Los Angeles Unified School Board members are urging superintendent Michelle King to outline more specific plans for how she'd continue — or perhaps even accelerate — the district's charge toward a lofty and longstanding goal: that "100 percent" of L.A. high schoolers graduate on-time.
That consensus emerged Tuesday from the board's first convening since King publicly unveiled a draft of her strategic plan, the most detailed outline the superintendent's released to date of what she plans to achieve at the helm of the nation's second-largest school district.
While that draft included more details about King's plans to expand school choice options, arts education and parent outreach in L.A. Unified, board president Steve Zimmer argued that document lacked something only the board itself could supply: a sense of the single most important mission the district must fulfill.
If that mission is 100 percent graduation, Zimmer argued the district's strategic plan should be crafted to show specific links between other district objectives and the graduation target.
"If we’re all going to make the argument that it all falls under 100 percent graduation," Zimmer said during the discussion, "then I think it’s got to be laser-like: 'This is what we’re about.'"
Recently, L.A. Unified officials announced a graduation rate of 75 percent — a 10-point increase from 2010-11, and the highest mark since the state changed its method of measuring graduation rates in 2009.
While the draft of the strategic plan — which is dated Aug. 3 — does make mention of the 100 percent graduation target, it's included as one of several overarching principles as opposed to the single, highest goal towards which the district is striving. The draft does outline seven other specific goals:
- School choice: In the draft plan, King commits to a “24 percent expansion" of "school pathways” — that’s the term she prefers for magnet, language immersion, career training, science, arts or technology schools — by the 2018-19 school year. While these schools are already popular choices among parents, King has said these programs are often scattered and disconnected from one another. For example, a student who attends an arts middle school one year can’t always attend an arts high school the next. The draft doesn’t make clear, however, what a “24 percent expansion” would mean: a 24 percent increase in the number of choice programs? Or in enrollment in choice programs? Or in seats available in choice programs?
- Reducing absenteeism: The superintendent wants to reduce the number of students who miss more than 16 days of school in a year, which is how the district defines "chronically absent" students. In her draft plan, King attached herself to the commitment already outlined in a recent revision to the district's Local Control Accountability Plan: reducing the district's chronic absenteeism rate from 14 percent to 7 percent by 2018-19. (According to recently released U.S. Department of Education data — which has a slightly different metric for chronic absenteeism — in 2013-14, there were 94 L.A. Unified schools with rates of chronic absenteeism higher than 20 percent and 34 L.A. Unified Schools with rates of chronic absenteeism higher than 30 percent.)
- Online parent portal: King's draft strategic plan calls for all parents to be registered to use the district's "PASSport" website by the end of the 2016-17 year. Through that site — which officially went live two years ago but was left dormant as the district fixed problems with its integrated student data system — parents are able to review a range of information about their children: final grades, discipline records and progress toward high school graduation or English proficiency. In July, district officials were still describing their revival of PASSport as a "soft-launch" with outreach efforts especially focused around 50 schools. The commitment in King's draft is for a much faster roll-out.
- Arts instruction: King’s draft commits the district to making “quality arts instruction accessible to every child in 100 percent of schools by 2018-19,” putting on paper a promise she made during her 2016 State of the District speech.
- Restorative justice: King commits to finishing a process that started two years ago: of training and "fully implementing restorative justice practices," designed to reduce suspensions and expulsions, in all L.A. Unified schools by the end of 2018-19.
- Two 'TBD' goals: King's draft says she will increase the number of high school students who are concurrently enrolled in community college courses and the number who graduate as completely bilingual and bi-literate by 2018-19. The draft does not specify by how much the superintendent commits to increasing these numbers yet, leaving a "TBD" next to each.
King ended the meeting by saying she will use the board's feedback to revise the strategic plan and release a new draft next month. She said making it clear that 100 percent graduation is the district's highest priority was a problem of presentation and "packaging."
"The way it's listed right now, [100 percent graduation is] one of other [goals]," King said after the meeting. Board members, she added, "want to see it highlighted."
King also acknowledged that, to reach 100 percent graduation, the district needed to set goals at the elementary and middle levels that prepared students to meet high school graduation requirements.
For instance, board member Ref Rodriguez pointed out, some test scores in elementary school are early indicators of whether a student is on-track for success in high school and college. But Rodriguez said district staff had not paid enough attention to these early benchmarks.
"Everybody rolled up their sleeves and say, ‘100 percent graduation,’ so that meant intervention in high school," Rodriguez said. "I didn’t see anybody say, ‘What about the fourth grade reading scores?’ and why aren’t we rolling up our sleeves around that?"
But King added that the goals listed in the current draft, such as the expansion of school choice, also tie into the 100 percent graduation target: "All of the other pieces, they all lead to that. That's why they're there. They're sub-goals."
Board members Mónica Ratliff and Mónica García added their agreement the district should intensify its focus on the 100 percent graduation goal.
Zimmer added that a decade ago, when the district constructed more than 100 school buildings to relieve overcrowding and busing, members of the public understood that the district's mission was school construction.
Similarly, an "all-hands-on-deck" response was required after the board adopted the "A-G" high school graduation requirements in 2005. Zimmer said he felt board members needed to provide a clearer sense of the importance of the 100 percent graduation target.
"I don’t think we have a mission sense right now," Zimmer said during the meeting. "I think it is our role to create it. And I think it has to be big."
"You have, I believe," he added, looking to King, "more trust than any superintendent has had. You inspire trust amongst our ranks. And I feel it is our job to establish this mission sense once again."