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Missing Students, Emptying Schools: LA Unified Faces A Hard Future. What Leaders Are Doing To Change Course

A man in a suit and tie sits at a wooden desk next to a young girl who is looking at index cards. A blackboard in the background says MATH in great big yellow letters.
LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho participates in a small group discussion in a fifth grade classroom at Vena Avenue Elementary.
(Kyle Stokes
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Roughly 89% of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District attended school on the first day of the 2022-23 school year — a higher rate than last year’s 77% attendance rate on Day One.

That’s a strong start, said superintendent Alberto Carvalho, but there’s room for growth.

“With roughly 66,000 students still absent on the first day, we need to redouble our efforts at making contact with families with parents and guardians and make sure that those students come back to us.”

As Carvalho begins the first full academic year of his superintendency, enrollment will be a defining administrative challenge.

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COVID-19 has sent student enrollment numbers lurching downward for the last two years, although enrollment had been declining already.

The district has money at its disposal to help win back families.

To start with: There’s more than $5 billion in one-time state and federal pandemic aid that LAUSD will have to spend before the funding expires in 2024. Many districts have struggled to spend that money fast enough, or have not said how they’re spending it.

LAUSD has also benefited from a hold-harmless provision in the state budget that allowed districts to receive funding at their pre-pandemic enrollment levels.

Making Up For Lost Learning
  • When California releases statewide test scores data later this year — the first round of testing in which LAUSD has participated since the pandemic began — we should expect lower scores, and that the “most politically fragile populations of students lost the most ground.”

    How far behind are Los Angeles Unified students? Here's what we know so far.

That policy ends this fall, however. Carvalho has warned that the change in state policy, combined with a sunsetting of federal rescue funds, could lead to a “potentially darker future” for the district’s finances.

Against this convergence, Carvalho has said publicly that “it will be difficult” to avoid closing schools in the future.

But for now, LAUSD’s budget is safely in the green — and in his interview with our newsroom, Carvalho said he does not plan on widespread school closures this year.

“I really want to give us some degree of time to ensure that we give our best shot in terms of recapturing students back into our school system,” Carvalho said.

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Finding New Students, Bringing Back Old Ones

The district is expanding its transitional kindergarten or TK programs to enroll younger students as part of a statewide push to offer free preschool to every 4-year-old in the state by the time school starts in 2025.

So far enrollment has varied from school to school. At some sites, TK students are folded into the kindergarten program because there aren’t enough kids to fill a separate classroom.

“It's hugely important not just for the students who are enrolling and for their families to know about our programs, but also for the district in terms of growing our enrollment pipeline,” said board president Kelly Gonez.

A preschool-aged child in a burgundy polo shirt with their curly hair in pigtails holds up a red hashtag-shaped block.
North Hollywood's Korenstein Elementary Schools offers several early childhood programs including preschool and transitional kindergarten.
(Mariana Dale

The superintendent hopes to re-engage students who were “chronically absent” last year — meaning, they missed at least 10% of the school year. Carvalho said nearly one-third of LAUSD students fit that description last year — a figure that doesn’t count students absent due to COVID-19 quarantines. Encouraging these students to re-engage will help the districts’ funding levels; California directly links funding with attendance.

Carvalho has also said that, according to district estimates, between 10,000 and 20,000 students are missing from LAUSD’s rolls and haven’t enrolled in another California school, public or private. During the pandemic, some of these students likely left the state or even left the country. He also suggested it’s possible that many new immigrant parents may be unaware of their legal obligation to register their children for school.

“We have almost a moral obligation to first address that before considering consolidation or closure of schools,” Carvalho said. “It's a possibility, but not an imminent possibility. We’re going to do what we can to, first, identify kids, boost enrollment and reverse that trend.”

And There's COVID Absences, Too

An additional 1,000 students weren’t in school after testing positive for COVID-19. The district sent out antigen tests ahead of the first day.

LAUSD continues to face pressure from some parent groups over COVID-19 protocols.

With mask-wearing now optional on district campuses, one parent advocacy group says it has gathered more than 6,000 signatures supporting stepped-up ventilation and air quality plans in all schools. The group has also called for LAUSD to revamp its Daily Pass app, communicate more clearly about county health updates and plan for more school meals outdoors. (Already, they appear to have convinced LAUSD to move some free on-campus breakfast services outdoors.)

Carvalho said district officials were following the advice of scientists and public health experts.

“If you’re a member of a community or a family who has lost a loved one, I understand the concern,” he said, “but now is the time for us to strike a balance between protective measures, but also the need to accelerate learning opportunity in a face-to-face environment that is best for the most fragile students amongst us.”

Mariana Dale contributed reporting to this story.

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).