Credit: Karla Scoon Reid/EdSource Today
Armando Gutierrez, an assistant principal at Lowell Elementary School, writes down parents’ concerns and comments during a Local Control and Accountability Plan meeting at King Elementary School in Santa Ana in April 2014.

California’s new school funding system is driving districts in diverse regions of the state to shift their resources to achieve one of the key goals laid out in the sweeping financial reform effort – graduating students so they are ready for college or careers.

That’s what EdSource found as it tracked seven public school districts over the last six months as part of its “Following the School Funding Formula” project. Every California district had to adopt a plan outlining how it will spend state funds under the new Local Control Funding Formula, which also requires school systems to show how they will improve the educational outcomes of “high-needs” students – low-income pupils, English learners and foster children.

An EdSource review of these plans – known as Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs – shows that in addition to targeting more funds so that students acquire the skills they need to succeed in college and careers, most of these districts are also focusing resources on:

  • Increasing student support services by hiring more counselors, social workers, psychologists and librarians;
  • Revamping or enhancing student discipline strategies;
  • Bolstering parent engagement efforts; and
  • Closing the achievement gap that finds African-American and Latino students on average lagging behind their peers academically.

EdSource’s tracking project, one of the few in the state to review the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula at a district level, focused on East Side Union High, Merced City, Natomas Unified, Santa Ana Unified, San Bernardino City Unified, San Diego Unified and West Contra Costa Unified.

While these districts were not intended to be representative of California’s nearly 1,000 school districts, they were selected with geographic diversity (Southern California, Central Valley and Northern California) and grade levels (elementary, high school and unified districts) in mind. All have high enrollments of low-income students and English learners.

What seems clear is that even in the small number of districts tracked by EdSource, the LCAP process spawned a variety of approaches and programs that embodied a core principle of the funding reforms: to promote greater decision-making and control at a local level. 

Creating a ‘college-going culture’

Preparing students for college or work is a seemingly obvious but challenging objective. As a result of the new funding law, the pressure is squarely on school districts to craft a plan to achieve that objective.

Some school districts, like West Contra Costa Unified, which includes the communities of Richmond, El Cerrito, San Pablo and Kensington, are struggling to graduate college-ready students. According to the district’s LCAP, the district plans to spend $3.2 million on counselors and programs to create a “college-going culture.”

Currently, the district’s accountability plan shows that only 20 percent of West Contra Costa Unified’s students possess the reading and writing skills needed to take college-level courses. The district hopes to increase that figure to 26 percent and the percentage of graduates completing the A-G course requirements needed to enroll in the University of California and California State University from 37 to 43 percent by 2017.

“It’s true we serve a challenged community in a lot of different ways,” said David Haglund, Santa Ana Unified’s deputy superintendent of educational services. “Yet these kids are capable of achieving these academic outcomes with differentiated support.”

Santa Ana Unified will pay $250,000 to conduct an Equal Opportunity Study to identify why its students are not completing college-required courses and develop strategies to resolve those issues. The two-year review will include a student transcript analysis and interviews with graduating seniors, parents and staff.

Dedicating dollars to hire key support staff to help students get on the college and career track was a common strategy for most districts. Almost a decade ago, these positions were among the first victims of California’s steep education budget cuts.

Natomas Unified will spend $300,000 to hire three full-time counselors for the district’s three high schools. According to the district’s accountability plan, school officials aim to increase the graduation rate by 1 percent, decrease the dropout rate by 0.5 percent, and raise the percentage of students who pass the courses required for admission to the University of California or California State University.

In San Jose, the East Side Union High School District will spend $5 million to hire social workers, more academic counselors, parent engagement specialists and teacher coaches for 2014-15.

Before the recession, the district, which is Northern California’s largest high school district, had nearly twice the number of academic counselors it has now. Parents have complained about how little time counselors have to guide students as they take college-required courses and navigate the complicated college application process. The funds will allow each of the district’s 11 high schools to add a third academic counselor. Some schools may be able to add a fourth counselor by dipping into discretionary funds.

Narrowing the achievement gap

Beyond focusing on easing students’ path to college, East Side Union’s counselors also will be responsible for creating annual individual academic plans for African-American students. The district found that many of its African-American students attend high school for four years but fail to earn enough credits to graduate or attend a four-year college. The district’s goal is to raise the percentage of those students eligible to attend a California State University or University of California campus from 27 percent to 35 percent in three years.

“Through effort and resources, we can make a major change in the next two or three years to close the African-American achievement gap,” Superintendent Chris Funk said, adding that he hopes to expand the academic model to support other underperforming student groups, such as Hispanics, in the future.

While David Sapp, the director of education advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, called it “shocking” how few of the roughly 50 plans the ACLU reviewed statewide specifically addressed the achievement gap in their accountability plans, it’s the first goal identified in San Diego Unified’s plan.

According to the plan, San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest school system, has designated $9.1 million district-wide to break “cycles of historic underachievement.” Every school will be required to establish and monitor “progress goals” for all student groups.

Funds going to school sites

Several districts tracked by EdSource have come up with ways to direct some funds to individual schools, in addition to district-wide programs.

San Diego Unified, for example, will pump more resources – including intervention and counseling services – into 29 schools with high concentrations of low-income children. Those schools will have a smaller K-3 class size average, 24, compared to 25.5 for the remaining district schools.

To serve children in one of California’s most poverty stricken communities, San Bernardino City Unified is increasing its district-wide allocations to meet the needs of English learners, foster youth and African-American and Latino students by $3.4 million this school year to help close the achievement gap. The district has also set aside $6.2 million, or $230 per pupil, that will go directly to schools. That money will give each school the flexibility to address the specific needs of these student subgroups at their sites.

Sapp stressed that districts like San Bernardino, which is setting goals and developing plans for specific racial and ethnic student groups, are rare. He said most California districts have established objectives and actions for all students despite “the stark racial and ethnic disparities across the state” on a variety of student indicators that generally hold true at the district level as well.

“I do not believe districts will be successful in meeting their goals because they haven’t looked at the differential needs of their students and assessed whether different strategies might be necessary for certain groups,” Sapp said.

Meanwhile, Santa Ana Unified also is shifting more money to individual schools, believing that developing site-specific funding plans in collaboration with local stakeholders will yield better results for students. Santa Ana district officials plan to funnel $8.5 million to schools this year so they can make the final call about what’s best for their students. High-needs students make up 93 percent of the district’s enrollment.

“It’s true we serve a challenged community in a lot of different ways,” said David Haglund, Santa Ana Unified’s deputy superintendent of educational services. “Yet these kids are capable of achieving these academic outcomes with differentiated support.”

While Haglund said that tailoring an instructional and intervention strategy to specific student groups wasn’t “impossible” under the old budgeting system, the new funding formula facilitates that process now.

Fostering positive student behavior

Every accountability plan EdSource reviewed allocates additional funds to support alternatives to suspension and expulsion that would keep students in school.

East Side Union is hiring a social worker at every high school who will work with students whose home lives and personal struggles with drugs, relationships and after-school jobs can derail their ability to succeed in school.

Seeking to attend to the psychological needs of its students, West Contra Costa Unified’s accountability plan also includes $600,000 to hire five new psychologists. Merced City Schools, a K-8 district, is using nearly $400,000 for three new behavior specialists tasked with helping students who have discipline problems.

More funds for parent involvement

All districts tracked by EdSource have made parent engagement a fiscal priority in their accountability plans – although at varying levels.

West Contra Costa is spending $1.4 million to hire parent liaisons at the district’s elementary schools. Natomas Unified has budgeted about $16,000 for services such as translators and childcare at parent meetings. Merced is using $35,000 to hire community liaisons at two middle schools and one elementary school. Santa Ana Unified is spending an additional $1.4 million to expand the role of parent and community liaisons and support a variety of parenting programs and other initiatives.

In the fall, parent specialists at East Side Union will be the primary contact for making appointments with teachers and counselors and answering questions. Depending on the schools, those staffers may be fluent in Spanish or Vietnamese.

At least one district that was successful in bringing parents to the table to draft its accountability plan hopes to capitalize on the new relationships developed during the LCAP process to form meaningful and lasting partnerships at individual schools.

Seeking to bring the “LCAP to life,” Matty Zamora, San Bernardino Unified’s assistant superintendent of educational services, said the district is encouraging each of its schools to mirror the parent-engagement efforts used throughout the accountability plan process. She said principals must involve more than school site council members to help decide the school’s spending priorities.

“Parents are seeing that we’re not just asking them to come to meetings to get information,” Zamora said. “They’re being asked what they think will help their children succeed.”

John Fensterwald and Alex Gronke of EdSource Today contributed to this report.

Karla Scoon Reid covers Southern California for EdSource.

This report is part of EdSource’s Following the School Funding Formula project, tracking the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula in selected school districts around the state.

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  1. Tressy Capps 2 years ago2 years ago

    “Parents are seeing that we’re not just asking them to come to meetings to get information,” Zamora said. “They’re being asked what they think will help their children succeed.” We need this spirit of cooperation in Etiwanda School District. Parental engagement is sorely lacking. We’ve begged, demanded and filed complaints regarding transportation funding only to be denied. November cannot get here fast enough. Vote out all incumbent board members!