Lawsuit alleges students’ instruction lacking

Credit: Susan Frey/EdSource TodayFremont High School in Los Angeles.Jefferson High School in Los Angeles – where some students waited two months for their class schedules and were assigned to classes with no content, given menial administrative tasks or sent home early – may be an extreme example of lost instructional time but it is not an isolated case, according to a class-action lawsuit.
The classes in which students receive no instruction are used by five other California high schools in three districts – Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified and Compton Unified – named in the lawsuit, said David Sapp, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit, Cruz v. California, in May.
Los Angeles Unified school board member Steve Zimmer said he expected the practice to be more widespread in the district.
“I don’t think it’s in just a couple of places,” said Zimmer, a former teacher and counselor. “I am not ready to say that all the findings of the court are on-the-ground reality, but they are disturbing enough that we are going to have to address this comprehensively as an entire school board.”
L.A. Unified will be looking closely at student schedules to see if they have too many “Home” or “Service” periods at the two other district high schools named in the lawsuit, said Tommy Chang, instructional area superintendent for the district.  In many schools, such classes are intended to provide valuable experience for students, such as learning through internships, participating in community improvement projects or tutoring other students. Students who are academically on track will sometimes take one such class. But the lawsuit alleges that the Home or Service periods at the named schools have no value and are depriving students of the academic classwork they need.
Update: The L.A. Unified school board voted Tuesday afternoon to spend $1.1 million to remedy the scheduling problems at Jefferson High. The district also said that officials will examine schedules at all middle schools and high schools in the district to make sure that students are getting the classes they need to graduate.
During the past weekend the district did a “deep audit” of students at Thomas Jefferson Senior High to identify students enrolled in two or more Home or Service periods. The audit found 48 students currently enrolled in two or more such classes, and seven of those students were not on track for graduation.
In a declaration filed in state court, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy said that the remedy for Jefferson High in South Los Angeles should apply “not just to Jefferson but to every high school in LAUSD that assigns students to these courses.”
Sandra Hamada, an organizer with Community Coalition in South Los Angeles, said the problems are not new and are not limited to the schools in the lawsuit, but apply to other schools in low-income communities in the area.
“We are paying taxes for children to go home,” said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney at Public Counsel, a nonprofit law firm that is also representing the plaintiffs. “These classes are concealing the fact that kids are getting no education.”
The lawsuit alleges that assigning students to classes with no instruction is prevalent at Compton High, three Los Angeles high schools – Jefferson, Fremont and Dorsey – and two Oakland high schools, Fremont and Castlemont.
Troy Flint, a spokesman for Oakland Unified, said the district generally doesn’t comment about ongoing lawsuits.  Compton Unified did not return calls seeking comment on this suit.
At Jefferson High, students taking a Home class are given credit and sent home, the lawsuit alleges. The students are marked in attendance and the schools collect funding based on the average daily attendance formula, said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney at Public Council, a nonprofit law firm that also represents the plaintiffs, who include lead plaintiff Jessy Cruz, a student at Fremont High School in Los Angeles.
“We are paying taxes for children to go home,” Rosenbaum said. “These classes are concealing the fact that kids are getting no education.”
Chang maintained that students who went home had permission from their parents to do so and had to be on track for graduation. “Many of those going home had work-study jobs,” he said.
But Marino Parada, a counselor at Jefferson, said in an interview that some of the students stay on campus and roam around during their Home class because they have no job and don’t want to go home. “They may be living in a little garage that is hot,” he said. “They’ll do anything to stay away from that environment.”
Students in low-income communities are more likely to be in classes during which they receive no instruction simply because no other courses are available, Sapp said. Often teacher and administrator turnover is high, student transiency is high and the academic needs of the students – from remedial to Advanced Placement classes – are much broader than in a school in a more affluent neighborhood.
“Students don’t enter high school on a common trajectory,” he said. Districts generally allocate teachers and administrators to schools based on a formula, such as 40 students to a teacher. But such a formula doesn’t work in schools serving low-income students because there are not enough teachers to meet the wide range of needs of those students, he said.
On Oct. 8, Alameda County Superior Court Judge George Hernandez Jr. ordered the California Department of Education to intervene and ensure that the Los Angeles Unified School District and Jefferson High quickly provide students with substantive classes they need to fulfill graduation and college entrance requirements. The state had argued that the problems were a matter of local control and the responsibility of the district to solve. But the judge ordered the state to identify what was needed, how much it would cost and who would pay to resolve the problems.
The lawsuit criticizes the state auditing system that gives districts credit for providing the required minimum number of instructional minutes as long as the school bells “ring at 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.”
The plan worked out by the state, the school district, Jefferson High staff and the teachers’ union includes extending instructional time and hiring additional teachers, said Richard Zeiger, state chief deputy superintendent.
“It’s our belief the district is going to have to find the funds,” Zeiger said. “The state has no funds available.”
But finding a solution for Jefferson High is only part of the Cruz v. California lawsuit, in which attorneys allege that the California Department of Education has failed to provide meaningful learning time to students in some schools in low-income communities. The lawsuit criticizes the state auditing system that gives districts credit for providing the required minimum number of instructional minutes as long as the school bells “ring at 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.”
Students named in the lawsuit “need real classes to graduate or be eligible for the UC or CSU systems, and they want them,” Sapp said.
Plaintiff Jessy Cruz had two Service periods and one Home period even though he was not on track to meet the entrance requirements for a four-year public university in California, the lawsuit alleges. Senior Oscar Serranto was enrolled in four Service periods, two Home periods and only two actual classes last spring, according to the lawsuit.
One-third of seniors at Fremont High in Oakland were assigned to at least one “Inside Work Experience” period, with some students allegedly having as many as three of those periods, according to the suit. These classes allegedly included sorting mail, running errands, or entering attendance data into a computer. One student at Castlemont High School in Oakland said she helped the teacher clean the room, organize the desks, or write the daily “To Do” list on the board, according to the suit. 
Other schools in Oakland also offer similarly titled “Inside Work Experience” classes like those named in the lawsuit. Daniel Spinka, a visual arts teacher at Oakland High, which is not named in the lawsuit, said that students assigned to “Inside Work Experience” classes at his school answer the phone, help tutor students in classes or simply hang out in the hall.
Teachers at his school have discussed eliminating the classes, Spinka said, but a turnover of principals has made any recommendation difficult to implement. If the classes aren’t eliminated, he said, the school and district need a clearer definition of what “Inside Work Experience” means.
Declarations filed in court by students, teachers and counselors at Jefferson High describe a chaotic situation during the last two months, with students sitting in the auditorium waiting for their schedules, being assigned to classes they had already taken and being sent to adult school for classes – and back to their high school because they could not pass the adult school reading test.
Key documents in the Cruz v. California lawsuit
YouTube video of students involved in the case
“We can’t help those kids,” Jefferson High counselor Parada said. “The adult school can’t help those kids.” The effect, he said, is the same as telling students to drop out.
In a statement from Chang, he said that the recent schedule audit found no student currently listed as enrolled in adult education.
Los Angeles school board member Zimmer said that when he read the declarations in the lawsuits from students and staff such as Parada, “my first emotion was alarm and then shame.”  He pointed to district efforts, such as its policies that all students should be able to complete the courses required for entrance into California’s universities and that schools in low-income neighborhoods should receive more funding.
“This is really a test of our resolve,” he said. “Policies are great, and I’m proud of the policies we passed. But if our policies are not implemented with full fidelity at Jefferson, they are just words on paper.”
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