LAUSD Superintendent's Big Plan To Improve Schools Pins Its Hope On Principals

Newly elected L.A. Unified School Board member Jackie Goldberg (right) visits a classroom at Micheltorena Elementary in the Silver Lake neighborhood with LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner (center) on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

The leader of the Los Angeles Unified School District has finally released details of a long-anticipated plan to re-shape the relationship between the system's 900-plus schools and a massive central bureaucracy.

Superintendent Austin Beutner's plan, outlined in a memo sent to LAUSD board members late Monday, focuses on the educator smack in the middle of that relationship: the LAUSD campus principal.

The superintendent has set in motion a series of changes centered, chiefly, on making the principal's job simpler. Each change alone is relatively subtle, but Beutner says taken together, he hopes they'll help principals spend more time learning from peers, mentoring teachers, and communicating more directly with the parents of the district's half-a-million students.

WHAT'S NOT IN THE PLAN

Beutner's plan — the result of a months-long process that consumed much of his first year as superintendent — is almost as notable for what it does not include.

Last year, L.A. Unified hired consultants who recommended breaking up the district and its central office bureaucracy into 32 "networks," according to documents published by Chalkbeat. Word of these recommendations leaked to the L.A. Times last November, and during the ramp-up to the January strike, the district's teachers union sounded the alarm, accusing Beutner of setting the stage for school closures or charter school expansion.

Beutner has said he "never" intended to follow through with any sweeping internal reorganization. Though Beutner is following through on some of the consultants' recommendations, the plans he released this week are far less dramatic.

Even the name consultants had given the shake-up — the "Reimagining L.A. Unified Plan" — is conspicuously absent from Beutner's memo to the board, which is simply entitled "The Work Ahead."

"Those who think our schools should be test kitchens — 'Let's just try something new every 24 months' — don't have an understanding of how the work is done," Beutner said. "It's evolution, it's incremental change in a consistent direction that we think is going to provide the most opportunity for real change in our schools."

A NEW MANDATE FOR PRINCIPALS

To illustrate how his plan would make principals' jobs simpler, Beutner brought in Richard Ramos.

When he took over at Northridge Middle School two years ago, Ramos thought he had the whole principal gig figured out. At Haddon Elementary, another LAUSD school in Pacoima, he had successfully warded off an attempt by parents to take over the school and convert it to a charter. In his three years at Haddon, everyone — from teachers, to staff, to parents — looked to him to make decisions about what was next.

"I thought I'm going to come in here and do what I did at Haddon," said Ramos. "Well, [at Northridge] I realized very quickly, it couldn't be a cookie cutter. I had to do something very differently."

At Northridge, Ramos is now part of a cohort of schools in LAUSD's Local District Northwest — the regional office in the West San Fernando Valley — that does operate differently.

Administrators in the Local District office convene principals from about 22 area schools. These principals learn from each other and take what they learned back to their campuses to help lead instruction. Instead of calling all the shots, Ramos discusses what he learned with his teachers — and he facilitates a conversation about how they're going to teach.

"I believe that's accelerated change at this school exponentially compared to Haddon," Ramos said.

The Local District Northwest program's aim is to create coherence between schools in the same neighborhood. His cohort includes schools that, like Northridge Middle School, ultimately send most of their students to Cleveland High School.

"We don't want it to be top-down," Ramos said. "We want it to be an organization that says, 'Hey, we're rowing in the same direction for the benefits of students at school sites.'"

WHAT IS IN THE PLAN

The chief aim of Beutner's plan is to "make it possible for principals to be the leader we want them to be," according to Monday's board memo.

To achieve that goal, Beutner calls for re-organizing each of LAUSD's six Local Districts around many of the same ideas at work in the West Valley:

  • Principals should be "instructional leaders." Beutner's plan calls on principals to undergo additional training themselves and also to take on more responsibility for training and guiding instruction in their schools — what Ramos described as "facilitating." Beutner also said the plan asks principals to increase contacts with parents: "Instead of that monthly coffee with the principal, maybe it's weekly."
  • Reduce principals' administrative headaches. Before saddling principals with added expectations, Beutner said in an interview on KPCC's Take Two, "you have to start by saying, 'What can I take off your plate? How can I help?'" The superintendent's plan calls for reducing the amount of administrative paperwork principals must complete annually by about one-third — from roughly 147 "annual certifications" to 103. This would be achieved by consolidating or eliminating some reporting requirements. Additionally, principals will receive a single biweekly document from the district's Central Office rather than "multiple" nagging emails. Beutner's plan also calls for consolidating data systems, making it easier for principals to find information about any one student.
  • Organize Local District middle management around "feeder patterns." Currently, mid-level administrators may oversee a wide swath of a Local District — for example, all of its middle schools. Next year, administrators in two LAUSD Local Districts (South and East) will find school portfolios of a dozen or two-dozen schools arranged geographically, regardless of the level of the schools. The aim is to promote better school alignment so that, for example, students leaving an elementary school will find similar instructional practices or programs at work in their nearby middle school.
  • Funding flexibility. Beutner's plan folds in some initiatives already underway: for example, divvying up a greater share of schools' annual budget based on an index of how vulnerable or needy their student populations might be. Instead of receiving an allotment for the number of employees they must hire, Local Districts would receive their funding based on enrollment and the student-need index — between roughly $7.5 million and $9.5 million each. The plan also calls for giving Local District offices more flexibility in how they spend that money.

Among other items, Beutner's plan also calls for creating "Local Advisory Councils" within each of the six Local Districts to engage "families, community members, philanthropy and local businesses."

WHAT'S NEXT

Beutner now faces the challenge of trying to redefine an effort many in LAUSD already think they understand.

While some of the elements of this plan are already underway or well within Beutner's powers as superintendent, some must be baked into the district's annual budget — and that means a vote of the school board.

As recently as last month, newly elected LAUSD board member Jackie Goldberg — who has expressed her eagerness to work with Beutner despite early criticism of his hire — voiced doubts about Beutner's intentions with the plan.

"It's the plan to close schools," then-candidate Goldberg said at an April 24 forum. "It's a plan to say, 'We're going to give you all this power and all this money, and you have a couple of years, and if you're not at this level, your school is closed as a failing school.'"

Beutner's plan doesn't call for giving schools substantially more money than they were due to receive anyway. Still, Goldberg highlights a potential pressure point: does Beutner intend to make schools more responsible for their own success — and more susceptible to sanctions if they don't?

"There's nothing about closing schools here," Beutner said in an interview. "It's about making our local schools better ... It's about smaller class sizes, it's about better support in the schools, it's about better-equipping principals with the tools they need to help drive change."


UPDATES:

10:15 p.m.: The board memo embedded in this document was updated after LAUSD officials provided are more up-to-date version of the memo.

This article was originally published at 10:10 a.m.