ASCD California


  • 09/29/2022 2:42 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    The Right To Read: It took a lawsuit against California

    The result is a three-year program to improve literacy for 70 high-poverty schools with the lowest test scores.

    SEPTEMBER 29, 2022

    An 11-year-old boy writing a fifth-grade book report on “The Cat in the Hat,” a book meant for kindergartners. A second-grade girl stuck at a preschool reading level. Students who break down in tears when asked to read aloud in class.

    While some might blame teachers or schools for such woeful reading skills, the attorneys who represented these children in the groundbreaking 2017 lawsuit known as the Ella T. case blamed the state of California. They argued that the state had long known of the literacy crisis, and its grim impact on the lives of children, but had done little to solve it, essentially denying these children their civil right to literacy under the state constitution.

    “Tragically, the state of California fought us,” said Mark Rosenbaum, lead counsel on the case. “They blamed the kids as opposed to the system itself.”

    The state eventually agreed to a 2020 settlement that created $50 million in Early Literacy Support Block (ELSB) grants for 75 of the state’s lowest-performing schools, those with the lowest scores on Smarter Balanced tests administered in the spring of 2019. At some of these high-poverty California schools, fewer than 10% of the children were reading at grade level.

    Despite the literacy crisis, California has yet to embrace a comprehensive strategy that will get all students statewide reading by third grade. While California Department of Education officials are tracking outcomes in the block grant schools to inform their “legislative analysis of bills,” there appear to be no plans to use the data to shape a statewide literacy push.


    This is the third in an occasional series on the dramatic national push to revamp how reading is taught in the earliest grades. This EdSource special report examines the state of early reading in California, the needs of special learners, teacher preparation and training and curricula and textbooks that are driving instruction. Read more about California’s Reading Dilemma. Explore the timeline on California’s Reading Wars History.

    Rose Ciotta, EdSource investigations and projects editor

    Some are skeptical that the state will use the results to craft the kind of deep and nuanced statewide policy that the literacy crisis demands. Patchwork solutions leave too much to chance, some fear, amid mounting evidence of the need for urgent reform.

    “We have 1,000 school districts, each with its own leadership,” said Todd Collins, a Palo Alto school board member and an organizer of the California Reading Coalition, a literacy advocacy group. “If we have a statewide reading problem, it will be very hard to get all, or even most of them, to make it a sustained priority, unless state leaders make a major statewide push, and keep it, for years. We need to get moving as a state, not 1,000 disconnected districts.”

    Advocates for literacy reform in California have high hopes that the block grant schools could become a kind of model for the rest of the state as it rethinks reading instruction. If the lowest performing schools can pull this off during the worst time period for American education amid a pandemic, some say, this is proof positive, especially since research shows that reading problems cut across all socioeconomic groups.

    “This is a proven model for the state. So why wouldn’t you jump on it? Why wouldn’t you expand it, refine it and make sure every kid gets a chance to learn to read,” said Rosenbaum.

    Others take a more measured stance, citing the potential for missteps.

    “It’s a phenomenal opportunity, but there are so many points of failure for the schools and the state to mess it up,” said Jessica Reid Sliwerski, a literacy expert and founder of Open Up Resources, a nonprofit that offers accessible curricula. “Sadly, I have very little confidence.”

    A literacy experiment

    In an era of deepening economic inequality and widening achievement gaps, many see literacy as an issue of equity, the baseline in a functioning democracy.

    Rosenbaum views the block grant program as a wide-ranging literacy experiment, an ongoing test case in how best to teach reading in the early grades, TK-3, that may hold lessons for the rest of California. It is a microcosm of the myriad challenges facing the state as a whole, from the lack of consistency created by local control policies, to the stresses of poverty, the pandemic and teacher burnout.

    One of the richest states in the nation, California is nevertheless a place where less than half of all third graders scored at grade level in 2019, before the pandemic derailed schooling. The numbers are even more dismal for children of color, with two-thirds of Black children and 61% of Latino children unable to read at grade level.

    School closures took a heavy toll on test scores, especially among vulnerable students, fueling the largest decline in 30 years on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, or NAEP, dubbed “the nation’s report card.” California schools were among the last in the nation to bring students back to campus.

    “These results show that this gap widened further during the pandemic,” said Martin West, a member of the NAEP governing board and dean at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “Supporting the academic recovery of lower-performing students should be a top priority for educators and policymakers nationwide.”


    Phonics instruction teaches the relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language, correlating sounds with letters to sound out the word on the page.  

    Phonemic awareness is the ability to detect, identify and manipulate phonemes, a distinct unit of sound, in spoken words. It is one component of phonological awareness, an umbrella term that includes the awareness of the larger parts of spoken language, such as words and syllables, as well as smaller parts such as phonemes.   

    Balanced literacy, a variation of the whole-language approach that emphasizes exploring literature organically but includes the explicit instruction of phonics in small doses.

    Science of reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically based research about reading that includes the five fundamental pillars: phonics (connecting letters to sounds,) phonemic awareness (identifying distinct units of sound,) fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

    Decoding means translating a printed word to speech and identifying unfamiliar words by sounding them out. This is a foundation of phonics instruction.

    Three-cueing uses context such as pictures and syntax to guess the meaning of words that a student is stumbling on. It is urged primarily in balanced literacy and has become a focus of controversy.

    Structured literacy emphasizes the highly explicit and systematic teaching of all important components of literacy including foundational skills (phonics, spelling) and higher-level literacy skills (reading comprehension). The origins of this phonics-based approach go back to the 1920s, when Samuel T. Orton and Anna Gillingham created a program that was systematic, explicit and highly structured, known as the Orton-Gillingham method, to reach struggling readers.

    Closing the equity gap

    Closing that equity gap is the mission of the block grant. While it is still early days for this herculean effort to teach 15,000 students at the state’s lowest-scoring schools how to read, organizers say the three-year project has logged some promising preliminary results at the one-year mark.

    Bear in mind that Covid learning loss is layered on top of pre-existing conditions such as insufficient teacher training, shoddy curriculum, incoherent assessments, high staff turnover and tight budgets that plague many high-poverty schools.

    At some of these schools, all the students in the early grades scored so low on initial reading assessments that they needed interventions. Turning the tide will not come easily. 

    “We have made significant gains in student growth, building teacher knowledge, and building the instructional leadership capacity,” said Becky Sullivan, the literacy expert at the Sacramento County Office of Education who is overseeing the block grant program. “We are not yet where we want to be in terms of achievement, so we are celebrating these wins and moving forward into our next year of implementation.” 

    While 75 schools qualified, some closed, leaving 70 in the three-year effort to reform their early reading instruction under Sullivan’s guidance. She is a proponent of the science of reading and structured literacy, an approach that’s more methodical in its reading fundamentals, such as phonics and vocabulary, than balanced literacy, a commonly used approach.

    The long-waged battle between these instructional philosophies, while unknown to most parents and caregivers, has been described as “the reading wars.” For the record, in keeping with the state’s local control policies, the schools in this project are free to choose whichever approach to curriculum and assessments they think best suits their needs.

    Sullivan and her team provide ongoing training, coaching and guidance but no dictates. That freedom means there are often conflicting approaches used within a single district, which echoes the local control ethos of the state as a whole.

    “They’re not being told what to do,” she said. “We are providing guideposts for them, and they are making good decisions with the information they’re learning.” 

    Turning what has long been known about how children learn and how the brain works into useful classroom practice is the key. Phonics and other reading fundamentals help rewire the circuitry of the brain, experts say, forging roads between the parts of the brain that interpret what we see and what we hear.  Without these critical pathways, children often struggle connecting letters to sounds.

    Despite an extensive body of research, and the fact that the science of reading is now ascendant in many circles, many teachers believe that most children will learn by osmosis in a print-rich environment. This is not the case, experts say.

    A learning gap for teachers

    “We knew they were going to need a lot of professional development because one of the issues out there is a knowledge gap,” said Sullivan. “How students learn how to read is settled science, but we have a gap between the science and the implementation of that knowledge.”

    That’s why many of the schools are using their grants to pay for literacy coaches, teacher assistants, teacher training, and instructional materials targeted at the early grades, TK-3. Teachers and administrators are undergoing multiple types of ongoing education, from access to literacy coaches and classes in Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LTRS, and online training in the science of reading through the Online Elementary Reading Academy.

    Third grade is a critical time for learning. The rule of thumb is that around third grade children should switch from learning to read to reading to learn.

    If children can’t make that leap in time, research suggests, they quickly fall behind in all subjects, from science and history to math. Children who can’t read well by third grade are also more likely to drop out of school, data shows. That means the stakes are high, particularly in a state that fails to teach half of its students to read.

    “If half the kids can’t read without paying for outside tutors, you don’t have an intervention problem,” said Kareem Weaver, member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee and co-founder of the literacy advocacy group FULCRUM, “you have a core instruction problem.”

    For the record, state testing doesn’t begin until third grade, which partly explains why struggling readers often fly under the radar until then. 

    Many experts would place the reading benchmark much earlier than third grade. Sullivan targets the end of first grade, which gives teachers only two years, kindergarten and first grade, to get children up to speed.  They have to move fast.

    “If you want to move the needle, you’ve got to have a laser focus on those fundamental skills,” said Julie McCalmont, coordinator of Expanded Learning Programs at Oakland Unified. 

    Last year, at Ethel I. Baker Elementary in Sacramento, a fourth grade boy was in danger of being held back because he was reading at a kindergarten level, but the new literacy push has already helped him move up two reading levels in one year.

    “Most or all of our students are making progress,” said principal Nathan McGill whose school is one of seven block grant schools in Sacramento County. “What is surprising and encouraging is that it’s not just reading that is improving.” They are also seeing improvements in listening and speaking even among students who are learning English. 

    Breaking down the words

    During a reading lesson at Nystrom Elementary in Richmond, one of seven block grant schools in West Contra Costa Unified School District, a group of third-graders huddled around teacher Dylan Fairweather, sounding out words she pointed to like “next, N-ext” and “choice, Ch-oice.”


    A group of third-graders huddles around teacher Dylan Fairweather.

    The school saw a 15% bump over the last school year in the number of K-3 students reading at or above grade level and a 17% decrease in the number of K-3 students who needed “intensive support.”

    Make no mistake, these gains have been hard won. The first step has been defining the causes of their low reading scores and proposing solutions in a literacy action plan.

    “Increasing reading achievement takes time as it’s about systemic change,” said Sullivan. “There is no magic, overnight bullet. The ELSB schools are seeing growth on their early literacy indicators and heading in the right direction. They need to stay focused.”

    For Lorraine Zapata, the principal at Joshua Elementary in Lancaster, the grant has been a godsend, giving her the resources to better train her teachers. Joshua, like Nystrom, switched from balanced to structured literacy, a strategy that emphasizes fundamentals such as phonics and vocabulary, as part of this project.

    Kids excited to learn

    “The biggest challenge is breaking through misconceptions around the science of reading,” said Leslie Zoroya, project director at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “There is this notion that it is only about phonics and drill-and-kill boredom for kids. That is in no way true. We see amazing things in our classrooms, kids excited about learning to read, singing, laughing, dancing.”

    That’s why Briana Hernandez, a second-grade teacher at Oakland’s Acorn Woodland Elementary while teaching in a summer literacy hub, illustrated how to keep her lessons light and fun. (Acorn draws from several block grant schools.) She often has children sit in a circle and sing a song before they read words on flash cards. The goal is to instill a sense of joy in reading.

    “You really need to know your students and know what they need and then you need a lot of different strategies in your pocket so you can pull them as you need them,” said Hernandez. “I need to keep them engaged so they can see that reading is fun.”

    Choosing the correct curriculum and training the teachers is half the battle. But making sure the school’s literacy plan is nimble, and shifting to meet student needs, can be harder than it sounds. Many of these schools organize literacy classes by reading level instead of by grade, for instance, and move students up or down as needed.

    Many of the block grant schools also have a high number of bilingual students. Flexibility is crucial.

    “There is not a one-size-fits-all curriculum,” says Sullivan. “You have to think about the needs of your students in your district. Sometimes you have to supplement. You have to look at your data and you have to make adjustments as you go, so you’re trending in the right direction.” That’s what Sullivan helps them to do.

    Needs of English learners

    English language learners have specific needs that Rosa Diaz, a literacy tutor at Acorn, knows all too well. She wishes she had phonics lessons when she was a child.

    “My parents didn’t speak English. I had teachers who didn’t speak Spanish. I had to do it all on my own,” said Diaz, her voice thick with emotion. “It was very difficult.”

    At Acorn, she helped small groups of children sound out the words in a sentence and then write them down during short lessons. The little girl in one group focused on the work while one of the little boys just listened. Diaz checked their whiteboards one by one, making sure they learned the correct spellings of hard words like chair. Blended sounds are a common hurdle for bilingual children, she noted.

    “You need a lot of support as you move from Spanish to English,” said Diaz, “which is something I didn’t have growing up.”

    Nearly half of the students at Sacramento’s Baker Elementary are also English learners and all were eligible for free-and reduced-priced lunches last school year. After a year of daily 45-minute phonics and phonemics exercises, one class of third and fourth graders progressed from a second-grade level to a third-grade level.

    “It’s fast. It’s at their level. It’s approachable,” said teacher Jennifer Dare Sparks of the curriculum. “We are giving them the support they need to learn, so they are comfortable learning.” 

    Getting all the administrators on board is also critical. 

    “Principals need to understand the research and best practices so they can ensure that teachers are doing what they should be doing,” said Zoroya. “An entire system needs to be built around the instruction. In order to sustain the work, the system needs to run despite staff coming and going.” 

    Enthusiasm is also key to success, experts say. Reading has to be a value within daily life that parents model for children at home, leading some principals to plan for family literacy nights.

    “The biggest surprise has been our students. They are so excited about learning to read,” said Zapata. “Their enthusiasm is why we must address their needs through the science of reading. The brain pathways must be developed regardless of the economic status of our learners. We are on our way.”

    A solvable crisis

    From a wider lens, some fear that the reading wars will continue to sabotage progress in most California classrooms. Change has already been far too long coming, they say. Learning from the journey of the block grant schools could be the first step, they say.

    “After all these years, finally the debate is coming back to where it should be and what a lot of us were talking about in 2000,” said Ruth Green, former president of the California State Board of Education. “This is a solvable crisis. We need leadership from the state legislators, state superintendent and the State Board of Education all pulling in the same direction.”

    EdSource reporters contributed to this story: Ali Tadayon, Diana Lambert and Kate Sequeira.

  • 09/27/2022 2:30 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    Governor vetoes full-day and mandatory kindergarten bills


    SEPTEMBER 26, 2022
    Kindergarten students in Robin Bryant’s class at West Contra Costa Unified's Stege Elementary School are learning how to add and subtract.

    California won’t be making kindergarten mandatory or extending the kindergarten school day, at least not any time soon.

     Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed two bills that would have made it mandatory for parents to enroll their 5-year-olds in kindergarten, and for school districts to make kindergarten more than four hours long.

    In both veto messages, Newsom said the bills would cost hundreds of millions of dollars in ongoing costs that are not accounted for in the state budget.

    “With our state facing lower-than-expected revenues over the first few months of this fiscal year, it is important to remain disciplined when it comes to spending, particularly spending that is ongoing,” Newsom wrote. “We must prioritize existing obligations and priorities, including education, health care, public safety and safety-net programs.”

    Assembly Bill 1973 would have required all elementary schools to offer at least one full-day kindergarten class by 2030-31. Full-day kindergarten is defined as any program lasting more than four hours, not including recess time. Currently, California only requires part-day kindergarten, which lasts between three and four hours a day, not including recess time.

    Senate Bill 70, introduced by Sen. Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, a former teacher, would have made enrollment in kindergarten mandatory for all 5-year-olds beginning in the 2024-25 school year. Currently, California, like most other states, does not require children to attend school until first grade, after they turn 6.

    “Any teacher who has been in the classroom as long as I have can describe to you in detail the long-term, devastating effects to a child who misses kindergarten,” Rubio said in a statement. “I plan to reintroduce my mandatory kindergarten bill and fight for the funding next year. Our children are too important. We can either pay the education costs now or the far greater societal costs later.”

    Before the pandemic, the vast majority of 5-year-olds enrolled in kindergarten, even though it is not mandatory. According to the California Kindergarten Association, only about 5% to 7% of students do not enroll in kindergarten.

    However, kindergarten enrollment dropped by 13.2% from 2019-20 to 2020-21, during distance learning, according to the California Department of Education. Many parents chose not to enroll their children in kindergarten because remote learning is not suited for young children.

     Reactions to the vetoes were mixed.

    “We were disappointed with the vetoes, as mandating kindergarten and expanding early learning opportunities would help solve some of the foundational inequities in our education system. It would also even the playing field by giving families equal access to the educational experiences kids need to meet critical educational milestones in literacy and numeracy by third grade,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, a statewide research and advocacy organization based in Oakland.

    Jackie Thu-Huong Wong, executive director of First 5 California, a state commission focused on supporting children in their first five years of life, said the investments the governor and Legislature have made in child care, preschool and expanding transitional kindergarten “better align into the overall K-12 educational system.”

    “While we believe the governor’s signature of SB 70 would have been a great addition to these historic investments, we understand the state’s fiscal realities,” Wong said.

     Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at UC Berkeley who focuses on early education, said Newsom’s vetoes are “fiscally prudent.”

    “He’s also firmly staking out centrist positions, opting not to tell parents how to raise their kids. This is consistent with his impressive expansion of pre-K, while making enrollment voluntary for families,” Fuller said.

    The California School Boards Association did not support either bill and actively opposed the full-day kindergarten bill, AB 1973, because of concerns that if forced to offer full-day kindergarten, many districts that currently offer both morning and afternoon kindergarten would not be able to serve as many children.

    “This bill would have had a disproportionate impact on small and rural school districts that have a more difficult time in finding staff to teach these classes and making the facilities changes that would be necessary to accommodate them,” said spokesman Troy Flint. 

    More than 80% of school districts already offer full-day kindergarten. Those that do not are mostly in higher-income areas and cite lack of classroom space and staff shortages as obstacles to offering full-day programs.

    Similar bills have been vetoed before. In 2019, Newsom vetoed a bill to make full-day kindergarten available in every district. In Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a mandatory kindergarten bill, saying parents should choose whether kindergarten is best for their children.

  • 09/27/2022 2:28 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    Thousands of California teachers say they are stressed, burned out  

    Survey says many considering leaving field; data suggest are fewer actually will 


    SEPTEMBER 27, 2022

    An AP chemistry teacher explains a lab experiment to his students.

    A large-scale survey this past summer of California teachers confirms what has emerged as a byproduct of two-plus years of a pandemic: Large numbers of teachers characterize their work as “stressful” and “exhausting.” And nearly twice as many teachers than in the past say that job conditions have changed for the worse.

    The results of the survey of 4,632 teachers, commissioned by the California Teachers Association and UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, was released on Tuesday. Hart Research Associates administered the survey; all the teachers are CTA members.

    The survey points to multiple reasons for unhappiness, and those teachers who are considering leaving the profession cited burnout from stress (57%) and political attacks on teachers (40%), followed by a heavy workload compounded by staff shortages. A low salary, a lack of respect from parents and a lack of a work-life balance also were high on the list.

    The survey found that 1 in 5 teachers say they will likely leave the profession in the next three years, including 1 in 7 who say they will definitely leave. An additional 22% say there is a 50-50 chance they will leave.

    However, national data of recent teacher resignations call into question what the survey called California’s “crisis of retention.” Research and a review of surveys by Education Week concluded that the rate of teacher attrition did rise in 2021-22, but only by a few percentage points, to 7% nationally and to 10% in large urban and low-income districts.

    Dan Goldhaber, vice president at the American Institutes of Research, whose study of teacher turnover in Washington state also found a slight uptick in attrition in 2021-22, said “data definitely do not support the idea that anywhere near the number of teachers who suggest they may leave actually leave.” But he added, in his Washington state analysis, “That does not mean we should be unconcerned; we should take reports of teacher burnout and dissatisfaction seriously, even if they do not lead to attrition.”

     The California survey paints a nuanced portrait: While many teachers think about exiting teaching, most said they continue to like it; more than two-thirds said that they are very satisfied (39%) or moderately satisfied (29%) with their positions. That leaves 32% with low satisfaction. Older and high school teachers were more likely than younger and elementary school teachers to say they are highly satisfied. Slightly more Black and Asian American teachers indicated they will likely leave the profession than white and Latino teachers.  

    “There are teachers who feel satisfied with their jobs and pay structure, but it’s incumbent upon us to address why 30% say they’re not,” said Kai Monet Mathews, research director of UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools. “The changes brought about by the pandemic will have a lasting impact. Teachers are more overwhelmed than before. We should be proactive — hear the voices of teachers and listen to their concerns.”

    Teachers said the primary motivation for entering and staying in the profession is to help students and make a positive difference in their lives. Schedules with summers off, job security and good pension and health benefits were secondary reasons. 

    But teaching has proven to have positives and negatives. Asked what they like most about their current position, current teachers cited connecting with their students (42%) and helping their students grow and develop (43%).


    Covid Challenges, Bad Student Behavior Push Teachers To Limit, Out The Door

    Yet when asked what they like least about their position, teachers pointed to student apathy, discipline and behavioral problems (32%). In two-dozen in-depth interviews, teachers said inadequate training in classroom management and a lack of support from administrators and parents compounded the behavior problems. Teachers who said they planned to leave the profession cited strengthening discipline for disruptive behaviors and raising pay as two top ways to retain teachers.

    The National Education Association projected that the average teacher in California would earn $87,275 in 2020-21, the third-highest salary among teachers in the nation. Three-quarters of the teachers surveyed reported annual household incomes of more than $100,000, with 36% more than $150,000. But California is also one of the least affordable states, exacerbated by escalating housing costs in the Bay Area and Southern California.

    Most of the teachers surveyed said they are experiencing financial stress: 80% said it is difficult to find affordable housing near where they teach; 75% said it was difficult to save for long-term goals, to keep up with basic expenses (68%), to save for retirement (68%), and to live comfortably and maintain the lifestyle they want (64%).


    We Need To Fix Professional Development For Teachers

    Asked for four changes to improve retention, teachers cited better pay as the top priority, followed by smaller class sizes, a more manageable workload and more support services for students.

    Two dozen aspiring teachers also cited the financial burden of tuition and qualifying tests. They expressed positive views of teacher residencies, internships and clinical practice but not the cost.

    “I was and am willing to do whatever it takes to be a teacher. However, the cost of tuition, compared to how much teachers make, is very sad. The cost of student-teaching was 10 grand and has been a huge challenge for me,” said one interviewee, a 23-year-old woman.

    Fulfilling 600 hours of practice in a classroom to become a full-time teacher in California requires taking a semester off, Mathews said. Access to becoming a teacher is limited if you don’t have a partner or a family to support you during that time. Most affected are low-income, aspiring teachers of color, she said.

    “It’s time to have a broad, creative conversation about compensation with the community,” Mathews said, and consider benefits that aren’t necessarily in the form of a monthly paycheck, like providing housing stipends, covering student loans, universal paid teacher residencies — “a GI bill for teachers,” Mathews said. “Teachers need to be seen as part of the social fabric, compensated and taken care of.”

    Challenge of achieving full inclusion

    The success of retaining and recruiting teachers in an increasingly diverse state will depend on creating school environments that support diversity. The survey indicates teachers see a need for significant improvement, although how much depends on subtle differences in perception.

    More than 80% of teachers said they feel comfortable being their “authentic” selves at their schools and that their schools support different cultures; 77% said they felt a sense of belonging in school. But they were divided over whether they “strongly” or “somewhat” hold these views. Nearly two-thirds of teachers said their school leadership demonstrates a genuine commitment to cultivate diversity. But only 32% said they strongly believe that their leaders are fully committed.

    The report says there are significant differences between whether white teachers and teachers of color strongly feel a sense of belonging at their school. But the data shows identical proportions — 41% — of white and Latino teachers feel that way. The data also shows, however, that Black and Asian teachers feel much less comfortable being themselves in school. A key difference, former teachers of color said, was working at a school where some or all of the population was from a similar background as their own.

    Only 38% of Black teachers reported never experiencing discrimination in their current positions; 31% reported experiencing it a few times; 19% said occasionally, and 12% —1 in 8 Black teachers — said it happened very often.

  • 08/19/2022 9:58 AM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    What it will take to ensure literacy for all California students


    AUGUST 18, 2022


    A student reads along with classmates during a reading class at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School in Sacramento in June.

    As the pandemic has raised concerns about “learning loss” and widening achievement gaps, California policymakers have focused increasingly on how to strengthen literacy instruction in the country’s most diverse state. In 2021 the Legislature passed Senate Bill 488, which outlines teacher preparation for teaching reading.

    Over this past year, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has convened a Literacy Task Force. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2021 budget included funding for literacy training, early identification of struggling readers and a new screening tool to flag potential reading challenges such as dyslexia. His 2022 budget went further, funding literacy coaches and reading specialists for the state’s highest need schools.

    What will it take to ensure literacy for all children? Here I summarize California’s progress and needs, what the science of reading suggests, and what the state can and should do to accomplish this goal.

    The current context

    After decades of disinvestment that followed the passage of Proposition 13, California’s education system was one of the most poorly funded and lowest achieving in the nation. In 2009, before Gov. Jerry Brown took office, California ranked 48th in f0urth grade reading and 49th in eighth grade reading on national tests. Since then, the state’s equity-oriented investments (through the Local Control Funding Formula) have produced achievement gains in both reading and math, but we are still well below the national norms.


    A Movement Rises To Change The Teaching Of Reading

    In 2019, when statewide test results were last reported for all districts, 51% of students in all grades met the grade-level standards in English language arts — up from 44% in 2015, the first year the tests were given, and 22% nearly met the standard — but more than one-fourth (27%) were well below the standard. Since then, the effects of the pandemic have expanded these needs, especially for the youngest learners.

    What matters most for literacy progress?

    Meeting the needs of all students for literacy skills in a state like California — where 43% of students come from homes where the first language is not English — requires not only understanding what all students need to experience in the process of learning to read, but also the particular needs of multilingual learners, as well as the needs of those at risk of reading difficulties and those who may experience dyslexia or other learning disabilities.

    Research suggests that at least five policy supports are needed to ensure that every child will become fully literate:

    1. High-quality learning opportunities in the critical preschool years.
    2. Thoughtful approaches to K-12 teaching that derive from the science of reading and literacy.
    3. Skilled teachers who can implement effective instruction.
    4. Settings that provide the staffing, materials and assessments needed.
    5. Targeted interventions for students who are at-risk for reading failure.

    While California has historically lagged many states in providing these elements to all communities, we are making rapid progress today that we can build upon to achieve our goals.


    California’s Reading Dilemma

    1. Early learning: Research is clear that quality preschool can make a significant difference in children’s academic success. An evaluation of California’s transitional kindergarten program found that TK significantly increases literacy skills for all students, including in key areas like phonological awareness (recognizing words made of different sounds) and letter-word identification skills, with the largest gains for English learners and children from low-income families. In the last two years, the governor has substantially increased funding for preschool, and we will achieve universal TK access for all 4-year-olds (nearly 450,000) by 2025-26. The first year of that expansion begins this fall with an additional 75,000 children eligible across the state.
    1. Guidance for literacy development grounded in the contemporary science of reading: A great deal has been learned over the last three decades about how reading skills develop. As summarized by the National Reading Panel in 2000, the formal process of learning to read — which builds on oral language in early childhood (speaking, singing, rhyming and more) — begins with the foundational skills of phonemic awareness (understanding how sounds function in words) and the alphabetic knowledge needed for understanding how letters correspond to sounds and how words are constructed. It continues with ongoing attention to building vocabulary and background knowledge that are essential to comprehension and meaning-making. As a recent call to end “the reading wars” stated, “the relationship between letters and sounds is necessary and nonnegotiable when learning to read in alphabetic writing systems. … Yet reading scientists, teachers and the public know that reading involves more than alphabetic skills.” Good literacy instruction teaches these skills explicitly while building on what students already know (including their culture and home language); building background knowledge about the world to support reading comprehension; and integrating reading, writing, speaking and listening to provide reinforcement for understanding. These same principles apply to multilingual learners — students who speak a language other than English at home — with even greater attention to developing vocabulary and background knowledge to support comprehension, integrating literacy work into all content areas and offering dedicated English language development focused initially on the words used for beginning reading and writing instruction. Research confirms the benefits of biliteracy for cognitive development and language proficiency. Over the long term, dual language programs produce equivalent or better outcomes in literacy for both English learners and native speakers of English. All of this research is built into California’s core documents for guiding literacy instruction: the English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework, the California Comprehensive State Literacy Plan,  the Teacher Credentialing Commission’s Literacy Teaching Performance Expectations, and a new set of standards currently being finalized for literacy instruction in the state’s teacher education programs, all of which attend to explicit instruction in the foundational skills plus the comprehension and language development strategies described here.
    1. Skilled teachers: While California has well-grounded guidance for teaching literacy and for preparing teachers, teacher shortages have been a major challenge since at least 2015, and about half of entering teachers each year are not fully credentialed, which means they have not completed, or in many cases even started, a preparation program. These underprepared teachers work disproportionately in schools serving the greatest number of low-income students and students of color. A recent California study found that the strongest predictor of low achievement in both reading and math was the share of such underprepared teachers districts hired. California’s 2021 budget included nearly $3 billion to address this problem by providing service scholarships for prospective teachers and underwriting new high-retention pathways for teachers in training, such as teacher residencies, plus providing funds to districts for mentoring and supports. Enrollments in teacher education, which have been plummeting for 20 years, are now on the increase, but there is still a long way to go.
    1. Teaching conditions: To succeed with students, teachers also need reasonable class sizes, useful materials and supports for differentiation. California has long had among the largest class sizes in the nation, often exceeding 30 students per class, even in elementary grades. During the era of intensive budget cuts, many schools were unable to maintain libraries with librarians or reading specialists who could work directly with struggling readers. These conditions are beginning to improve with large increases in LCFF funds (more than 30% since 2019). In 2022, at the governor’s urging, the state also allocated $250 million for literacy coaches and reading specialists as well as multilingual libraries in the highest-need schools.
    1. Targeted interventions for struggling readers: Finally, there is the need for early identification and intervention for the 10% to 20% of students who struggle to read because they are dyslexic or experience other learning difficulties. Neuroscience has discovered several distinctive sources of reading difficulties that can now be identified and successfully addressed if they are understood. Effective interventions have been identified for a wide range of reading challenges, and this year California funded two centers to train teachers and paraprofessionals to learn to use such interventions. The state has also launched a California dyslexia initiative and has funded the UCSF Dyslexia Center to develop and pilot a new screening tool that addresses the different sources of reading difficulties. This screener will be freely available by 2023 for use in kindergarten and first grades — initially in English and then in Spanish and Mandarin, with other languages to be added over time — and will be accompanied by guidance for teachers about supports and interventions for the different kinds of challenges children may be experiencing.

    While California is making many investments to support literacy development, and they are essential, more is needed to ensure we have an effective comprehensive literacy plan. On Monday, I will outline an approach to getting there.

    Linda Darling-Hammond is president of the California State Board of Education and an adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

  • 08/16/2022 12:53 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    Healthier options on the menu as California begins providing free meals for all students

    California districts are continuing to offer free meals to all students, and extra funding this year is allowing them to incorporate more healthy, local ingredients


    AUGUST 16, 2022


    “Students at Liechty Middle School in the Westlake neighborhood of Central Los Angeles line up for lunch on the first day of school, navigating an assortment of new items on the menu.

    Egg white breakfast wraps, vegetarian ramen, gumbo, glazed carrots and organic cheeseburgers aren’t just trendy restaurant offerings — they’re on some of the breakfast and lunch menus at California schools.

    With an influx of state and federal funding aimed at expanding access to school meals, California districts are ramping up food production, upgrading menus and using more fresh, healthy ingredients than before. School meals will continue to be free for all California students, as they have been since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Education leaders such as Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho hope that by ensuring all students get fed for free while at school, and improving the quality of meals, districts can combat food insecurity experienced by families in their area.

    “It’s a human right to have your child fed every single day, no questions asked,” Carvalho said at a recent news conference. “So bring your children to school early enough for them to benefit from breakfast, tell them to walk the line and benefit from the free lunch and let’s enjoy it.”

    Carvalho said his favorite new item on LAUSD’s menu was the kung pao chicken, which has a honey glaze and comes with brown rice and broccoli. He also tasted the district’s new cinnamon rolls, ramen bowls, smoothies, and yogurt and fruit breakfast bowls and said he enjoyed them all.

    The 2022-23 school year will be the first that California, along with Maine, Vermont and a few other states are promising to provide every child with free breakfast and lunch. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reimbursed districts for providing free meals to all students. Before then, districts were only reimbursed for feeding low-income students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

    The USDA’s universal meal program sunsets at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, though it will still reimburse districts for meals for low-income students. Starting this school year, California and the other states have taken it upon themselves to pick up the remainder of the bill to provide free school meals to all students. Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation that would expand students’ access to free school meals, and the USDA is increasing its reimbursement rates for free meals. The USDA has also invested millions in programs to promote partnerships between schools and farms, as well as to support districts to improve the quality of school meals.

    In 2021-22, California lawmakers committed to allocating $650 million each year to the universal free meal program, as well as $54 million in the 2021-22 budget to supplement state meal reimbursements to districts. The 2022-23 budget provided an extra $600 million toward a grant program to upgrade schools’ kitchen infrastructure and $100 million for a grant program to promote the best food-procurement practices, such as buying California grown-produce and providing options for students with dietary restrictions.


    Families line up in Richmond to receive free summer meals provided by West Contra Costa Unified from a food truck the district purchased with grant funds aimed at upgrading school kitchen infrastructure

    West Contra Costa Unified, in the East Bay Area, used the extra funds to purchase a mobile food truck, and through a partnership with nonprofit Conscious Kitchen, the district receives fresh produce for scratch-cooked school meals. Conscious Kitchen works with schools to provide organic meals to students.

    Some of West Contra Costa’s new menu offerings this year include spicy maple-glazed chicken, ham musubi and strawberry muffins.

    Dominic Engels, CEO of Oakland-based healthy meal distributor Revolution Foods, which contracts with school districts throughout the country, said the public’s attention to nutrition has been growing over the past 20 years and that parents’ concern over how healthy school meals are is at an “all-time high.” Engels chalked that up to food-driven ads through social media.

    “The world is tuned into what food does, and that has trickled down to schools,” Engels said. “That trend is going to continue.”

    New to Fresno Unified this year is an app and interactive website that provides parents and guardians information on school meals for breakfast and lunch each day. The app shows an image and description of the meals, as well as nutrition and allergen information, according to a Fresno Unified news release. Some of Fresno Unified’s new meal items include cheeseburgers with USDA certified organic beef, tacos with bean or beef queso, and whole grain muffins.

    “Providing healthy, appealing meals goes a long way to helping our students focus on their learning,” Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson said in a statement.

    Barbara Jellison, the district’s food services director, said West Contra Costa Unified began sourcing more ingredients from Bay Area farmers for ingredients such as cheese, meat, fruits and vegetables as well as local bakers during the pandemic as supply chain issues caused delivery delays and surcharges from some large food distributors throughout the country. Some of those farmers had never sold to schools before, Jellison said.

    “We’ve been really creative these last three years, and it’s improved our meal program,” Jellison said.

    This year, the district’s goal is to have fewer prepackaged meals in an effort to reduce waste, Jellison said. The district calls meals they either cook at schools or serve on site “plate-it-up meals.”  The district has also been working over the past few years to cook more meals in-house as opposed to purchasing prepared foods. Last year, the district went from having around 30% of meals cooked by kitchen staff to around 70%, Jellison said.

    “Kids like to see the freshly prepared meals and the variety,” Jellison said. “It takes time to get them on board because it’s different to them — some of the meals they haven’t had before. It does take time and education.”

    Jellison said the key to getting kids to actually eat the healthier food options instead of things like pizza and hot dogs is offering a wider variety of meals to students and educating them on nutrition. The district also does taste testing for new menu items to get feedback from students and keeps track of what food items students gravitate toward or avoid in order to improve the menu.

    USDA Undersecretary Stacy Dean said the “farm-to-school connection” is crucial to strengthening local food systems, and withstanding global supply chain and inflation impacts. Deanwho visited a summer meal drop off at West Contra Costa Unified, said the district is “leading the way” with its partnerships with local farmers, and that districts throughout the country should pay attention.

    “Food is both a fundamental component of education and a fundamental component of local agriculture,” Dean said. “When you put those pieces together and make the connection between the local farmer and the school district, wonderful things can happen.”

  • 08/11/2022 11:23 AM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    Later start times present new challenges for school leaders


    AUGUST 9, 2022


    California high schools can begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. now that SB 328 is in effect. Some districts have found it's saved them money.

    As school bells across the state ring at a different time than usual this year for middle and high school students due to a new law mandating later start times, administrators have had to tackle some new challenges, including navigating student and parent needs.

    Senate Bill 328 requires high schools to begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and middle schools no earlier than 8 a.m.

    Although the change will kick in at most districts as school begins in the coming days, a few were early implementers, giving them a year or two to fine-tune bus and bell schedules and get feedback from parents.

    At Kerman Unified in Fresno County, the 5,230-student district is going into its third year on the new schedule. Superintendent Robert Frausto said he’s addressed the two big issues: transportation and before- and after-school supervision.

    All Kerman Unified schools used to begin at 8 a.m., but after social distancing was required on buses during the pandemic, they switched to a tiered system where drivers make two trips: one to pick up and drop off elementary students, and a second for older students. That limited the number of students on the bus at a given time.

    Because the start times needed to be staggered for the new system, Frausto said he “might as well bite the bullet” and get in line with the coming law. It was signed in 2019, giving schools three years to make the change.

    Frausto said he actually finds the new bus system more cost-effective. The more tiers, the fewer drivers are needed, he said.

    “In our case, we’ve saved probably three to four drivers,” he said. “So, we’re saving a couple hundred thousand dollars.” 

    San Francisco Unified School District changed its start times last year, according to spokesperson Laura Dudnick, and the district also saw savings in the transportation department.

    “SFUSD saves about $3 million each year in transportation costs, which can instead be spent on directly supporting students,” she said. “Since start times are spaced out by 50 minutes (7:50, 8:40, and 9:30), each bus can be used to transport students to three different schools.”

    Before the pandemic, the district’s K-12 schools all began at different times, ranging from 7:40 to 9:40 a.m.

    “This was unusual for school districts and presented logistical challenges for families and school communities,” Dudnick said.

    Parents in Kerman also voiced concern about younger students needing supervision, Frausto said. It was a problem that high schoolers were dismissed later than their younger siblings, and the buses dropped the youngest students off first, leaving them unsupervised until their siblings got home an hour later.

    “We resolved that by putting (students) in after-school programs, and even expanding our after-school programs,” Frausto said. 

    The district is using grant funding along with their district funding “to make sure we don’t have any parents on the waiting list,” he said. “I don’t want that to be an issue.”

    For parents who need to drop off students early to get to work, they added hours for instructional aides to help with morning supervision.

    Manteca Unified in Stanislaus County will enter its second year on the new schedule. It was a highly unpopular law in the community, according to Victoria Brunn, Manteca Unified’s chief business and information officer.

    “A change in schedule that drastically affects us internally and externally,” she said. “Bell schedules are how we run as a system, and when you alter those significantly, it changes the entire operation for students, for families and for staff.”

    Manteca Unified has an enrollment of over 23,000 students.

    “What we heard the most from our students is their inability to get part-time work that many of our kiddos need,” she said. “Many of our students have part-time jobs … but who can start a part-time job when you’re getting out of school so late?”

    Both Brunn and Frausto said they’ve been able to tweak the start times while still staying within the state’s mandated instructional time.

    Manteca Unified high schools were getting out at 4 p.m. last year. One of the biggest lessons the district learned was, “wherever we can squeeze out five minutes, squeeze it out, right?” Brunn said. “Wherever we can cut the school day so that we can get our students to part-time work or to community internships or to their extracurriculars or their co-curriculars, we need to try and do that.”

    They managed to shave off half an hour for this year, she said.

    “We heard our students last year and our families, and had many conversations with our teachers, (the) union, our leadership team and looking at the mandatory minutes required,” she said. “All those factors come into play, and it’s not easy. It took us an entire year to find that half hour.”

    Frausto said his district was playing with the times the last two years and found bus drivers were able to finish their routes earlier than anticipated. 

    So this year high schools were adjusted 10 minutes back to begin at 8:30 a.m. and elementary schools went 10 minutes forward to 8 a.m.

    “Ten minutes believe it or not,” he said, meant a lot to parents and staff trying to get to sports and after-school activities.

    As for the cost of the new law, Brunn said the district will now have to get lighting installed in its softball and baseball fields.

    “There is less daylight for practices,” she said, adding that electricity is the “second costliest line item in schools.”

    When SB 328 went into effect this July, it made California the first state in the U.S. to mandate later start times for teens, amid evidence that their natural sleep-wake cycle is different from children and adults, making it difficult for them to get a good night’s sleep if school starts too early. There are now similar bills in New York and New Jersey.

    There is an exemption for rural schools, which some, such as Oakdale Unified in Stanislaus County, have taken.

    “There is no schedule that corresponds exactly (to parents’ needs), and we really do need to acknowledge that our teens are suffering and sleep deprivation is making things harder for them,” said Lisa L. Lewis, the author who helped spark the law by writing an op-ed that got the attention of Sen. Anthony Portantino, who authored SB 328.

    “I feel like something that’s incredibly important to highlight is mental health and the fact that sleep deprivation absolutely exacerbates depression, anxiety (and) suicidality,” she said.

    Lewis pointed out several studies that found later start times do help teens sleep more. Only 22% of teens get at least eight hours of sleep, according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey

    The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends teens sleep eight to 10 hours, and in 2014 it recommended school not start before 8:30 a.m. 

    But Frausto and Brunn have opposing views on whether the law is helping their students. Brunn didn’t think data comparing tardiness in schools from year to year would be very useful.

    “That’s a really tough question to answer because of the pandemic,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is coming in at the same time as other variables, so I don’t know that you can isolate it.”

    But both offered their own view on the law.

    “The impact of this bill was so students were able to get more quality sleep,” Brunn said. “We’re not necessarily seeing that from our student population, that they’re going to bed early.”

    As for parent input, “our qualitative data, specifically, is that our parents were not happy with the change, across the board.”

    Frausto said he used to be a principal at the Merced City School District, where start times would sometimes “flip flop” from one year to the next.

    “What I saw as a principal, and I would say my secondary principals (in Kerman) would agree with this, is that we had a lot (fewer) tardies with the late start time for secondary versus if it were early,” he said.

    “When we had an early start time for secondary, oh my God, the line for late students was out the door. And then when we had a late time for secondary, there were a lot (fewer) tardies.”

  • 07/21/2022 4:33 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    Will California’s $4.1-billion bet on ‘community schools’ transform K-12 education?

    Eugenia Plascencia teaches a math class at Social Justice Humanitas Academy in San Fernando in 2021. Humanitas is a community school, a model that could take hold at many more California K-12 campuses in the coming years.

    (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)


    JULY 20, 2022 5 AM PT

    When students returned to the Social Justice Humanitas Academy campus in August 2021, many could barely focus on their high school assignments. They walked out of class. They refused to do work. Drug use and the number of students hospitalized because of suicidal thoughts were on an alarming incline.

    Teachers and staff at Humanitas saw the crisis before them — and turned to their long-established playbook for solutions.

    “Our philosophy is to meet kids where they’re at,” Principal Jeffrey Austin said, “and take them far as we possibly can.”

    Teachers led group discussions about how hard it had been to be separated from friends for 16 months. They focused instruction on addressing learning gaps, even if it meant students were not on track to meet state standards. Teachers called parents regularly and learned of lost jobs and lost loved ones. Many students missed class because they were working, so the school shifted class schedules to accommodate them.

    By the end of the school year, students were staying in class and drug use declined, Austin said. Graduation rates at the Los Angeles Unified school in San Fernando remained high, just shy of 100%.

    Humanitas’ strength is rooted in its 11-year stature as a “community school” — a model that could take hold at many more California K-12 campuses in the coming years. California is making a mega-bet — with an unprecedented $4.1-billion investment over seven years — that converting hundreds of campuses in high-poverty neighborhoods into schools like Humanitas offers the best chance to save children’s pandemic-damaged education and address entrenched inequities.

    This plan dramatically expands the traditional definition of a public school, overhauling campuses into neighborhood centers that seek to comprehensively meet the needs of students. Healthcare, mental health services, tutoring, pediatric care and other social supports converge on campus. Teachers and staff strive to make learning more culturally relevant and to foster a climate in which students have a sense of belonging and parents are a part of decision-making.

    Social Justice Humanitas Academy in San Fernando is a community school that integrates academics, health and social services, youth development and community engagement to meet students’ needs.

    (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

    Community schools have lofty aspirations to topple barriers that prevent students from learning, such as hunger, anxiety and depression, racism and housing insecurity. Advocates say community schools could vastly improve educational outcomes at a time of declining enrollment, a youth mental health crisis and intensified learning deficits brought on by long, pandemic-forced school closures.

    This is the dream, at least. The challenge is pulling it off.

    This high-cost experiment is no quick fix, experts say. As waves of exhausted educators leave the profession amid the pressures of dealing with the most intense student needs in a generation, will school staff have the stamina to do the ambitious planning and work to establish the community school stronghold?

    “It’s an important moment, and a serious moment, with this amount of money,” said Deanna Niebuhr, California policy director for the Opportunity Institute who has worked to establish community schools. “It’s not clear that this will work. But we believe it’s our best chance for real change in education.”


    Surgeon general warns of emerging youth mental health crisis in rare public advisory

    Dec. 7, 2021

    In May, 268 districts across the state were awarded $649 million in grants — from $200,000 for schools in the early stages of planning to tens of millions for districts further along or seeking to expand. The L.A. Unified School District, which already has 31 community schools, received $44 million.

    Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has dedicated $166 million to a network of at least five regional technical assistance centers, co-led by the Alameda County Office of Education and the UCLA Center for Community Schooling, that will guide districts and monitor progress.

    There are relatively few schools nationwide that follow this robust model — an estimated 5,000, according to the Coalition for Community Schools. And though research is somewhat sparse, some studies have found that well-run community schools lead to better attendance, fewer discipline problems and chronic absences, and better communication with families.

    “Good community schools recognize that even with all the support services, it is very unlikely that families who may have a distrust of public systems will access those services without the school first building a relationship with them,” said Hayin Kimner, a senior research fellow at Policy Analysis for California Education.

    Humanitas: Their story

    On paper, Jennie Rosenbaum’s job sounds clear-cut: She is a site coordinator, helping weave social-emotional learning into instruction and school culture. In practice, she’s a force on campus. She often works in the courtyard, a visible presence for when a student needs to speak with an adult. She strategizes with counselors and brings staff and students together to raise issues about what’s needed at school. She searches for opportunities — like college access programs — for all students, not just those who have top grades or are the most outgoing.

    Rosenbaum’s role illustrates another tenet of community schools: breaking down job-related silos that can prevent educators from working together to support students.

    EduCare coordinator Jennie Rosenbaum in the courtyard where she works with high school students at Social Justice Humanitas Academy in San Fernando.

    (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

    EduCare coordinator Jennie Rosenbaum walks the halls of Social Justice Humanitas Academy, a community school in San Fernando.

    (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

    Once while helping a senior apply for college financial aid, Rosenbaum noticed how the girl, who had recently immigrated to the U.S., couldn’t focus enough to set up an account password. The student confided that her family had run out of food. Rosenbaum consoled the teen and spoke with a counselor who provided the girl with grocery store gift cards and ongoing emotional support.

    “If you don’t have those strong relationships in place, the student isn’t going to share that they need help,” Rosenbaum said.

    The school partners with EduCare, a nonprofit that connects the school to social service and funds Rosenbaum’s job. Organizations like Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services provide individual, group and family therapy. Through these partnerships and others, the school has connected families with temporary shelter, food and legal assistance.

    Every Humanitas student has a peer mentor, and each teacher “adopts” three or four pupils who are struggling academically or otherwise and checks in with them regularly.

    One balmy afternoon last school year, math teacher Eugenia Plascencia fist-bumped and tapped elbows with ninth-graders as they entered her classroom, asking each how they were doing. The walls were covered with posters that quoted Malcolm X, celebrated being “unapologetically queer” and asserted that “Black Trans Lives Matter.”

    If a student seems really tired or is being disruptive, Plascencia will privately ask, “What’s up? What do you need right now?”

    “Instead of getting them into trouble, we get them support,” she said. Humanitas has made efforts to move away from punitive practices and toward restorative justice, which compels students to accept responsibility for their behavior and repair relationships with those they’ve hurt.

    Humanitas — founded in 2011 by a group of Sylmar High teachers seeking to create a small autonomous campus within L.A. Unified — served 519 students in 2020-21, and all but a handful are Latino. Ninety-three percent were identified as economically disadvantaged. The school consistently outperforms its L.A. Unified counterparts.

    Eugenia Plascencia teaches her math students last year. 

    (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

    On Common Core-aligned state assessments in 2019, 72% of students met or exceeded standards for English language arts, compared with the district average of 53%. Math scores have varied since 2015, ranging from 65% of students meeting or exceeding standards in 2014 to 40% in 2021. Still, Humanitas students surpassed the L.A. Unified average each of those years. Scores in all subjects dipped in 2021, when school was mainly virtual.

    Johnny Martinez, a father of six, has been with Humanitas since its inception. His oldest son was part of the school’s first class of graduates, and his youngest is an upcoming 11th-grader. The Pacoima native is one of several parents serving on the governing council, where he votes on staffing and budget decisions. “They respect my point of view,” said Martinez, who runs a construction business.

    Johnny and Ana Martinez hold their grandson Isaiah and are flanked by their children, pictured from left: John, Joceline, Aden, Francisco and Patricia. All of the Martinez children have attended Social Justice Humanitas Academy in San Fernando. 

    (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

    His Humanitas graduates have gone on to USC, Cal Poly and Cal State Northridge. He’s grateful that his kids went to a high school where teachers don’t give up on students.

    “Around here, if you have big dreams and hopes for your kid, rumor has it that Humanitas is where you want to send them,” Martinez said.

    What’s next?

    Advocates caution that becoming a community school is a long-term commitment that may be difficult to sustain without well-coordinated funding.

    In an ideal scenario, community schools cut down on social services costs by partnering with organizations that have access to other funding streams, Kimner said. But any financing strategy should consider districts in areas of the state with fewer health and human service organizations, said Alex Briscoe, head of the California Children’s Trust.

    At Humanitas, services change yearly based on available state, federal and philanthropic funding. If a partnering organization’s grant runs out, or if it goes out business, staff must scramble to fill that gap. And they have to be scrappy; Humanitas is funded in the same way as other L.A. Unified schools, which requires “a lot of moving nickels and dimes around,” Austin said.

    The ethos-driven aspects of the model may be harder to implement and measure, experts said. For example, how do you evaluate whether there are healthy relationships between staff and students?


    Nearly half of LAUSD students have been chronically absent this year, data show

    March 31, 2022

    Ensuring that curriculum is culturally and linguistically relevant to students will be a heavy lift too, said Cora Watkins, director of L.A. Unified’s community schools initiative — and could require changes in teacher credentialing programs.

    And all this comes amid pandemic burnout and workforce shortages.

    “People in education are so exhausted and overwhelmed,” said L.A. County Office of Education Supt. Debra Duardo, a champion of the model. “Adding anything can feel like you’re asking people to do more than they can possibly do.”

    Austin said one of Humanitas’ early mistakes was asking too much of teachers. At one point, there were 17 committees teachers could join.

    “It’s a lot of work,” said Plascencia, who gets to work at 7:30 a.m. and often leaves at 5 p.m. “For some people, getting here is very refreshing.... Other people are like, ‘They’re asking me to do a lot of emotional labor.’ But it makes my job so much more meaningful.”

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