LA schools Supt. Carvalho vows rapid back-to-school change

Los Angeles Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, in his first back-to-school address, pledged Monday to bring rapid progress to the nation’s second-largest school district, which has long struggled to make modest, consistent gains.

Carvalho made the promise to school district administrators and other district and community leaders during what is widely viewed as a “state of the district” event and a preview of the academic year ahead — plans that will later serve as benchmarks to gauge the superintendent’s own effectiveness .

“Most view reform at an institution like Los Angeles Unified as necessarily protracted,” Carvalho said in his prepared remarks to a packed Microsoft Theater in downtown LA “Community reform by nature does not have to be protracted or slow. It can be quick. And we will be making changes and reforming the way Los Angeles Unified conducts business in a swift and unapologetic manner.”

Carvalho pointed to his recently school board-approved strategic plan, calling it his guidepost, “laying out exactly how we will position Los Angeles Unified as the premiere urban school district of choice,” in a speech that was intended to be both pep rally and aspirational

The plan is organized under five “pillars” that together are supposed to represent key aspects that will lead to student success. The pillars are: academic excellence, joy and wellness, engagement and collaboration, operational effectiveness and investing in staff.

Under academic excellence, the superintendent noted that this fall 360 new universal transitional kindergarten programs will open, providing seats for up to 19,000 4-year-olds — and comes after plummeting pandemic enrollment among kindergarten-age children in Los Angeles and throughout California. Starting in the early stages of the pandemic-forced school closures, many parents opted to keep young children out of online remote instruction.

These programs are being opened across the state as part of new funding to boost early childhood education, although schools and districts have had challenges finding the necessary staff. For LA Unified, the effort is seen not only as an academic imperative but key to offsetting rapidly declining enrollment.

The early education push includes a “Born to Learn” outreach campaign to support parents of newborn children with baby welcome packages and resources.

Another effort to boost enrollment and attendance involves opening empty seats on buses to provide more “local” transportation to area schools. Under official policy, busing is offered only to students living more than five miles from a school. Under a pilot program, 15 high schools will offer transportation for students living closer. In addition, all buses are now equipped with Wi-Fi.

Carvalho acknowledged recently that academic achievement is lagging as students are challenged by what experts call unfinished or incomplete learning from the pandemic years.

“It’s no secret that Los Angeles Unified has navigated difficult years, some of which resulted from the pandemic and some which existed long before,” Carvalho said. “But change is coming. Possibilities are on the horizon.”

The district has added four optional days to the school year and three optional teacher training days — a less aggressive extension of the school year than in many school systems. Like other districts, LA Unified intends to rely heavily on tutoring or special support to students during the regular school day.

The superintendent also highlighted new career exploration opportunities for younger teens, including many in middle schools.

He said that 26 middle schools are installing labs that will allow students to explore numerous industry sectors through hands-on experiences.

In addition, the National Education Equity Lab is bringing college credit courses from top universities to high school classrooms. Initially, nine district schools and an estimated 225 students will participate.

The district also is introducing a “Greening Index,” to examine the park needs of the community and the condition of each campus. A typical LA Unified campus has become a sea of ​​asphalt — because it was viewed as easier and less costly to maintain than green space, especially during a past period when the district was overcrowded and installing portable classrooms on this asphalt.

Over the last decade, the district has gradually been removing unneeded portable classrooms, but Carvalho wants to go further, siding with activists who see schoolyards as the equivalent of park space that can benefit children before and after school.

The district announced up to 20 projects to provide outdoor learning spaces with landscaping and greening. Projects will be identified using the Greening Index, officials said.

Still to be navigated is how greening efforts will square with water-conservation imperatives resulting from regional drought conditions. Another potential problem is that access to green space at schools could become more limited given tighter hardscape security measures, such as more impenetrable fencing and restricted, locked entry points.

But in the short term at least, LA Unified will have far more funding than in past years due to record state tax revenues and COVID-related relief dollars.

“Now is the time to change and there may not be another opportunity,” Carvalho said.