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Commentary: The long road to finding the right school for my daughter

Guest contributor | September 12, 2017

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By Patricia Rivera

This summer, as the beginning of the school year got closer, I started to feel more and more worried instead of feeling excited. After spending nearly six months trying to find my daughter a new middle school, all I had to show for it was an uncertain position on several waitlists.

My daughter, who just started the eighth grade, had a tough second half of her seventh grade year, when she was bullied by a male student at her local middle school. I had already been thinking about trying to find her a school with better academics, but after the bullying incident, my daughter was shaken up and felt more and more unsafe. So, I set to work figuring out our choices for sending her to a different school as fast as I could.

For people who are not familiar with what it takes to find a new school for their child, the process for a parent trying to figure out their options can be frustrating. I spent the spring and summer going door to door to school offices, making phone calls, leaving messages, searching websites, and talking to family members.

Despite the time commitment and uncertainty, I’ve seen firsthand the change that a new school can bring. In my case, I had already been through it with my two older sons. For my boys, I must have applied to twenty schools, but having them attend better options was worth the work.

My middle son now attends LAUSD’s Diego Rivera Learning Complex. Once I moved him to Diego Rivera, I saw an immediate difference in his attitude and an improvement in his school work. Now a tenth grader, his grades have gone up, he has become more responsible, and he is excited to go to school every day. My eldest son graduated from Southeast High School in June and has just begun his college career at Pomona College.

I’m proud of my boys, and like every parent, I want all of my kids to have the best education possible. For my daughter, I want her to attend an excellent middle school, graduate from a great high school, and go to college. She wants to be a doctor, and has always done well academically. Teachers have pulled me aside and told me that she has a lot of potential. I couldn’t bear for her to stay in a school where she didn’t feel safe.

As I continued my search, I thought about contacting family members in other districts, I signed up for more waiting lists, and I talked to friends with kids my daughter’s age. Since there is no system for easily comparing different public school options, it’s up to individual parents to just try to figure things out on their own. As it got later in summer I grew more and more concerned, but I kept up the phone calls and school visits.

With time passing and no new school nailed down, I spoke to my sister in law, who had worked with a program called Choice4LA, which is run by the nonprofit Parent Revolution to help families navigate their school choices. She recommended that I contact them, and I reached out.

Together with a Parent Revolution organizer, I researched schools in South Gate, Huntington Park, Lynwood, and Compton. We looked into everything and tried to find seats at traditional district schools, magnet schools, charter schools, even a pilot school.

Even though I had applied to many schools and had been placed on multiple waitlists, nothing opened up. So, with a heavy heart I sent her off to her original neighborhood school for her first day. Then, just three days later, I got a call that felt like a miracle. My daughter was accepted into a different middle school, one that performs better than the neighborhood school and one where she will feel safe.

On her first day in the new school, I went to wake her up at 6:30 am and found her wide awake, excited to have a fresh start.

I’ve lived in the same house in South LA for almost twenty years, and my husband and I are raising three children in a close-knit community. There’s so much talk among parents who share information about what is good and what’s not good in the local schools.

In those talks, I’ve spoken to so many parents who feel like they don’t have a voice, who feel like they have no power. I wish that it didn’t matter where you live, that all students could have their choice of excellent schools.

I am lucky that I have the time to go to different schools in person, to call and get updates about my daughter’s position on waitlists, to be able to research and compare scores and gather information. I am also lucky that I happened to find an advocate to work with me through the process. But not every family can take all of those steps, and I worry about the families who get stuck on waitlists year after year without getting into a new school.

Now that I know my daughter is happy with the school she is attending, I can breathe again. I am looking forward to her being in a better school, and making new friends, and pursuing her goal of becoming a doctor.

At the end of the day, I feel lucky. There are many good choices in LAUSD, but those choices aren’t much good if families can’t get their children into first-rate schools. But at least for now, my daughter is happy after her first couple weeks in her new middle school. My next challenge? Finding her an excellent high school.

Patricia Rivera is a mother of three living in South Los Angeles. 

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