HLPUSD school reconfiguration–no matter how thought out–needs to slow down

Board members, teachers, parents, and students around the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District (HLPUSD) are resisting the looming reconfiguration, or merging, of 6 elementary and middle schools in the district. Although District Superintendent Mr. Jimenez confirmed that reconfiguration is not a result of financial risk or pressing budget cuts in the district, its appeal–and effect–looms in the near future by the potential for the  expansion academic and cocurricular at many of the district’s schools. 

The Board held their public hearing session on Thusday, Oct. 12 at 7:30pm at the HLPUSD District office. The meeting began following the traditional public board meeting agenda as usual, with student board representatives from the four high schools in the district updating board members on activities, accomplishments, and events their school has hosted throughout that month. 

Primarily because the board gave absolutely no explanation on Thursday night,  the tension in the meeting’s  ambiance soon spiked as the reconfiguration elephant-in-the-room item was finally addressed. 

The district is proposing that Los Robles Elementary be moved to Palm Elementary, Bixby Elementary to Cedarlane Academy (K-8); Sunset Elementary to Lassalette Elementary–with its disabilities services also being transfered to Lassalette–; Grandview Elementary to Winglane Elementary; Valinda Academy’s 6-8 grades to Grandview MS;  Lassalette MS to Sparks MS; and all 6th grade classes in the elementaries in the La Puente HS quad to Sparks MS and all 6th grades in elementaries in Workman HS Quad moved to Sierra Vista and Grandview MS. 

While district board president, Christine Salazar, informed the public that each parent who previously signed up to speak would only be given one minute to do so–riding on the ever-escalating tension of the crowd that piled the conference room and foyer–parents nonetheless were quick to fill up the line for the podium and express their concerns and committment to keeping their children’s schools’ open. 

One parent, Alia Tapia asked board members to consider the far reaching consequences that reconfiguration can have on the community as a whole. “ The reputation and quality of a school greatly influences the desirability of a neighborhood. When the school undergoes changes such as closures or mergers, it could potentially affect the perceived value of nearby homes. And that could have a direct economic implication for homeowners in the community. Second, …by Reconfiguring schools, the sense of community can be disrupted. And longstanding friendships and relationships between parents and teachers can be severed forever.”

A particular woman who shared in Spanish that the decision should be taken heavily, exclaiming, “because we pay taxes…[and] the decisions you all are making are not taking us into consideration, we pay taxes and we are part of the community, you dont understand us because you are not parents but we are parents and we want[our schools] to stay.”

Despite the tensions in the room, parents prioritized their children’s voices to be heard, to potentially evoke compassion in the district’s reconfiguration plans. 

Julian Martinez, student Valinda elementary school and Vice Chair for School Site Council, shared “The difference between Valinda and other schools is that it’s smaller. And since it’s smaller, it makes me feel [safer] and more secure about being there…Me personally, I would like to talk in a smaller group.” 

Isamo Ropesa Fujimoto, 7th grader at Valinda, shared his pride for the “many special programs such as Dual Immersion, C-STEM, robotics, and some pretty good athletic teams.” Fujimoto shared that he was looking forward to making the valedictorian and keeping up with all the extracurriculars and athletics he had planned to finish his season at Valinda with such as robotics, basketball, DI, cross country, and speech and debate. 

On the night of the first meeting, board members gave absolutely no explanation as to how the disbandenment of K-6 grade middle schools in HLPUSD–and its consequent increases in enrollment–thereby ensures that all 6th grader are granted access to HLPUSD uniquely crafted middle school programs–such as athletics programs, visual and performing arts (VAPA) and elective courses, with similar effects applying to elementaries as well. Because the parents who crowded the district office only heard “reconfiguration”, there was no shared understanding that reconfiguration increases enrollment in less amount of schools and the funding for each one to thereforeallow students to delve deeper into their specialized topics of interest, increase student engagement, and enhance learning that prepare them for high school. All of the recieving  schools aforementioned have the capacity to absorb all displaced students–some of which having recently undergone construction and development which gives students immediate access to upgraded facilities. Additionally, board officials ensured that displaced families will have priority enrollment; all programs at the reconfigured schools–such as Valinda’s spanish dual immersion program in which curricula at the school is taught and practiced in both languages–will be transferred with the students; principals at the recieving, enlargening schools will help new students and parents readjust; and that no layoffs will result–all of which are required by Assembly bill 1912. All of this potentially deescalating information was rather only shared with the fraction of the original crowd on Tuesday, October 17, the continuation of the meeting’s 3 hour long predecessor. 

The La Puente side of the HLPUSD consists of first-generation minority families, while the Hacienda heights side consists of second or even third-generation Latino and Asian populations. So although it has been found that homeschooling and private school enrollment has increased since the pandemic on the nationwide level–as a result of a decimating trust in public education from an ongoing cultural war in which parents debate the teachings of race and sexuality in the classroom–that is simply not a suitable explanation in suburban regions like our school district– in which the district is projected to plummet below 10,000 students by the 2030-2031 school year– where full-time working parents from low-income backgrounds do not have the luxury of staying home or paying for private school tuition, making causes are difficult to identify.

HLPUSD Executive Director Dr. Anderson shared at the continuation, “We believe that our reconfigurations are going to present our best for the 15,748 students,” Anderson established. “The 2024 graduating class consists of 1115 students scheduled to graduate. When they were kindergarteners, there was 1475 of them–that is a 25% attrition rate. Right now there are 900 kindergarteners.”

Consequently, reconfiguration can provide long-term economic benefits for small schools. For instance, according to ABC10, the American Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) Sacramento branch, California accounted for more than 150,000 students of the 700,000 lost by public schools nationwide in the first two years of the pandemic. The state lost over 310,000 students from the prepandemic 2019-20 school year to its second rebound 2022-23 year, dropping below 6 million for the first time in decades. Similarly, in an article by the Associated Press (AP), the number of small schools in many American cities is ever-increasing as public school enrollment declines. More than one in five New York City elementary schools had fewer than 300 students last school year. In Los Angeles, that figure was over one in four. In Chicago it has grown to nearly one in three, and in Boston it’s approaching one in two, according to AP analysis. Because most schools started of with larger student populations, educators worry coming years will bring tighter budgets even as schools are recovering from the pandemic’s disruption. “When you lose kids, you lose resources,” Principal Romian Crockett of Chalmers School of Excellence on Chicago’s West Side told the AP. “That impacts your ability to serve kids with very high needs.”

Yet even though all of the legalities and logistics are sorted out by district officials, what goes to say that the loss of the only community and family the kids have ever known is not going to affect their academic and extracurricular achievement for the rest of their K-12 education?

The district’s official decision of reconfiguration is set to be made at the next board meeting on Nov. 9th–with the transition period of district support to students, families, and staff from dislocated schools set to take place for the remainder of the 2023-2024 school year so that reconfigured schools begin by August 2024. 

It is unfortunate to close schools, but if enrollment is down, then funding is down. If our districts want to bring in state-of-the-art programs, then something has to give. However, if it is more beneficial for schools to close down, then there should just be precautions in how these students will assimilate into a larger school. If they are just thrown into a larger school, then it poses the risk that they feel unwelcome, insecure, and unsure of their ability to succeed and belong in a larger school. Although merging schools together allows for a more effective and efficient use of the district’s financial assests, it may be ineffective and counterproductive if they feel too small and too incapable, to make the most out of the transition. These small schools–particularly the ones “north of the 60 freeway”, as one parent noted–are rich in low-income families and unified in the fact public education is the only bridge and lifeline for first-gerneration elementary students to a higher paying job and a college education. The well-intended move can be counterproductive if students are transitioned in too quickly and become easily daunted by the larger school atmosphere and resources they were not accustomed to. 

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