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Jefferson High academic fixes taking hold after court intervention



Jefferson High School senior Anthony Castillo is proud of the class scheduling turnaround at his campus after a court ordered improvements last year.
Jefferson High School senior Anthony Castillo is proud of the class scheduling turnaround at his campus after a court ordered improvements last year.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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Last August, 958 students stepped onto the Thomas Jefferson High School campus in South Los Angeles and smack into massive class scheduling problems.

Los Angeles Unified School District’s new student data system, called MiSiS, had botched hundreds of student transcripts, course schedules, and other important information.

“The first semester my classes were wrong, the grades I received were wrong, my schedule was wrong, so many different things that were wrong with it,” said 12th-grader Anthony Castillo. “I was worried at first because I thought the colleges were going to say, ‘What’s happening?’”

It all came to a head in October. A Superior Court judge ordered the state to work with the Los Angeles Unified School District and quickly solve the problems that threw students' schedules into chaos and cost them valuable class time. 

Four months and more than $1 million later, many of Jefferson's scheduling problems have been addressed; technicians worked on the data system's multiple issues and the school opened more classes. But it's been a tortuous road — and it's not yet over.

Home periods, classes with no learning

Castillo was one of 150 students who were enrolled at the start of the school year in “home” periods, meaning they were sent home early. Others were assigned “service” periods where students helped as aides in offices and classrooms, but received no academic instruction. Students were enrolled in non-academic classes because the school didn’t have courses that they hadn’t already taken. 

Other students spent weeks in the school’s auditorium, cafeteria and library waiting for their schedules to be fixed. Advanced Placement classes were all scheduled at the same time, limiting students' ability to take higher level courses. Teachers began taking attendance by hand. 

The litany of MiSiS-related problems went on for weeks.

At one point Jefferson students, fed up with the situation, staged a peaceful on-campus protest.

Public interest lawyers who had already filed a lawsuit on behalf of students in low-income public schools asked Alameda County Judge George Hernandez to include Jefferson High School in the case. Hernandez agreed, noting conditions at the school were so egregious that it merited immediate action. 

School officials met and mapped out a plan. With the new funding, the school hired three new teachers, lengthened the school day by half an hour, and paid current teachers to work longer hours to teach and tutor students.

“If I was charting I’d say the slope is positive," said Jefferson High Principal Jack Foote on a recent tour of the campus. "It’s definitely gone uphill since we started back at the beginning of the year.” 

Foote said a major part of the court order dealt with students who had passed all of their classes, were ready to graduate, but were assigned home period. "The court case is saying, 'These students are still in high school. They should still be receiving instruction, and maybe they should be given something challenging.’”

Foote visited a journalism class taught by English teacher Mi Suk Hwang, a recent hire. During the visit, the class discusses ethics issues in journalism. Among the students is Jason Magaña, a senior who not too long ago had been sent home mid-day because the school had no academic classes for him. 

Three new teachers have allowed the school to add 18 classes, six for each instructor. Others like veteran teacher Rsunil Melattinkara were paid to add a class to their daily rosters. Melattinkara’s new class is a second-semester calculus class that has not been offered to Jefferson High students.

“This is a college class actually, so it helps them to avoid two college classes, like a calculus one and two," Melattinkara said. "They can straight go into calculus three in the college. So it saves a lot of time and money for them.”

Teacher have also added office hours and the school has lowered class sizes, Foote said. The school's science teacher said some of her classes have dropped from 45 students to about 30 because she's added extra sections of the same class.

David Sapp, a lawyer for the students who sued to fix the problems, is happy with the improvements at Jefferson, but not with the way the school was forced to make changes.

“We shouldn’t put the burden on students to go out and find lawyers to have to go and get a court order to fix this,” he said.

Not all of the school’s problems are solved. Foote says 90 students are still sent home early because of scheduling problems. As of last month L.A. Unified reported that MiSiS continued to have problems accurately counting English learner students and giving parents access to their child's data and not other students.

Still, there’s been a change on campus, according to some students.  Where once they felt Jefferson was sullied by its class scheduling problems, they now speak positively about their 99-year-old school.

“This school offers great resources, great partnerships, dedicated teachers, and people who want to see you succeed,” said senior Anthony Castillo. He proudly shows off his high school jersey sporting the school’s mascot, a growling colonial character ready to defend his turf.