More than 650,000 Los Angeles Unified students went back to school Tuesday, supported by the largest funding boost in seven years for hundreds of new teachers, counselors, nurses, library aides and principals.
At Baldwin Hills Elementary in Los Angeles, four new teachers joined the school as excited families showered the staff with flowers, gifts and wild applause at an opening-day assembly. Fifth-grader Rachel Hillman said she woke up at 6 a.m. to get ready for the day after making sure she got a good night's sleep.
"I was very excited to see all of my friends and start learning again," she said.
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. Harris visited two Baldwin Hills classrooms to encourage students to stay in school as part of her campaign to increase school attendance.
Last year, Harris commissioned a study that found that one in four California elementary students -- nearly 1 million total -- were truant each year. The "attendance crisis," she said, jeopardized student academic futures and deprived schools of needed dollars. A follow-up study is scheduled for release next month; four state bills she is sponsoring to ease the truancy problem are set for hearing in the state Assembly on Friday.
As she visited two 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 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.
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 the 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, however, Johnson-Davis said the staff was taking attendance by hand and quickly resolving classroom assignments for the 5% of students who had not received them by Tuesday morning.
Overall, the district's budget grew this year to $6.64 billion from $6.2 billion last year. The funding boost helped pay for more than 1,000 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 distributed 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.
Tuesday also marked the special election to fill the school board seat formerly held by Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died in December. The election pits George McKenna, a retired senior school district administrator who finished first in a June primary, against Alex Johnson, education advisor to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.