Weeks before stepping down as head of the nation’s second-largest public school system, Superintendent Austin Beutner Tuesday hailed what amounted to an overhaul of the Los Angeles Unified amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and he urged continued partnerships between schools and the community to set a “new standard of excellence.”
Speaking from the stage of the iconic Hollywood Bowl, Beutner delivered a State of the Schools Address designed to “celebrate public education,” and it served to recap a tumultuous year that saw an on-the-fly rethinking of how students learn amid a global pandemic. And it offered a positive view toward the future thanks to progress he outlined not just from the past year, but during his three years at the helm of the district.
“Los Angeles Unified is well on the path to recovery with safe school environments, record amounts of school funding, renewed trust and collaboration with the families we serve and a demonstrated ability to help students achieve dramatically better outcomes,” he said.
Beutner hailed efforts to decentralize the district and empower schools to better serve their students and communities, while collaborating with labor unions and parents.
He also pointed to the major steps taken during the pandemic, which forced students into a distance-learning mode and required teachers to dramatically change their methods of instruction. He hailed the district’s provision of more than 140 million meals to students and families during the pandemic, “the largest single food-relief effort in our nation’s history.”
The district also provided 40 million items such as masks, diapers, hand sanitizer, clothing, shoes, books, toys and school supplies, he said.
“We took decisive action again in August by staying with online instruction to protect the health and safety of our school community in the face of dangerous COVID levels in the communities we serve,” he said. “Again, this action saved lives.”
As school campuses began to reopen this spring, he said it was done “with the highest standard of safety of any school district in the nation.”
“Air-filtration systems in more than 80 million square feet of buildings have been upgraded,” Beutner said. “Schools and classrooms were reconfigured to allow for more space between individuals. Schools are stocked with masks, personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, and extra custodial staff work to make sure schools, classrooms and playgrounds are properly cleaned and sanitized.
“There is weekly COVID-19 testing of students and staff at schools. Los Angeles Unified is the only large school district in the nation providing this level of protection.”
He also hailed vaccination efforts, highlighted by the district’s operation of a large-scale vaccine site at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
He pointed to partnerships with companies such as Fender Guitars, Microsoft and Amazon, all aimed at providing students with the tools and technology needed to maintain learning and supporting families. And he boasted of stepped-up funding of schools in the future.
“In the coming school year, schools will spend more than $24,000 per student, up from less than $17,000 three years ago,” he said. “From crisis comes the opportunity to do what was previously unimaginable. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make things meaningfully better for the children we serve.”
He pointed to funding that will be allocated to schools, invested in reading and math teachers, used to double the number of mental health counselors on campuses and to reduce class sizes at secondary schools and maintain school sanitation efforts.
“School districts are sometimes thought of as the `other’ in government,” he said. “School boards and superintendents don’t have the same public profile or bully pulpit that mayors, county supervisors and state legislators have. But we’ve shown that when schools work together with the communities they serve and speak with one voice, schools have real power and can get more done to benefit children.
“Our goal cannot be a return to the way things were. We must aim for a new standard of excellence. The talent here today can create this new and better reality.”
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