Sunday, March 28, 2010

From Green to Burnt Umber

My son was born in 1994. That was one of the happiest days of my life, but it was also a worrisome day for me, because that meant I had only five years to figure out where to send him to kindergarten. From everything negative that I had heard about LAUSD, I was sure that my son would be permanently harmed or disabled if we actually sent him to a public school in Los Angeles. The message I got from the media and my new mom friends was, "Good mothers do not send their children to LAUSD". So, like so many other moms in Los Angeles, I went temporarily insane as I frantically searched for the perfect school for my perfect child. The idea of moving outside of the district or sending him to private school was shot down immediately because we couldn't afford it. I consulted with my saavy new mom friends who had kids older than my son, to seek their sage advice about what to do. They all knew how to navigate the public school system. What I learned from them made me even more neurotic and fearful than I was before. I learned about the many different options inside the LAUSD, all ways of getting out of sending my kid to the neighborhood school: magnets, charters, open enrollment, lying about where we lived, homeschooling, and then revisiting relocating or finding a way to pay for private school. I was a wreck. There was a public school at the end of the block......but we couldn't dare send him there......not after all I had heard........not if I wanted to be a good mom........

When my son was four, I decided to go spy on that neighborhood school during their Open House night. I'd get to the bottom of the media reports and mommy talk. I was surprised by what I found. I didn't find any zombies, illiterate kids, or teachers speaking every language but English. I actually discovered pleasant classrooms, happy kids, delightful, competent teachers, and the old community feeling of "school". I went home that night and suggested to my husband that we actually try out that neighborhood school for kindergarten. "How bad could it really be? If it turns out that the school really is bad for him, then, well, we could pull him out!" Ha! A novel idea (my husband was relieved to learn that I had finally spun out of my self imposed insanity, had come to my senses, and was ready to accept what was being offered at the end of the block).

Enrolling my son in our neighborhood public school turned out to be a good thing for him, for many different reasons. Sure, there were times when I got really frustrated with some of the bumps along the road, but I always tried to stay focused on the Big Picture, and stay committed on being part of the solution, and not the problem. So things always seemed to work out. Enrolling him in a public school initiated me into the clan of public school parents. I did everything I could to support his school, educating myself on how the public school system worked and how I could best serve the school with my own talents, skills and experience. I joined the PTA, I volunteered to teach art in his classroom, I served on the school site council, I attended LAUSD sponsored meetings for parents, and I started a nonprofit to support arts education in public schools of my community.

As an artist with a cartooning background, I was conditioned to pay close attention to what was not being directly said to an audience, but to look for the real story on the faces of the secondary characters or people behind the scenes. So when I would attend general meetings for parents, I would really listen to what the frustrated parents with high school students had to say during public comment. Because, it seemed to me, they were the ones who knew the most. They had no agenda other than what was best for kids, and not just their own kids, but all kids. Any parent who gives that much, for that long, is doing it for the greater good. Their frustrations, while I didn't understand most of them because I was a new, green parent, made an impression on me. Their disgust and impatience with the district officials did give me cause for legitimate concern. I trusted them over the district officials, because they weren't selling anything. They weren't trying to convince us of their latest, newest Big Idea. They were just sharing their real experience - all of which was accumulated over a long period of time, on a volunteer basis. None of these parents were getting paid outrageous salaries by the LAUSD to come out and talk.........

I remember one meeting in particular regarding breaking the district up into mini districts. When one mom of a high school student asked why they should believe that this would make any difference, based upon the many failed attempts to improve the system before, the new "mini superintendent" responded with, "We can only hope........" I thought to myself, "What kind of answer is that? We can only hope? That is not an answer". I looked around the room and saw numerous frustrated faces, some of whom were down right mad. I didn't understand much of what was said during public comment at that meeting ten years ago, but I could understand that these active, "old timer" parents, were really, really upset. They had had it.

I've been thinking about those parents in that one "mini-district" meeting a lot lately. Now that my son is of high school age (and we did end up pulling him out of the system when he was supposed to go to middle school, because the system had failed him by then), and I have given ten years of my life to the advancement and support of public schools in my community, I share their disgust and fury. I too, am frustrated and disgusted. I'm tired. I'm disenchanted. I've run out of steam. I'm all used up. I'm an old timer now.

I feel like I've come full circle, and I'm teetering on the edge of public school parent insanity again. But this time it's not because of all I've heard on the street or in the media. It's from my own experience. Like those old timers I encountered when I was a kindergarten parent, my frustration is showing on my face. I too, am speaking out, based on my ten years of serving in the trenches as an active public school parent in LAUSD. Now, with the budget cuts (increased class size, lack of supplies, the elimination of many programs, the district's desperate attempts to keep kids from leaving so they don't lose more money, the unions digging in their heels on behalf of their own members, the lack of morale in all schools from the administration to the kids, the simmering resentment and blame towards scapegoat minority groups such as immigrants, the economically disadvantaged, and the disabled), I am concerned for my seven year old daughter. Should we keep her in the neighborhood public school? Is she safe? Will she get the quality of education she deserves and needs? Will she want to go to school anymore? Should we move? Should we send her to a private school? Should we send her to charter? How about a magnet? Can she get in?

Here I go again...........but I'm not green this time. I'm burnt umber.