"If we want to protect our Valley neighborhoods we must push back on Hollywood power players...who use their money, power, fame to spin a story. We need to fight back before they grab more valley schools."
- Francine Matthews-Flores
In honor of a new year with new beginnings, I have asked representatives of communities throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to express their concerns about the district and how they would like to move forward. In the first article, Emiliana Dore wrote about how charter schools interfere in the fight for racial equity. The series continues with Francine Matthews-Flores sharing her experiences when Citizens of the World charter schools, which is backed by power derived from Hollywood, took space from Shirley Avenue Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley.
Matthews-Flores is the mother of a child who started in Shirley's preschool program and now attends kindergarten at the school. For the past seven and a half years she has also taught at this school and personally seen how the school is considered a gem within the community. Parents who enroll their children in her classes also attended the school. She is proud to be a part of this thriving community school. In the past year she has found this community under attack:
Like most older LAUSD schools, Shirley Elementary served a mostly white population when it opened in 1952. Today, it is a Title 1 school that primarily serves Latino students, most of whom qualify for free lunch. Seventeen percent of the student population receives special education services. The smiling little child you find today at Shirley who is BIPOC (Black Indigenous Person of Color) and on the Autism spectrum deserves dance, music, art, and as much support as any other child in Reseda. Unfortunately, Citizens of the World Charter (CWC), a franchise school launched by Hollywood producer Mark Gordon, has gone after Shirley like a prop for a movie. This charter school will do anything to get what they want, no matter the cost to Shirley's students.
Case in point, when a charter school requests space on an LAUSD school site it has to provide a list of parents interested in the school. It sounds straightforward, but like in the movies, all is not as it seems. Apparently, CWC had trouble getting parents to commit to attending their school because a Shirley teacher found hawkers for the charter school standing in front of a 99 Cent Store asking people to sign their petition. With no expectation of actually sending their child to CWC, people signed the forms. At another one of its campuses, the principal was caught obtaining the names for a list of interested students while telling their parents that they should sign the form even if they had no intention of attending the school. Their list of families who are supposedly interested is "Smoke and mirrors." How perfectly Hollywood.
Actress Kristen Bell, famous for her roles on The Good Place and Frozen is on the CWC governing board. Ms. Bell uses her stardom to increase the number of students enrolled in charter schools, but she is silent on the issues created by CWC taking space at Shirley. CWC has taken our art, music, and dance rooms along with the parent center, speech and occupational therapy rooms, and two rooms used by the community for programs like Mommy and Me classes. When we return to the campus, where will the school psychologist work with our special needs students? Will these students receive services in inadequate spaces like a broom closet. This is what happened at Baldwin Hills Elementary when they were co-located by a charter school.
Are our Shirley BIPOC students not valued similarly to Ms. Bell as the students traipsing into our campus for CWC? And why didn't Ms. Bell use her power to influence the CWC board to at least pause co-location in the middle of a pandemic? No one knows the protocols for a safe opening during Covid. Shirley students may need all our rooms for social distancing. Why are we being asked to give up so much? I understand Hollywood can make people cold but this frigid reality for our Shirley students, with no help from Ms. Bell, feels colder than Frozen.
We can also thank Hollywood for a horrific piece of mail during the last school board election. Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO and a warrior against public schools donated five million dollars to California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). The charter school trade association then mailed out a vile flyer aimed at school board member Scott Schmerleson that many perceived as being antisemitic. This disgusting piece of propaganda was mailed to a hundred and fifty thousand valley homes. Once again, Hollywood power players inserted themselves into our neighborhoods but I doubt Mr. Hastings, Mr. Gordon or Ms. Bell can even find Sherman Way or Vanowen Boulevard on a map.
Mr. Gordon mandated CWC to be like the words and work of Franklin Roosevelt, "Citizens of the world, members of the human community." While the goal sounds good, the public school families in Silverlake, Hollywood, and Mar Vista would probably say that they are falling short. CWC schools have bounced from one campus to another in these communities causing traffic, angering neighbors, and pitting students against each other creating division between the haves and have nots. It sounds more like FDR during WWII.
If we want to protect our Valley neighborhoods we must push back on Hollywood power players like Mr. Gordon, Ms. Bell, and Mr. Hastings who use their money, power, fame to spin a story. We need to fight back before they grab more Valley schools. Our children need Governor Newsom to suspend Charter co-locations during Covid and for Hollywood to get out of the education business.
Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD's CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD's District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a "strong supporter of public schools." For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.