Tales of Hope and Desperation for Better Schools at The 74/LA School Report Town Hall

Los Angeles, California
Mary Najera didn’t even know what a charter school was when she applied to the first Green Dot Public School, but within two years it transformed her son, who was on the brink of falling into a life of gangs and drugs.

Najera told her family’s story Tuesday evening at a town hall event with about 120 people at East Los Angeles College hosted by The 74 and LA School Report to celebrate the launch of LA School Report en Español and The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools, a book recently published by The 74.

Najera said she heard about Green Dot through Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries. Boyle couldn’t explain to her what a charter school was either. But she applied anyway, along with 440 other parents.

“I sat through a lottery, a heart-wrenching lottery. I was blessed my son was in. His friend didn’t get in,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

“That was my ‘aha’ moment, when I saw the transformation that my son made in two years, from all fails across the board and literally being pulled into the gang world, and in two years, they managed to get him up to the 3.0 club.”

Her son, now 27, graduated from college, studying audio engineering and business administration.

“I had a life-changing experience in my community with my own children,” Najera said.

She wondered why other children didn’t have the same opportunities, so she became a founding member of Green Dot’s Parents Union to advocate for better schools and to get more parents involved.

Najera was part of a panel discussion with Steve Barr, who founded Green Dot Public Schools and is running for mayor; LA Unified school board member Ref Rodriguez, who co-founded Partnerships to Uplift Communities charter schools; Malka Borrego, founder of Equitas Academy Charter Schools; Erica Rosales, a founding teacher at Ámino Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood; and Carmen Avalos, a former teacher and member of the Cerritos College Board of Trustees. The discussion was moderated by Alma Marquez.

Los Angeles has 228 independent charter schools that enroll 16 percent of the city’s schoolchildren, the highest number of charters of any city in the nation.

Charter schools have dominated headlines in recent weeks. The LA Unified Board of Education rejected charter renewals for five schools. The Los Angeles teachers union, UTLA, took out a full-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday calling on the California Charter Schools Association to take part in a public debate on the “full impact” of charter schools in LA.

Richard Whitmire, author of The Founders, told the audience that he traveled the country researching his book but spent most of his time in California.

“Which may surprise people who think charters started in Minnesota,” he said.

The book examines high-performing charter schools, defined as the top 20 percent. In the book, he describes how Don Shalvey, former superintendent of the San Carlos School District in Silicon Valley, and Reed Hastings, who would later found Netflix, worked together in 1998 to expand the charter school law that capped the number of charters in the state at 100. The book also delves into the story behind Barr’s founding of Green Dot Public Schools and Borrego’s journey to establish Equitas Academy Charter Schools in Pico-Union.

Whitmire also detailed how California was the birthplace of charter management organizations, which allow charters to replicate, and the birthplace for Silicon Valley–style startup funding for charter schools.

“California is the center of this,” he said.

During the discussion, the panelists shared their stories about how they got involved in charter schools and what parents can do to help support more high-quality schools.

Rodriguez said he thought about founding a charter after he heard a girl tell her mother she was afraid to go to Nightingale Middle School in northeast Los Angeles, which had nearly 4,000 kids, because she heard they beat up kids in the bathroom.

“That changed my way of thinking,” he said. “Whether or not it was true, it was the fact that she believed it was true that she was going to go into a middle school where she didn’t feel safe.”

Rodriguez cited rhetoric about children being stolen from LA Unified by charters and about the corporate privatization of public schools.

Borrego, who worked as a teacher in LA Unified, said that when she asked the parents of her class of 35 second-graders why their kids weren’t doing their math homework, the parents asked her to teach them how to help their kids. The students then started finishing their homework.

“I really couldn’t create the momentum in the public system that would keep students through the trajectory,” she said.

She returned to the neighborhood where she grew up; she has founded three schools and is opening a fourth school in 2017. She wants to change the narrative of Pico-Union.

“Our families have to fight for an education,” Borrego said.

Barr, who had no experience in education but was a political organizing force who co-founded Rock the Vote in the early 1990s, got involved with Shalvey and Hastings in their fight to expand the law on charter schools.

He said he mentored kids at Jordan High School who were getting Bs but eventually dropped out of college. He read a Los Angeles Times article in 1997 that showed L.A. was 100 high schools short of serving the population and that the greatest need was in Lennox, so he worked with boxer Oscar De La Hoya to establish a Green Dot high school.

“How do we scale what’s working? That’s the greatest political question of our time,” Barr said, adding that people should be concerned about all schools in L.A.

He said the influx of immigrants who arrive in Los Angeles at different levels and skills and the low per-pupil funding the state spends on education compared with other states have percolated to create a powerful force for charters in L.A.

Rodriguez encouraged people to vote in the March school board elections, without naming particular candidates aside from Mónica García in District 2, who is running for re-election.

“If we have one other person, that could really help us think through how you create an agenda that really helps kids and that’s really about kids first,” he said. “That would be powerful for us.”

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