By Hector Villagra, Executive Director
A new school year is set to begin in LAUSD, with all the typical fresh hopes and dreams, but this one will be different. For the first time since the 1980s, when LAUSD first implemented it, no LAUSD student will be attending a school on the calendar known as Concept 6. This is something for all Angelenos to celebrate.
Concept 6 may have started innocently enough – to reduce severe overcrowding at a single school – but it soon took root and spread. By 2000, when MALDEF, the ACLU, and others filed Williams v. California, challenging, among other things, the constitutionality of the Concept 6 calendar, more than a quarter million LAUSD students – more than a third of all students -- attended schools operating on it. And, by then, Concept 6 had revealed its true nature.
Concept 6 was never more than an elaborate shell game. It allowed schools to house additional students without building more classrooms. Schools divided the student body and staff into 3 different tracks, which were then rotated throughout the course of the school year, so that at any one time, only two of the three tracks were in school while the third was on vacation. Through this sleight of hand, Concept 6 “expanded” the capacity of a school by 50%.
But Concept 6 came at a significant cost, as education experts and school officials all came to recognize. Dr. Jeannie Oakes concluded that students who attend schools on the Concept 6 calendar “suffer several clear disadvantages as compared to students at schools on traditional calendars.” Not the least of which was the loss of 17 school days per year – Concept 6 provided 163 while traditional calendars provided 180. These lost days were not and could not be made up by tacking on additional minutes to each school day; the loss of school days meant the loss of school nights for homework, which slowed progress through the curriculum, and the rotations and long breaks caused by the calendar further slowed progress, because instructional time was spent moving in and out of classrooms and reviewing material when students came back from break. Over twelve years, a student attending school on the Concept 6 calendar lost a staggering 204 school days, substantially more than one full year of school.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Ross Mitchell found, after statistically controlling for other variables, that students on the Concept 6 calendar performed substantially worse than students on the traditional school calendar. Sadly, Dr. Mitchell also found that Latino students, low-income students, and English Language Learners were disproportionately represented in schools on the Concept 6 calendar.
No one disputed this evidence. Indeed, then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin explained that schools didn’t implement Concept 6 to try “out some educational innovation. It was out of desperation.” She said she “would love to get rid of Concept 6.” The State Master Plan for Education recommended that the state “move aggressively” to eliminate the use of Concept 6.
Yet, reliance on Concept 6 was unlikely to diminish, because school districts desperate for additional capacity -- and lacking local or state new school funding -- had little choice but to use it. And the state was far from taking steps to eliminate it. The state offered financial incentives, promising to funnel some of the savings from new school construction to districts operating Concept 6 and other multi-track, year-round calendars, and Governor Davis vetoed a bill that would have phased out use of Concept 6 because he wanted to preserve districts’ discretion to use it.
And so, through a perverse combination of poor long-term planning, undue shortsightedness, and a lack of political will, we found ourselves with the proverbial tail wagging the dog: facilities needs were driving education.
This only changed in 2004, when Williams settled, and the state and LAUSD agreed to get rid of Concept 6 by 2012. That date seemed so far away at that time, but here we are, finally able to celebrate its long overdue death. A highlighted in a UC Berkeley study released earlier this month, overcrowding relief in LAUSD, which allowed the district to end its reliance on Concept 6, has led to significant student achievement gains. My hope is that we learned something from this experience that we won’t forget: we must remain committed to education, quality education for all, even when it is not expedient. It can take decades to get back on track after taking the easy way out.