(Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Public Elementary)
We are in a quandary, no doubt about it.
It's not just Silver Lake, every neighborhood - in cities across the country - is facing this overwhelming obstacle of educating our kids and the challenge of the best way to do it. Make no mistake, everyone wants a fabulous education for their children, no matter their place in the economic spectrum. That is the one thing we all have in common. And let's be deep-down honest, most of us don't really care about fixing it for everyone. We've all got the intense microcosm of our own daily struggles to worry about; who has the luxury to try and fix things for everyone when all you want is to manage the best you can for you and your family? The bottom line is that we want our kids to go to school and have the best teachers, the best learning programs, the best food, the best books, the best computers... the best. None of us know quite how this is going to happen, but golly-gee-whillikers we have to try.
So, yeah, my husband and I didn't know anything about educating that little person who'd started drooling on all our stuff and taking up all our precious couch-sitting time a few years previous, but we'd heard about the process. Other people with kids would give us these long-suffering eye rolls and say "Oh, gawd. You have to start getting on the waiting lists NOW." It made us nibble our fingernails a bit, but the problem is that both of us are lazy, lazy people... and, speaking for myself, stubborn about such things. The thought of having to go put a 3 year old's name on a list somewhere, of filling out applications, of doing interviews, of having to take a shower... all for what? The privilege of paying someone half of what I make in a year so my kindergartner could eat a higher quality of paste? Yeah, I balked. But still, what were my options? I wanted my kid to go to a good school, but I didn't want to have to enter some labyrinthine process to do it. I grew up in a small town where you just... you know... went to school. That was the extent of the process. There was just the one, and you went. I had this hardwired into me. Couldn't I just ...put my kid in school? OH NO, honey, I couldn't. That's what I was told by every single other parent I knew, and that's what I had to believe. So I did believe it.
My husband and I put our son into private school, even though we couldn't afford it. We did this without even looking at our local Elementary. We didn't even take the five-minute walk down to look at the outside of it, that's how indoctrinated we had become against the entire idea of an urban public school even though we'd never been inside one. Everyone in our neighborhood just slowly shook their heads when we asked about it, and I'd looked at those scores online, and they seemed bad, even though I'm educated enough to know that, without understanding the metrics behind those random numbers, they mean absolutely nothing. I knew that intellectually, but it's so psychological, let me tell you (I probably don't need to, you all know what I mean), you see a low number and it informs instant opinion. Plus, there was almost no diversity... when I looked at the demographics, it was something like 96% Latino. I'm horribly embarrassed to admit that I was afraid of putting my kid into an automatic minority. Would he be accepted? What if the other parents didn't speak English? Fear won easily. I didn't even put up any kind of sissy slap fight. To me, our local school was automatically crossed out as any kind of option. End of story.
To private school we went for two years. It was a fine school, yes, we liked it there, liked the teachers, made a few lifelong friends, our kid did well... we promptly burned through our savings, and just like that, it was over.
So, here we were again (only broke now), and again, what were our options? This time I figured I had to deal with applications and the lotteries, so I went to the Charters. I put my kid's name in for the usual Silver Lake suspects - you all know the schools - and he didn't make it into a single one of them. And thus, we now only had ONE option and no more choices. It was our local school or we would have to start home-schooling (cue laugh track), and trust me - that was not gonna happen. So, we girded ourselves and walked bravely down to the School Of Ill Repute (known to others as Micheltorena Elementary), and we took the Open House tour. And ...
...we @#$% loved it. We loved the principal immediately. We loved every teacher we met and were somehow surprised to learn how long they had been at their school, how much experience they had. We saw classrooms that, true, didn't have the shiny appointments of the private school we'd just left, but the papers and posters of the kids' work on the walls told stories of engaged, clever, creative children... stories we had needed to see all along. Plus, the 5th grade teacher had a curly handlebar mustache and suspenders and I was like: WHERE DO I SIGN UP FOR HIS CLASS?
As I like to say to people, five minutes after we'd been inside I was experiencing what I like to call 'kicking myself'. For WASTING our savings and for countless months of worrying and stressing over the lotteries, all for fear and for ignorance. I now have two kids, and both go to our local school. Thing 1 is in the Gifted program and doing extremely well. He's in 4th grade and, hilariously, learning to play the flute. Because... you know, ROCKSTAR. Thing 2 is in first grade and reading at a 3rd grade level.
Fellow parents, I understand you, because I was you. I know why you go to the Charters or to private if you can afford it. I also know it's because you don't know what else to do. It's because you are afraid - for lots of different reasons, some related to class, some related to race, some just related to curb appeal - you can admit it, I did. And it's because you love the mental picture of this magical education for your kids - where fresh faced kids in airy rooms full of color clamor for knowledge - and your mental picture tells you that you can't get that from an urban public school.
What if I told you that you can actually take your local school and make it what you want it to be? I know that's not what you believe, not what you've been LED to believe. It certainly wasn't what I believed four years ago. Public schools DO have to take that stupid test, we DO have a horrific lunch program, we DO face a massive, unwieldy bureaucracy and we DO have countless silly rules and regulations to get around. But, look, Micheltorena did get around all that crap. Turns out you can teach your kids just fine and still take that ridiculous test. I just pack a lunch for my kids, and we find ways to work around or with the rules we've got. I talk to my kids, help them with their projects, and I know they are engaged, smart and curious. That's the real litmus test.
We all know that there has been a movement in this country for the last 20 years to dismantle the very idea of public education and that it has led us to a place where a privately-run, unaccountable, sometimes-corporate Charter School is being touted as the answer. Some established, proven Charters (like many Public schools) are perfectly good schools, but if you've done any real homework, you have to know that these legions of new schools are just as likely to fail your kids as any public school, and that, often, these untried schools are (by law) allowed to paw through public school assets just to get started. I also know you don't really care that much about all that, as long as your kid gets in to that glorious, safe place of magic.
Because, the Myth. And the Myth works both ways. You believe that you can find your utopian classroom at Private or a Charter just as strongly as you also believe that Public is worn-out, peeling, colorless, and filled with society's poor and unwashed all studying day after day to take a single standardized test.
This perception goes on unabated, despite the fact that many Charters have younger, inexperienced teachers using untested "progressive" techniques created as lures for enrollment. So many parents end up as 'Charter-Hoppers' because these untested programs fail their children. I know you want to believe that 'new' is better because obviously 'old' has failed, right? I've got some shocking news. My son's 4th grade uses 'progressive' project-based learning techniques. I know! Public school! What-what?! That failure? That bureaucratic bastion of grey-faced automatons and hallway violence? I'll have you know that the Kindergartners' knife-fights settle down by first recess and hardly any of our automatons are grey-faced. It's more of a silvery sheen.
Look, no one is asking anyone to fight a socialist battle for the Children of America or that you need to take a socio-political stand for What's Right by enrolling your kid in the public system. That's not realistic, and we all stopped doing stuff-for-the-sake-of-idealism as soon as we got out of college and started having to live real lives. As I said earlier, we all know that everyone is only worried about their own kids reaching their potential, about their kids making good friends, being among other eager learners and getting the best teachers. That's the bottom line, and no one thinks it should be otherwise.
Silver Lake's Micheltorena is living the plot line of The Bad News Bears right now. We are an underdog Title One school with no money and no one rooting for us, but us. No one to speak for us, but us. In January, out of nowhere, we found ourselves fighting not only a Charter who wants our classrooms, but a School District who is legally powerless (and politically uninterested) to stop them. Our own Principal has been warned via threatening letter that she cannot publicly protect her own school. Our parents don't have the money the Charter does. LAUSD cannot interfere without facing lawsuits. And the saddest part is that those parents behind the Citizens of the World Charter who want our real estate, they have the same goals that we do. Their kids. These Charter parents are not bad people, they just want to believe in the Myth of a magic education so badly that they seem completely willing to harm the education of other kids to do it. They don't and can't look at it that way, of course, but that's what it is.
What's happening to us is happening to schools all over the country because parents so whole-heartedly believe in this Myth. It's being perpetuated by an inherent, socially-reinforced sense of the failure of our Education system. People more eloquent than me have made the plea that we should FIX our schools, not abandon them. That Education is something that CANNOT be privatized. What happens when we take away the right to a free education? In all practicality, what happens to the masses of people who fail in the lottery and don't have the money to buy their kids into a Charter or pay for private? People may not realize it, but by shunning our system, by living only in the moment with their fear, they are dismantling something that enables a free society. It is not only short-sighted to abandon public education, but dangerous. A stable society is an educated one.
Here in our small corner of Los Angeles we feel like we've become ad hock mouthpieces for Public Education, when really, we just wanted a great school for our kids and we turned our public school into one. The Charter who wants our classrooms for their own don't hear the desperate, protective intent for our own children when we protest their co-location, they only hear our anger and proclaim that we are unreasonable. Unreasonable to want to protect our kids? I don't think they can hear themselves. This isn't about a bunch of local parents barking territorially at intruders. The Charter co-locating at our school will harm our kids, harm our school, harm our democracy. I'm sorry to put it so bluntly and so melodramatically, but that's what I believe. It doesn't just compete for enrollment, jeopardize our Elementary's future, take our classrooms, or bog down our Principal's already-stretched time with administrative haggling over resources; it will teach my kids lessons I only want them to read and puzzle over in history books - that segregation is OK.
What did she just say? Why use such a loaded word? Because what we are seeing now is precisely what segregation is. This Charter, like so many others have done already in this very city, wants to put a dividing line down the middle of our school grounds so their kids aren't contaminated by our kids - in direct opposition to the very ideals this country is supposedly built on. What kind of things do they want their children to learn from that? Look at that mental picture. How could anyone want that? We don't. And honestly, deep down, I can't think the Charter parents want that either. I won't believe it. They just want the Myth so badly that it's blinded them to the means they are using to reach the end.
I wrote this (ridiculously long) essay because I wanted to speak to all the parents out there who believe in the idea of that perfect, golden school - who are afraid of public school for all the wrong reasons. Who might be a part of another Charter in another part of town taking away another public school because Prop 39 has made it legal to do so (and we all know legislation can never be wrong). I wanted to speak to them because I absolutely understand the Myth. And I want to shout from the rooftops that a great education for your kids is real, and that you can make it happen while still supporting a local, public system that is the social and economic backbone of this democracy.
There is no magical, hands-free education on the other side of this fence or any other fence. Education is what YOU make it, the energy and ideas you put into the school and the teachers and what your kids get out of it. That is just as possible at a public school as it is at a Charter.
Trust yourself, and trust your kids and the Myth stops being an idealized hope and becomes real.