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When the morning bell rings on Aug. 16, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) 2016-17 academic year will follow one of its most successful graduation rates in recent memory. Last year, the LAUSD saw its graduation rate climb to 72.2 percent with increases reported across all major ethnic subgroups. In fact, since the 2009-10 school year—when the state began using four-year cohort graduation rates as a measure of accountability—the district graduation rate has increased about 10 percentage points. As well, the drop-out rate has been on a steady decline from about 25 percent six years ago to the present 16.7 percent. What’s more, the district is projecting a 75-percent graduation rate for the class of 2016.

Cheryl Hildreth, supervisor of the LAUSD west district, explained that the increase in graduation may hinge on having identified students who needed support and possessing the resources to see them through any rough patches throughout their school tenure, particularly high school.

Parental involvement essential

“Much of the success can be traced to our credit recovery process where students who are having difficulty can work with specialized tutors, go on-line or repeat a course, if necessary,” Hidreth said. “Our primary objective is to have these young people graduate with the skills necessary to be productive in college and beyond.”

Hildreth said a continuing focus within the K-12 instructional program involves a working relationship between parents, students and teachers. That process begins in elementary school, she said.

“We make sure there is strong communication between school and home,” she explained, “with elementary school being the optimum starting point. Kids must (learn to) attend school every day; they must have an appropriate place to study, a parent who will ask ‘what did you learn today’? and of course, a good night’s sleep to be able to take on the next learning day with energy and confidence.”

Hildreth said the district wants to see improvement in English language arts and in mathematics. These subjects, she explained, require increased engagement from all parties (student, parent and teacher) to focus more on how the child may see these subjects in the “real world.”

“It is vital that children begin to visualize how they will incorporate language arts and mathematics into their everyday lives,” Hildreth said. “Not in the future when they have jobs, but right now. In their reading and writing …what can they apply or ‘how do I express’ this or that? Math is the same thing. These skills are necessary in their lives today so that they can be informed, productive citizens tomorrow.”

Overall enrollment is down

The overall enrollment in the LAUSD is reportedly down, yet the district has the same number of kindergartners as it did nine years ago. District insiders warn that if the decline in enrollment continues unabated, the situation could result in bankruptcy. In the 2006-07 school year, the district had 49,896 kindergartners enrolled as of the October “norm day” which is an enrollment count used to allocate resources and state funding. Today, there are 49,289 children enrolled in kindergarten.

“The district is fully looking into this circumstance,” Hildreth said. “One possibility in the kindergarten statistics is that children are enrolled initially, but after a while some parents opt to look for a specific school with specific themes. And parents move (away).”

The latest projections for graduation has new Superintendent Michelle King very excited. In her first “state of the district” address this month, she said the numbers may put to rest any doubts that LAUSD students can’t meet expanded educational goals.

“This is exceeding expectations of those who said our students couldn’t do it,” King said. While the academic requirements are more stringent this year, the aforementioned credit recovery process may have had a hand in the newfound success.

Balancing success with improvement

Like practically every school district in the state, the LAUSD must balance its successes with areas in need of improvement. This week it was revealed that the district may soon have to redirect how it spends hundreds of millions of dollars in order to directly benefit the English learners, foster youth and low-income students for whom state funding has been earmarked. The Community Coalition and other groups have asserted that the nation’s second-largest school district has been using this earmarked money for its general population, or to cover specific costs, including offsetting an ongoing budget crisis. The state has given the district until the 2017-18 academic year to reallocate or justify the disputed expenses.

With the full implementation of Common Core instructional standards in effect nationwide, the true impact that they have had on schools and education may not be known for several years. The shift to a national set of standards that are supposed to be the same for all schools in the 45 states that adopted them, has not only been revolutionary, but also controversial. The Common Core standards are internationally benchmarked, meaning that all of America’s teaching methods are designed to compare favorably with standards of other nations. Reportedly, Common Core was adopted because the United States had dropped considerably in educational rankings over the last few decades. By having standards that are internationally benchmarked, proponents of Common Core believe that secondary school students will see their grades improve, particularly in public schools.

Is Common Core working?

The benefits of Common Core are said to be considerable. In California, for instance, it has become arguably easier to compare standardized test scores more accurately. Before, each state had to establish their own standards and assessments, a process that may have contributed to the difficulty in comparing one state’s results accurately with another state’s results. Common Core has decreased the costs states pay for test development, scoring and reporting. This is because each state no longer has to pay to have their unique tests to be developed (i.e. each of the states that share the same standards can now develop like tests to meet their needs and split costs).

Common Core has reportedly increased the rigor in some classrooms and may be a better way to prepare students for college and global work success. This, according to proponents, may be the biggest reason why Common Core was created. There has been the development of higher-level thinking skills—or metacognition—in students. With Common Core, students are tested on one skill set at a time, with assessment covering several skills within each question. Proponents say these assessments have provided teachers with a “tool” to monitor students’ progress throughout the academic year. These tools include the ability of an instructor to administer an optional pre-test and other progress-monitoring methods that can be used to assess students’ progress, and if they’re not achieving at grade level, there is an opportunity to develop a plan to get them to where they should be academically.

An ‘authentic’ learning experience

An additional benefit of Common Core relates to a more “authentic” learning experience, according to education officials. Teachers can see all of what a student has learned across all curricula through the multi-assessment model (pupils no longer have to simply come up with an “acceptable” answer but instead must provide a response, state how they arrived at the conclusion and, if necessary, defend their answer). Also, Common Core may reportedly benefit students who move from one Common Core state to another because the states have the same set of standards. If a child moves from California to Idaho, for instance, he or she will have covered the subject and, hopefully, will have mastered the standard necessary for a passing grade.

While proponents laud the advantages of Common Core, there are almost as many who oppose the implementation of the curriculum. First off, they say it is reportedly difficult to make the adjustment for students and teachers. Because the transition began in fits and starts, opposing educators say the methodology is often in conflict with their teaching pedagogy or the way they were taught originally to manage a classroom. Nor does Common Core match the learning mechanism that most students are familiar with. A lot of teachers have left the profession rather than make the switch. The standards are said to be vague. Many states, though, have been able to deconstruct or “unwrap” the standards by making them more teacher friendly.

Increase in ‘high stakes’ testing

Teachers who disagree with Common Core may base their displeasure on the fact that it forces younger students to learn at a more rapid pace. With increased rigor and an emphasis on higher-level thinking skills, early childhood education programs have thereby become more rigid. Pre-kindergarten instruction is vital, consequently the skills that students used to learn in second grade are now taught in kindergarten. There are ongoing complaints about obsolete textbooks—already common in inner-city schools—because new curricula and materials are not aligned to Common Core.

It also costs schools a lot of money to update the technology needed for the accompanying Common Core assessments, most of which are online. This has created various issues for many school districts which have had to purchase enough computers for all students to be assessed in a timely manner. The digital-divide at some urban schools has made adapting to Common Core particularly challenging. Also, Common Core has reportedly led to an increased value on standardized test performance or “high stakes testing.” Since states are now able to compare their performances against another state’s more accurately, stakes have only become higher.

New state framework

Other secondary education news this year revealed that immunization shots are a priority. Children will not be enrolled on the first day of school unless an immunization record is presented and immunizations are up-to-date.

In Sacramento, the California Department of Education has approved a new History-Social Sciences Framework to update and upgrade these subjects in all school districts. The framework will reportedly provide guidance to teachers, administrators and publishers for the teaching of history and social science. It includes more than 20 detailed classroom examples that will show teachers how they can integrate their instruction to build students’ history-social science knowledge and skills, literacy skills, and English language development. The framework is said to add considerable information on civic learning, consistent with the work of the California Task Force on K-12 Learning. Also, information has been added about financial literacy, voter education, genocide, and the societal contributions of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. A history of contributions from disabled persons will be part of the new school curriculum, as well as a history of California and the United States in general.

‘Safe schools’ a priority

Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, said the new framework is a big win for students. Within it, he said, there are mechanisms to improve the teaching and learning of history and social science, providing students with the latest historical research that will assist them in learning about the diversity of the state and the contributions from people of varied backgrounds.

“Many of the people whom our children will now learn about may not have received the appropriate recognition in the past,” Torlakson explained. “It will be an opportunity to teach about the many people over the centuries who have contributed to the growth of the nation and the state of California.”

Safe schools continue to be a priority in districts throughout California. A School and Community Safety Advisory Committee has been created to promote school safety, showcase best practices, and discuss new developments. A special conference this summer attracted nearly 900 school administrators, counselors, child welfare and attendance personnel, as well as members of the law enforcement community, and mental health and social workers who addressed ongoing issues such as bullying, cyberbullying, gang prevention/intervention, truancy and drugs/alcohol among secondary school students.

“We need to heal as a nation,” Torlakson said. “And we need to come together, and that’s where our schools can lead the way. Every day on campuses all across the state, teachers, law enforcement, students and parents and the community work together to show how we can build trust and confidence in each other and promote safety.”