Winter 2006 Newsletter

School Bond Passes, But Families Want More Than Just New Seats Built

Maria CasillasMeasure Y, the fourth LAUSD school bond in six years, appeared on the Nov. 8 ballot and won with 66 percent of the vote. It authorizes a $3.985 billion bond for the construction of new classrooms and upgrading of campuses. What remains uncertain is this bond’s priorities - whether these new schools will be designed as smaller, neighborhood centered, joint-use facilities that serve both children and families. NSBN spoke with Maria Casillas, director of Families in Schools, to better understand Measure Y’s value. Ms. Casillas endorses the need for more school seats but remains skeptical about the district’s capacity and commitment to effectively connect LAUSD schools with the children and families they are meant to serve.

Maria, you have long been involved in encouraging school reform and better relations between public schools and the children and families served by them. 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?

School districts need help in reaching out to parents and community leaders in order to gain authentic and sustainable support for public schools in general.  There is a need for intermediaries that can convene and facilitate dialogue and collaborative relationships that encourage civic engagement in public education.  Organizations, such as NSBN and the Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative (BHLC) among them, create a new space for such conversations to occur in our neighborhoods.  A space where relationships and trust across institutions promote the engagement of families in all critical aspects of community life.  These structures are particularly helpful in high need communities, typically underserved by schools and other agencies.

Measure Y, LAUSD’s fourth facilities bond, will fund the building of needed new elementary schools. Our young children are the hardest hit today because bussing little kids out of their overcrowded  neighborhood schools is no fun for parents. Even with a drop in enrollment I believe we need more seats. I don’t 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 supported Measure Y.

However, we would be much happier if the superintendent and the district’s facilities people would authentically engage families and better leverage the social capital which exists in our communities. We want LAUSD to be engaged in a conversation about what the whole neighborhood needs and how schools can by design, help 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 that’s the part that I object to – that LAUSD’s building program takes a cookie-cutter approach to education reform.

With NSBN-planned neighborhood centered, joint use schools as a model, we’d like to see schools designed and built to encourage neighborhood families to use the school campuses for Pre-K, for health promoting recreation,  and for access to health care resources. We shouldn’t have to fence the school off from the neighborhood after 3 p.m. 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 worried 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 don’t need these schools; that’s really troublesome to me. I was caught between a rock and a hard place.
 How have school reform and family advocates benefited from the district and state’s accelerated school building bond program? What is better and what remains unaddressed after approval of billions of dollars of facilities bonds?

Now that Measure Y has passed, we need to ensure that new schools (and existing schools) embrace the vision of community schools, accountable to the parents and students in their neighborhoods as well as those education and political leaders who rightfully should be held accountable for the performance of the schools.

What’s 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. But it has done it like a big Mack truck coming through our neighborhoods. So we now know that they can do this.

But in hindsight, I’m 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 doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of quality education, in particular for poor kids. That’s one lesson.

My other concern is that in building these schools, we’ve not seen the kind of buildings that would allow for neighborhoods and families to more easily connect to their schools. I think they’ve used the same old mentality in building these schools and I’d 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 don’t see enough of this type of school going up, either in the Valley or the inner-city. I mean they’re building wall-to-wall schools. I don’t see open space, and that’s regrettable.

Let’s press this point because Families and Schools represents an important Los Angeles coalition of inner-city and inner-suburban families. Why do you believe the public conversation about LAUSD’s school building program has been so simplistically focused on seats needed instead of on the substantive children and family issues that you’ve just raised? Why has parental and family involvement in neighborhood centered schools sites not been a significant factor in debates about Measure Y’s allocation of bond funds?

Parents and community leaders from underserved communities are beginning to mobilize around the more complex issue of student performance, and are learning how to advocate for necessary policy changes.  The need for school facilities has been easier to understand by all the public and therefore has been an issue around which support is easier to gain.  Problems related to academic achievement are more complex, and cannot be solved by simply by a building program.

However, the recent victory by many grass-root organizations in the adoption of a policy to ensure students engage in rigorous college-prep curriculum or substantive career/technical education coursework serves as an example of parents, students, and community leaders working together to be heard.  LAUSD board members responded  to this visible and persistent community action, and the Superintendent was a critical ally in this movement.

So, I think it’s because district officials believe that since they are the public institution responsible for building schools - they are the only accountable agency - that they’re the only people that matter. Most of these officials might drive the streets of LA, but they don’t live in these communities and they may not understand them well enough. I think they’ve 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 flyer 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 won’t 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 don’t become alarmed or we don’t get in the way. Quite frankly, that’s not the way that you build a constituency that’s going to be loyal and supportive of our public schools.

How would you describe the civic obligation of our neighborhood and elected leaders to weigh in on how school facilities are sited, programmed, designed and built?

The obligation of all our elected leaders is to make use of all the resources in the community to support families and their children and schools are a major community resource. 

They obviously need, therefore,  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. It’s also in everyone’s 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 don’t 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 can’t do it all alone, but we can help form coalitions with elected officials so that these things can happen. It’s hard for us to be heard with the staff of 12, for example, that I have. But City Hall can influence what happens at LAUSD’s 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 building of facilities and making relationships with developers and others who might some day be fruitful to them but not necessarily fruitful to us.
Is the vast size of LAUSD a factor in discouraging community schools and processes that encourage neighborhood, parental involvement?

The district is big but it can be organized in such a way that community and parental involvement are more than lip service. Structures around pre-K- 12 grade feeder patters (School Families) can help connect schools and their neighborhoods, and their voices can be channeled across schools and to the central bureaucracy.  Decentralization so that neighborhoods are empowered and accountable can occur within the largesse of this district, but it will require capacity building and resource re-allocation.

Public accountability remains vague and frustrating when schools try to improve without the support and engagement of parents and members of the community.  We need to imagine that each school family is a village and as kids go though the pre-K-12 pathway, all the adults important to their lives—both inside and outside of school—must be the village that shelters, guides, and supports them.  Everyone has a shared responsibility for the performance of our schools, but if not given the opportunity to engage and relate, parents and community will continue to point the finger at the educators.  It isn’t fair, but that’s the system we currently promote. Community schools are a better –and much more democratic–option.

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. It’s sort of like old-time America. They are still challenged by an achievement gap, however, and that’s 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, I’m 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, it’s just a community in neglect so the school can’t be the savior all by itself.

You’ve stressed eloquently and often the importance of the relationship between neighborhood and school, between family and classroom; but in debates on the LAUSD school bond, even in the endorsement of the bond by the L.A. Times, there’s little mention that such factors ought to be a central objective of a $19 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 – because we do have Third-World poverty here in Los Angeles – can’t be engaged. Officials need to show more respect for poor people. While poverty is a horrible condition to be in, it doesn’t 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 haven’t 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 but 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 what’s at stake, and people in power need to get that too.  NSBN and organizations like the Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative have much work to do.