Jefferson High School senior Jason Magaña knew something was wrong on the first day of the school year. His class list for the semester included a graphic design class he’d already taken twice.
“I was pretty shocked because I needed an economics or government class to graduate high school and be eligible for college,” he said.
Jason is among hundreds of students who were assigned incorrect classes and then corralled into the school’s auditorium while counselors tried to find the right courses for the students, one pupil at a time.
Some would spend up to three weeks into the school year without the right classes.
“They were just being patient, but you could see frustration in their eyes,” he said.
Jason is named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in May challenging the district’s practice of assigning high schoolers to non-academic “home” and “service” periods when the schools lacked the needed academic classes.
After problems mounted in August, Jason urged the school board at a public meeting to move quickly to solve the issues that threatened to derail the school year for many and graduation for some.
“Some people think that because Jefferson is in South Central, we don’t care about school. But I care about my future and so do my classmates. We need you to care about our futures, too,” Jason said.
Giving his remarks wasn’t easy, he later admitted.
“I was pretty nervous, but at the same time I was happy with myself because I was getting my voice heard,” he said.
School district officials said flaws in the $130 million student data system, known as MiSiS, caused the problems with class scheduling and a host of other issues. As the scope of the problems expands, the price tag for fixing them has escalated.
The school board has so far approved $3.6 million to replace old computers so that campuses can use the new data system. Board members also set aside $1.1 million to pay for classes, hire staff and extend the school day at Jefferson High. The problems there were so severe, Alameda County Superior Court Judge George Hernandez said they violated the students' rights.
In Jason’s case, failing to enroll in an economics class this year would have meant he couldn’t graduate. After waiting for four weeks into the school year, he was finally placed in the right class. But his troubles weren't over.
Jason plans to apply to college and major in engineering. To lay the foundation for his college work, he wanted to take an Advanced Placement physics class but his school didn’t offer it.
He was assigned instead to two “home” periods. That meant that he would leave Jefferson at around 10:30 or 11:30 a.m. two days of the week and wasn't expected to return to campus.
The teenager in him loved it.
“I’m not going to lie — it does feel good to go home,” he said. Sometimes he’d watch TV, or play video games for a bit. His dad told him to do some reading.
“Maybe other people do have things to take care, but during that time, I think I could take more competitive classes,” Jason said.
His father, Alfredo Magaña, saw his son coming home around mid-day on some days, week after week. He thought: “No way. That’s too early to come home from school.”
Magaña has big dreams for Jason and his two other kids. He immigrated from El Salvador more than a decade ago. His wife is from southern Mexico, and neither finished elementary school. That drives their passion for their kids’ education.
“I need him to get ahead, to graduate — with honors, if possible,” Magaña said.
Jason's father doesn’t trust that the school district will fix the scheduling problems right away because he's seen poor management of district staff in the last year.
L.A. Unified administrators say they have all hands on deck to fix the problems at Jefferson and several other district high schools.
“I think the problem is so large that it’s not going to be fixed overnight,” new Superintendent Ramon Cortines said in a KQED interview. “I think it will take us at least a year to get the information system up and running correctly.”
Judge Hernandez has ordered school officials to open the classes that students need to graduate and apply for college by Monday. School officials are scrambling to comply with the deadline.
“We made those improvements as soon as we possibly could,” Jefferson High Principal Jack Foote said. “And we’re really going to work hard to make sure that next year starts off really well, very organized.”
That will be too late for Jason. And now there’s another problem that’s making things worse for him. The data system is introducing mistakes into students' transcripts and Jason knows his is among them.
He completed a required community service class last year, but the system doesn't reflect it on his record.
“And the problem is that in my transcripts it doesn’t show that I completed the service learning, so that’s a big issue. Now I have to do the service learning all over again,” he said.
The district has hired retired educators at a cost of $15,000 to $25,000 a day to check that each student's transcript is correct.
Without it, Jason's plans to graduate and enroll at Purdue University to study engineering are shot.