Embattled with budget cuts, declining enrollment and low academic performance, the second largest school district in the nation, Los Angeles Unified School District, has seen its fair share of better days.
Former superintendent, and exemplary educator, Michelle King, was previously entasked with the purpose of transforming the district and inciting actual, positive reform. Now, after King’s retirement, members of the Los Angeles Board of Education have elected Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and LA Times publisher, as acting LAUSD Superintendent, a position entrusted with the heavy responsibility of turning the entire school district around.
Tuesday, May 15 marked Beutner’s first official day as superintendent, and I had the privilege of shadowing him as he visited ten different schools across Los Angeles. As a soon-to-be public high school graduate, Beutner and I share a familiarity with the ins and outs of public education. Yet, with little experience in public education since his high school graduation, is Beutner best equipped to manage the myriad of modern issues that plague LAUSD students and schools today?
With this question in mind, I embarked on an immersive, full-day journey alongside superintendent Beutner that introduced me to only a small sample of the incredible educational services that LAUSD has to offer. Likewise, I observed some of the various challenges facing LAUSD students during our numerous school visits.
Recently awarded the Magnet Schools of America Distinction Award, Van Nuys High School is the LAUSD paragon of academic achievement, and was one of Beutner’s morning stops during his first day on the job. With both national and statewide accolades in academic decathlon, journalism and athletics, Van Nuys students are almost guaranteed success in their chosen endeavor.
Yet, while showcasing their automotive program to Superintendent Beutner, Van Nuys students expressed the need for additional enrichment programs to incite further student engagement.
Van Nuys junior and JROTC officer, Sharmine Azurel, said, “I want more involvement as well as more opportunities for the students to actually explore, not be strictly limited on the curriculum that we’re offering.”
Students at Maywood Academy for Enriched Studies School, the latest and final school constructed under the district’s $20 billion commitment to build 131 new schools in Los Angeles, disclosed the necessity for tighter supervision. With a call for more backpack and locker searchers, Maywood ninth grade student Natalie Caselin described several incidents where classmates snuck drugs and weapons on campus.
Enjoying their free LAUSD-issued school lunch only a few tables away from superintendent Beutner, Natalie and her friends vocalized a need for tighter supervision to ensure the safety of Maywood students and prevent future disturbances.
Unfortunately, the respective wishes of LAUSD students inside Van Nuys High School and Maywood Learning Academy are not unique to those students alone. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
While proudly showcasing their career and technical education, adult secondary and basic education, and English as a second language enrichments programs to superintendent Beutner, both student body representatives and assistant principals from Maxine Waters Employment Prep Center described the high demand and lack of space availability of their classes.
Experiencing recent and incessant LAUSD budget cuts in the past decade, administration has stopped wishing for additional programs and has begun hoping against further budget slashing. Moreover, to many, Maxine Waters Employment Prep Center is the only institution in the area to offer services to adults seeking to explore their career options, and potentially expand their education.
Assistant principal of adult counseling services, Gail Florence, said, “We’re like a second chance for a lot of people. Some of these students are so bright, they just need another shot.”
Evidently, LAUSD students and staff alike are looking for a personal champion, someone who will address and improve the difficulties afflicting their education, in our new superintendent. What LAUSD students need is someone who’s willing to listen and learn, someone who can understand the current issues affecting their schools and act to efficiently amend them, someone who can unlock the full potential of LAUSD students and enable them to reach their goals.
During the entirety of his first day, superintendent Austin Beutner did indeed demonstrate a willingness to learn. Posing questions to teachers and students, Beutner engaged with the student communities he encountered to gain a better comprehension of the minutiae and nuances that distinguish each school inside an overwhelmingly large district.
From inquiries about Grand View Boulevard Elementary School’s dual language program to questions regarding the services of LAUSD’s after school program, Beyond the Bell, Beutner revealed he has a lot to learn about the system. But, Beutner also showcased a willingness to tackle challenges head-on on his first day.
Gladly accepting the opportunity to bat at Narbonne High School, Beutner highlighted his athletic ability on the field while attending baseball practice. Off the field, he proceeded to illustrate his eagerness to understand the science behind an air conditioning system at Van Nuys High School, and he attempted to solve a head-scratching riddle at Carnegie Middle School, albeit he didn’t have sufficient time to decipher it.
Although inquisitive, Beutner is not without his own ideas and policies for the future of LAUSD. During his visit of NAPA Elementary School, Beutner hinted at an attendance reform campaign launching in the fall of 2018. Furthermore, when describing the lack of student inclusion in the decision-making taking place in my own school, superintendent Beuter expressed the importance of cultivating communication between staff and students on the students’ terms.
“It’s important that students have a voice, be heard…whether that means we have to come to you, we have to do it on students’ terms, we have to do it on student hours, or in some form that is more familiar and comfortable to students,” Beutner said.
As a student at Garfield High School, the final school visit for Beutner and the capstone to his first day as superintendent, I echoed the desires expressed by students from previous schools: the call for more enrichment programs, tighter security and additional funding. Indeed, it was no surprise that the issues facing my school resembled those of other LAUSD schools, and that I similarly looked for an advocate in our new superintendent.
While making my way down Escalante Plaza, a designated Garfield area honoring LAUSD teacher Jaime Escalante, after twelve hours of shadowing, endless walking and constant reporting, I had the opportunity to ask Beutner what he learned after his first day on the job.
“Today was, for me, a vivid reminder of why we do the work. I saw students inspired before the sun came up. I saw people working hard to make sure those students were inspired and learned. And I’m finishing here at Garfield which is really the model for how high school students can be inspired to move on to a great career,” Buetner said.
Indicating a sense of increased student engagement and improvement for LAUSD students all around, Beutner’s first day on the job finally came to a close. Ultimately, Beutner’s leadership as superintendent may not be the silver bullet for all LAUSD problems, but his demonstrated willingness to learn and engage with students does serve as a promise of something more: change.