel approach in a speech to principals last week: Break some rules, he told them, when students would benefit as a result.

Breaking rules

Beutner has yet to offer examples about how his rule-breaking philosophy might work. L.A. Unified principals have been conditioned to be all about rules.

And most rules exist for a reason, even if the result is less than ideal. For example, schools must manage the education of students with disabilities through a system of complex, time-consuming rules because these students were overlooked in the past. Simplifying these rules would have to be managed with care, some consistency and perhaps legal oversight.

Union leaders, for their part, see rules as a way to protect members and their working conditions, which then become the learning conditions of students.

On the other hand, does it help students when the labor contract for teachers approaches the size of a Manhattan phone book?

A principal could break a rule by letting a family enroll a child quickly, with less red tape. But would that principal cut the red tape faster for a high-achieving student? And what if that student got enrolled so quickly, that no one checked for the required vaccinations?

Political calculus

On Aug. 21, school board members will debate a proposal to schedule a special election for March to replace Rodriguez. They’ll also have to decide whether to appoint a replacement until an election can be held.

Recent school board races have become high-spending affairs pitting candidates backed by the teachers union against those backed by charter-school advocates. The pro-charter side has spent more and also had more recent success. About a year ago, charter advocates celebrated when the candidates they backed won a board majority for the first time.

Rodriguez was one member of this narrow 4-3 majority. Now there’s more of a balance of power, with the direction of the board potentially up for grabs.

Another factor in the mix is a possible strike by teachers, who have been working without a contract. The process leading up to a strike likely would take at least two months. The district and teachers union have had trouble even agreeing on the agenda for talks, let alone the size of raises. Most other unions have settled with the district.

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