Credit: Betty Márquez Rosales/EdSource
Heliotrope Avenue Elementary students in Los Angeles Unified begin the school in person in April 2021 after spending the year in remote learning.

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A new poll provides insight into the issues that a new Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent may face.

Lower-income and Black families of students attending L.A. Unified schools feel less supported by the state’s largest school district, according to the poll, while a majority of the families, regardless of income or race, support a public annual evaluation of the new superintendent.

“There has historically been a disconnect between communities and the superintendent, the leadership in LAUSD, and we’re at a time where families have been co-educators,” said Ana Ponce, executive director of Great Public Schools Now, one of the organizations that helped coordinate the poll.  “They were thrown into educating kids because of the pandemic.  This is an opportunity to sort of continue to build on that and really see the co-educators, the parents, the family members, the siblings, as individuals that can give meaningful input on how to better serve students and how to better engage communities and make the district better every year.”

The district is in the midst of a search for a new superintendent to replace Austin Beutner, who resigned in June after three years on the job. The district is now being run by interim Superintendent Megan Reilly, the previous head of business services and operations.

The vast majority of families support a public annual evaluation of the district’s superintendent once the role is filled: 55% said they “strongly support” it, and 40% said they “somewhat support” it. The support was high across respondents representing families with various demographics, including race, income level, English learners and where families live within district bounds. The survey was designed so it represents all of those demographics across the district’s more than 600,000 students.

The poll does not provide a description of what such an evaluation might look like, but “at minimum” it would ask questions regarding students’ academic achievements and their needs for social-emotional mental health support, Ponce said.

The question is timely, as the district’s board is expected to soon name its new superintendent — its sixth in 20 years, not including three interim ones.

The poll was coordinated by three organizations: Great Public Schools Now, an education reform group formed in 2015  from a plan to expand charter schools in Los Angeles Unified; Families in Schools, which offers training that helps families become more engaged with students’ academics; and the Center for Equity for English Learners at Loyola Marymount University.  While it was funded by Great Public Schools Now, the poll was independently conducted by consulting firm Gotham Research Group.

The respondents were a representative sample of 500 L.A. Unified families, which were defined as biological parents, foster parents, relatives and other guardians. It was conducted over the course of several weeks, from Sept. 27 to Oct. 24, and most families were interviewed by phone.

The poll data also shows significant disparities in how families feel about the mental support offered to their children. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of very low-income families, which the poll defines as families making below $37,000 annually, along with 61% of Black families, reported feeling less satisfied than those with higher income (93%) or who identify as white (80%).

This is not the first report of students needing mental health support to cope with the pandemic and of the disparities between racial and ethnic groups.

A recent survey of L.A. Unified students found that mental health support was a top priority among the nearly 800 students surveyed.

A report earlier this year recommended that schools use some of their federal Covid-19 funding to support efforts related to mental health and equity in schools. Federal Covid relief funding is partly aimed at funding those programs that many California districts have indicated they plan to offer as they receive their share of the funding.

While a majority of all families said they felt supported by their schools in coping with Covid-19, a trend emerged in several of those questions: Black, lower-income people and families who responded to the questions in Spanish tended to give lower marks to the support they got from their schools.

“It was disappointing but not surprising that this was the experience particularly of the very low-income families and of Black families,” Ponce said. “It’s very alarming because that also raises the issue of: How are we supporting students and families through this recovery phase in terms of their social-emotional well-being.”

The poll was conducted in English and Spanish, with bilingual interviewers reaching out to families via phone and online. According to the report, the poll showed increases in “the number of responses from households typically labeled as ‘hard-to-reach.’” Those households included families of English learners.

When asked if they felt their perspective is represented at the district level, only 64% of Black and 68% of English learner and very low-income families said yes compared with 81% for all respondents and 95% for white families.

Other poll findings include:

  • Support for tutoring and mental health programs was strongest among Black families, with over 50% choosing each category.
  • The majority of respondents, 96%, believe low-income communities should receive more public school funding.
  • 82% of higher-income families reported that the quality of education improved with distance learning, but only 30% of very low-income families felt the same way.
  • 43% of families would like to see public education look the way it did prior to the pandemic. and 57% would like to rethink what it could look like, which could include adding academic learning opportunities during the school day or after school, such as tutoring.

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