Two second-graders in Suzanne Cabello’s class received a brief but exclusive education during winter break in the Los Angeles County School District. All day long, not only Cabela’s attention was drawn to them, but also a professional tutor.
However, this educational assistance came at a significant cost—about $611 per day per student up to two added “acceleration days”. Those same costs, multiplied by a 180-day school year, would amount to about $110,000 per student. By comparison, next year’s record state education funding will be $23,723 per public school student.
Bonus tuition on December 19 and 20 was worth $36 million. After a heavy push, about 17% of the district’s 422,276 students signed up; however, less than 9%, or 36,486 people, showed up, according to recently released figures.
As the district assesses the high cost and low attendance of winter school days paid for with one-time state and federal COVID-19 funding, some officials, teachers and parents are questioning whether millions more should be spent on similar efforts during the first two days of spring break.
While Supt. Alberto Carvalho has repeatedly called speed days a worthwhile investment — and suggested Cabela’s class as one of many an examplewith — others say another $30-some million would be better spent on various learning and enrichment needs.
“I still have a lot of questions,” said newly elected school board member Rocio Rivas, who represents the region that includes downtown and Boyle Heights. Rivas took over after the Board of Education approved acceleration-day to plan
“These first two days of acceleration leave much to be desired,” she said. “And yes, the parents didn’t send their kids, so why are we going to spend two more days and we’re going to see the same results? It will be a waste of money.”
In her view, the quality and organization of offerings varied significantly from campus to campus. She would also like to see a survey of parents in the plans for the next few days in April.
Rivas said academic field trips can be a better investment. Parents offered a wide range of suggestions, such as making the campus safer or improving air filtration to reduce the spread of flu, RSV and COVID-19.
Leaders of the nation’s second-largest school system have vowed to prioritize reopening after test results showed profound learning disabilities during a campus shutdown due to the pandemic, followed by a year of skyrocketing absenteeism as outbreaks of COVID-19 continued. State test scores fell to their lowest level in five years, halting what had been steady, gradual progress. And even before the pandemic, most of the district’s students were already lagging behind in mathematics.
Carvalho sees value in the extra days of training, which is one of his initiatives.
“What we keep hearing from students … is that if you gave us five days, we would come for five days,” Carvalho said after visiting Cabello’s classroom.
“Some people say, ‘Oh my God. This lady only dealt with two students.’ Carvalho called this ratio “ideal”.
For students who attended the extra days, “it makes a big difference,” he said. “Do we have the capacity, the potential, to do more? Of course.”
Cabello and tutor Anana Ahmed had 10 students on their list. Three showed the first day, and two the second.
Initially, the district plan was to insert four acceleration days on Wednesdays at strategic points in the school year, which would push back the last day of school by four days. Officials wanted to incorporate these extra and optional days into the regular school week to make them seamless to the schedule and harder to avoid.
The teachers union, however, threatened to boycott and filed a lawsuit, saying that the calendar change had to be put on the negotiating table. The the district retreated and agreed on what Carvalho called Plan B, which was to attract fewer students all along because the days fell on winter break.
Board member Scott Schmerelson said Tuesday that he is concerned that some staff may dissuade families from participating, a reflection of political wrangling rather than focusing on what is best for students.
“One of the problems we’ve had is that it hasn’t been promoted enough by teachers in the school,” he said. “We have to keep pushing the kids to be able to get up to speed and not use it as a political football.”
Although there was no established attendance target by which to measure success or failure, Carvalho first voiced numbers which turned out to be redundant.
Towards the end of the second day of acceleration, Carvalho said attendance was between 60,000 and 70,000 on the first day and between 50,000 and 60,000 on the second day. A month later, at a school board meeting last week, officials cut those numbers roughly in half. More specific numbers were provided Friday in response to a request from board member Nick Melvoin.
Overall, 36,486 students attended one or both days. 32,390 people attended on the first day; on the second – 26,558 – 18% less. The total number of school days – 58,948 – is $611 per school day per student.
Despite the price, school board President Jackie Goldberg said she was cautiously encouraged because the vast majority of students involved were those who needed the most help.
“If it wasn’t true, if maybe the parents used it for a babysitter … on vacation, then I’d be like, ‘Oh my God!’ ” she said. “But if 83% of the kids that showed up were the kids that we wanted to show up, that tells me that we’re on to something.”
She added that she saw good teaching at the four campuses she visited.
Carvalho decided to open all 100 schools where students have the most difficulty. This proved to be the key to attendance because relatively few families were willing to send students to an unfamiliar campus.
One choice that increased spending also increased participation. The district decided to accept all students who showed up, even if they didn’t pre-register — and 5,699 students did.
However, with such uncertainty in attendance, the district was unable to predict staffing needs — and apparently took all the teachers and staff who wanted to work, leading to what teachers called a large and expensive overstaffing. The administrators did not plan for the class groups to be as small as they were.
Other problems emerged. Some teachers complained that they could not plan effectively because they did not have prior access to lists and student data. According to the plan, students were divided into groups for those who had to catch up and those who would be enriched.
Andres Hait, superintendent of school operations, told board members that high absenteeism rates are likely to be expected for this elective. Thirty percent of those who registered for the summer school, which was also optional, did not show up, he noted. And nearly one in five students missed the last Friday before winter break, nearly double the normal rate of absenteeism.
Many high school students used the extra days to raise a grade or pass a course — although students could also turn in extra coursework completed at home. Several thousand students may have done so without attending extra days of school. The district extended the final assessment window to Jan. 13, and officials said this week that they are still collecting assessment data.
Westside parent Basia Richard said she was disappointed to learn at the last minute that the district had decided to open the campus for her child.
But she saw the extra school time as a positive.
“If I have a choice for her to stay at home and do nothing and try to entertain her, she could go to school,” Richard said. “She loves school. She learned a little. I saw no reason why she would not go.’