LA School District Reorganization Looks to Empower Principals, Group Schools by Communities and Dethrone the Central Office

LA Unified schools Superintendent Austin Beutner talks with Principal Christine Moore in the hallway of Luther Burbank Middle School (Esmeralda Fabián Romero)

L.A. Unified’s schools chief has a new plan to simplify the sprawling urban district’s complex system. A little more than a year into his tenure, Superintendent Austin Beutner is betting that by empowering principals he can turn “the organization upside down in a certain way” that puts students at the center.

Under the new plan, dubbed “The Work Ahead,” LA families can expect their principals to be more available to them and to play an active role in their school’s community. They will be freed up from centralized decisions to focus on instruction and will have budget flexibility to meet their particular school’s needs.

Beutner said he believes the district’s 830 principals are more than just school leaders — “they are community leaders” — so his new strategic plan intends to align resources so they can spend more time engaging parents, supporting teachers and focusing on students.

“The plan’s goal is to align collaboration between the school leader — the principal — and the classroom teacher and the family, making it simple by cutting bureaucracy … so they can focus on that one child. Let’s use the student as a one — not as the 24 students in the classroom — but just that one in the classroom,” Beutner said in an interview Friday at Luther Burbank Middle School in Highland Park. “We have challenges, we’ve got to solve all those adults’ issues, that’s my job. Let’s get the adult complexity out of the way so everyone in the school can focus on the child.”

While he noted that scores are an “objective measure of progress,” Beutner said his plan’s goal is to meet the social-emotional needs of students. Last year, the superintendent was poised to announce a different version of his strategic vision, the “Reimagining Our Schools” plan, but its release was upended by the January teacher strike. It reportedly called for an even more aggressive decentralization of the nation’s second-largest school district — creating 32 neighborhood networks — and would have given schools more decision-making power in exchange for greater accountability.

“We can often debate school indicators, but the goal is building a set of social-emotional skills for students — confidence in oneself, safety, security, all those things,” he said. “But on top of that, [build] learning, knowledge to prepare them for life, college, career.”

The Work Ahead plan outlines three main goals:

● Improving students’ grade-level proficiency in reading and math.

● Closing the achievement gaps for English learners, students receiving special education services, and African-American and Latino students.

● Boosting the rate of L.A. Unified graduates who are eligible for state universities.

Indicators show that 68 percent of L.A. Unified’s roughly 486,000 students are not meeting grade-level proficiency in math and 58 percent are not at grade-level proficiency in reading. Also, just over half — 54 percent — of LAUSD graduates meet the University of California/California State University entrance requirements. While English learners make up about a quarter of all students, only 5 percent enroll in Advanced Placement courses and only 32 percent enroll in college after high school.

In setting priorities, Beutner said he also considered input from at least 3,000 parents, educators, students and other stakeholders that he met with at more than 150 focus groups held across the district since last year.

The plan’s main components include:

● Developing a comprehensive data profile for every student by consolidating L.A. Unified data sources into one system that includes information about student attendance or intervention needs.

● Expanding the district’s unified enrollment online portal, where schools can be compared and students can apply for the district’s choice programs such as magnets or dual language programs.

● Reorganizing the district’s more than 1,000 schools around communities of about 20 to 25 schools each, based on how schools feed into one another.

● Offering funding flexibility for local districts.

● Increasing funding and other resources to schools and students with the highest needs.

● Establishing Local Advisory Councils within each of the six local districts, made up of families, community members, philanthropic organizations and local businesses, so they can address how to better serve student needs.

Bombarded by emails

Beutner said great schools are build around individual leaders but believing in those leaders is not enough.

“Words may have been used before, but you have to invest in that,” he said.

In order to increase the interactions principals have with students and families, the superintendent’s plan calls for reducing the time they spend on compliance and facility issues. It would cut the number of certifications they need to comply with annually by eliminating unnecessary certifications and combining similar ones. The district requires principals to renew certifications for state testing, teacher reports, athletics and many other areas.

He said the district needs to “comply with rules and laws” around principal certifications, but his plan contemplates more mentorship and professional development on how to be a community organizer and sharing best practices.

Beutner also said principals will no longer need to make several phone calls, for instance, to the central office to request that their school’s air-conditioning be fixed, or call many different departments for each request. Next school year, he said, they can submit only one request without having to spend more time following up.

Christine Moore, the principal at Luther Burbank Middle School and a district veteran of nearly two decades, welcomed that prospect. Moore was part of the conversation with Beutner Friday.

“We do and have been bombarded with initiatives from the central offices, from some that are as small as emails that get sent continuously to larger things that need to be done,” she said. “So having someone coming in and say, ‘Wow, principals really have a lot on their plate,’ was a nice thing to hear.”

As with Moore’s job at Burbank Middle School, Beutner said principals should focus on “building more community, better instructional practices, building trust and relationships with students. That’s leadership.”

Burbank Middle School was twice designated in the Schools to Watch–Taking Center Stage program, which recognizes high-performing model schools that demonstrate academic excellence, social equity and responsiveness to the needs of middle schoolers.

Moore agreed with Beutner that a principal’s involvement in classroom instruction is at the center of what they do. “The question for me is how much more can I be involved,” Moore said.

“Coaching teachers, helping parents, helping students that are struggling with poverty or an issue that is preventing them from learning, that’s relational. This work is very relational,” Moore said. “The only way to build those relationships is outside of the walls of my office. Obviously, the heart of that is improvement of instruction and making sure kids are learning in the classrooms.”

Among other supports the plan contemplates for principals and teachers is providing them with a more comprehensive profile of their students, one that includes not only test scores but also a student’s cultural background and social-emotional or special needs.

“Right now, a new child comes to school and Ms. Moore probably turns into a research scientist for a few hours to figure out different types of achievement, in different places, attendance here, IEP information over here, family circumstances there,” Beutner said.

“How about we present just one picture of the whole child to everyone who supports the student.”

To create that profile, the plan calls for consolidating all the district’s student data sources into one system. Already in its first phase, the initiative is expected to cost $52 million over four years.

School budgeting based on need

Under the plan, LAUSD’s six regional local districts, which oversee school instruction and operations, will receive funding based on enrollment and a student-need index. The index will weigh a variety of factors, including neighborhood conditions, such as safety, community health problems or a high level of violence.

Those schools with the highest-need index will receive additional money from a fund that was increased to $263 million from $25 million in the 2017-18 school year. The money has to be used to reduce class sizes in grades 4-12 over the next three years, with additional reductions in grades 4-8 at 75 high-need elementary and 15 high-need middle schools.

Since the plan contemplates principals having more flexibility and decision-making over their budgets, Beutner said they will also get additional training and mentorship. Some would be offered more of a basic “budgeting primer,” such as a Khan Academy online tutorial, while other principals may have the chance to get a more formal certification.

“Budget is a more tactical piece but very strategic. Budget is important,” Beutner said, if principals want to build support in their community and meet the needs of those in the classroom.

Cutting central office

Beutner said additional money to pay for the plan and to direct more funds toward the classroom will come from reducing costs, including cutting positions both at the district’s headquarters and across local central offices.

L.A. Unified had already announced a 15 percent job cut that will eliminate $43 million in administrative salaries at the central and local district offices by cutting or reassigning some 500 positions. People in those jobs received notices in March and will be leaving by the end of June.

The job reductions are one half of a two-part strategy to right-size the district’s $7.5 billion budget. The district has a structural deficit that is pushing it toward bankruptcy in the next two years and is at risk of a county takeover if it can’t stay out of the red.

L.A. Unified is also anticipating raising about $500 million annually by winning voter approval of a parcel tax on the June 4 ballot. Measure EE would levy a 16-cents-per-square-foot tax on developed property. If it passes with at least a two-thirds majority vote, the parcel tax would start generating revenue later this year.

The plan also notes that the state’s proposed 2019-20 budget will increase per-pupil funding from $16,000 to $16,127 and that, if approved, the parcel tax would increase per-pupil spending from $16,127 to nearly $17,000.

The plan states that by “reducing inefficiencies” and enacting cost savings on health care, the district can realize $100 million in annual savings by 2020. L.A. Unified reduced its health care cost for employees by $50 million last year.

According to the plan, about half of its components have either no cost or would require only a realignment of resources or staff. Of the ones that require a budget, some have to be approved by the Board of Education, while others, like the student data profile system or the expanded unified enrollment plan, have already been approved.

Feeder patterns, not networks

Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that L.A. Unified had received a recommendation by two consulting firms hired when Beutner became superintendent to reorganize the district into 32 networks. But the superintendent said Friday that was never going to happen and has instead proposed organizing the district around communities of schools and their feeder patterns.

He used the example of a small community where everyone knows what middle school the elementary students are going to next and what high school they will attend after that. The principals of those elementary, middle and high schools already have a connection with the same students and their families, he said.

“That’s the organizing principle, and that’s really the organizing principle of our school district,” Beutner said. “Principals know very well where their students come from and where they matriculate next, so we need to support the existing feeder patterns.”

Currently, each of L.A. Unified’s six local districts serve about 80,000 students. The plan calls for feeder-pattern communities consisting of roughly 20 to 25 schools each, encompassing schools from pre-K to high school.

“These communities of schools will have a leader and a small team of individuals who will focus on serving the unique needs of their schools and communities,” the plan states. It anticipates the model giving schools and local districts more autonomy over how they use funds to meet those needs and that it will create stronger relationships between families, local philanthropy and businesses to develop and increase wraparound services for students.

As for the 112,000 students who attend the 216 independent charter schools in L.A. Unified’s geographical boundaries, Beutner said the plan does address them and would like to share best practices.

“One of the goals is to say, ‘This is a community,’ a charter school or several charter schools exist in this community, so there has to be more of a conversation,” Beutner said. “How can we better serve the needs of the child or of the family that has children in both a charter and a traditional school? We serve all children.”

Independent charter schools in L.A. have become a political lightning rod — especially in the wake of January’s teacher strike, which tied traditional schools’ plight to their expansion. State lawmakers are now contemplating — or in some cases have already approved — a series of bills that would significantly curtail charter schools, including giving local school districts sole authority to approve them.

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