Friday, February 04, 2011

By Diana L. Chapman
Having volunteered in LAUSD schools for more than a decade, I have a few things I want to say to our incoming Superintendent John Deasy, who is expected to succeed outgoing Ramon Cortines in April.
I have some valid suggestions – to improve our schools and the lives of our students – because sometimes when you are an outsider—rather than an insider—you can see clearly ways to fix the flaws and gaps.
Nearly every day that I attend schools, I spot salvageable students, students who with a bit of a leg up, could turn their lives around. They are often ignored as though they are nothing more than a piece of equipment on an assembly line.
I’ve witnessed straight A students who feel worthless, “like a flea on the wall,” one told me. I’ve  learned of students whose home lives are in sharp turmoil, but not one teacher has had time to encourage  or tell them what their gifts are.
As adults, we are failures whether we are a parent, an aunt, an uncle, a community volunteer, a business leader, a school administrator, a politician or even a teacher. Our job is to help kids find their talent – their niche in this life. We are their leaders and their role-models.  And since schools are  student’s second home – sometimes their only home – it makes sense to show them in that environment – the ways that they standout, what might just make their mind tick, and what careers might interest them.
And – let me emphasize this -- if they aren’t good at test scores, there are so many other ways to shine.
 Through the years, one of my biggest irritations and shames stems from watching  gifts that have been offered individual schools  flow away  like sand in a hard rain. Instead, it seems administrators have no idea how to plug in interested volunteers, such as businesses. The information is handed then over to teachers, who are much too busy to take on another plate load of work.
And yet so many things can be done. The possibilities are endless and many resources exist. They’ve just never been linked to schools and no one bothers to take the time to connect them. I loved this story from a retired culinary teacher (who had a waiting list sometimes as high as 500 at a local high school.) Calling him Hector, the 17-year-old senior walked into her class, having failed just about everything.  It seemed his options were over until he lit up the stove, and it flamed his heart and he ended up a chef.
This is exactly what I mean. One incident changed this kid’s life. Because the culinary slot remains unfilled, we started a cooking club – which is now packed one day a week. If I had my way, this club would be at least three days a week.
Therefore, here are my suggestions to the new sup who now serves officially as LAUSD’s deputy superintendent and came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where he served as the deputy director of education.
I just hope he listens:
--Ask parents to participate in their child’s education no matter if it’s high school, middle school or elementary – and ask for community volunteers who want to help. Quit making both these groups feel EXCLUDED. Every school should have a plan to embrace parents and community volunteers. So often those very people so willing to help are discouraged. Parents and other volunteers can be an extra set of eyes and also the only watchdog to ensure schools are running a clean operation . Campuses, including charter schools, say they want parents, but so often the door is truly closed. Even if one parent steps up, that is so much better than zero. One evening recently, when we went to our son’s school for open house, we were late because my husband didn’t get off work in time. When we walked up to one door, the teacher asked: “Are you with fourth period?” We said no, and he refused to let us in. In fact, he shut the door on us. This really felt like a punch in the face. That’s what I mean by not welcoming parents. Let’s begin to pull open those doors – not just pretend we are!
--Overhaul school lockdowns: Pleassssssssse! It’s embarrassing. The latest fiasco in January where the LAUSD police officer allegedly faked he was shot in Woodland Hills, locked down nine schools for hours, adding up to some 9,000 students staying hours longer on campus, many of whom went without food, water and toilets! They used a pail in their classroom if they had to go.  A committee, which MUST include more than a token parent, needs to form to do so.  I don’t have all the answers, but I know at least two: Find a ‘known-spot”  where a school can notify parents to meet and talk with school administrators or police during an emergency. Keep food and water in every classroom at all times. Don’t just say you do. We also must do away with an injured student being stuck in a classroom for no reason. This happened at Gardena High recently when a 17-year-old boy brought a gun to school. When it accidentally shot a 15-year-old boy in the neck and a 15-year-old girl in the head, the injured boy was forced to sit in a room for 40 minutes. That could have cost him severe physical injuries, or worse, his life. This, as one newspaper headline said, is “madness.”
--Teach schools how to use the offers they receive and plug them in! One Northrop engineer wanted to come to teach Math Counts at a middle school. A church group decided it wanted to work with middle school students who were troubled readers. The Italian embassy offered grants to pay for an Italian lessons after school. LAUSD could have used these gifts (but mostly failed too). It takes someone willing to do the additional work to make this happen. To me, this is not just a waste. It’s practically criminal to let these gifts slip by when our students are failing to graduate by nearly 50 percent. Education can come in so many ways – and just one of these programs could have turned a kid’s life around. Use these folks in. We need them.
--Afterschool programs are necessary until 6 p.m. at every campus. The world has changed and we are still trying to make it work like the 1950s. But such programs have to be run by good leaders. My discovery on my own journey is that Beyond the Bell – which runs after school programs or farms it out to non-profits, does a bad job of doing so. Pulling together many clubs after school at Dana Middle School in San Pedro, led me to discover an ugly world – of not doing necessarily what’s right for students, but more what’s necessarily right for politics. It was more than sad to watch the program that many parents helped me pull together – which included a cooking, basketball, Spanish, Art, police explorer type program – come apart at the seams because of politics. Worse, the school administrator who was supposed to support it (and was paid additionally to do so) did everything in his power to make it not work. We don’t have time for this kind of animosity anymore. We don’t have time anymore for school officials who build fiefdoms select who uses what facilities. Too many children’s lives are at stake. Even non-profits, who compete for every penny, should not be left in leadership roles. We did our program –at a school below the poverty line that never had such programs in its past – on a shoestring budget and with a lot of heart. It’s too bad that the powers-that-be pretty much killed it. I still can’t fathom the reasons.
--Last, I liked this suggestion one friend of mine had. Recruit parents to support Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to take back funds from hundreds of worthless Community Redevelopment Agencies that – as far as I can see – have done nothing for most communities –except lend a hand to already rich developers. Our community of San Pedro has a CRA, and for the past twenty some years, I’m still trying to spot what it’s done to help. My town looks the same as it did years ago, still nasty down its main thoroughfares – when it could be such a beautiful gem. I will sign any petition supporting the governor to return these funds to education so I don’t have to watch anymore the glue that holds a school together – clerks, janitors, aides, librarians and teachers  – get dumped during these harsh economic times.
John Deasy: My heart has been and always will be with the kids. I’m waiting to see if you’ll do the right thing – and rule by what the students really need – rather than what the politicians desire.
Otherwise, I believe ten years from now, LAUSD will not be better. It will be only that much worse.