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Charter school parents advocate for their place in LA’s public education landscape

Sarah Favot | February 14, 2017

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Charter school supporters march in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday.

As the political rhetoric around charter schools heats up locally and nationally, Los Angeles charter school parents are not only defending their right to choose a school for their child but are now advocating for their place in the public education landscape.

The shift was on display last week during two events in downtown Los Angeles: the NAACP’s Task Force on Quality Education hearing on its call for a moratorium on charter schools at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, and a political rally with more than 1,000 charter school parents and students marching from LA City Hall to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights to encourage parents to vote.

“I would say, at least in LA, it does feel like we are embarking upon a new era when it comes to public education,” said Cristina de Jesus, president and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, who was a presenter at Thursday’s NAACP hearing. “I think the good news is, it feels like the general public is much more engaged around conversations involving public education than they have been before. That, for me, is critical because I do believe the issues of education are the civil rights issues of our times. Education, particularly for children living in the most vulnerable communities, is going to make or break us as a country.

“I am hopeful that the fact that there are so many people interested in, engaged and tuned in to issues of public education at this time, it is a positive step in the right direction,” she said.

Dozens of charter school parents, students and staff held a news conference outside LAPD headquarters ahead of the hearing to speak out against the moratorium. About 120 people attended the hearing and about 50 signed up for public comment. Slightly more people spoke out against the moratorium than in favor of it, according to people who attended the hearing.

Ana Ponce, CEO of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a network of eight schools near MacArthur Park, led Saturday’s rally, which was organized by the California Charter Schools Association Families. Charter school students, parents and staff representing 20 schools wore colorful T-shirts and carried signs as they marched chanting, “What do we want? Quality schools. When do we want them? Now. Sí se puede.”

A CCSA spokesman said 1,113 parents and students attended. Ponce also led those gathered in a chant proclaiming, “Public schools are charter schools.”

CCSA Families held a similar rally in September in Pacoima.

“It’s not unusual for charter parents to come together and show up sort of in droves to events where we’re celebrating the work that we’re doing,” Ponce said. “I think right now our parents are being more proactive in telling their story.”

She said parents and charter leaders are aware of the political landscape and misinformation about charter schools.

“I think parents just want their due place in the public education landscape,” she added.

The timing of the two events was a coincidence, sources say. The CCSA had been planning Saturday’s rally since September. The NAACP’s call for a moratorium happened in October. Since the vote, the education task force has been touring the country holding hearings. The announcement that a hearing would be held in Los Angeles came within the past few weeks. Notably, the NAACP’s Image Awards were held in Pasadena on Saturday night.

Los Angeles, home to the country’s second-largest school district, has more charter schools than any other city in the nation. About 107,000 students attend 228 independent charter schools within LA Unified boundaries, according to district data. Charter schools are publicly funded and independently operated. All LA charter schools are run by nonprofit organizations.

The California Teachers Association has long been one of the most powerful lobbying agencies in Sacramento. During the statewide primary election in June, however, organizations that support charter schools, like the CCSA Advocates, spent millions on candidates they supported. In response, the CTA launched its “Kids not profits” campaign, which includes radio ads that call for greater accountability and transparency for charter schools.

Charter schools have become a dominating narrative in the LA Unified school board races. Independent expenditure committees — funded by unions, organizations that support charter schools and a committee sponsored by former LA Mayor Richard Riordan — have already poured nearly $3 million into the races on advertising and mailers ahead of the March 7 primary.

School board member Ref Rodriguez, who co-founded Partnerships to Uplift Communities charter schools, made a surprise appearance at Saturday’s rally in Mariachi Plaza.

“Charter schools are being demonized in some ways as private and so parents wanted to exercise their voice to say, ‘I send my child to a public school,’ and it’s a choice they have to make,” he said.

Regarding the dominating rhetoric of charter versus non-charter in the school board races, he said, “It’s too bad.”

“I believe that there is so much noise that the real issues aren’t being addressed,” he said, like the budget and how to get to 100 percent graduation.

At both events, students talked about the personalized attention they get from their teachers, principals and school counselors at their charter schools.

A student who graduated from College Bridge Academy in Compton and now attends Cal State Northridge spoke at the news conference ahead of the NAACP hearing. She said she lived with her grandparents because her father was in jail and her mother was addicted to drugs. At College Bridge Academy she raised her GPA to a 3.5. She credited her success to her teachers and principal.

“They saw something in me. They didn’t just give up on me. They saw that I could be something great, and that motivated me to want better for myself,” she said.

“I am not going to become another statistic,” she said.

Carlos Gomez spoke at Saturday’s rally. He graduated from Synergy Quantum Academy and is now studying engineering at UC Davis. He broke down in tears when talking about his experience at his charter school.

Carlos Gomez.

Carlos Gomez spoke at Saturday’s rally.

“Synergy believed in me when I was a lost child in the vicious streets of South LA,” Gomez said.

Mónica García, who is running for re-election, was a featured speaker at Saturday’s rally in Mariachi Plaza. The California Charter Schools Association Advocates’ independent expenditure committee has spent $160,000 to support her candidacy.   

She took the stage after Gomez. “We get excited and we have feelings because it’s about our lives. I’m proud to stand with you as we demand access.”

García urged the crowd to have strength and unity.

“Breathe in love, exhale fear. Breathe in hope, exhale doubt. Breathe in power, exhale whatever it is that’s bothering you at the moment,” García said.

Students who were marching in the rally echoed the same ideas as Gomez as to why they liked their charter school.

Reyna Palazuelo, a 10th-grader at Lakeview Charter High School, was participating in the march with her cheerleading squad.

“I like that we’re comfortable with our teachers and they give us time to learn to make sure we understand what we’re learning,” Reyna said.

“I like that when you’re failing the counselors actually help you bring up your grade,” said Lissete Marin, an 11th-grader at Alliance Morgan McKinzie High School, who was marching alongside her mother.

At the NAACP hearing, specific issues between charter schools and traditional schools were debated and discussed, including accusations that charter schools cherry-pick the top students and underserve students with special needs.

LA Unified school board member George McKenna was the first presenter who spoke. He noted that he grew up in segregated schools in Louisiana. He cited the systemic and persistent underachievement of African-American students and said, “My position is the greatest civil right we’ve yet to obtain is education. Education ought to be a civil right.”

He also said, “Charter schools have recruitment practices that go after the failing children. I know what they do. I don’t blame them,” he said. “They market and they market stronger than we do because we’ve never had to market.”

Later, he added, “The charter and the public schools today have to work together whether we like it or not because charter schools exist because of dissatisfaction in public schools.”

Other speakers included Green Dot’s de Jesus; Margaret Fortune, CEO of Fortune Schools; Johnathan Williams, founder and CEO of Accelerated Schools; Cecily Myart-Cruz, vice president of the National Education Association and United Teachers Los Angeles; Jose Alcala, a member of the California Teachers Association; Gene Fisher, founder of Watts Learning Center, and Larry Aubry, past president of the Inglewood Board of Education and chairman of Black Community Clergy and Labor Alliance’s Education Committee.

During the public comment period, a pastor testified that he has a son who attends Watts Learning Center and a daughter who attends King Drew Medical Magnet.

“The problem I have today is that there is so much division and there are so many people who are trying to separate two systems that I believe can learn from each other,” he said.

Other speakers included teachers and school counselors in traditional district schools who said some students returned to district schools because proper services for the students weren’t being provided in a charter school or the charter school staff couldn’t keep promises made to students when they were recruited.

An administrator at Crenshaw High School’s Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Magnet said the red tape required by LA Unified to give students internships makes it harder for him to compete with charter schools.

Shirley Ford, co-founder of Parent Revolution and a member of the National Council of Negro Women, testified during public comment. She was a founding parent of Green Dot’s Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School, and she brought parents from Shields for Families with her to the news conference ahead of the NAACP hearing.

She said she was disappointed in the NAACP’s stance on charter schools.

“I find that to be very offensive to say that you’re going to take one of the options that we have in life for our children and say, ‘No more,’” Ford said in an interview.

If the NAACP’s position was to improve public education for all African-American students at all kinds of schools, she would stand with the NAACP, she said. Instead, the organization chose to single out charters.

“If something is not working, why do you think I need to keep my child there in a dropout factory? You’re just going to force people to keep their children in a place that’s failing,” she said of the moratorium.

In her comments to the panel, she challenged the NAACP members to “put on your tennis shoes and meet me in the community” to talk to parents and hear their stories.

Parents marching in Saturday’s rally echoed some of the reasons mentioned during the NAACP hearing about why their students are attending charters.

“My son has excelled with the parent support and the teachers and the principal too,” Araceli Morales said in Spanish through a translator. Her son is in 12th grade at Alliance Leichtman-Levine Family Foundation Environmental Science High School.

“They offer a very good education,” said Montira Boonma, who has a 6th-grader at Rise Kohyang Middle School.

“It’s safe,” said Elsa Chavez, whose child attends Alliance Morgan McKinzie High School.

At Saturday’s rally, Ponce encouraged the parents gathered to vote. Organizers were on hand to register people to vote.

“Showing up is not enough because we need to do more,” she said. “If we just show up, but we don’t vote, it doesn’t matter. We need you to organize. We need you to be informed and we need to show up and we need to vote. That is the only way we can stand up for what we believe in.”

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