Track system at Manual Arts eases overcrowding, hinders student performance

imageLos Angeles has some major issues. Traffic is one. The state budget’s another. But unbeknownst to many Angelenos, is the chaos that is the year-round schedule of many schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Students relish that spring day when they walk out of their school’s doors and don’t look back until early September. But for two thirds of all Los Angeles high school-aged, public school students, the idea of summer vacation, is well, just an idea.

Starting in 1974 and coinciding with a rise in student enrollment that lasted three decades—almost 750,000 students attended a public school in Los Angeles in 2000—elementary, middle and high schools implemented a track system. Tracks—labeled A, B, C and sometimes D—organized the school year so that up to one third of the student body was always on break—whether it was April or August.

A year-round schedule was the best option for school districts with such rapid growth—such as L.A. Unified, according to 1997 an analysis by the Education Commission of the State (ECS), a Denver–based nonpartisan education research organization that first studied year-round schooling more than a decade ago just as the idea was introduced in U.S. schools.

“It was a poor, quick fix,” said Tom Roddy, who has been a teacher in the district for almost a decade. “It was done as a stopgap, and they did a poor job of it.”

Roddy is a currently journalism teacher at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles.

“A traditional school has 182 instructional days,” he said. “With the tracks, we have 160. Twenty-two less days for instruction really adds up. Not to mention after having two months off twice a year, we end up having to go over a lot.”

In 2006, the passage of the Williams Settlement Legislation required that all students have access to adequate learning materials, such as textbooks, access to clean, safe and functional facilities, and that all teachers are appropriately assigned and have the proper certification or training for their assignment, especially those in classrooms with 20 percent or more English learners.

To fulfill these requirements, L.A. Unified needed to ease overcrowding by building more schools, in turn being able to put all schools on a traditional schedule.

“I think it will help tremendously,” said Nisha Dugal, interim principal at Manual Arts High School. “We are constantly battling low test scores. It’s easy to see why, when we have students on A track coming back to school from two months off on March 7th. Their high school exit exams are March 8th and 9th. It just doesn’t work.”

A Problematic System

According to the ECS findings on year-round schooling, every case study was different: “In some cases, year-round schools have led to an increase in student achievement. Conversely, levels of student achievement have decreased in other instances.”

Though enrollment has slowly waned, with 100,000 fewer L.A. Unified pupils than in 2000, the education budget crisis in California has taken a toll on swift progress.

Had the economy and school budget remained the same, the change back to a traditional school year would have happened much more quickly, but the district just didn’t have the funds to create the space to have all students on a September-June schedule.

Yet as L.A. Unified slowly moves back to a more traditional 9-month academic schedule, not everyone is happy about it.

Jovana Urrutia, an 18-year-old senior at Manual Arts, likes the tracks.

“The track system is a good thing. With a school of over 3,000 students, it’s nice that it’s not so crowded during the year. I can do Intersession too and catch up on everything,” Urrutia said.

Intersession, much like summer school, was something L.A. Unified initiated so that students could catch up on some of the school days they lost due to the tracks. “We have about 200 kids out of 3,000 attending Intersession and exam prep. I wish I could say there were more, but I can’t force them to go,” said interim principal Dugal.

“I stay more focused,” Urrutia said, in defense of the track system.

Yet, she admitted that the all the tracks are not equal.

“A track is the most crowded, because kids really want to be on a normal schedule. You can really only get a summer job if you are on A track,” Urrutia added.

For parents with children in different schools, the track system proves troublesome.

“Originally the tracks were based by city block, to help with truancy, and to keep families together on the same tracks, even at different schools,” Dugal said. “But now it’s really about numbers.

Students at Manual Arts who have siblings at our feeder middle schools—who are a traditional schedule—may not have the same vacation. It makes things difficult.”

Easing the Overcrowding

The light at the end of the tunnel for Manual Arts and other high schools in the area is that they know help is on the way. West Adams, a high school near Manual Arts, is almost finished with its school year and ready to take up to 600 of Manual Arts’ students.

“They will relieve us a little, but we will still have a high school with 2,400 students. That’s a lot,” Dugal said.

As per the new L.A. Unified policy, schools are mandated to go to a traditional September to May schedule, which will force many students to newer surrounding high schools. Dugal said that students would be reassigned based on where they lived.

Roddy, the Manual Arts journalism teacher, emphasized the need for more space.

“There hadn’t been a school built in Los Angeles in 30-some-odd years,” Roddy said. “The school can’t close down for more than a day or two for repairs, nothing gets really clean.”

Dugal seconded this fact, but added that this year the school was able to shut for a full week over Christmas, to do maintenance and spruce up the school. Roddy concluded it was much-needed rare occurrence.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines also proposed that many schools start earlier as well, creating yet another change to try and improve student test scores. Based on a trial of 17 high schools in L.A. Unified, Cortines wanted to have early start, saying that kids had more time to prepare for the exit exams and letting them out earlier in June was met with much backlash from parents who already had summer plans in place. Though this has nothing to do with the new traditional schedule, Cortines is grasping for just about anything to improve test scores.

On top of building more schools and switching to a traditional September through June school year, Cortines is facing a plethora of budgeting concerns and taking heat most recently from parents frustrated with the flip-flopping of scheduling for next school year.

Cortines has since pushed his plan back a year, to 2012, giving the district two huge changes in their education system in one year, which has the potential to make it hard to figure out if either one is working to boost test scores.

Ultimately, the push for a traditional schedule will help all involved, especially the students. Whether more budget cuts will reduce the number of teachers and new buildings is still unknown. Dugal is hopeful.

“Because of the new school in our area, we hopefully will just be moving teachers, not terminating them,” she said.

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