L.A. schools chief sets her sights high

L.A. schools chief, in State of the Dis­trict speech, sets sights on 100% grad­u­a­tion rate.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Anna M. Phillips anna.phillips@latimes.com Twit­ter: @an­nam­phillips

Supt. Michelle King out­lines goals for 100% grad­u­a­tion rates in her State of the Dis­trict ad­dress.

More mag­net pro­grams, more bilin­gual ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams, more at­ten­tion paid to pre­par­ing the youngest stu­dents in L.A. Uni­fied’s sys­tem. Above all, more grad­u­ates.

L.A. Uni­fied Supt. Michelle King — her con­tract newly ex­tended un­til 2020 — laid out her pri­or­i­ties Tues­day morn­ing in a speech that promised to push ever harder for her goal of 100% grad­u­a­tion but of­fered few new pro­pos­als.

The su­per­in­ten­dent’s State of the Dis­trict ad­dress, de­liv­ered this year at Garfield High School in East L.A., is an an­nual tra­di­tion. The event is part pep rally for the 1,500 ad­min­is­tra­tors in the au­di­ence, who will be­gin a new school year on Aug. 15, and part po­lit­i­cal per­for­mance.

Last year, King used her plat­form to an­nounce that L.A. Uni­fied’s grad­u­a­tion rate had bro­ken records, soar­ing to 77% for the class of 2016 from 72% the year be­fore. It was an ideal in­tro­duc­tion for the then-new su­per­in­ten­dent and wel­come news for a dis­trict that has strug­gled to con­vince fam­i­lies it should be their first choice for school­ing.

This year, King did not re­veal the 2017 grad­u­a­tion rate, say­ing in­stead that she would wait for the state to put its stamp of ap­proval on the fi­nal fig­ure. More than 26,000 high school se­niors had earned diplo­mas, about 85% of their class, she said, of­fer­ing a statis­tic that is con­sid­ered a less com­pre­hen­sive met­ric of a dis­trict’s aca­demic per­for­mance than the grad­u­a­tion rate.

Rather than trum­pet­ing this year's grad­u­a­tion rate, King em­pha­sized L.A. Uni­fied’s fall­ing sus­pen­sion rates and in­creas­ing suc­cess with stu­dents learn­ing English, as well as the dis­trict's ever-ex­pand­ing num­ber of mag­net pro­grams.

She an­nounced that the dis­trict is open­ing 28 new pre-kin­der­garten pro­grams and that there are plans for 10 new dual-lan­guage pro­grams for 4- and 5-year-olds with in­struc­tion in ei­ther English and Span­ish or English and Korean.

“Stu­dents have the right to re­al­ize their full po­ten­tial,” King said. “And we col­lec­tively have a moral obli­ga­tion to get them there.”

Through­out her speech, King kept to fa­mil­iar ground. In the year and a half since she was cho­sen to suc­ceed Ra­mon C. Cortines as su­per­in­ten­dent, she has em­pha­sized in­cre­men­tal progress while set­ting as­pi­ra­tional — some say un­reach­able — goals. At the heart of her vi­sion for the sys­tem’s roughly 514,000 stu­dents is the 100% grad­u­a­tion rate, which no large ur­ban school dis­trict has ever achieved, and a 100% at­ten­dance rate.

This fo­cus on mak­ing a high school diploma at­tain­able by each and ev­ery stu­dent has raised ques­tions about whether the dis­trict is grad­u­at­ing stu­dents who haven’t mas­tered ba­sic skills. Crit­ics say the dis­trict has made it easy for fail­ing stu­dents to earn cred­its by com­plet­ing on­line or in-per­son cour­ses that aren’t as rig­or­ous as a typ­i­cal class.

King did not ad­dress some of the thorni­est is­sues fac­ing the school dis­trict.

Squeezed by a grow­ing num­ber of char­ter schools, a de­clin­ing birthrate and ris­ing hous­ing costs that have forced some fam­i­lies to move out­side the dis­trict, L.A. Uni­fied’s en­roll­ment has been drop­ping steadily since 2003. The loss of stu­dents has meant a loss in state fund­ing at a time when the dis­trict’s pen­sion and re­tiree health­care costs are climb­ing.

About 16% of dis­trict stu­dents at­tend char­ters, which are pop­u­lar with many par­ents and com­pete with tra­di­tional L.A. Uni­fied schools for stu­dents.

The dis­trict has fore­cast that its en­roll­ment will con­tinue to fall for the next sev­eral years, po­ten­tially forc­ing King to pro­pose un­pop­u­lar cuts to staff and school pro­grams.

Although out­go­ing school board mem­bers suc­ceeded in ex­tend­ing King’s con­tract un­til June 2020, ques­tions re­main about how she will han­dle her re­la­tion­ship with the new board.

Un­prece­dented cam­paign spend­ing by char­ter school sup­port­ers last spring helped up­end the balance of power on the board, which had tilted in fa­vor of public sec­tor unions. Af­ter all the bal­lots were counted, King had lost an ally, for­mer school board Pres­i­dent Steve Zim­mer.

Sev­eral of its mem­bers have ex­pressed dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the pace of change un­der King.

On Tues­day, new board Pres­i­dent Ref Ro­driguez, a mem­ber of the new ma­jor­ity, as­sured King that she would have his sup­port and that he ex­pected the board to unite be­hind her.

“Su­per­in­ten­dent, I com­mit to you and to the peo­ple of this dis­trict that I will build bridges to sup­port your vi­sion,” Ro­driguez said. “I got your back.”

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

L.A. UNI­FIED board mem­bers, from right, Nick Melvoin, Kelly Gonez and Mon­ica Gar­cia ap­plaud Supt. Michelle King’s speech at Garfield High. “Stu­dents have the right to re­al­ize their full po­ten­tial,” she said. “And we col­lec­tively have a moral obli­ga­tion to get them there.”

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