Friday, March 06, 2009

Why Port of Los Angeles Charter High School Did Not Work for Us; But Could Still Work for Your Child; Assessing Students Needs Are Never Easy and the More You Know About How a School Operates, the Better; The Kids Here Need a Voice, More Parent Advocates are Necessary to Make This the Phenomenal School It Will Eventually Become

By Diana L. Chapman

Coming home after an eight-hour “in house” suspension for wearing the wrong shirt, Ryan was fully loaded with ammunition to take him out of POLAHS (Port of Los Angeles High School), the up-and-coming charter school in San Pedro. He’d been attending POLAHS only about a month.

“Face it, Mom,” he argued. “I got that suspension because I wasn’t Red Carpet enough for them.”

No, he wasn’t. It was the latest of several indicators that made me think we’d made an unwise choice of schools for our son. On “Red Carpet Day,” he was supposed to wear a suit and tie or a tuxedo (none of which I knew anything about). Ryan didn’t understand, either, so he wore a polo-shirt with an artistic skeleton head, currently a popular style.

That cost him eight hours of education, as he had to sit in a conference room for the rest of the school day.

Let me say this first so I can get it a couple of points across immediately. First of all, as much I disagree with how this school is currently operating, I can’t condemn it. Many students are flourishing in this smaller setting instead of overcrowded San Pedro High. For some parents and students, POLAHS is a perfect choice

The trouble here was that we had miscast the student as well as the parent. Ryan said when he started at Dana Middle School and again at POLAHS that “we come as a package.” That’s true. I’ve been an active volunteer at his schools since he was in pre-kindergarten. I helped to bring after school programs to Dana after and develop Peck Park Pool into a year-round facility.

My way of thinking when I enrolled Ryan at POLAHS was this: It’s a small charter. They’ll welcome parent volunteerism in a variety of ways besides joining the booster club. Maybe I could help start some after school programs to the campus. The school was still evolving since it opened in 2005.

I should have paid more attention to the section in the student handbook that said they didn’t want parents hanging out in the halls. I should have paid more attention when the former principal departed last summer, leaving the school virtually without a captain and one of its biggest advocates for the students. Before we enrolled, I should have paid more attention to the fact that many of the ideas I suggested were being rebuffed.

After awhile, I realized the school wanted to make suggestions to the parents about what they could do -- not the other way around – and their involvement would be limited.

It was virtually the first time in my son’s education that I felt locked out of the picture. After awhile, I decided I could deal with that – especially when I discovered other parents were finding out the same thing. It wasn’t just me.

On the morning of Red Carpet Day, the school called with an ultimatum: Get down to the campus and provide Ryan with a standard uniform shirt or he will spend the entire day in a conference room.

Stunned and angered – I admit ultimatums don’t work with me – I was also feeling sick that day and couldn’t drive down to the campus. Could they provide him with a uniform shirt? The answer was no.

An email from Assistant Principal Gaetano “Tom” Scotti, (recently named principal) stated that the school did not want students or parents to dictate the dress policy of the school. (Maybe not, but perhaps since this is whom you are serving with public funds, you may want to give them a voice in the policy creation and make sure parents understand this coming in the door.)

My calls to Executive Director Jim Cross that morning went unheeded. The first time, he said he would call me back soon because he understood there might have been some “confusion.”

Two hours ticked by. I called again. He said he would call me back. Nothing. A couple of days later, my husband called and left a message. No response.

A few weeks later, my girlfriend’s daughter had to sit in the conference room for the school day for having a small tear in her pants.

I’ve talked with many of the Port of Los Angeles students. For the most part, they are good kids who are striving to do their best and make their way to college. San Pedro High would be thrilled to have them. So I thought – do we really want to punish kids for small infractions to this degree?

For me, the answer is no, especially when matters of dress are so subjective. The letter announcing Red Carpet Day that came home didn’t say anything about tuxes or suits. It just said: “Boys are prohibited from wearing anything sagged, over sized or gang-related.”

This led to our decision to move Ryan to San Pedro High School at the semester break. We had misjudged him. He loved nearly everything about Dana. He loved its size, meeting different kinds of students and bonding with special friends. So it made sense for him to continue in a large setting. We also understand the rules at a public school better since he’s been in Los Angeles Unified since he was 4.

But while Ryan thrived at Dana, a friend’s daughter told me she felt like “a speck on the wall” there, where she felt unnoticed for the entire three years despite her intelligence. Few teachers seemed interested in her abilities, she said. At POLAHS she has flourished, blossoming with all sorts of possibilities. She has studied Celtic and Latin at home and wants to be an archaeologist. Her efforts are supported and endorsed at the school.

She’s not the only one who has blossomed at POLAHS.

Along with scores of other students, she recently received an award to a function for students who may have gone unnoticed elsewhere. All of which is fantastic. And I am pleased to say that they e-mailed photos of the award-winning students to the homes of school parents – instead of what I received before, many pictures of the adults running the school.

I’m also pleased that they named Scotti as principal in February. While I disagreed with some of the policies he enforced, I have to admit that many students have done better on the small campus than they would have at SPHS.

Also, over time, I suspect more parents will get involved on the POLAHS board of directors – and hopefully, one or two student leaders will be allowed to join to give the kids back their voice. With that, the disciplinary policies may be toned down. After all, to paraphrase a saying, a great mind is a terrible thing to waste sitting in a conference room. And believe me, there are many great minds there.

At that point, I truly believe POLAHS will become the phenomenal school is striving so hard to be.