This past January, when L.A. County public school teachers, students, parents and other allies donned red shirts and took to the streets for a six-day LAUSD strike, the state of k-12 education was on most everyone’s mind. As debates over traditional public vs. charter school choices and issues of access to private and highly selective schools continue, we asked five local parents to describe the ways in which they have had to advocate for their children in a variety of school settings, reminding us of the many ways we can advocate for our children – and others – today, and in the future.
A Homeschool Mom’s Advice for High School – and Life – Success
By Natashia Deón
This past August, my daughter re-entered public school after spending two years as a homeschooler. My choice to home-school her for middle school reflected my best wishes and intentions for her, which was to help her succeed in high school. As a college professor, I understand that high school is the springboard for life.
Those two years of home school did, indeed, give her a strong foundation of experiential learning, intense focus and boosted confidence, and my hope is that those qualities, and continued support from her parents, will buoy her over these next four years.
A month before school started, she and I did our usual routine: a two-egg breakfast from the local café. We talked about her hopes and dreams. One is to be a doctor; another is to find a cure for her brother’s medical condition and the third is to find more friends her age.
She’s 14 now, and right then, over our egg breakfast, I wanted to tell her everything I knew. I wanted to equip her in every way. I said, “I’ve tried to teach you everything I know. And let’s be honest, what kid wants to be taught everything her parent knows?”
We laughed about it, but if I had to distill everything I know down to a list and have her remember it as she goes through high school, it would look like this:
Live. Don’t only celebrate the markers – birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas – but celebrate every victory and make new markers.
Learn to let go the way I can’t or can’t fast enough. People will hurt you. Try to forget the offense as soon as possible. Let yourself heal from it, then let the past cannibalize the wrong. Because if you carry the wrong, the wrong will cannibalize you.
Fail. Better, learn from the fail. It’s part of life’s equation, an ingredient to baking life’s success. Without failure, your end result is bland.
Deliver excellence. Excellence with $5 looks different than excellence with $5 million, but excellence is still excellence. So, be easy on yourself. Do the hard work that you can be proud of so you don’t need someone else’s confirmation. Don’t require other people to make a safe place for you to be yourself. Be yourself anyway and don’t let other people hold the key … or be your permission.
Be kind. You’ll be creating a safe place for other people to heal. Yes, hurt people hurt people but “hurt” is an explanation, not an excuse. So, even if you’re hurt, choose kindness. After a certain age, everyone you know is hurting.
Walk away from people who exploit your time. People will let you down. So what? You can only control yourself, assuming good mental and physical health and no PMS.
Creative solutions won’t always be taught in classrooms. There, you’ll learn what’s already been done or been learned by somebody else, and then you’ll be asked to repeat it. You’ll be tested on it. Learn that, too. Home school has prepared you to create what hasn’t been seen, what’s possible, even if no one else can understand it … yet.
Natashia Deón is a lawyer, college professor and an NAACP Image Award Nominee. Author of the critically-acclaimed novel, GRACE, which was named a top book by The New York Times, she is also the founder of REDEEMED, which helps to give second chances to people who have been convicted of crimes. www.natashiadeon.com
Advocating for Diversity in Independent Schools
By Sherri McGee McCovey
Eight years ago, my husband and I decided to invest in private/independent school education for our only child. We weren’t opposed to public school. In fact, we are both products of L.A. public schools, and I am the daughter of a retired LAUSD educator.
But so much has changed since then. As the parents of a black boy, our desire was to provide him with the best education possible. We wanted a school where he could look across the classroom and see other faces that looked like his, a place that would nurture his development and see him as an engaged learner. An independent school felt like the right choice, but the lack of diversity was a concern for my husband and me.
Friends told us about the Independent School Alliance, an organization that counsels and advocates on behalf of parents of color who are interested in an independent school education for their academically strong children. After completing the Alliance application and touring four schools, we felt we had found the perfect fit after visiting Westside Neighborhood School (WNS), the most diverse independent school on L.A.’s Westside. After completing WNS’s admissions process, we were excited to receive an acceptance and learn there would be five other black boys in the kindergarten class. Coincidentally, we knew two of the families but had no idea they had also applied.
The two moms and I believe in the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and dubbed ourselves “The Village,” with a mission to help our boys bond through after-school play dates, weekend family dinners, carpools and Black History Month and Kwanzaa celebrations. As other families with black boys were accepted into the school, we would host unofficial “welcome” dinners until there were so many, we didn’t have space to keep up. What began as six black boys in kindergarten has now grown to 12 in the seventh grade.
WNS is built on the pillars of academic excellence, character, diversity, equity, inclusion and community. Once my son was strong academically and socially, I got involved to help further the great job the school was already doing around diversity. From helping to identify a more diverse selection of library books and suggesting ways to recognize unconscious bias, to helping a teacher understand the appropriate language to describe a black student’s behavior, and supporting parents who felt a need to augment the Colonial Ameri-can history curriculum with regard to slavery, the administration not only welcomed our efforts, they encouraged them.
I also joined the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, attended monthly parent coffees to stay up to date on new initiatives and rallied to help identify more black (especially male) teachers. None of this would’ve been possible without a forward-thinking head of school and an administration with an open-door policy that listened, agreed and acted to help students on their journeys to become global citizens.
Today, my son is a thriving preteen with a tight crew of friends. He stands taller knowing that he has allies on the debate team, in robotics, on the basketball court and among the faculty. I’ve grown, too – from a concerned mom to the proud parent of an honor-roll student. In just over a year, it will be on to high school, and I don’t know who will be more sad, the boys, or the members of “The Village” who have supported each other for nearly a decade.
If an independent school education is a consideration, understand this: No school is perfect. You must be the change you want to see. Meet people. Speak up. Get involved.
I’ve been a member of the Parent Group Board, served as a grade-level ambassador three times and been a part of the school’s largest fundraising committee for four years. Have there been bumps along the way? Sure. But that’s life, and we are better for the lessons we learned from them.
My husband and I have sacrificed to provide a solid foundation for our boy and teach him resilience for a world that will not always be so kind to him. Whenever we are asked if we would choose an independent school education again, our answer is a resounding yes. It’s been the best investment in our child we could’ve ever made.
Black and African American families looking to connect with other black families with children in Southern California independent/private schools can consider joining Private School Village (PSV), a free nonprofit that hosts monthly outings and cultural get-togethers meant to give kids a sense of community connected to their daily experience. To learn more about PSV, visit www.privateschoolvillage.org.
Sherri McGee McCovey is an L.A.-based writer, television producer and a New York Times best-selling author.
Advocating for Change in LAUSD
By Jennifer Marquez
When my oldest child was ready to start kindergarten, I researched school options and decided our neighborhood Los Angeles Unified district school in San Pedro would be the best fit for him. Someone had mentioned to me that if all children attended their neighborhood schools, the schools would improve. Whether this is true or not, I thought about it as I observed parents drive their children to other schools outside the neighborhood.
I felt it was my responsibility to make the school the best that it could be for the sake of every student. Having worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 24 years, it is second nature for me to find resources. I intended to bring value to the school, which did happen, but at the same time I became aware that the consistent lack of funding affected children in negative ways. The issues were glaring, and I wanted to make a difference.
I was elected to the School Site Council (SSC) and later School-Based Management (SBM) and served 11 years consecutively at the schools my children attended, while volunteering in other capacities on campus. I found that the narrow focus of both SSC and SBM, the only boards and voice for stakeholders at the schools, discouraged topics that were not about Title I funding, bell schedules, dress code and the like. There seemed to be no clear avenue for a stakeholder to advocate at LAUSD. I started to bring up concerns and solutions during public comment sessions and met with principals. When issues were at the district level, I often wrote articles, as I felt this was the only way I could get problems resolved. Smelly carpet from the school library got replaced, and schools were cleaned and beautified. It was not perfect, but it was a start.
When my son was in fifth grade, he had an operation on his foot, and the only way to get to his classroom was by walking upstairs on his crutches. The school was not ADA-compliant, and there were other schools in the district with the same problem. For decades, this public school was only serving students who could make it up the stairs, a violation of civil rights, but nobody was talking about it. Often schools would rearrange classrooms to accommodate a student who used a wheelchair. Other children on crutches or in casts would spend the day isolated in the office if they couldn’t use the stairs. Parents who were not physically able to get to the classrooms could not attend their child’s open house or other school events. I wrote an article that resulted in one ramp being installed at the middle school. Unfortunately, out of all three of the LAUSD schools my children attended, none are entirely ADA-compliant.
A crucial issue for me is childhood poverty. When my kids at-tended Dana Middle School, a Title I school with a high percentage of students living in poverty, there were more than 100 homeless families. Some students slept in cars and on benches. Principal Steve Gebhart uses a trauma-informed learning approach that puts the whole child first. He, along with dedicated staff and volunteers such as a local Girl Scouts troop, created the “Giving Room” to provide resources, including backpacks and shoes, for these students. The Healthy Start navigator, Yolanda Aranda, makes sure families’ privacy is respected as children do not want others to know they are homeless. Through my work, I have connected the school to re-sources that have resulted in donations of new shoes and hundreds of pairs of socks. One student had never had a new pair of shoes in his life until he received a donated pair in the Giving Room. With funding in public education declining, schools across the county need to use and mobilize community support. All schools serving children in poverty should have a Giving Room.
My children are now in high school – a time that most kids do not want their parents involved in their schools. I get it. But what I have discovered is that other than sports, parents seem to be less involved in their kids’ high schools, and few students want to take on issues at the school. With limited funding, this has resulted in fundamental human rights being denied. For example, at my children’s high school, bathrooms have been locked, and some students have to sit on the floor in a class all year because there are not enough desks.
Parents must advocate for their children and teach them to speak up for themselves because ultimately, if we don’t, who will?
Jennifer Marquez is a writer and has worked in social services for more than 25 years.
Embracing School Choice in the Middle of Charter vs. Traditional Public School Debates
By Jenifer Scott
When I was growing up in rural New Hampshire, “school choice” wasn’t an option. All the kids in my town had one educational pathway, so if it wasn’t the right fit, the only fix would have been to move to another part of the state or country. Fortunately, I adapted to the “one-school-fits-all” approach of my tiny town, though looking back, I can easily recall kids who struggled under this model.
A couple of decades later and with two kids of my own, I found myself ill-equipped to navigate the complicated world of L.A. County’s school selections – and a bit terrified. Traditional public schools? Charter schools? Magnets? Inter-district permits? After touring so many different types of schools, I had moments of longing for my small East Coast town with its lack of options. Yet while the limit-less choices here in L.A. were dizzying, having them at all turned out to be quite positive once I had more of a grasp on exactly what was available to my first child.
Ultimately, we chose the charter school route. Well, let’s be clear: We entered the lottery for the public charter school in our neighborhood. Our decision was not based on some dislike of our assigned neighborhood public school. The reality was that, at that time, our home school did not offer a transitional kindergarten, or TK, program, and we wanted this option for our nearly 5-year-old daughter before sending her to kindergarten. The up-and-coming local charter not only had a well-reputed TK program, but also boasted small class sizes and hands-on learning, which sounded ideal for our emotionally sensitive child. When exploring more-traditional schools, I got the sense that she would be lost in the crowd instead of an active participant in her own education.
So, we rolled the dice.
After she was offered a spot, we were thrilled to accept it, not only for its project-based curriculum and hefty parental involvement but also because the school’s model is one of full inclusion. The school strives to fully immerse students of all abilities into classrooms while differentiating instruction to support each learning type. This is important to our family, as we want our girls to value people of all backgrounds and capabilities. Because of school-wide emphasis on the individual child, my daughter felt acknowledged at the TK level, which was invaluable during such a big transition. Her school’s principal stands outside the gates warmly greeting students each morning, adding to the strong sense of community. Seven years later, she’s a thriving fifth-grader at the same school, along with her sister, who just entered kindergarten there. I volunteer heavily as a room parent coordinator, in the school library as co-chair of the library committee and in many other areas.
As secure with our children’s education as I am, the recent charter vs. public climate of divisive accusations is alarming. Charter schools are coming under fire for “taking students away from traditional neighborhood schools,” when parents are simply making choices that they hope best fit their child. Had we placed our anxious daughter straight into kindergarten as the youngest in her class, I am certain she would have struggled socially and would not possess the emotional confidence she has today.
Of course, charters aren’t for everyone, and there is always room to grow, our daughter’s school being no exception. For example, sharing campus space with another school (as many charter schools do) has its share of complications. Advocating for library space was a major priority when my daughters’ school first relocated to its current campus. We were not permitted to use any shelf space in the existing library, so I and other passionate parents created a library-within-a-library, using minimal resources. Today, our makeshift space is bursting with an extensive book collection, and class library visits are integrated into the curriculum.
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While I understand that traditional public schools lose revenue in per-pupil spending because of low student attendance, under-enrollment is not due solely to the existence of charter schools. In my experience, some charters offer support systems that some traditional schools do not. Removing these opportunities for students who might otherwise flounder in a conventional system seems misdirected.
I will always continue to support anyone’s school choices as well as my daughters’ charter school with pride and gratitude. While no school is perfect, this one is where we want our kids to be.
Jenifer Scott is a freelance writer and mother who gave up working in the chaotic world of feature film production years ago for the more managed chaos of raising a family.
An Immigrant Mom’s Push for Understanding
By Tanya Ko Hong
My children bring magic into my life. However, there is no map to help navigate being a parent in a multicultural society, especially when you are an immigrant parent. When my children were young, I constantly wondered, “How can I best educate my children in the U.S.?” I worried about how my kids would feel when they were asked questions such as “Where are you from?” and “What kind of name is that?” They were born in California, where we gave them traditional Korean names.
I was serious about giving the best to my children. I took child development classes at Los Angeles City College before my first child was born and took more classes when I was pregnant with my second child. I wanted to be a “mama warrior.”
When I told my teacher I was moving to Palos Verdes, he said, “Why are you moving to an all-white neighborhood? They won’t accept you there.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought I was fulfilling the American dream my mother had wished for us. Finally, I would have the white picket fence, and my American-born children would experience the best of American culture.
But, it wasn’t what I expected. My children were treated like they were outsiders. They were the “weird minorities” in school. I didn’t think this would happen because they were born in America. They are Americans.
I can remember my daughter saying to me, “Oma, why is my name Soolgi? My teachers can’t pronounce my name. They call me, ‘Suzy.’ I keep saying, ‘I am not a Suzy. My name is Soolgi. It means wisdom in Korean.’”
It wasn’t easy watching my kids deal with the issues I faced being “fresh off the boat.” I thought I would experience more dis-crimination than my children would, but the reality was that we all felt similarly othered. I was invisible to parents. Some of the moms would purposely exclude me from helping organize and volunteer for classroom events. Even though I was standing right next to them and asking directly if they needed help, they ignored, denied and isolated me.
I knew if I didn’t take action, this sort of behavior would continue. I started to organize Korean-centered events at school to share our culture with everyone because I wanted my children, and other kids, to feel they belonged. Creating a better world starts with who we are, which means we must fearlessly share with one another.
I found sharing the food of our Korean heritage unlocked a sort of universal love. Maya Angelou once said, “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” Her words always bring me back to how powerful food can be to ease the tension between people.
It was not easy to bridge the invisible wall of human differences, especially when I am neither a native English speaker nor was born into the American culture. Teaching Korean cooking classes to break the ice helped bring laughter and empathy to the table, both at home and at my children’s respective schools. Something about hands-on experiences with new foods sparks joy. I was in charge now, and made it a point to invite all parents to help me celebrate special Korean days in the classroom.
Collaborating with other parents and teachers created a cultural bridge of experience and acceptance. The teachers really appreciated these events. When I started to give seminars for teachers about approaching multiculturalism in their classes, they inevitably asked, “Why are/were immigrant children so quiet?” Of course, the simple answer is the language barrier, but also many cultures teach children to be quiet in an educational setting. Immigrant children think home and school are different worlds. They have to act differently. It can be very hard for children to feel it’s appropriate to express their thoughts and opinions.
I expanded my bridge-building by starting “Celebrating Korean Days” at my children’s schools. My children demonstrated how to bow on the Korean New Year’s Day. I introduced the Korean traditional dresses, hanbok, and had teachers and students try them on. Everyone fell in love with Korean dumplings.
My efforts produced a wonderful legacy. My children’s friends, who are all young adults now, still remember those events and thank me when our paths cross.
To be human is to share where we are from, to speak about our emotions without feeling judged. I had to break the stereotype of “quiet Asian woman.” I walked into those schools and fearlessly shared my Korean heritage because I not only wanted my children to feel that they belonged, but to create understanding and a safe and welcoming space for all children.
Tanya Ko Hong is an internationally published poet, translator and cultural curator who is pursuing a Ph.D. in mythological studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute.