School districts are still facing a barrage of challenges from pandemic disruptions, and many leaders find themselves in a paralyzing predicament where solutions are no longer straightforward or even accessible.
This is hard. Many of us entered education because we have a passion for teaching students, for seeing the light bulbs of possibility and dreams, for equipping our students to be the next visionaries who reshape the world. We do it because, for many of our students, education is their best shot at a better life. But in a moment when scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress indicate that the pandemic has wiped out two decades of growth for our students, how do schools address the myriad complexities before us? Said in a different way, is there hope for the future of public education in America?
I believe there is. I believe there is a period of great opportunity for us and for our kids. But we must be aggressive and deliberate in the choices we make. I want to share some of the initiatives the district I lead has implemented. I hope this can initiate a larger conversation across the country in finding solutions that will benefit all our children. We’re all grasping for answers. But it’s irresponsible if our children suffer because we refuse to coordinate, share ideas, celebrate successes, and collectively evaluate setbacks. Here’s where my district has been focusing our efforts:
Fully leverage pandemic funding. First and foremost, we have been strategic and intentional in the Los Angeles Unified School District in utilizing federal and state pandemic-relief funding. The federal and state funding provided by the administrations of President Joe Biden and California Gov. Gavin Newsom to combat the academic losses and mental health needs of our students has been critical in allowing our district to carry out its 2022 to 2026 strategic plan. After decades of states gutting public education funding, this influx of funding has been a welcomed reprieve and truly expanded our available options. Many school districts across the country are letting these funds go unused, with some states not evenmaking funds available to their schools. Taking full advantage of federal and state funding is the first step school districts should take.
Prioritize school attendance. A natural repercussion of the pandemic was the inability for our students to consistently attend school. Consequently, Los Angeles Unified is focusing the 2022-23 school year on attendance. We implemented a student-outreach and -attendance initiative called iAttend for which we have dedicated staff members calling and visiting families to ensure students are in classrooms learning. We also initiated districtwide student-outreach days when staff from across the district volunteer their time to go door-to-door and visit students who confronted challenges that inhibited their regular attendance the past year. Last month, on one day alone, more than 400 staff members across the district ceased their normal daily work and made 7,000 home visits. Our iAttend initiative has successfully identified reasons for chronic absenteeism and implemented intervention efforts. Just within the past year, this has helped us decrease chronic absenteeism by 5 percent and increased “excellent” attendance by 3 percent over the previous year.
Boost instructional time. We have also increased instructional time to make up for the class time lost during the pandemic. Throughout the summer, Los Angeles Unified provided high-quality summer school programs and served over 100,000 students who needed to make up ground during the pandemic.
We’ve implemented a program called Acceleration Days in which four optional days have been added to the school calendar for teachers to work with students who need additional support. Students will receive individual, customized support or join a small group of students for intimate instruction time. During that time, other students will benefit from group-enrichment opportunities. As of this writing, over 56,000 students have registered for our December 19-20 Acceleration Days with 293 schools providing instruction on these optional days. Though there is always room for improvement, we are confident these days will have extraordinary impact on our most fragile students.
Expand tutoring opportunities. Along with additional instruction time, our district has been aggressive in providing tutoring opportunities for every student. State and federal funding have been critical in our efforts to provide extensive tutoring options. We’re offering virtual options so students can access on-demand, 24/7 tutoring programs that are flexible and conducive to family schedules. We’re also providing high-dosage tutoring options to offer customizable instruction that meets students where they are. Our schools, administrators, and leadership are focused on tutoring because this is a critical step in getting students on track for graduation.
Close the digital divide. The pandemic highlighted the digital divide among our families. Many students could not access high-speed connectivity and found themselves unable to pivot to virtual learning when lockdowns were initiated. In partnership with AT&T and Spectrum, Los Angeles Unified launched the All Families Connected initiative, which is equipping families with hot spots and high-speed internet to provide equitable access to connectivity free to families. This has allowed the district to implement a wide array of instructional options for families that previously lacked the opportunity to access remote instruction.
We’ve been able to accomplish great things and stem the tide of decline among our students. They are demonstrating tremendous resiliency after the pandemic’s darkest days because of the incredible educators dedicating their time and energy to the families of Los Angeles.
There is still more to do. We’re not fully recovered from the pandemic, and there are opportunity gaps that predate COVID’s arrival in our schoolyards that desperately need addressing.
I hope this is the beginning of a shared learning process among all of us. I want to hear from educators who are finding success, learn together as we fail, and find pathways forward that benefit our students. Let’s unify our efforts because a rising tide lifts all boats, and may we be awash in a generation of students who are ready to change the world.