School & District Management

AI Chatbot ‘Ed’ Will Be L.A. Unified’s Newest Student Adviser, Superintendent Says

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times — August 07, 2023 5 min read
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho, center, joins student performers on stage after delivering his Opening of Schools Address at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Aug. 4, 2023.
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An AI chatbot named “Ed” will be Los Angeles Unified’s newest student adviser, programmed to tell parents about their child’s grades, test results and attendance, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced Friday in a back-to-school speech at Walt Disney Concert Hall that rivaled a Hollywood extravaganza.

Carvalho took the stage as high-volume music pounded and fast-paced video flashed across a giant screen. The audience of district employees—mostly administrators—applauded as if on cue as lighting, singers, videos, dancers enmeshed in an annual address unprecedented for its production values in the nation’s second-largest school district, a reflection of the superintendent’s attentiveness to generating positive publicity.

Amid the flashy production—in anticipation of the Aug. 14 school opening—Carvalho repeated his pledge to bring about full academic recovery from the pandemic within two years. He also said bus transportation will be available to more students, cafeterias will feature “farm to table” food and improved technology will decrease time spent on standardized testing.

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He also threw shade on Republican officials in Texas and Florida as well as anyone intolerant of L.A. Unified’s values.

“If you are listening to this and wondering if Los Angeles Unified will accept every part of you, the answer is unequivocally, unapologetically yes,” he said. “And if you’re wondering whether our schools, our classrooms, would be a safe space for your child, whomever that child may be, your answer is yes.”

Carvalho said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could ban “a book, every book” but “deliberate ignorance shall not influence who we are or what we stand for.” Carvalho became superintendent in February 2022 after more than a decade leading the Miami-Dade County school system.

Previewing his initiatives, Carvalho said Ed the chatbot will be part of an interface for an Individual Acceleration Plan. Carvalho had introduced the idea as early as December, and it’s modeled on the Individualized Educational Program, or IEP, that aims to provide a unique, appropriate education and support plan for every student who has a disability.

“Imagine the power of artificial intelligence and comprehensive data working together to personalize an action plan for the benefit of our teachers, our students, our parents,” Carvalho said.

Disability advocates have criticized L.A. Unified for not properly managing its existing system of IEPs, a reality that Carvalho appeared to acknowledge in emphasizing that there’s been improvement in this area.

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Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week (Source images: DigitalVision Vectors and iStock/Getty)

The chatbot technology, which will eventually reach every student in the district, will first be available at the 100 schools the district has designated as its most “fragile"—the most in need of improvement or special services.

Imagine, he said, parents having “real-time updates on grades, test results and attendance—empowering them to monitor and support progress and immediately address the concerns.”

The district’s initial investment has been $4 million—a price that could be cut in half by expected donor or grant funding, he said at a later news conference. This “nominal” cost, as Carvalho put it, was achieved because the app could be marketed elsewhere in partnership with L.A. Unified.

Such speeches typically showcase district performing arts talent, and, on Friday, this included a diminutive seventh-grader, Malea Emma, belting out an “American Idol"-ready rendition of the national anthem.

Carvalho joked that he might do best simply to thank the performers and send everyone home. But he was just warming up.

His oration extended more than an hour—accompanied by a giant screen slide deck interspersed with videos and reaching an aesthetic crescendo when the singer Malachiii appeared on stage and crooned a joyous paean to childhood. Many in the audience of typically staid administrators lifted arms to wave their cellphone flashlights as if they were at a rock concert.

Much of the address was like a pep rally—to thank the administrators and other employees while also boosting the brand of L.A. Unified.

Carvalho moved energetically across the stage, without referring to a script, mixing in jokes with exhortations, as when he talked seriously of the school system being at a “crossroads"—then inserted a slide of Britney Spears and interjected that he wasn’t talking about her unsuccessful movie with the same name.

“You can look at it as a show,” said Nery Paiz, head of the administrators union, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. “But I see it as his unique way of communicating important messages and important ideas that he’s got that can work for kids, if they are allowed to happen.”

Perhaps the most pronounced and spontaneous applause occurred when Carvalho pledged to accelerate a return to having schools prepare food at their own cafeterias, rather than relying on packaged central kitchen products. He had few details on his “farm to table” pledge, but highlighted that L.A. Unified will capitalize on an L.A. cultural icon by outfitting its own food trucks. The district has one so far, but plans to get four more to provide special occasions for students.

He joked that the food trucks soon would be available for rent for quinceañeras—or was he joking?

“We will rent these babies to host parties!” he exclaimed.

His pledge for full pandemic recovery within two years renewed a vow he made when depressed test scores came out nearly a year ago. He added that incremental improvement would not be satisfactory and must reach every student.

At the news conference, he said bus transportation could be made available for many more students without excessive cost—because the district has a sizable bus fleet. Currently, a student must live more than five miles from a school to be eligible for bus transportation.

“That is absolutely more than twice the average radius of guaranteed transportation in most large urban districts,” Carvalho said. “We’re going to change that. The ideal number we’re working with right now—and we are in the middle of nearing the end of the calculations and deployment—is a two mile radius.”

In some communities, transportation could be offered for shorter distances to help students avoid perilous intersections or dangerous gang territory.

The time spent on standardized testing, he said, can be cut by 45%, leaving more time for instruction, through the use of technology that, for example, can constantly assess students’ progress.

Carvalho also said that the district would feed and educate any immigrant children that politicians in Texas and Florida bus to Los Angeles as part of their “inhumane” agenda.

Former L.A. school board member Yolie Flores, chief executive of the group Families in Schools, said she was impressed.

“I loved the tone and themes of possibility and innovation all while reminding us of the urgency to helping kids accelerate and succeed,” Flores said.

Copyright (c) 2023, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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