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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/18/22

The LAUSD Needs Imagination and Courage

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"this is an opportunity to meaningfully improve our schools." - The moderators of Parents Supporting Teachers

As large bureaucracies are prone to do, the LAUSD has proven itself to be anything but nimble when negotiating drastic change. Led by board member Monica Garcia, the district embarked on a massive building boom, apparently without first consulting with experts in demographic shifts. At the time shovels hit the ground, schools were overcrowded and desperate for space. Just a few years after the facilities opened, declining birth rates shaved tens of thousands of children from the district's attendance, depriving these new facilities of the hordes of students that they were expected to serve.

The reaction of the bureaucrats to declining enrollment has once again been to use a heavy hand. By closing campuses they will send families scrambling to find a new school, often forcing them into buildings with "charter" above the entrance.

The three moderators at Parents Supporting Teachers (PST), Nicolle Fefferman, Rachel Wagner, and Jenna Schwartz, have more refined ideas for negotiating the LAUSD's current enrollment predicament. Unlike the district's present trajectory, the solutions these representatives of the largest parent-led education advocacy group in Los Angeles present would strengthen public schools and make them a more attractive choice for parents:

The Pio Pico community protests the closure of their neighborhood school.
The Pio Pico community protests the closure of their neighborhood school.
(Image by Carl J. Petersen)
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Last month, administrators at LAUSD's Local District West delivered tragic blows to Pio Pico Middle School and Orville Wright STEAM Magnet: their schools would be closed. The reasons offered (or lack of reasons) were illuminating.

Neither community was afforded an opportunity to meaningfully engage with the decision-makers. The District offered no reason to Pio Pico when informing them of the closure. By contrast, they told Wright that they were being evicted so that a charter school could move into their newly renovated space.

At perfunctory Zoom meetings with the District, both communities were told in the vaguest of terms that their schools were being dissolved or moved because of "under enrollment". As if to justify the gut punch, grieving and angry families were told that "schools are being closed in other areas of the city" due to too few students.* To us, as LAUSD parents, these statements raise more questions than they offer answers. Who was next? What could we do to stop school closings

LAUSD, like many other districts, has spent decades dealing with overcrowded schools. In order to serve LA's children, we built new schools, implemented year-round schedules, and erected temporary bungalows on campuses. And still, our classes were packed with too many students.

Today, national birth trends, gentrification, and two decades of charters draining our neighborhood schools of students have created what some are calling "under-enrollment" in neighborhood schools. Yes, COVID may have temporarily magnified this trend, but the roots of such "under-enrollment" long predate the pandemic.

Rather than close schools and perpetuate the overcrowded schools and too-big class sizes, this is an opportunity to meaningfully improve our schools. We must draw upon our imaginations and seize the moment to make our public schools the jewels of their neighborhood communities.

First and foremost, LAUSD can now finally provide our kids and students the class size they deserve. For years, teachers and families have asked that class sizes be reduced to allow for greater student attention and support. The research confirms that class size is a key factor in promoting academic and social-emotional development. Indeed, small class size is often the main selling point emphasized by private schools and charter schools soliciting prospective families.

The irony here would be comical were it not infuriating. While Charter schools can advertise small class sizes to distinguish themselves, true LAUSD public schools highlighting the very same education feature are stigmatized as suffering from "under-enrollment." LAUSD students deserve better, and this so-called "under-enrollment" crisis is our moment to make it happen.

We can create cleaner and greener campuses. Remove bungalows and other facilities that were intended to be temporary fixes to overcrowding. They are taking up valuable areas that could be used for green spaces, playgrounds, outdoor classrooms, and wrap-around services. These temporary buildings were not designed to live for so long on our campuses and are contributing to the false narrative that our schools are under-enrolled and falling apart. Take these bungalows away and let school communities dream about what to do with their campuses.

We need to protect public schools from closure and co-location. Los Angeles hosts more independent charters than any other city in the country, to our students' detriment. This has created a long history of siphoning students from our schools. Charter schools in our city have long suffered under-enrollment as well. Many charter schools not meeting their enrollment goals have simply refused to pay fees to LAUSD due to their inability to put students in seats.

Charters owe the district millions of dollars. In order to preserve our public schools, under-enrolled charters should be asked to co-locate with other charter schools. Their presence on our campuses deprives public school students of critical spaces for supportive services and everyday needs. The district should stop the automatic approval and renewal of independent charter schools that negatively impact our existing public schools. We need our campuses to be fully available and we need our staff to be focused on students, not fighting off a closure or co-location.

The second-largest school district in America can tackle this moment with imagination and courage. We can finally have the schools our students deserve. We have the capacity to develop true Community Schools that address the needs in each one of our incredibly diverse neighborhoods. We have been dreaming about beautiful, clean, engaging, and supportive schools for decades.

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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 " (more...)

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