The Los Angeles Unified School District is seeking a new superintendent, who will oversee a system with a $12.6-billion budget, 650,000 students, 90,000 employees and many challenges. Below, education experts, parents, teachers, students and others discuss what the district's priorities should be.
A community of collaboration
The perennial hope, in Los Angeles as elsewhere, is that Superman or Wonder Woman will come in and increase graduation rates, close the achievement gap, guarantee that all graduates are college or career ready — and will do it overnight.
That's not going to happen. What L.A. schools need isn't a miracle but a system built on trust and professionalism — one that treats teachers as professionals, with opportunities to work together as well as support from coaching and mentoring; that encourages networking among educators and collaboration among schools; that makes smart use of data to flag issues such as chronic absenteeism before they get out of hand; that stresses "soft skills" — what report cards used to describe as "works and plays well with others" — and not just literacy and numeracy; a system in which every school is a community school that, in tandem with other city agencies, nonprofits and businesses, delivers health services as well as after-school and summer programs; that forges close ties with early education providers, community colleges and universities; that delivers a seamless, high-quality education from preschool through high school and beyond.
That's a tall order, but it's doable over time. David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute.
Foster parental involvement
My husband and I have three children who attend LAUSD schools. We believe that public education is a team effort, and we try to do our part. But for eight years, LAUSD has met our involvement with unwavering opposition. When a nonprofit we work with offered free on-campus tutoring, one school principal declined to meet with us and a second made the project unfeasible by requiring thousands of dollars in fees. When a parent group raised money to purchase books, host author talks and reward independent reading, school leaders criticized and impeded our efforts.
Arts programs, small class size and technology are expensive. Volunteer services and parent-led programs can help and are free.
I hope our new superintendent will ask families why they are leaving neighborhood schools and what would entice them to stay. Anna Parks lives in South Los Angeles.
Don't go the charter way
Public education in Los Angeles is at a crossroads. Which option will the new superintendent endorse?
On one side are Eli Broad, Wal-Mart and other unaccountable billionaires. They are funding a plan to dismantle LAUSD by greatly expanding unregulated charter schools at the expense of neighborhood public schools, which would see a dramatic loss of resources. High-needs students would be left behind and parents would have little guarantee of input.
On the other side are educators, parents and students building sustainable community schools that are accessible to all. These institutions have well-rounded curricula including college prep, the arts and ethnic studies, involve parents deeply, rigorously support and develop educators, and offer wrap-around services and restorative justice programs.
Investing in community schools and scaling them up will improve public education.
The choice for the next superintendent should be clear. Alex Caputo-Pearl is president of UTLA.
Ensure equitable education
The greatest challenge facing LAUSD and our public education system more broadly is the persistent inequity that has plagued our community for generations. We need a superintendent who will address this problem by making absolutely certain that all students receive the same educational opportunities: STEM classes and arts programs; college and career counseling; special education; a safe and supportive environment; and especially the best possible teaching and administrative staff.
The next superintendent must ensure that our best talent goes where it is most needed: to students from underserved communities. This may mean shifting long-standing policies, including how LAUSD funds individual schools and which campuses receive the most money. It also means allowing high-performing charter schools that are turning around low-performing schools to continue with their important work. Marco Petruzzi is the national chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools, which runs charter schools in California, Tennessee and Washington.
Upgrade the infrastructure
It's not just curricula and testing regimens that need upgrading, it's the infrastructure. All our classrooms and auditoriums should be safe, structurally sound, temperate and well lighted. At the moment, they're not.
In the middle of our fifth-grade musical production in May, the lights in the school auditorium went out. The plant manager couldn't figure out how to turn them back on. We performed the rest of the show in semi-darkness. The next day an electrician said there was no permanent fix because, "The system is 50 years old, and the needed part isn't made any more." He told me that nearly all the schools on the Westside have antiquated electrical grids, and they continue to function only because of the ingenuity of the electricians. That aging grid is hardly the only sign of decrepitude on our campus. We also have leaky roofs, sketchy plumbing, malfunctioning air-conditioners and "temporary" portable classrooms still in use a decade after they were supposed to be replaced. Jeff Lantos teaches at Marquez Charter Elementary School in Pacific Palisades.
Build strong relationships
The secret to successful schools is strong relationships up and down the hierarchy — between the superintendent and the administrators, between principals and teachers. When I was a new teacher at Coldwater Canyon Elementary School, I worked for a principal named Marvin Silver. He took the time to get to know each of us, to learn what was important to us, if we had families, if we were having an off day. He made each of us feel that we mattered. Is it surprising that our students prospered and their test scores increased? Mary Melvin is principal of Porter Ranch Community School
Empower the teachers
I hope that the next superintendent will rethink and reinvent the relationship between teachers and the district. I know many effective educators who feel completely powerless and unappreciated. Outside of our schools we are rarely acknowledged for significant accomplishments, asked for our opinions about district policies or invited to authentically participate in the next stages of education reform.
One step in the right direction would be to regularly survey teachers and publish the results for the public to see. These surveys could help gauge morale at individual schools and the impact of district policies on the classroom. Other worthwhile steps: Creating avenues to help teachers voice their opinions, and ensuring mutual accountability between district level initiatives and teachers.
The new superintendent should also explore creating hybrid roles for highly effective teachers, who would spend part of the day in the classroom and part of it working on policy, curriculum or administrative tasks. Similarly, rather than hire outside consultants to conduct professional development, the district should leverage the talent we have and pay effective teachers to lead these workshops.
By showing teachers that our skills are truly valued, we'll keep more of them in the classroom where they have the greatest impact on student achievement. Daniel Jocz teaches at the Downtown Magnets High School. He is a 2016 California Teacher of the Year and a nominee for National Teacher of the Year.
Include music and visual arts
My elementary school put together concerts that showcased what we'd been learning in dance and music class. My middle school had poetry slams and film classes. My arts high school has curricula that focuses on dance, music, theater and visual arts. But not everyone's so lucky. I know that students at other schools don't have access to these classes, and that's patently unfair. Every L.A. school should offer instruction in music and the visual arts. Maya Abee is a senior at Ramon Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts.
Assist the underprivileged
The new superintendent must be someone who not only believes in setting high expectations for all students, but also be someone who is willing to make the investment to support underprivileged students.
My experience is telling. I attended K through 12th grade in L.A. Unified schools in East L.A., an underserved community. I trusted my teachers and advisors to offer the appropriate academic guidance. When I started applying to colleges, however, I realized my district had failed me: My A-G requirements — the sequence of high school courses that students must complete to be eligible for admission to the University of California and California State University — were incomplete.
A new A-G policy goes into full effect in 2017, lowering the passing grade in required classes from "C" to "D." Though the district sees this as a solution for increasing graduation rates, the reality is that it lowers standards and sets students up for failure.
Students will not put as much effort into school if all it takes to graduate is a "D," and universities will not accept such low grades. This will result in even more students of color like me not being able to enroll in a four-year college. Erika Perez is a senior at UC Riverside and a member of Students For Education Reform
Focus beyond academic needs
The proposal by the Broad Foundation to significantly increase the number of charter schools in Los Angeles has generated a highly polarized debate. Supporters present charter schools as a panacea that will "save" public education; opponents claim such expansion will destroy it.
The next superintendent can't afford to see the issue in such stark terms. He or she should learn from the small number of successful public schools — charter and traditional — that serve poor children. All of them have one thing in common: They are organized to meet student needs.
This sounds simple but it is actually quite complex. In poor neighborhoods, you can't focus on the academic needs of a child and ignore their social needs. You must also find ways to reduce their isolation and provide social services. Pedro A. Noguera is a professor of education at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Services.
Hire superintendent from within
The next superintendent should be hired from within. Parents are tired of the political-office seekers and overpaid out-of-town administrators who don't know the challenges of this vast district as intimately as those who have worked their way up the ranks from educator to administrator. We need a staunch supporter of public education and not someone who would hand over our public schools to the privatization whims of local billionaires and the graduates of administrative "universities" run by these billionaires, while local media and politicians look the other way. Debbie Lopez lives in Northridge and her two children attended LAUSD schools.
Next leader should emphasize partnership
The first order of business for the new superintendent is to restore confidence in the district. This will require highly publicized meetings with all stakeholders: parents, teachers and civic leaders in all zones of the district. The most important message the superintendent has to consistently emphasize is that education is a partnership.
We need a standing committee made up of representatives from each zone to chart the district's progress. This committee should issue monthly report cards to the media in the same way that teachers issue report cards about their students. By making all parties partners in the decision-making, everyone will have a stake in creating a better school system. Walt Gardner, who writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week, taught for 28 years in LAUSD.
Make it easy to follow the money
What the school district needs is financial transparency. All funding coming into the district and to the individual schools and expenditures should be transparent. By making this information available online, the public and students can offer their input on crucial decisions. Jake Levey, Josh Berman and Freddy Cushnir are 10th-graders at Hamilton High School.