LA Parents Leadership Team

I have been wrestling for some time with how to have a more meaningful impact upon our schools. I have worked in my children’s local schools on governance and decision making councils, I have been active in central district and local district parent groups, have launched a listserv, published an email newsletter that at one time went out to 1800 parents and even announced my intention in 2002 to form a parent union.

I have just launched this website as a tool to inform, to educate and to help to build community and a leadership group among parents in Los Angeles.

First, a bit of background:

One of the extraordinary things Merle Price did while he was our local district superintendent (2000) was to hold a retreat for his administrators, a retreat to which he invited me.

It was the first time I got to see - from the inside - just how little trust there was among school administrators and between the Local District and Central District folks and just how political and dysfunctional our school system was.

For two years, my understanding deepened until I was able to see how the business of schooling children in Los Angeles is, to a great extent, decided by the central district administration and the Board of Education and those who have influence with these groups, including the various unions.

I was then serving on a local district parent council which had determined that it would not spend time hearing complaints from schools around the local district so parents were left with the challenge of resolving any issues with their school principals. In those schools that did not welcome parents, I wondered how was this going to be accomplished? In a system that may put teachers and administrators to work when they may have already shown that they don't belong in a school or don't want help in making it work, this can be, for a parent, the equivalent of an educational life sentence.

But let me return for a minute to the retreat I mentioned. I left the local district retreat feeling as though I had finally made a connection with some administrators, that we had shared an experience which allowed each of us to better understand one another. I was also reminded about the value in working in earnest with teachers and administrators as partners and saw that it could be a reality. Some of the wonderful relationships I developed then continue to this day.

There were some goals and key intentions that came out of that retreat:

• To make processes more public.
• To develop the trust among ourselves to build
• To work to eliminate the vestiges of the "old system" as quickly as possible.

and this one:

• We may need to look at 'cleaning house' of people who don't want to move in our common direction.

There was much promise but I'm sorry to say the wonderful conversations, insights and intentions voiced at that retreat proved short lived.

A few years ago, I began to search for a model for parent engagement - one to adopt or, perhaps, to create, where I could, working with other parents around LAUSD, begin to get parents to talk with one another about their concerns, to share what's working and to shine a light on what isn't... perhaps to build a network, an association of parents, district-wide.

I spent a good deal of time trying to talk up the idea then, meeting with limited success and wondering if we as a community of parents had the will to make the required changes in our schools. If you are like most parents, you'll move through the system with a child in elementary school and it may be second or third grade - or later - before you realize what is really going on in your child's school. Then again, perhaps you are one of the fortunate ones with a child who attends a school with a principal and staff that welcome you as a parent, a principal who is passionate about creating the best possible learning environment for all children, a principal who is connected to his or her community. Perhaps you have a child in a low performing school with a principal who appears not to care or with a teacher who was force-placed into your school or your child's classroom. Before you know it, you've left that school and begun to adjust to the challenges of middle or high school, perhaps leaving the condition at the old school unresolved for other, incomingparents to discover.

In an article that appeared in Steve Lopez's column in the LA Times several years ago, Mr. Lopez says, "If there is a greater collective failure in American society than the state of public education, it has not been brought to my attention. The economy, the quality of life, flight from cities, segregation, the crime rate in your neighborhood--all these things are tied to the quality of public education in the richest country on Earth. And yet despite the stakes, we can't get it right. Can't even get close. "

I dug out that article recently. It was about a conversation that Mr. Lopez was having with LAUSD Board member Mike Lansing and near the end of the article, Mr. Lansing was quoted as saying, "if more parents were involved in meaningful ways, public education would be transformed overnight."

You're absolutely right, Mike. This is something for which I have been advocating as an active parent for the last eight years.

While parent involvement certainly means different things to different people, it begins at home with parents taking an active role in the education of their children including asking them about their school day, making sure they have a quiet, well-lighted place to study at home, reading to them and with them, assisting with and reviewing their homework and other assignments and insisting upon meeting with their teachers and school administrators regularly. Many parents already do such things but historically, a significant percentage of parents do not, for any variety of reasons. Some may not take the responsibility seriously and those need our help. A growing number of our parents are single parents like me. Many struggle just to cope with life everyday...so for many of them, just being able to do the things I outlined above is an achievement. Still, others make choices to put themselves before their children. I don't know what else to say about that.

Some parents have more time and some have more experience than others. Perhaps they are more familiar with their school, with the teachers and staff, perhaps they've been more involved in their school or perhaps they serve on a committee or otherwise have a leadership position. I think that those of us who can should help other parents, help them to become oriented at a new school, let them know about community resources which may be available to them, mentor and share what we know and what we do with other parents...

To me, then, parent involvement necessitates being involved in some way at your child's school. Yet it's important to understand that parent participation and the voices of school communities are not genuinely honored at many school sites. Many schools do not welcome parents. From the unfriendly signs that are posted on the gates to the attitude that may permeate a school, some don't welcome parents on campus at all and some are only happy to see us if we're helping to raise money or participating as field trip chaperones or if we'll sign off on something requiring a parent signature. Also, schools don't always educate parents to become equal partners in shared school-site decision-making councils and I'm sorry to have to break the news to you but they may just not want us involved. What Boardmember David Tokovsky once said about himself is often true of parents at schools across the district: we're sometimes treated like mushrooms... kept in the dark and fed cow manure.

Don't you think parent voices should be considered when it comes to deciding who will replace a principal or a local superintendent? Shouldn't parents be heard in determining how their child's school actually budgets its funds and how it spends the money, in how it aligns the budget to meet the needs of the school's student population? What is the phrase "community school" all about? What does it really mean when the community is not involved?

Even at the central district, parents are not generally welcomed as partners in policy making and decision making. I offer you this example: Are we considered when it comes time to talk about wages and benefits and working conditions for the teachers who are teaching our children and administrators who are running our schools? When union representatives sit down with the district to talk about such things, are the parents included in the dialogue? No. Are we and our children not the clients? Parents, we need to be included in these discussions. They are directly connected to the District's budget and the last I checked, the sunshining (that is, the making public) of the contract negotiations with unions is a requirement of state law. Parents are completely left out of such discussions and it has to change. WE have to organize to change it.

As I've begun to outline, we have a huge role in ensuring that our kids are not left behind...and we also have a role in ensuring that our neighbor's kids are not left behind and that our community's children are not left behind. In fact, I would suggest to you that we have THE primary role...each of us is our child's first teacher and we owe it to our children to make sure that they get a quality education. What parent doesn't want his or her child to succeed?

Let me tell you...it will take more than federal legislation to ensure that no child is left behind...and it will take more than money to ensure that no child is left behind.

I've said it before: The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was introduced over 40 years ago. This was federal law which was supposed to help the poor, the underserved and culturally deprived kids learn to read through Title One programs. Thirty-seven years and over $100 billion later, ask yourselves: are the kids really better off? Have we closed the achievement gap? No, we have not. Worse, the system is still blaming the kids for that.

Three years ago, the state of California was facing a fiscal crisis. California was hurting to the tune of $35 Billion..a $35 Billion budget deficit....and LA Unified and the Board of Education were struggling under the weight of having to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget for several years.

We don't really yet know what the state education budget for next year will look like. As parents, we have several responsibilities to our children in this regard: we must educate and inform ourselves as to what we feel is most important to our children's education - smaller class sizes, school safety, teacher quality and stability, nutrition, student needs...maybe you want smaller school districts, too. We must prioritize our concerns. We must make our voices heard. We must also make sure that the elected school board members remember the mantra: put children first! We must make sure our elected representatives in Sacramento hear us loud and clear: less money for jails and more money for schools; less money for prisoners and more money for students and teachers.

Parents must also recognize that we needn't leave our children in schools that are failing them. We can have even more choices in our public schools than we have now.

Parents could choose to take advantage of open enrollment periods, a specific time period set aside by the District when parents have an opportunity to have a child attend other than a neighborhood school. In a district as historically overcrowded as LAUSD, this may not seem worth mentioning as most parents might not be able to take advantage of it for their children; with district enrollment declining, however, this is more of a real possibility for parents.

Another choice for parents: magnet schools.They are among the District's gems but over 35,000 kids district-wide are on the waiting list for magnet schools.An administrator told me recently that some schools sometimes don’t inform parents of their choices for other schools because the current school doesn't want to lose the student to another school. And PARENTS want to know why a local school for their children doesn't always mean that their child will be able to get a quality education; parents want to know why can't EVERY school be a magnet school?

There are other choices. The District's Schools for Advanced Studies (SAS) program was created several years ago to take some of the pressure off the magnet schools by introducing advanced mathematics and other curricula at select school sites yet many parents don't know about the programs. Some have been unable to get their children into such schools and in some cases, funding for such programs has been provided to school sites yet those schools are not incorporating such programs into their school plans.

Among the other choices available to parents today are public charter schools. There are many who embrace charter schools and more who are learning about the option they provide every day. Nonetheless, there is a lot of misinformation and disinformation about charters - AND other school choices - out there.

So....

WHY DON'T WE CONTINUE TO THINK ABOUT OTHER CHOICES? Remember those Apple Computer billboards. What did they say? Think different.

Maybe, just maybe we're ready to try something new instead of always banging our heads against the wall year after frustrating year.

We have the power to choose, we have the power to tell our representatives what we want...now we need to step up. Us. You and I and the thousands of other parents with kids in schools in this district. We need to organize, we need to communicate, we need to hear from you about what you want and what you don't and we must all make our voices heard.

Will you voluntarily continue to send your children to schools that may not teach or protect them? Will you continue to send your children to schools that may not welcome you as a partner? If you could, would you choose schools as different and unique as your children’s personalities and abilities?

Of course you would. If we parents do not take our responsibility for our children's education seriously, do you think that any amount of “reform” is ever going to change things? No amount of money is ever going to be enough. By the way, would someone please show me the studies proving a connection between increased spending and increased learning?

There's been a lot of talk about increasing the number of days our kids go to school. Here's something to think about: I read a number of years ago that Hong Kong, with a short school year, beats Japan in math and science contests and that Israel, with a long school year, can’t keep up with Belgium...and Belgium has the shortest school year in the world!

And standards. Who, exactly, is setting these standards? Think about what you want for your kids. Of course we want them to read and to write. Of course we want them to understand mathematics and to appreciate art and music..but is education a bucket to be filled or a light to be lit, as Yeats suggested? Don't we also want to teach our kids to think critically for themselves, to make better decisions? Don't we want our kids going to schools that encourage and foster the different ways to make learning happen? If so, it is up to us to insist that it happen.

Administrators and teachers are talking about having high expectations of our children. We need to let them know that as parents, WE have high expectations of teachers and administrators but that we also have high expectations of ourselves.

If we can only take the challenge, the real challenge to ensure that no child is left behind, then as Mike Lansing says we could transform public education overnight.

We parents have a right— and the primary responsibility— to determine the education of our children, arguably a family’s most important responsibility. This issue may be, as Martin Luther King III has pointed out, the last great civil rights issue. Do we have a right to have a say in where our kids go to school, in who teaches them, and what they learn? Some would say that if you’ve got wealth, you can buy this right, but if you don't, you can't.

Think about it.

The future in LAUSD can be bright. So much of that potential resides in our imagination. We need to learn to use more of that, don't you think? We don't utilize what we have...and you know what they say, if you don't use it, you lose it.

Imagine what we can do when we all work together.

As he left LAUSD as interim superintendent in 2000, Ramon Cortines told parents to raise hell with the system.

He’s just been appointed our Mayor’s Deputy.

I’d say it’s time to take up the challenge. What do you say?