Laguna Beach USD launches plan to shore-up student achievement after COVID-19

Dawn Hunnicutt, an English teacher at Laguna Beach High School, welcomed students to her classroom on March 17 after a year of distance learning. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Breeana Greenberg, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach Unified School District has developed a plan to accelerate learning after some parents aired concerns about a slump in student achievement amidst online and hybrid learning. 

Chad Mabery, assistant superintendent of instructional services, recently briefed the school board on an 18-month plan “based on a lot of the things we’ve seen this last year in the pandemic.”

The plan takes on four forms: assessment of student learning, in-class support and intervention, outside-of-class support and intervention, and staff training and collaborative planning.

To provide more support in the classroom, the District will maintain smaller class sizes and frequent learning assessments. They are also looking into offering additional individual and small group support, as well as tutoring options and homework help outside of the classroom. The District has previously worked with the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach to provide help outside of the classroom.

Teachers will also adjust their curricula “to focus more on essential standards and learning outcomes” as the trimester goes on.

“But the good thing is, it’s not a new practice for teachers,” Mabery said. “They make these adjustments a lot. And when you think of learning progressions, the process of learning, students are doing these building blocks all along the way.”

Some teachers may review students’ work and decide to move backward in their lesson plan and then progress later. Mabery also discussed opportunities to accelerate learning through dual enrollment and concurrent enrollment opportunities for early college credit.

In other district business, the Board discussed the possibility of returning to in-person board meetings. Under an executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom in March 2020, a Brown Act requirement of in-person public meetings was waived throughout the pandemic. With Orange County moving into the Orange Tier, Laguna Beach city council meetings partly returned to in-person meetings in April.

District officials argue it would be impossible for all board members, administrators, and the public to maintain a six-foot distance from each other in the boardroom. However, the boardroom is equipped with cameras to live stream meetings.

“We know we can do the Zoom using our switcher and our camera that’s in the boardroom,” Supt. Jason Viloria said. “We know that it’s capable, probably the easiest place to start would be to try to find a way to utilize our board space because it is built for that.”

Board member Jan Vickers expressed concerns about the cumbersomeness of operating both in person and virtually at the same time. She also discussed how Zoom meetings have had a positive effect on community involvement.

The school board plans to further discuss the future format for school board meetings at the May 13 meeting. Viloria hoped that by the June board meeting, the Board may be relying on OSHA guidance, rather than the state’s color-coded tiered framework, which might provide more flexibility.

“Our teachers have gone back, our staff has gone back. We’re sending our kids back,” board member Dee Perry said. “I think it sends a good message if we go back also. But I certainly don’t want to put pressure on anyone who doesn’t feel safe or doesn’t want to come back. And I like that so many people have gotten more involved since we’ve been Zooming.”

Leisa Schimmelpfennig, parent of a Laguna Beach High School senior and executive director of Anneliese Schools, feels like going back to in-person school was a “game-changer” for students but remaining virtual for so long may have long-lasting ramifications on their achievement.

“This post-COVID plan that they have is, I think it’s well intended, but it’s basically damage control,” Schimmelpfennig said. “I’m not surprised if more districts aren’t going to be doing this, who chose to stay closed, because there has been a lot of damage [to student learning.]”

The Board also approved Mabery’s contract for his new position as assistant superintendent of instructional services. Mabery served as director of assessment and accountability until March 11, when he was appointed to his assistant superintendent position.

He will be receiving a salary of $198,516. Mabery will be working alongside Jeffrey Dixon, assistant superintendent of business services, and Michael Conlon, assistant superintendent of human resources.

In January, the school board approved a $198,516 base salary for Conlon as part of his three-year contract, according to the agreement.

Earlier this year, Viloria briefed the school board on his plan to hire a third assistant superintendent. Former Deputy Supt. Leisa Winston absorbed Instructional Services into her portfolio after former assistant superintendent Alysia Odipo’s resignation in June 2019. District leaders said this temporary consolidation of leadership roles saved the district thousands of dollars.

Ultimately, Viloria decided to switch back to the original cabinet model after he was unable to find a candidate who he believed could adequately shoulder the responsibilities of human resources and instructional services.

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