New School Year, New Priorities at America’s 15 Biggest School Districts: From L.A. to NYC, the Most Pressing Issues Awaiting Educators in September

This weekend, as most of America indulged in barbecue and the last swims of summer, teachers finished lesson plans, parents shopped for last-minute supplies, and students braced themselves for the first day of school. While many campuses have been up and running since early August, the start of school for most of the country begins after Labor Day. The timing offers us a chance to brush up on some of the biggest education news stories affecting the nation’s schools.

Every day at The 74, EduClips offers a rapid roundup of the day’s top education headlines from America’s largest school districts, where more than 4 million students across 11 states attend class every day. You can read previous installments right here. Today, we offer a quick recap on where the top 15 school districts stand at the start of the academic year, and spotlight some of the key issues, debates, and story lines that will await these district leaders as they get back to work today.

MORE ALARMING THAN POTENTIAL TEACHERS STRIKE, LOS ANGELES SCHOOLS FACE FISCAL RECKONING — With United Teachers Los Angeles poised to strike early this fall, labor relations in the Los Angeles Unified School District are particularly tense. But the bigger problem looming on the horizon is to be found on the balance sheet. Skyrocketing employee benefits and plunging enrollment threaten a financial squeeze that one analysis predicts could leave the district $400 million in the red in three years. An L.A. County official has gone so far as to warn board members about the potential appointment of a “fiscal adviser” over the district. “What is certain is that the district faces rocky financial times ahead unless it tightens its belt considerably or finds new infusions of money,” the Los Angeles Times said in a recent editorial. “It’s a problem that won’t go away no matter how many concessions one side or the other wins in the current negotiations.” (Read at the Los Angeles Times)

REPORT: CHICAGO SCHOOLS’ SEX ABUSE SCANDAL RESULT OF SYSTEMIC FAILURE — Chicago Public Schools continues to reel from a child sex abuse scandal that has led to the resignation or firing of more than 100 employees since 2016. A review from a prominent law firm, prompted by a summer investigation by the Chicago Tribune, found broad failures at all levels of the system that kept officials from preventing and responding to the abuse suffered by students. The report, from Schiff Harden, found that the employees were not consistently trained on district policies and procedures involving sexual misconduct. It further describes how district investigators, understaffed and underfunded, struggled to processes thousands of reports during the 2016-17 school year alone — reports of employee misconduct and potential sexual harassment and notifications sent to the Department of Children and Family Services. (Read at the Chicago Tribune)

POST-PARKLAND, A POLICE OFFICER AT EVERY MIAMI SCHOOL — The headline in the Miami Herald read: “Miami-Dade County schools welcome back students, teachers — and police officers.” Due to changes in state law after February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, police were stationed at every campus. In Miami-Dade, most middle and high schools already had a school resource officer, but the county’s 260 elementary and kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools will now have an officer there from drop-off to pick-up. But on the first day of school, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho de-emphasized the importance of the security upgrade. “Now is the time to shift our focus from the necessary obsession over safety and security to the normalcy of teaching and learning,” he said. “I really want parents to shift their attention from the law officers outside of schools, the police cars, to great quality teaching and learning.” (Read at the Miami Herald)

NEW YORK CITY’S NEW CHANCELLOR MANDATES IMPLICIT-BIAS TRAINING FOR ALL SCHOOL STAFFERS — New York City, long considered among the nation’s most segregated school systems, will mandate implicit-bias training for all employees, to begin in the next two years. “For me, it’s a no-brainer,” said Chancellor Richard Carranza. “This is going to be one of those cornerstone pieces in terms of how are we going to continue to transform this immense system to really, truly serve all students.” Such trainings are designed to address subconscious stereotypes and prejudices that affect attitudes and behavior. (Read at The Wall Street Journal)

A CLASH OF VISIONS AS PUERTO RICO’S SCHOOLS REBUILD AFTER HURRICANE MARIA — Students and staff returned to class in Puerto Rico to find schools still grappling with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria: damaged buildings, packed classrooms, and scarce supplies.

At the same time, Secretary of Education Julia Keleher is pushing forward with a bold, albeit controversial, vision to renew the island’s education system through public school choice. The island opened its first “alianza” school, designed to operate like a charter school, but also faces legions of unhappy students learning in unfamiliar classrooms after hundreds of schools were closed. (Read at Education Week)

HOUSTON SUPERINTENDENT MULLS POSSIBILITY OF STATE TAKEOVER — Houston Independent School District, Texas’s largest, has largely rebounded from the effects of Hurricane Harvey, but it still struggles with academic and fiscal problems that threaten a state takeover. That’s the main takeaway from a back-to-school forecast from Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan. “We are moving forward in HISD,” Lathan said. “We need to do a better job of governing ourselves as it relates to the resources that we allocate out to our schools. Do we need oversight to do that? Not necessarily. Did we encounter or have we encountered some problems in the past that have caused us to have to have oversight? Yes.” (Read at Houston Public Media)

AFTER LENGTHY BATTLE, LAS VEGAS TEACHERS START YEAR WITH NEW CONTRACT — Teachers in the Clark County School District started the year with a new three-year agreement, ending a lengthy, contentious battle that led to a court appeal by the district. The agreement, announced in late August, includes $51 million in step increases for salaries and increased health care contributions, and $17 million to fund the first year of implementation of the Professional Growth System. In a statement, Superintendent Jesus Jara said the agreement was “one of my first, top priorities in order to build teacher morale.” (Read at the Las Vegas Review-Journal)

GWINNETT COUNTY TEACHERS TO GET PERFORMANCE BONUSES. JUST DON’T CALL IT ‘MERIT PAY’ — Thirty percent of teachers in Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools will receive one-time monetary awards a little more than a year from now. But just don’t call it “merit pay.” “It’s not merit pay, it’s not a bonus,” said Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks. “It’s a performance award for being recognized as being a good teacher.” About 3,300 classroom teachers in Gwinnett County are expected to receive a performance-based award. The criteria for who gets the awards depends on student progress during the recently started school year. (Read at the Gwinnett Daily Post)

SEVEN MONTHS LATER, FORT LAUDERDALE SCHOOLS STILL SEARCH FOR ANSWERS IN PARKLAND TRAGEDY — Seven months after the deadly shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, police and Broward school authorities continue to pore through evidence in an attempt to determine how the tragedy could have been prevented. The latest evidence is surveillance footage from the time of the shooting that shows law enforcement officers entering Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School minutes after ex-student Nikolas Cruz’s shooting spree ended. But it doesn’t appear to capture something crucial: at least three Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies who arrived in time to hear Cruz firing but couldn’t locate where the massacre was taking place. Questions about the inaction of those deputies has led relatives of those killed in the shooting, as well as wounded victims, to file lawsuits against the sheriff’s office and the school district, alleging the agencies acted negligently and could have prevented the level of bloodshed. (Read at the Miami Herald)

TEMPS IN TAMPA SCHOOLS HIT 88 DEGREES AMID AC BREAKDOWNS — Prior to school starting on Aug. 10, Hillsborough schools superintendent Jeff Eakins promised that all 308 schools in the county would have cool air. Over the summer, he told teachers and parents, the district could only afford to fix or replace air conditioners at 10 schools, leaving 38 in need of major repairs. But as students returned, thermostats showed temperatures of up to 88 degrees in classrooms at a number of schools. And a new concern exacerbated the problem: Heightened security measures meant teachers couldn’t open windows or doors to air out their classrooms. (Read at the Tampa Bay Times)

HAWAII TO VOTE ON EDUCATION FUNDING BALLOT INITIATIVE — According to finance website WalletHub, Hawaii comes in 39th in the list of the best to worst state school systems in the country. In November, however, voters will be posed a question that could play a key role in improving the island’s struggling schools. Appearing on ballots for November’s general election will be this question: “Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support public education?” While Hawaii’s per-pupil spending is upwards of $13,700 — about $2,000 more than the national average — critics say that spending is not keeping pace with the island’s high cost of living. (Read at KHON2)

ORLANDO STUDENTS TO BEAT THE ‘HOMEWORK GAP’ WITH FREE LAPTOPS — All middle and high school students in Orange County now have access to free laptops for the school year, with distribution for elementary schools to begin next year. The $40 million effort will allow the district to hand out 135,000 laptops this year as part of a plan to eliminate the “homework gap” that occurs when students cannot access online materials to complete assignments. For students without reliable internet at home, the district will also hand out 22,400 mobile “hotspot” devices donated by Sprint and T-Mobile. (Read at the Orlando Sentinel)

PALM BEACH ASKS, WHEN IS A SCHOOL SHOOTING NOT A SCHOOL SHOOTING? — A shooting at a Palm Beach Central High football game in late August has resulted in an unusual debate — not the typical back-and-forth over gun control or mental health, but about whether the incident constituted a school shooting at all. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said that it was “not a school-shooting situation” because no students were involved. School District Police Chief Frank Kitzerow made the same argument: It wasn’t a school shooting, he said, but rather “an act of community violence that happened to spill onto a school campus.” Since it occurred on campus, however, the incident qualified as a school shooting at Everytown for Gun Safety, an anti-gun-violence group co-founded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Read at the Palm Beach Post)

FAIRFAX STUDENTS HELP MAKE HISTORY AS SCHOOL ABANDONS CONFEDERATE NAMESAKE — When school begins after Labor Day at Justice High School in Falls Church, a wealthy Virginia suburb in the shadow of the nation’s capital, students will not only learn history but make it. They will arrive at a building that until recently was named J.E.B. Stuart High School for a Confederate general who fought to preserve slavery. The change has a special meaning for Julia Clark, a senior at Justice and a descendant of slaves, who took part in the effort to change the name of the Fairfax County school. “That my community is responsible for making a true difference . . . makes me really proud,” she said. (Read at The Washington Post)

TEACHERS, PRINCIPALS, STAFF AT DALLAS SCHOOLS TO SEE PAY RAISES — Teachers, administrators, and support staff will get raises this year in Dallas public schools, a result of higher-than-expected property values for homes and businesses within the district. The roughly 12,000 teachers in the district will receive a total of $16.1 million in raises, with individuals getting either a 2 percent bump or their earned increase in the district’s merit pay system, whichever is greater. Principals and assistant principals will get an additional $3.9 million, but most notable was a 3 percent raise, $13.3 million, for the district’s instructional and non-instructional support staff, such as librarians, nurses, counselors, and food service workers. (Read at the Dallas Morning News)

WITH GUIDE TO SLANG, NEW PHILADELPHIA TEACHERS WON’T BE ‘SAWTY’ — New teachers have a lot to worry about: lesson plans, attendance, and, most important, how to reach struggling students. But if you’re a new teacher in Philadelphia, you might also have to understand what “jawn” or “ocky” means, or how to use “sawty” in a sentence, as in, “I thought I was going to make the bus, but I was sawty.” (The word is an expression of being wrong.) Now, first-time teachers and counselors have a handbook written by high school students that contains a glossary of often elusive Philly slang. The guidebook was written by students who worked for the school district over summer break. (Read at The Philadelphia Inquirer)

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