District of the Year: Long Beach Unified School District
Long Beach Unified School District
Number of schools:
56.1% Hispanic; 13.5% African American; 13.4% white; 7.2% Asian; 3.2% Filipino; 1.5% Pacific Islander
69% low-income; 19% English-language learners
Stepping into one of the structures that make up the Cabrillo High School campus in Long Beach might leave one thinking they’ve entered the wrong government building. There’s a jury box, a witness chair and a judge’s bench flanked by the U.S. and California flags. The “Home of the Cabrillo Jaguars” blanket hanging on the wall is the only sign that this unique courtroom is part of a school.
Affiliated with the Los Angeles County Teen Court Diversion Program, the facility gives students in the Cabrillo Academy of Law and Justice (CAL-J) more than just a glimpse of the legal profession. They can serve on a jury, work as a bailiff or a clerk, and have access to internships — while still taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses that prepare them for college.
CAL-J is one of four “pathway” programs at Cabrillo and part of the Long Beach Unified School District’s (LBUSD) implementation of Linked Learning — a statewide effort to weave together rigorous academics with practical career and technical skills in collaboration with industry partners. Officials say the pathway approach is also one reason why LBUSD continues to see increases in graduation rates — from 80.1% in 2011-12 to 84.2% in 2015-16.
District-wide graduation rates continue to riseData from Long Beach Unified School District
“Part of it is the relevance piece — how we get them to come to school,” says Cabrillo Principal Cheryl Cornejo. “That’s huge for our kids.”
Focusing on equity and access, LBUSD encourages students to enroll in AP courses and charges students only $5 per exam. The result has been an increase in AP participation among 11th and 12th graders from 34% in 2013-14 to 46% last school year, with almost 13,700 students taking AP exams.
The Long Beach College Promise, in which students can receive a tuition-free first year at Long Beach City College (LBCC) and guaranteed admission at California State University Long Beach if they’re eligible, removes obstacles to higher education for LBUSD students. The partnership received a $5 million Innovations in Higher Education prize in 2015 and has inspired a similar California College Promise, signed into law this year by Gov. Jerry Brown.
In LBUSD, the “promise” begins with 4th graders taking tours of LBCC and includes dual enrollment opportunities for high school students and “honest and ongoing communication, brainstorming, and encouragement of other institutional stakeholders to communicate and work through barriers,” says Miles Nevin, director of LBCC’s Office of the Superintendent-President
LBUSD this year also began giving every student, starting in 8th grade, a personalized “college readiness guide” which shows progress toward completing required courses, scores on the PSAT (paid for by the district in 9th--11th grades), their grade point average and even contact information for LBUSD alumni who have agreed serve as advisors for students.
The guide, says Superintendent Chris Steinhauser, is the district’s response to parents asking if they can have this information “all in one place,” he says.
Now in his 16th year as superintendent, Steinhauser oversees a district that is widely recognized for creating structures that allow for successful implementation of districtwide initiatives — such as pathways — but that allow for local flexibility and rely on the expertise of the district’s educators to solve problems.
“Developing the expertise of educators to make good decisions was paramount to the success of their vision,” Education reform researcher Michael Fullan wrote in his recent case study on the district. “From very early on, district leadership built systems of supports for all educators across the system in order to enact their vision in all Long Beach classrooms.”
One of those systems is the instructional leadership team at each school and at the district level. These teams carefully lead schools through the implementation of major initiatives, such as the districtwide Chromebook rollout or challenges such as how to incorporate specific career and technical knowledge into classes of students from several industry pathways.
LBUSD educators like to use the motto, “We go slow to go fast,” meaning that they test ideas or programs on a pilot basis before scaling them districtwide. “Four years ago, [the Chromebooks] would have stayed in the closet” because teachers didn’t have a plan for how to use them, says Assistant Superintendent Pamela Seki. But by following a process that integrates content and instructional practices with technology, the devices, she says, are not just “jewelry in the classroom.”
Any leader of a district that won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, was a finalist for the award five times and has received multiple other honors is sure to be heavily recruited by districts and leading education organizations. But Steinhauser has no trouble saying no to those offers.
“If I’m not going to be the superintendent here, I’m not going to be the superintendent anywhere,” he says, but adds that when a transition does happen, “because of the structures, this place is going to go on and do great things.”
Strong school districts have clear plans for where they want to go and how they plan to get there, and they don’t chase after the latest initiative just because it might carry with it some additional funding. The LBUSD has demonstrated these principles, and regardless of who follows Steinhauser in the superintendent’s office, will continue to take its systematic approach to expanding learning opportunities for both students and teachers.
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