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District Spotlight: Los Angeles Unified With Esther Soliman

September 20, 2018 | Linked Learning Alliance
  • Advanced Orchestra from East LA Performing Arts Magnet poses with Maestro James Conlon of Los Angeles Opera. Students performed side-by-side with the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra at the community opera performance of “Jonah and the Whale” at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. (Photo courtesy of East LA Performing Arts Magnet)

District Spotlight: Los Angeles Unified School District with Esther Soliman

One of the school districts deeply involved in high quality Linked Learning work and is using Linked Learning Certification and Linked Learning Analytics to continually improve pathway quality is Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). We sat down with Esther Soliman, the district’s Linked Learning, Career and Technical Education (CTE), and Work Experience Administrator to learn how those two systems have helped LAUSD better serve their 25,000 plus students across their 54 pathways. Esther, who has been in her current role since 2012, was first a teacher and then the founding principal at the Los Angeles High School of the Arts (LAHSA), a Linked Learning pathway.

Linked Learning Alliance: By our count, LAUSD has 47 of its 54 pathways registered on Linked Learning Certification. 12 pathways are Silver Certified, and your district is participating in the new Gold Certification pilot. What’s the reason behind the district’s full embrace of Linked Learning Certification?

Esther Soliman: I feel like there should be some sort of high caliber standard for where we’re trying to reach with the work we’re doing around Linked Learning. So we created benchmarks with elements that are essential to implementing and sustaining Linked Learning with fidelity, such as creating a robust curriculum around college and career readiness for Advisory and our culminating Portfolio and Defense. But the ultimate goal is to get the Gold Certification.

And of course the work doesn’t stop there. You go beyond. We’ve created [a process] where pathways can apply to become a practitioner center. We want to see a continual progress and we feel like the Gold [Certification] sets a high standard benchmark, and one that can be calibrated across the state and across the country as we grow Linked Learning.

So Certification is a good way for the district to monitor the quality of its pathways.

Yes and I think it’s important. If you don’t have growth goals, then people are like: “Yes, we’re moving there but other things have come up so we’ll get there at some point.” But this puts a little pressure also on the pathways to say: “no, we need to really focus on this and make sure that we really are moving forward.”

Does the district have a plan to encourage all pathways to go through Certification or are more pathways coming to you saying they want to join?

I think it’s a combination of the two. Schools have many requests from many different places in the district. Administrators are instructional leaders, but they also have operations and many other compliance items that must be addressed. Now, we are working with pathways to ensure they prioritize Linked Learning as they chose to become a Linked Learning pathway. We help them see that this work is not extra work, but leads to instructional improvement for students. Certification creates a clear goal for the pathways. We assist with coaching and work-based learning support, but you really need to be moving forward and here is the clear goal.

Do you have any examples of pathways using Certification to help set their sight on quality and growth?

Going through certification really motivated the whole [pathway] team to work together towards this goal and provides clear expectations and a clear timeline. I’ve seen a lot of pathway teachers and administrators who have set the Gold certification as their goal for the year, visit our practitioner centers to observe their great work and learn from them. In addition to choosing LInked Learning because they see the positive outcomes for students, certification also creates urgency for the pathway to improve.

Do the pathways find going through Certification an extra responsibility or do they see it as an asset that helps them organize themselves?

What I found is that principals have tended to revamp their priorities around [professional development] to make sure they’re addressing all the areas that need to be addressed in Linked Learning for student growth and support. They see it as another important measurement of the growth of their schools and pathways.

People seem genuinely ready to do the work to move towards Gold. We just had a meeting where we invited anybody from any [pathway] who wanted to go for Gold. About nine pathways showed up, so there were about 35 people there, learning about the rubrics and the criteria. When they realize how much work it is, they were like: “Wow this is a lot to do.” So they’re all preparing their to-do lists and who’s going to do what to move towards Gold. It was a room full of energy and excitement.

I think once they choose Linked Learning, then they’re very much supportive of the [Certification] process.

Let’s switch gears to Linked Learning Analytics. How has LAUSD been interacting with the Analytics system?

One of the places Analytics is showing where we have greatly improved is in our English Language Arts (ELA) Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC). Students are continually asked to speak and present to professionals, and to defend their works and their creations. I think this kind of interaction is just so powerful and enriching and this is obviously reflected in the data in Analytics.

I would also say that it’s showing the importance of looking at the percentage of our English Learner (EL) population. For instance, Magnet schools are really popular right now. I’m seeing trends in the data that show the population of EL is significantly lower [at those schools] than in non-pathways or in Linked Learning pathways. So those kinds of things can be really insightful for us as we ensure our EL students in pathways are well supported and have opportunities to interact with students, teachers and professionals.

What is one feature that the district is particularly interested in?

The ability to look at other districts, to me, is really exciting. For instance, when I saw how badly we did on the math Smarter Balanced assessments (SBAC), I looked at a lot of other districts on their SBAC map, thinking, I can go learn what are they doing that is so great. I, unfortunately, did not find any highly successful math scores, but I did, through talking with other districts, find a presenter from Stanford who wrote some of the math questions on the SBAC and she is now providing a series of 4 professional developments for our Linked Learning math teachers around developing challenging interdisciplinary performance assessments.

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, Esther.

Thank you!