While attending public school at Crenshaw High, I saw first-hand how content proficiency, culturally responsive education, and committed educators can transform the trajectory of low-income and marginalized communities. The revelations of systemic inequities, uncovered in my Social Studies classes, inspired me to become an educator — ultimately leading me to justice-informed youth, a population I knew required the most support.
Unfortunately, my years teaching young people in Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) court schools has shown me these inequities persist at alarming rates.
Despite society claiming to want to correct racial inequities in the justice and education systems following the murder of George Floyd and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students in court schools, 90% of whom are students of color, have been left behind. Our school district has received an ongoing “Red” or “Orange” — not good — status on the California School Dashboard for every hall or camp on testing outcomes. Prior to the state’s mandate to halt or reduce suspensions, schools suspended students at extremely high rates, and graduated them at extremely low rates. LACOE was recently sued by the California Department of Justice due its lack of services for students.
Why is LACOE failing?
Let’s begin with the center of the impetus for student achievement and a larger contributing factor. “In 2015, 30% of states did not require juvenile detention facilities to participate in state education accountability systems, and 39% had juvenile detention facilities that did not meet national education accreditation standards,” according to Urban Institute. If the state doesn’t insist on high expectations or envision student achievement in our settings, how would our schools? A major paradigm shift is overdue.
As LACOE educators, we have 300 minutes a day for five days a week to develop, inspire and transform the hearts and minds of marginalized youth. Despite this golden opportunity for change, I’ve seen student success and achievement become an afterthought — often due to sheer ignorance by leaders. Uncoordinated strategies for transitioning students have perpetuated the recidivism rates, and cronyism has prevented conversations about best practices. Educational standards have been cast aside within a broken system that now functions primarily as fuel for the school-to-prison pipeline.
This lack of concern for students in L.A. County’s court school system is shown in the county’s hiring. LACOE solicits and targets teachers with elementary credentials and fails to offer the appropriate supports for secondary instruction. While teachers have often been the target of criticism, I maintain that when the state shifted to new accountability standards in determining student achievement, the district should’ve shifted to support teachers with content proficiency instead of creating new positions for management.
The data reveals that despite a decline in student enrollment, management has disproportionately grown in ranks. It’s apparent that educational leaders are more concerned with promotions than student productivity.
But just because LACOE has all but given up on this population of students, doesn’t mean the rest of us should.
Some of these problems within L.A. County’s juvenile court schools are examined in a report released this month by the L.A. County Probation Oversight Commission. That Commission, the first of its kind in the U.S., is tasked with monitoring the county probation department’s progress on systemic reform.
The report illuminates what has too long been ignored: These children are not only being cheated out of educational opportunities to which they are entitled, but they are being shorted in the one area — education — that more than any other can help improve their chances at reaching their potential.
A deep culture shift will be required for our court school students to experience real change.
This journey must include self-reflection and growth by educational leaders. School leaders and staff should be proficient in secondary instruction, honest about the ongoing failures caused by a lack of professional proficiency, and transparent in acknowledging their ignorance of the socio-economic issues that impact student engagement. They should be familiar with the coordination of resources needed to reduce recidivism, advocates for multi-tiered systems of support for students, and allies to those who consistently represent best practices. We’ll also need community stakeholders that are engaged and hold these leaders and systems accountable.
Hopefully, the report from the L.A. County Probation Oversight Commission will lead to substantive reform. If we’re not going to even attempt to provide these students with a useful education — a required first step toward success – then why are we here?
Florence Avognon teaches in L.A. County juvenile court schools through the L.A. County Office of Education. A native of Los Angeles, Calif., in 2012 she was named a California Teacher of the Year.