Returning to School
A Call To Action For CCUSD Board of Governors
It Starts With Us
(These views are my own, and not reflective of the CCUSD School Board of Governors)
Why are 73% of San Diego Unified students returning to in-person learning, whereas only 49% of Los Angeles Unified students are?
After much deliberation and analysis, my conclusion is that there are two primary reasons school districts have varying degrees of readiness to return.
The first is that their comfort seems to be directly proportional to the degree to which COVID-19 has impacted their communities.
The second is that despite evidence that the risk of getting Covid at school is minor, the willingness of families to send their children back to in-person seems to be directly proportional to the degree to which districts were doing a decent job of educating their students, even before COVID.
And yes, this results in a vastly smaller percentage of Black, Latinx and Indigenous families electing to come back, specifically in the districts that have both been disproportionately impacted by COVID and doing far less well at educating their BIPOC students, like LAUSD. This is not the case in areas impacted less by COVID and doing far better at educating their BIPOC students, like SDUSD, where the county experienced half the COVID deaths of LA.
What does this have to do with Culver City Unified?
Culver City is uniquely positioned – geographically and demographically - between LAUSD and the westside of LA County, which include districts such as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, the South Bay districts, such as Manhattan and Redondo Beaches and LAUSD schools with whiter student bodies such as Brentwood, and the Palisades. LAUSD, minus the westside campuses, is composed primarily of low-income and Black and Brown students whose families were much more impacted by COVID. The westside of Los Angeles County, is composed of far fewer low income and Black and Brown populations whose families were far less impacted by COVID.
In Los Angeles County, the percentage of readiness for school return is inversely mapped almost perfectly onto the map of the areas most hard hit by COVID. In particular, many Latinx families report being uniquely concerned about the risk they incur when they send their children back to in-person school despite needing to do so in order to work. Yet, more than three-quarters of parents in the county with children ages 5 to 18 believe their students have been “substantially hurt” academically or socially by taking part exclusively in distance learning for an entire academic year. In contrast to that data, the largest percentage of students not ready to return to in-person school in San Diego Unified, identify as Asian, likely reflective of the current exponential increase in violence being perpetrated onto Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
Sixty percent of San Diego Unified’s student body is eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch, while 80% of Los Angeles Unified’s student body is. Income is correlated with COVID impacts for all the reasons laid out elsewhere that include lack of access to excellent healthcare and affordable housing. However, the wealth difference, as well as some differences in demographics between these two large urban districts, do not convince me that they are sufficient explanation for the difference in return-to-school rates. In particular, because some SDUSD campuses with both very high percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and very high COVID impacts, are 80% back to in-person school.
Many of CCUSD’s families do live in the greater Los Angeles area (20-25% of students are on inter-district permits each year), and these families may have experienced greater health and loss-of-life impacts than those within the city limits. Culver City has reported far fewer deaths from COVID than the county at large.
While the majority of our elementary students have chosen to come back to campus, only 40% of our students in grades 6-12 are returning to in-person instruction. Only 47% and 48% of our Hispanic and Black students are returning, respectively. While our half-day schedule is most certainly a major factor here, when analyzed in tandem with the data laid out heretofore, we are nonetheless forced to ask ourselves “Why?”
As presented by the County Department of Public Health, we know that schools are low risk (outbreaks have not occurred in classrooms at all). We know that the safety measures are working. And years of data aggregated by the California School Dashboard tells us that Culver City is doing a markedly better job of educating its students of color than LAUSD. So why don’t more of our students and families feel safe coming back?
While CCUSD consistently outperforms much of the county in student achievement, we are doing a worse job of serving our BIPOC students when compared to districts like SDUSD. SDUSD’s success has been highlighted by the Learning Policy Institute for closing opportunity gaps for students of color. SDUSD has been putting their money where their mouth is for around a decade. (Disclaimer: they have more money per student than CCUSD, because they have more low-income students). They have made genuine commitments to professional development for all teachers so they can better meet the needs of English Learners. They are training their teachers to better meet the call for racial justice, empowering them to own their role in their classroom as well as holding them accountable for doing so*.
This years-long commitment has led to a boost in educator self-confidence so that each and every teacher is capable of working with all kids, including students with disabilities and English Learners who were traditionally being “pulled out” for intervention services by an external-to-the-classroom expert. The strong and trusting relationship between teachers and parents in San Diego Unified has also really benefited as a result of this. For example, SDUSD teachers take a proactively positive approach during conferences with parents about a struggling student. Because every educator feels wholly prepared and supported to do so, the conversation will be about plans for scaffolding to help the student meet grade level, no matter their need or exceptionality, rather than about the student not meeting benchmarks and needing intervention. This approach fosters a belief that the system is doing its best to do right by the child.
SDUSD is intentional about their hiring and training, and creates a culture that encourages warm, personal and long-standing relationships between all staff, including non-certificated staff, and families. So recently if families didn’t respond to the back-to-school survey, the school site called with affirmations of safety and care for their children. And the parents listened, because the site staff are trusted experts. Today, because parents trust their schools, more families are returning to in-person instruction than SDUSD was originally expecting to accommodate. What can this tell us about ourselves?
My hypothesis is that when staff do not feel valued, they do not trust their institutions to keep them safe. Whether overtly or indirectly, they will impart this message to the community.
I assert that all of this is a call-to-action.
1. We need to urgently work on our relationship with our labor partners.
2. We need to urgently implement our equity proclamations, including by committing to hire an Assistant Superintendent of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and empowering them to spend according to our values.
Due to a number of factors, relationships with our labor partners have been strained over the past few years. As such, we were not poised to handle this crisis in true partnership.
In order to be ready for our next crisis (not to mention the rest of this one), it is my opinion that we can build back our staff/administrator/parent bridges by more aggressively striving for buy-in with our staff and educators as we move along the path toward equity. This buy-in demands resources. We need to allocate full-time employees where needed for support both in and out of classrooms. We need to provide excellent professional development to empower confidence and accountability in every single educator.
This means that CCUSD needs to unapologetically target dollars to students and sites that have disproportionate needs. For instance, La Ballona has many students that quality for both English Learner status and Free and Reduced Lunch. They should therefore get twice the dollar allotment the state deems each one of those eligibilities to garner. Despite the government intentionally “un-duplicating” these students in their funding formula, it is incumbent upon us to pass budgets that reflect our values and do what’s needed.
Many other examples exist, including students that are not explicitly identified by the government, but that need targeted funds because they have been identified in the data and in academia, like our Black students. We have no excuse for not openly directing funds specifically for our K-3 black boys who are not meeting grade level reading standards. This is how we move toward actual, true and accountable equity, in its truest meaning.
Who do I mean by “we”?
This responsibility does not simply live in the role of the superintendent or site administration. If the board does not display and model strong relationships and partnership, how can administration be expected to have trusting relationships with the board? And if that is missing, how can administration be expected to have trusting relationships with staff? And if that is missing, how can staff be expected to have trusting relationships with parents? The CCUSD Board of Education needs to engage in the same professional development that we claim the district needs. We also need to work aggressively on our own relationships with each other so we can operate as a more collaborative- and ultimately more effective - team. This will benefit our administrators, our teachers, our families and most importantly of all, our students.
*Subsequent to the LPI report highlighting SDUSD best practices, I have been learning about them first-hand through many direct conversations with board members.