Homeless kids, chronic absenteeism, frustrated parents: L.A. Unified is back to school and trying to help

Dodson Middle School
Students arrive for the first day of school Tuesday at Rudecinda Sepulveda Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Nearly half a million Los Angeles children and teenagers streamed into more than 1,000 public campuses for a new school year Tuesday, many carrying burdens from their outside world: homelessness, malnutrition and difficulties at home that can contribute to chronic absenteeism, discipline problems and low academic achievement.

Yet on this first day of school — as scores of yellow buses took to the streets and students greeted one another with hugs and shrieks of excitement — the outside world also brought in a modicum of help. Although L.A. Unified School District leaders say students need exponentially more assistance to succeed, they are intent on targeting aid to help meet the basic needs of their most deprived youth.

In addition, the district is focused on developing more programs to fill in academic gaps, develop life skills and help parents better navigate an often frustrating school system bureaucracy.


The nation’s second-largest school district was highlighting some of these efforts on the first day back.

At Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes, parents plan to take advantage of new rules that encourage their involvement. At Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima, a renovated wellness clinic aims to help one in four students who are homeless. At Van Deene Elementary in West Carson, staff members are focused on reducing chronic absenteeism after outside activists pressured the district to take action. And at Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts downtown, a bank has funded a district-wide effort to teach high school students the important life skill of money management.

District officials emphasized that much more of the wealth, sweat equity and intellect of L.A. should be directed toward public schools.

During a day in which they crisscrossed the expansive school system, Supt. Austin Beutner and other officials touted community, civic and business organizations that are providing resources to students. They rolled up to Dodson Middle School in an electric bus and told parents and students about how a South Coast Air Quality Management District grant is providing curriculum and materials to 20 high schools so that students can measure pollution in their neighborhoods.

Dodson parents mobilize

This Rancho Palos Verdes campus is known for its core of involved parents, who were on hand early Tuesday to talk about how they pressed the district to make parent participation easier in their own neighborhood and across the school system.


The district used to charge parents a $56 fingerprinting fee before allowing them on campus regularly. This cost was to reimburse the district for submitting prints to search criminal records, to flag offenders who, for example, have been convicted of child abuse or sexual misconduct. The district is now absorbing this expense. L.A. Unified also is making it easier and less expensive for parent groups to hold fundraisers and other events on campus.

Not that such hurdles had ever stopped the Dodson parents. Booster clubs pay for extra classes and programs that make many students excited to come to school, said principal Diana Zarro, noting that there are boosters for the magnet school, choir and drama.

At Dodson, two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. But eighth-graders still can look forward to grad night at Universal Studios, because parents raise money for that excursion.

Beutner told parents at the school that clearing the way for more parent involvement is vital to the future of education.

Van Deene cuts chronic absenteeism

Van Deene Elementary School in West Carson, stands as a success story for slashing its chronic absenteeism, which is defined as a student missing at least 10% of school. The schoolwide effort cut absenteeism from 11.3% in the first semester of the 2017-18 academic year to 3.3% the following fall semester.

Last year the principal visited classrooms to praise students with 96% attendance, distributing small rewards — pencils and donated gift cards for local chains like In-N-Out Burger. The school employs a two-day-a-month attendance counselor. An additional $108,000 in funding this year will help pay the counselor’s salary, as well as for other staff members who will spend time with students and parents outside the classroom.

Staff, teachers and administrators each took responsibility for mentoring two or three students, talking to them at least once a week, calling home when they were gone and asking them why they missed school when they returned.

Helping Telfair’s homeless

At Telfair Elementary School, where approximately one in four students are homeless and 90% are from low-income families, Beutner announced a pilot program to provide Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers for 50 families at the school and in the neighborhood. The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles set aside the vouchers specifically to help very low income Telfair families. L.A. Family Housing, a nonprofit serving the poor and homeless, will provide families with mental health support, social services and housing placements.

Beutner said schools are the center of a community, but added,“community starts with having a roof over one’s head.”

In return, “what we’re expecting from the parents … is a commitment” to school attendance, said Douglas Guthrie, chief executive of the housing authority.

Down the street from campus, Telfair children and families now have access to a renovated wellness clinic, complete with a large waiting room and three exam rooms. The clinic will offer services regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

Before, students with a health issue “would be pulled out of class and maybe not come back until the next day,” said Celia Torres, a former Telfair parent who is now director of the school’s parent center. “They lost that instruction time.”

Money matters at Cortines High

The Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, located downtown, is best known for stellar student performers and artists. But officials also hope the school will take advantage of a new online program that teaches skills that will serve them into adulthood: understanding money, credit card interest rates and different types of loans, among other financial issues.

City National Bank has donated $1 million for “financial literacy” courses, and over three years the goal is to reach the district’s approximately 200 high schools.

Students can master up to nine online learning “modules,” which teach about such topics as how to manage a checking account. The sessions can stand alone in a career technical education class or be embedded within a government or economics class, for example.

Alexandria Perez, an 11th grade Cortines student, said she is eager to learn these concepts — even though she already knows one: “A debit card is your money and a credit card is the bank’s money.”

She wants to avoid the fate of her sister, who left college with debt but no degree.

“The need is overwhelming, and it’s unfortunate that financial literacy is not a requirement in the state of California,” said Russell Goldsmith, City National’s chairman. “We’re very pleased to be working with the district.”