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Commentary: All families deserve good school choice options

Guest contributor | February 12, 2016

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Shirley Cap and Gown

Shirley Ford

By Shirley Ford

I realized there was a problem as early as elementary school. I always knew that my boys were smart – they started reading me the newspaper in the evening when they were 6 years old – but they were clearly bored and not being challenged in school. Like so many young African-American boys, they were quickly labeled with alleged “learning disabilities” when they starting committing normal, minor infractions in class. At a young age, they started to become disengaged and apathetic about school.

I quickly started to become desperate. I knew that my sons needed a great education if they were going to be successful, and I realized it was my job to make that happen – nobody else was going to do it for me.

So over the next few years, I tried everything I could to get them into a better public school. When that didn’t work, I applied for financial aid at a local private school, but was denied.

As my sons started to make their way through middle school, falling further and further behind, I began to feel angry and hopeless. I began to blame myself – was I a bad mother? In my worst moments, I began to blame them. As high school began to approach, I was terrified of what would come next for them.

One day, I came home to find a flyer on my door that said something about a new “charter school” opening in our community. I had no idea what a charter school was, but I was out of good options, so I decided to go check out their upcoming meeting.

It was that standing room only meeting in the basement of a nearby church that changed my life and the lives of my sons forever. What we heard that night gave us new hope. The leaders of Green Dot Public Schools shared their vision for a school in our community that would help all children succeed and be prepared for college. They believed that with a great school, all kids could succeed, regardless of their income, race, or zip code. And they were going to prove it to us by opening a new high school for the kids in our community.

Over the next four years, I saw firsthand that Green Dot was serious about delivering on their promises. The way our high school supported my sons was the exact opposite of my prior experiences – our new school refused to let them fail. Every single one of their teachers believed in them – some teachers even came to my house and sat at our dining room table to help tutor my sons. College preparatory classes were the expectation for all students, rather than a privilege reserved for a select few. Parents were welcomed into the school to help solve problems rather than pushed away as a nuisance.

Eight years later, when I saw my oldest son walk across the stage and become the first in our family to graduate from college, I knew that the promises made in that church basement had been kept. That high school, Animo Inglewood, is now a California Distinguished School and has been featured twice on the US News and World Report list of Best High Schools in America.

As the conversation continues about the need for more quality schools here in Los Angeles and around the country, I think back often to that night in the church basement. Until a good charter school option came along, I was completely stuck, out of options for my sons. Wealthier families could afford private schools – we couldn’t. Wealthier families had the money to buy expensive houses in neighborhoods with better schools – we didn’t.

Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of the conversation around new quality options and the new Great Public Schools Now organization is completely disconnected from the reality faced by families in communities like mine. I cannot understand why some people are so dedicated to denying families like mine the simple ability to have a real choice between different public schools.

For the last 10 years, I’ve been working to support other families in their struggles for better schools. I co-founded the organization Parent Revolution and have worked here in Los Angeles and all over the country to improve schools by empowering families. There are still so many children being failed by low-performing schools that it makes me wonder whether black lives and brown lives really matter in our country. Many of the same schools that were failing kids in my neighborhood 20 years ago are still failing yet another generation of children today.

Fifteen years ago, I was blessed when a school flyer randomly landed at my door, but the educational destinies of children like mine shouldn’t depend on luck. To end that unjust status quo, we need two things. The first is a dramatic increase in quality options for families in low-income communities and communities of color. The second is to help all families have a greater awareness about their options and remove many of the barriers that currently prevent some families from accessing school choice.  That is why we at Parent Revolution recently launched our new Choice4LA campaign, aimed at supporting families in LA’s most underserved communities to understand all their options (traditional district, magnet and charter schools) and select the right school for their child.

And that is why we are supporting the families of 20th Street Elementary School as they use the Parent Empowerment law to finally win the major school improvements they have been fighting for over the past two years.

The lesson of my story is not that charter schools are right for every family, or that charter schools are always better than district schools. The point is that all families deserve to have good options for their kids – no matter the size of their bank account or the color of their skin. Families in low-income communities are desperate for better schools – we should be doing everything we can to get them better options rather than playing politics with the future of their children.

Shirley Ford is the co-founder and director of community partnerships for Parent Revolution

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