The following is a brief description of the major improvement efforts implemented by the LAUSD over the course of the last few decades. The efforts described created the foundation that allowed or prompted Linked Learning, community schools, and Promise Neighborhood to develop.
Los Angeles Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN) and the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project (LAAMP)
LEARN provided an opportunity for a broad range of stakeholders to explore and exert pressure for the implementation of new initiatives.1 With the backing of community groups, the teachers’ union, civic and business leaders, and district leadership, LEARN was adopted by the school board in 1993. LEARN called for system-wide decentralization; site-based management of budgetary, curricular, and personnel decisions; accountability for results among principals and teachers; professional development for school leadership teams to take on new roles; increased school choice; and redirected school funding based on the numbers and needs of students enrolled in each school. But California’s new accountability system,2 the slow pace of progress (difficult to measure as a result of a new accountability system), poor implementation (budget and personnel were never decentralized), budget constraints, and weak support by teachers all contributed to reform “failure.”
LAAMP, made possible through a $53 million matching grant, built on LEARN with a focus on accountability for student results. In particular, LAAMP created school “families” (based on a cluster structure that the district had designed) that worked together to develop K–12 learning plans for all students. LAAMP schools benefited from a parent involvement program, a teacher training collaborative, and a technology program.
Unfortunately, LEARN and LAAMP never fully got off the ground.3 According to one evaluation of LAAMP, there was a need for more “sensitive gauges of student accomplishment.”4 Standardized tests could not detect the effects of specific changes in teaching and learning. In particular, standardized tests could not capture the creation of valuable teacher professional development activities and access to new instructional programs that were especially helpful for the many new teachers who were hired to fulfill class-size reduction requirements. Nor were there opportunities to assess the deep impact on classroom practices that can happen if and when teachers begin to learn from one another and coordinate efforts.
The end of these particular efforts laid the foundation for new collaborations and strategies to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes of students across the city. Leaders and community-based organizations, in particular, began to develop a deeper understanding of issues facing their schools and began to advocate for much-needed change.
One year after the passage of California’s Charter Schools Act in 1993, the LAUSD had a total of fourteen charter schools enrolling approximately 13,000 students. The earliest charters (all existing public schools that converted to charters) grew from the idea that a system of high-performing charter schools, with autonomy, could ensure improvements in public education by providing students and families with choice. As of 2015, the district’s 264 charters (more than any other school district in the country) served almost 151,000 young people.
A new initiative – the Great Public Schools Now initiative – plans to expand the number of charters in the LAUSD. Although the district continues to view charters as both an opportunity and a threat, the idea of providing students and their families with “choice” has been embraced as a school improvement effort. The district’s pilot schools provide an example (see description below).
Small Learning Communities and the Small School Initiative
After years of reform focused on implementing standards-based accountability, concerns arose around the lack of progress at the secondary-school level. Improving high school outcomes and graduation rates became the focus of reform efforts.5 The district sought to identify models of success and begin to bring the efforts to scale. The relative success of career academies, school-within-a-school programs such as magnet schools, and Humanitas programs within LAUSD prompted the passage of the Small Learning Community (SLC) implementation policy in 2004. The strategy was to transform the culture of secondary schools by providing students and teachers with a more personalized and caring learning environment; a rigorous, standards-based curriculum in an identifiable context to all students; and a portfolio of options for students, teachers, and parents.
In July 2007, the LAUSD Board of Education passed the Small Schools for Success resolution. One year later, the board passed a second resolution providing additional support for the expansion of small schools within the district: Small Schools II: A Bold Vision for the District. Stemming from a commitment to small learning communities, the small school resolutions ensured that each community would be defined as a unique, personalized learning environment with its own school code, administration, staff, budget, contiguous space, responsibility for all aspects of its educational program, and generally no more than five hundred students. The resolutions cited the research on the effectiveness of small schools and outlined a plan of action to create a system of small learning environments throughout the district by 2020.
Educational Equity through the Implementation of the A-G Course Sequence
Leaders of community-based organizations across the city (in particular, in East and South Los Angeles) began to identify education reform and justice as critical in improving the lives of community members. Inequitable access to educational opportunities and learning conditions became a rallying cry. In 2003-2004, a coalition of community-based organizations, along with research institutions, civic leaders, students, and parents, came together to demand access to the A-G college preparatory courses within the LAUSD.6 The coalition rallied the support of thousands of parents, students, and community leaders, and in June 2005, the LAUSD board passed the Resolution to Create Educational Equity. The demand for improved access to these critical courses shed light on inadequate course offerings as well as harmful practices such as tracking, misassigned classes, and a shortage of counselors to provide sufficient and accurate information to students and families.
Since 2005, community-based organizations have come together to demand additional changes aimed to improve the educational outcomes of all children. Together, communities supported passage of the Discipline Foundation Policy for School-wide Positive Behavior in 2007, aimed to move discipline procedures toward positive behavioral support. In 2013, the LAUSD board passed the School Discipline Policy and School Climate Bill of Rights, which reversed zero tolerance policies, put an end to willful defiance suspensions, and called for the implementation of restorative justice programs. The same year, the board passed a “Breakfast in the classroom” resolution that would help ensure all students have access to a healthy meal and can be ready to learn. In 2015, the board, with strong support from community-based organizations, renewed its commitment to the A-G resolution by funneling necessary support and resources to those schools and students most in need. The first class required to meet this requirement graduated in June 2016.
Pilot Schools were established in 2007 through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) ratified by the LAUSD and the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). Based on Boston’s pilot school model, the initial goal was to create and implement ten innovative, small, autonomous Belmont pilot schools that would relieve overcrowding at Belmont High School. Over the following two years, the cap of ten schools was reached.7 In 2009 teachers lobbied to expand the number of pilot schools. A second MOU was ratified by LAUSD and UTLA for an additional twenty pilot schools district-wide. The most recent agreement between LAUSD and UTLA (December 2011) lifted the cap on pilot schools altogether and allows any school in the district to adopt this model.
Pilot schools gain maximum control over their resources in exchange for increased accountability, all within the economies of scale of an urban school district. In particular, pilot schools have autonomy regarding staffing, budget, curriculum and assessment, governance, and school calendar/scheduling. Pilot schools are exempt from district policies and mandates, but they must follow all state and federal guidelines. This flexibility allows pilot schools to experiment with innovative programs of instruction that seek to improve student achievement. An essential feature of pilots is a focus on teacher collaboration. According to an LAUSD manual, “Pilot Schools practice purposeful staff collaboration wherein teachers share their best practices and work in teams. There is a commitment to a strong collaborative school culture with an emphasis on shared decision-making and shared responsibility for student achievement.”8
Public School Choice
In 2009, the LAUSD Board of Education passed a resolution now known as the Public School Choice (PSC) motion. PSC was initiated as an effort to address the continuing achievement gap and the chronic academic underperformance of a number of LAUSD schools. PSC was designed to foster innovative ideas through a competitive request-for-proposal process and to connect with educational models that would advance the district’s commitment to provide quality education for all students in its schools. Internal and external teams submitted instructional plans for operating new schools and to turn around underperforming ones. Design teams submitted proposals and indicated the school model (including pilot schools) that they felt could best support the instructional program they wished to implement. These proposals were then subjected to a review process with final approval given by the superintendent.
LAUSD has had four rounds of PSC. The final round began implementation in the 2013-2014 school year. The PSC process evolved with each round. In the third round, the board voted to strengthen community engagement through sessions where parents, students, and community members were able to provide written feedback regarding the plans reviewed. The board also amended the process to consider in-district applicant teams (comprised of current or retired LAUSD employees) applying for new schools first. If none of the in-district applicants submitted a high-quality plan, then outside applicants (charter operators and other nonprofit groups) would be considered.
PSC, like charters and pilots, contributed to a move toward decentralization and to a system of schools. In addition to charters, PSC schools, and pilots, there are 172 magnet schools in the district that also provide students and families with choice.
1 Initially, schools applied to participate in LEARN (all stakeholder groups had to approve participation); each school was promised control over its budgets and curriculum; and teachers participated in decision-making through school site control. By 1995, LEARN reform principles were integrated into performance standards (the first time performance standards were set by the district, three years before the Public School Accountability Act and seven years before No Child Left Behind).
2 The Public School Accountability Act was adopted in 1999.
3 For more on LAAMP schools, see Kerchner et al., Learning from LA: Institutional Change in American Public Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008).
4 See J. L. Herman & E. L. Baker, The Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project: Evaluation Findings (Los Angeles: CRESST and the University of California–Los Angeles, 2003), p. vi.
5 Launched in 2000, the Gates Foundation’s five-year high school initiative provided more than $1 billion in funding on a range of fronts – at the school level to break up large schools or start new schools, for researchers and policy makers to learn more about effective practices, and to build capacity at the district level to sustain widespread change.
6 The A-G course sequence is a series of college-preparatory courses that California high school students must complete to be eligible for admission to either a California State University or University of California campus. They are grouped into seven subject areas: History/social science, English, mathematics, laboratory science, foreign language, visual and performing arts, and electives and are organized from the letter “A” through “G.” For more information on the A-G course sequence see http://www.ucop.edu/agguide/a-g-requirements/.
7 Nine pilot schools were located in what was then known as Local District 4 (the same local district as Belmont High School) and one pilot school in Local District 6.