By Linh Tat, Daily News, 12/23/21
Armed with heaps more cash than they’re accustomed to thanks to COVID-19 governmental relief dollars, the Los Angeles Unified school board last spring adopted a bold plan calling for thousands more caring adults to be placed on campuses when the majority of students returned to in-person learning this fall.
Several months later, those lofty goals have hit a roadblock: Due to nationwide school staffing shortages, L.A. Unified has not been able to hire nearly as many people as intended to help students recover from a global pandemic that has now spanned three school years.
Before the 2021-22 school year began, the board had approved a plan to employ several thousand more staffers as part of the district’s Path to Recovery plan, with positions ranging from reading and math specialists to nurses, psychologists, psychiatric social workers and beyond.
But last week, as the first half of the academic year drew to a close, the district reported that close to 3,450 positions remained unfilled.
For example, for its Primary Promise initiative – which focuses on helping elementary students develop reading, math and critical thinking skills – just 65% of teachers and 79% of instructional aides had been hired for the literacy program. For its math program, 36% of teaching and 51% of instructional aide positions had been filled. Put another way: 512 out of 1,360 Primary Promise positions were still vacant.
Equally sobering, less than a third of the 1,041 psychiatric social workers and just over 40% of the 357 so-called “resource navigator” positions the district had budgeted for had been filled. Resource navigators provide case management and refer students and families to resources, such as mental health services and food and rental assistance.
School board President Kelly Gonez acknowledged that the staffing challenges have impacted the district’s ability to implement its Path to Recovery plan.
“We were all so ambitious back in the spring, pre-delta variant,” Gonez said. “There was a lot that we didn’t know at that moment. And so I don’t regret any of our decisions at that time necessarily, but we’re seeing now, I think, ambition hit with reality and a lot of challenges.”
The district has been more successful thus far in hiring staff to provide special education services, with 91% of the 210 approved positions filled.
The report to the board did note that despite ongoing hiring challenges, thousands of students received support services from existing staff members during fall semester. This included more than 9,900 students in the Primary Promise literacy program and over 1,500 students in the Primary Promise math program in mid-December.
District staff had also logged more than 56,000 mental-health contacts with students and nearly 3,500 connections with students or their families seeking additional resources over the past several months.
How students are faring
Overall, fewer students in kindergarten through the third grade were meeting standards in English language arts at the start of this school year (46%) compared to last year (48%), according to district data. Proficiency levels also dropped by 1% to 2% each for Black and Latino students, as well as English learners. It increased 2% for students with disabilities. Less than half of students in each of these subgroups met standards.
Similarly, the percentage of students meeting standards on the Renaissance STAR math assessment fell from 30% last year to 21% this year districtwide. The rate went from 20% to 11% among Black students. Among Latino students, the rate dropped from 22% to 13%; among English learners, from 4% to 1%; and among students with disabilities, from 7% to 4%.
District staff noted that assessments were conducted as late as December last year, so some students had the benefit of receiving more instruction before they were tested.
There were arguably some bright spots as well in the report.
A greater percentage of eighth graders were receiving grades of C or better at the 10-week mark of fall semester this year compared to last year in both English language arts and math. Double-digit gains were reported for students districtwide, as well as among English learners, students with disabilities, homeless and foster youth, and Black and Latino students. Scores were not broken out for White or Asian students.
Graduation rates, meanwhile, continued to inch up overall, with a districtwide rate of 82% last school year, though it’s been trending downward since at least the 2018-19 school year for homeless students. It also decreased slightly between June 2020 and June 2021 for Black students, students with disabilities and foster youth.
And just 58% of current high school seniors are on track to graduate, based on their midterm grades, district officials reported.
Following the staff presentation, board member George McKenna questioned whether there was much to celebrate.
“You have to continue to ask the question, ‘Is that all there is in terms of progress?’” he asked.
“I know people are working hard, but where is the urgency of solving the problem of underachieving students?” he added.
Staffing relief on the way?
In terms of recruiting and hiring more teachers and other school employees to address students’ academic and social-emotional needs, district staff reported that they’re offering flexible interview hours to accommodate the schedules of potential job candidates, working with labor unions on recruitment efforts and advocating with state lawmakers to allow schools more hiring flexibilities.
The University of Southern California also recently announced a partnership with the school district to steer more teachers to work in L.A. Unified. Starting next fall, USC will offer full-ride scholarships to 20 individuals pursuing master’s degrees in education. These individuals will receive training in LAUSD schools and, upon earning their degrees, will work for the district.
And this week, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced that he’ll sponsor legislation to provide scholarships worth up to $25,000 per individual to recruit 10,000 new mental health clinicians to support students.
This latest plan – announced two weeks after the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory about the growing mental health crisis among young people – would be in addition to other efforts to reduce the amount of time for mental health clinicians to receive their licenses.