Measure Y May Fund New Classrooms But Not Serve Children

November 22, 2005

Maria Casillas of Families in Schools explains why she supports - but does not entirely like - LAUSD's Measure Y.

Reprinted with permission from The Planning Report

Maria, you have long been involved in encouraging school reform and better relations between public schools and the children and families served. With billions of dollars already approved by voters for new and modernized school facilities, is your work becoming easier? Are school districts successfully meeting the dual challenge of building more classrooms and engaging neighborhood families in support of learning? What more needs to done to improve educational outcomes?

This bond, Measure Y, would build elementary schools, and I think our young children are the hardest hit because bussing little kids out of their neighborhoods is no fun for parents. Our schools are overcrowded; we need more. Even with a drop in enrollment I believe we need more seats. I donít think we ought to have elementary schools larger than 1,000, and we have an enrollment in some of our schools, in particularly the southeast cities and the Pico-Union district, that have thousands of kids. So, we are supporting Measure Y.
However, we would be much happier if the superintendent and the districtís facilities people would authentically engage families and better leverage the social capital which exists in our communities. We would LAUSD to be engaged in a conversation about what the whole neighborhood needs and how schools can accommodate the needs of families. It is obvious to our families that it really does take a village to raise and educate a child.
Our schools are not always user-friendly to families and communities, and thatís the part that I object to Ė that this building program takes a cookie-cutter approach to education reform.
Weíd like to see schools built by design that allow neighborhood families to use the school campuses for recreation, for Pre-K, for access to health care resources. We shouldnít have to fence the school off from the neighborhood after 3pm or keep the kids locked in during the day and locked out after hours and on weekends.
Candidly, I had initially felt that I could not support Measure Y unless Superintendent Romer agreed to certain conditions about the building program. But I do worry that by voting no I might give the wrong message to the voters - that if leaders in these communities oppose the bond, then maybe voters would think we donít need these schools; thatís really troublesome to me. Iím sort of caught between a rock and a hard place.

How have school reform and family advocates benefited from the district and stateís accelerated school building bond program? What is better and what remains unaddressed after approval of these facilities bonds?

Whatís right about it is that when a district like LAUSD decides it is going to build schools and has the funds to do so, it does it. It did it like a big Mack truck coming at us. So we now know that they can do this.
But in hindsight, Iím not sure that they are the right institution to be siting and building our neighborhood schools. Frankly, the building program has distracted school leadership from the principal mission of the schools, which is to secure higher academic achievement levels for our students. At the same time that LAUSD is building schools, our middle schools and high school achievement levels have dropped off or have held steady. So, I think that building schools doesnít necessarily solve the problem of quality education, in particular for poor kids. Thatís one lesson.
My other concern is that in building these schools, weíve not seen the kind of buildings that would allow for neighborhoods and families to more easily connect to their schools. I think theyíve used the same old mentality in building these schools and Iíd like to see a better process, especially at the elementary level (if Measure Y passes). Parents tend to get more involved at the elementary level, and it gives the district a new opportunity to connect to families and to really figure out what communities need. They can find out how a new building can provide what those communities lack. For example, part of the building could be a health clinic, the libraries could be open without endangering the classroom space, a swimming pool or a park could be part of the joint use facilities.
I donít see enough of this type of school going up, either in the Valley or the inner-city. I mean theyíre building wall-to-wall schools. I donít see open space, and thatís regrettable.

Letís press this point because you do represent an important coalition of inner-city and inner-suburban families. Why has the public conversation about LAUSDís school building program been so simplistically focused on seats needed instead of on the substantive issues that youíve raised here? Why has parental and family involvement in neighborhood centered schools sites not been a factor in debates about Measure Yís allocation of bond funds?

I think itís because district officials believe that since they are the public institution responsible for building schools - they are the only accountable agency - then theyíre the only people that matter. Most of these officials might drive the streets of LA, but they donít live in these communities and they may not understand them well enough. I think theyíve tried to understand by hiring a public relations firm and outreach consultants. But engaging families, especially the Latino community and the African-American community, is something that you do by building relationships, not just by sending out a flier and holding a big meeting.
And, knowing that the building of schools is a very long process that initiates in Sacramento, they might believe that regular folk and especially poor people wonít understand all of that and that they somehow have to simplify what they tell us and what they tell our families so that we either donít become alarmed or we donít get in the way. Quite frankly, thatís not the way that you build a constituency thatís going to be loyal and supportive of our public schools.

What, if anything, is the civic obligation of our neighborhood and elected leaders to weigh in on how school facilities are sited, programmed, designed and built?

They obviously need to use their influence more. Perhaps they even need to seek some form of authority to promote joint use projects and ensure inclusion of the voices of the community early on in the planning of facilities. Itís also in everyoneís best interest that the aesthetic quality of the school be prized, and that the school serve as a safe anchor for the neighborhood. These schools donít exist in limbo. They exist in the City of Los Angeles or in the cities that the LAUSD represents. Public officials need to make sure that public funds are well spent, especially when this is the largest public works project since god-knows-when that we keep hearing about over and over and over. Every public and appointed official ought to be paying attention and ought to be wiggling in so that their voices and influence can be heard.
Non-profit leaders canít do it all alone, but we can help form coalitions with elected officials so that these things can happen. Itís hard for us to be heard with the staff of 12, for example, that I have. But City Hall can influence what happens at LAUSDís board room. We influence policy at L.A. Unified only as much as we can make our voices heard among at least four people who will ultimately vote yes or no. We would like the board to pay attention and engage with us rather than just be consumed by the of building facilities and making relationships with developers and others who might some day be fruitful to them but not necessarily fruitful to us.

Speaking about scale, Maria, your organization is involved with more than just LAUSD or the City of L.A. Is the vast size of LAUSD a factor in discouraging community schools and processes that encourage parental involvement?

I also sit on the County Board of Education, and I notice with superintendents and staff from these smaller school districts that they have relationships with their communities. Itís sort of like old-time America. They are still challenged by an achievement gap, however, and thatís probably because the universities churn out the same teachers for LAUSD as they do for them. Administrative development programs are still the same whether you are in a small district or a large district.
However, I would say that families are more engaged when districts are smaller and they have better access to the bureaucracy. Having said that, Iím not sure that the outcomes are as good as they should be. But for many of those districts, they are undergoing, what LAUSD went through 20 or 30 years ago, this whole shift in demographics. For some districts, the demographic shift is still new. For others, for example Compton, itís just a community in neglect so the school canít be the savior all by itself.

Youíve stressed eloquently the nature of the relationship between neighborhood and school, between family and classroom, but in the discussion of the school bond, even in the endorsement of the bond by the LA Times, thereís little mention that such factors ought to be a central objective of a $13 billion dollar school bond program. Collaboration, joint use, parental involvement seems irrelevant when pitted against a call for more seats/classrooms, or the efficiency of the building program. Why?

I think because there is still a mentality that Third World people Ė because we do have Third-World poverty here in Los Angeles Ė canít be engaged. Officials need to show more respect for poor people. While poverty is a horrible condition to be in, it doesnít necessarily mean that everyone who is poor and formally uneducated lacks intelligence and lacks the will to attain something better for themselves and their children. They have not learned how to tap into the dreams and the power of love of some of these families. They havenít learned to tap into the power of allegiance and loyalty to this country that immigrants possess; and for the African-American population, their history in the public school system since the Civil War tells us they have never been treated as first-class citizens unless they fight for every right. For the Latino experience, they are so grateful to be here for the most part that I think officials underestimate and undercapitalize them.
We have to raise public consciousness about the merits of community schools as a way of improving both educational outcomes and our society. Above and beyond improving academic achievement, even though they go hand-in-hand, I think the bigger purpose of public schools is to promote civic development and to promote democracy. The ongoing development of a democratic society is in crisis. Some people get it and understand whatís at stake...and people in power need to get that too.