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LAUSD Superintendent defends replacing Primary Promise — amid community outcry

Jun 14, 2023

LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is doubling down on his decision to replace a much-loved early reading intervention program known as Primary Promise with a new model to support students struggling with reading and math.

His decision is backed by the district's elected school board, but has been criticized by teachers and parents who regard Primary Promise as an essential tool to ensure that all young students master basic reading and writing skills.

"The district is taking apart a program that has been very successful," said Nicolle Fefferman, a 16-year LAUSD teacher who is currently on leave. "Even though the board voted unanimously in 2020 to implement this program, it has just now been decided by the superintendent that it is no longer what students need to help them gain literacy skills early on in their education."

Carvalho insists that his new plan — which is dubbed the Literacy and Numeracy Intervention Model — is a better approach that will reach a more students and be more financially sustainable.

"(Primary Promise) was not scalable the way it was organized or funded," said Carvalho during a Tuesday, June 6 LAUSD Board of Education meeting. "That's why we’re revamping it, ensuring the democratization of invention and scaling up to reach all grade levels."

Primary Promise was introduced in August 2020 during the pandemic by then-Superintendent Austin Beutner. It began by pairing about 2,500 high-need children in kindergarten through third grade with a trained reading specialist who provided reading and writing lessons in small groups.

After getting rave reviews from LAUSD officials, Primary Promise was expanded and has reached more than 22,000 students, according to data presented by Chief Academic Officer Frances Baez on June 6.

Carvalho's replacement program, the Literacy and Numeracy Intervention Model, will train teachers the methods used by Primary Promise specialists in an effort to strengthen their classroom instruction and support skills. It will also offer targeted small group intervention in math and reading for high-need students across all grade levels.

However, far fewer elementary schools will get reading intervention help than under the Primary Promise program.

The new model has the backing of 24 different education advocacy organizations–including Great Public Schools Now, Latino Equality Alliance and the Center for Powerful Public Schools–who signed a joint letter in support of the change.

One of the reasons Carvalho said the changes are necessary is that the COVID-era funding that paid for Primary Promise reading specialists in classrooms will end in September 2024.

Primary Promise programs operate in 283 high-need elementary schools, often in Black and Latino communities, across the district. Officials estimate that it would cost about $100 million to keep Primary Promise going in the next academic year and $200 million to realize former superintendent Beutner's goal of bringing it to all LAUSD elementary schools.

But Richard Vladovic, who was the LAUSD board president when Primary Promise was first implemented, said Primary Promise is well worth that investment.

"I’m really concerned that we are throwing away a program that is absolutely successful and has a lot of room for growth," said Vladovic. "Yes it's expensive, but we divert other money to programs that never work."

One example Vladovic gave of the school district putting money into unproven programs is Acceleration Days – Carvalho's effort to reverse learning loss by adding four bonus days to the academic year to which parents could send their children, or not.

Less than 8% of the district's students chose to attend one or both recent Acceleration Days, which took place at the start of this year's spring break.

Vladovic's critique was echoed by LAUSD parent Esther Hatch, who works for the school district as a parent representative at Lomita STEAM Magnet School.

"During Acceleration Days many kids are not on their traditional campus and don't have their traditional teacher … that, to me, doesn't have a benefit," said Hatch. But, she said, "In Primary Promise, students are getting the intervention they need, with someone they trust, in the environment they feel safe in, which is proven to have success."

Danielle Watkins said that her third grade son has made "leaps and bounds" since being enrolled in Primary Promise and now reads full chapter books by himself after having struggled with reading for years.

"It's given him such a confidence boost and pride in how far he's come," she said. "I truly hope Superintendent Carvalho and the board members reconsider scrapping the program."

Carvalho said that Primary Promise improved students’ reading ability, but was not particularly innovative.

"Of course it works, and I’m here to tell you it works because it has worked across the country over the past four decades," said Carvalho. "It is not something new that was invented in 2021. It is called intervention."

Carvalho said that his new model will train more teachers in best intervention practices, while allowing intervention services to be delivered to a greater number of schools and grade levels.

"We have an opportunity and a responsibility both professionally and morally to elevate the entire youth, not cherry-pick some kids," he said.

Boardmember Nick Melvoin praised Carvalho's effort to bring intervention services to more students.

But he also acknowledged that some community members may feel "whiplash" because district officials had characterized Primary Promise as "the greatest thing since sliced bread" and are now advocating to end it.

"I have definitely seen the positive impact of Primary Promise in my district," said LAUSD Boardmember Kelly Gonez. "Never before have I seen schools so passionate to show me their intervention efforts — and the results from that."

However, like the rest of the LAUSD school board, Gonez ultimately voiced support for replacing Primary Promise with the proposed model, noting that there are middle-school students who struggle with basic literacy and who stand to benefit from specialist attention.

Former board president Richard Vladovic is shocked by what he sees as the board's blasé attitude toward ending Primary Promise.

"I’m taken aback by the fact that the board is not questioning this more," he said. "I am very, very surprised."

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