Why Public School? (The Backstory)

by Tanya Anton | GoMamaGuide.com

written March, 2007

Many people have asked me why I have become so active helping parents navigate the challenging, not so top-of-its-class public monolith that is LAUSD. It’s a good question, one I wrestle with constantly.

I suppose I never would have even considered public school education reform a serious issue to focus my energies on prior to becoming a parent. As a matter of fact, collaborating, building community, gathering info and sharing answers with others was only done if it involved musicians, a gig, and some cashola…for me.

Nine years ago, when we bought into this sleepy little Westside neighborhood, a mostly retired blue collar, post-war community, the last thing on our minds was school districts. In fact, I distinctly recall our housewarming announcement. It stated matter-of-factly: “No rings, no kids, no nonsense. (To answer your next question.) But please bring a bottle of your favorite wine.”

Er herm. Yes, well.

Now that I’m married, with child, specifically child about to enter Kindergarten, it seems that there’s a whole mess of nonsense around here to wade through.

Cue favorite wine, please.

The only reason we landed over here to begin with is because the lots were bigger (I wanted a patch of green), slightly more affordable, and we needed a detached garage to house the new recording studio we were going to build. We didn’t want a postage stamp-sized lot with neighbors breathing down our backs as musicians came and went day and night pushing their Anvil cases up and down the driveway. Little did we imagine that with the advent of computer technology, sampling, flying tracks and vocals over the ‘net, the need to actually SEE musicians anymore is a rarity indeed, but that’s beside the point.

By a stroke of good fortune and incredible timing on my husband’s part, we ended up in our little fixer-upper neighborhood almost a decade ago. Who knew it would eventually become a desirable family destination?

However, it is quite simply unacceptable to me that the average price these days for a 1-story, 1200 sq ft tear-down over here has risen to just shy of a million dollars, and yet our local schools are in such a sorry state parents seem to be abandoning them left and right for anywhere better. Now if you can afford the additional $18-25K (choke, wheez) per child per year for private elementary school on up, bravo to you. But some of us just can’t. We need other options. We need public options. You know, for the people. The just folks. Not the let’s-hemorrhage-money-just-because-we-can type folks.

And furthermore, if the real estate values are where they are, I damn well think my kid ought to be able to go to her neighborhood school and get a decent education. Right?

There are many problems, but a big one is size. LAUSD services almost 750,000 children and is the 2nd largest school district in the country. That means that the tax dollars we throw into the kitty over here in our hot little neighborhood get dispersed with everyone else’s, and wind up all across this urban sprawl, not just in our own back yard.

Another issue we’re facing is this very real post 9/11 baby boom. I see it on the ballooning mom boards and on the ever-growing preschool wait lists. There is a swell of kids just about to enter the school system. I have heard many parents tell of even being willing to pay the 20-some-thousand-dollars per year for private school, applied to 5 or 6 of them, and then didn’t get in. Any of them. Too many children, not enough slots. That’s just the reality of the situation. And each year as this boom (and their siblings) enter Kindergarten on up, the available slots per applicant will get even slimmer. Those children will have to go somewhere…perhaps back to their neighborhood schools.

I’ve heard it said that if the state of California were a nation–what with the output of Silicon Valley, Napa Valley and the entertainment industry–it would be ranked the 7th or 8th wealthiest country in the world! Yet we are ranked near the bottom of the country for public education. Our schools just don’t line up with what Californians are capable of. With all our resources, intelligence, ingenuity, creativity, wealth…couldn’t we do better educating our next generation?

So, what’s a concerned parent to do?

Luckily, there ARE public school options. If you know about them. If you apply correctly and on time. There are magnets, independent charters and converted charters, inter and intra-district permits, each with their own application rules, procedures, timeline and lotteries. Additionally, many neighborhood schools are really improving as parents roll up their sleeves and get involved.

In an attempt to sort through and understand all this, I began coordinating parent ed nights at our preschool a few years ago to discuss the options and the process, bringing in alumnae parents who’d already been through it for one event, and both a magnet and charter elementary school principal for another event. I went on countless school tours, and sat in on local PTA and booster club meetings at neighborhood schools, keeping tabs on their initiatives and progress.

Branching out to an even wider community, I agreed to join humorist Sandra Tsing Loh and author Christie Mellor, along with The LA Times, a vodka sponsor, generously donated Gourmandise chocolate desserts, and co-hosted a wildly successful “Martinis, Magnets & More,” public school survival seminar on my own Westside turf.

With the flood of emails following these events, I realized the scope of questions parents had, even fundamental ones, which weren’t readily answered by the District. That’s when I sat down and put it all together in one easy-to-understand Guidebook.

At the heart of all this work is to be able to offer nuts and bolts info on school options, how to navigate the often confusing (and disparate) application lotteries, but also to connect parents to each other and encourage them to get involved locally instead of flee.

In addition to writing my guidebook, I have spoken to many preschool parents in an attempt to calm fears and identify their public school options.

On the horizon:

Public speaking to prospective parents, preschools, booster club leaders, community leaders.

More Westside public school community events.

Considering ways to unite core parents from different schools to share successful strategies, resources, and support, working together to grow our neighborhood schools.

Perhaps I will give up this noble idea of community activism and become instead a private, self-serving, mind-my-own business capitalist as so many have done before me. But then an idea strikes me, and I envision an intuitive way to proceed.

Though at times I resist it, I feel called to do this work. Can’t explain why. I just know things, and am not afraid to try them. I actually feel I can make a difference, and am encouraged when others seem to respond when I speak out.

It’s time to revitalize our neighborhood schools. It is already happening in little pockets of dedicated, core parent groups at many neighborhood schools. We’re building awareness and momentum. With a little twist. I hope you’ll join me.

Cheers.

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