Failing School No Longer (But Were We Ever?)
The announcement came out of nowhere, via a phone call by the Principal, as a courtesy to members of the team of teachers who volunteered to write a school reform plan when the Los Angeles Unified School District placed our beloved school on the dreaded “failing schools” list. By being on this list, our school site became open to bidding by outside operators such as charter companies, and the clock began ticking as we were given 13 months to reform our school in such a spectacular way that the school board would vote to let us retain management of our own campus. “We are no longer part of PSC 3.0,” she announced somberly.
I was numb.
There was no cheering, there was no relief, there were only questions. What’s the catch, being the main one.
With the same exact lack of care as to just how deeply these announcements would change the lives of all participants in the Public School Choice Process, we were now being removed from the failing schools list, with the caveat that the school implement the plan it took 13 months to write.
That’s it? That’s really it? Summer vacation gone, stress levels sky high, endless hours away from the classroom, parents furious and mobilizing, students whose lives are already unstable given a healthy dose of more instability…is this the best one district could do for its schools?
Let me be clear: the L.A. Academy community acknowledges that being removed from the “failing schools” list was the correct decision. But I personally do not believe we should have ever been placed on the list in the first place. We are a school in a community highly impacted by poverty, crime, and violence (not an excuse, but a diagnosis as John Kuhn would say) who was hit disproportionately by layoffs in 2009 causing a minor dip in test scores. It does not take a RAND researcher to see the cause and effect.
Los Angeles has been empowered by NCLB’s punitive structure to threaten schools with reconstitution, charterization, or removal of the administration as it sees fit. One board member, Yolie Flores Aguilar got trigger happy and wrote a whole new policy that would enable the giveaway of public schools to charter companies of their metrics did not meet district criteria (curiously, the metrics changed quite frequently, seemingly to meet the whims of the school board members and the schools in their districts). This new board policy was deceptively called Public School Choice. Deceptive, because it was a choice only for those who believe in the President’s market-based approach to education. Those who disagree, like the community member in the video, continue to be conveniently ignored.
This entire past year, as chronicled in my “Month X as a Failing School” posts (Month 1, Month 3, Month 5, Month 9), has been just one distraction after another taking us away from the work we educators know we need to do to help our students escape the stifling poverty that suffocates their lives. At the end of last school year, over 20 teachers left en masse to new schools opening in the neighborhood, many because they could not risk the chance of losing their positions if the school was given away to a charter company.
When the school board responded to community outrage at the giving away of brand new multi-million dollar buildings of new schools who had not yet “failed” by removing new buildings from the PSC list, there were less schools for charters to bid on. Coincidentally, the profile of our school suddenly rose, as it is a facility that is only 12 years old, and in good shape. Out of nowhere came op-eds and articles in the Los Angeles Times and even the Associated Press that portrayed our school negatively, applauding the “grassroots parents” who were forming parent unions to organize and possibly pull the Parent Trigger against schools that didn’t meet their children’s needs. The smearing of our school would lend itself nicely when it came time for the board to vote on who would manage it next school year.
To educators who were working their butts off in the classroom, these smears came out of nowhere, but to those who keep up with the dirty politics of education reform, they were not surprising.
One good thing did come out of L.A. Academy’s experience with the PSC process. Our teachers, who had previously chosen to focus on the classroom exclusively, woke up. Teachers like me who had never participated in union activities much are now awake, active, and informed. And our numbers continue to increase because we will not let the public schools, the very schools that made it possible to for so many of us to escape the same stifling poverty as our students, to be removed from the public commons.
For this, we thank the deformers.
But our work continues, as more and more of our students continue to sink into despair, as words such as layoffs, unemployment, recession, benefits, become part of the common lingo of my middle school students. I see kids quietly dig through the trash cans of the school to collect cans and plastic bottles for recycling. I see kids with obvious untreated skin conditions and usher them to the nurse, who is overwhelmed by the needs of the community (but at least we have a nurse.) I see the kids run at a sprint when the schools door open and realize they are running straight to the cafeteria for a meal. They run toward it all day. And I worry about my gifted students who are already at a higher risk for depression and suicidal thoughts, as they understand quite starkly the injustice in our world.
Our work continues.