In Partnership with 74

Stories of hope power education town hall in East Los Angeles

Sarah Favot | October 26, 2016

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Mary Najera, a founding member of Green Dot’s Parents Union.

Mary Najera didn’t even know what a charter school was when she applied to the first Green Dot Public School, but within two years it had transformed her son who was on the brink of falling into a life of gangs and drugs.

Najera told her family’s story Tuesday evening at a town hall event with about 120 people at East Los Angeles College hosted by The 74 and LA School Report to celebrate the launch of LA School Report en Español and “The Founders: Inside the revolution to invent (and reinvent) America’s best charter schools,” a book recently published by The 74.

Najera said she heard about Green Dot through Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries. Boyle couldn’t explain to her what a charter school was either. But she applied anyway, along with 440 other parents.

“I sat through a lottery, a heart-wrenching lottery. I was blessed my son was in. His friend didn’t get in,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

“That was my ‘aha’ moment, when I saw the transformation that my son made in two years, from all fails across the board and literally being pulled into the gang world and in two years, they managed to get him up to the 3.0 club.”

Her son, now 27, graduated from college in audio engineering and business administration.

“I had a life-changing experience in my community with my own children,” Najera said.

She wondered why other children didn’t have the same opportunities, so she became a founding member of Green Dot’s Parents Union to advocate for better schools and to get more parents involved.

Najera was part of a panel discussion with Steve Barr, who founded Green Dot Public Schools and is running for mayor; LA Unified school board member Ref Rodriguez, who co-founded Partnerships to Uplift Communities charter schools; Malka Borrego, founder of Equitas Academy Charter Schools; Erica Rosales, a founding teacher at Ánimo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood, and Carmen Avalos, a former teacher and member of the Cerritos College Board of Trustees. The discussion was moderated by Alma Marquez.


Los Angeles has 228 independent charter schools, enrolling 16 percent of the city’s schoolchildren, the highest number of charters of any city in the nation.

Charter schools have dominated headlines in recent weeks. The LA Unified Board of Education rejected charter renewals for five schools. The Los Angeles teachers’ union, UTLA, took out a full-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday calling on the California Charter Schools Association to a public debate on the “full impact” of charter schools in LA.

Richard Whitmire, author of “The Founders,” told the audience that he traveled the country researching his book, but he spent most of his time in California.

“Which may surprise people who think charters started in Minnesota,” he said.

The book examines high-performing charter schools, defined as the top 20 percent. In the book, he describes how Don Shalvey, former superintendent of the San Carlos School District in Silicon Valley, and Reed Hastings, who would later found Netflix, worked together in 1998 to expand the charter school law that capped the number of charters in the state at 100.

Among its many profiles of early charter leaders, the book delves into the story behind Barr’s founding of Green Dot Public Schools and Borrego’s journey to establish Equitas Academy Charter Schools in Pico-Union.

Whitmire also detailed how California was the birthplace of charter management organizations, which allow charters to replicate, and the birthplace for Silicon Valley-style start-up funding for charter schools.

“California is the center of this,” he said.

During the discussion, the panelists shared their stories about how they got involved in charter schools and what parents can do to help support more high-quality schools.

Rodriguez said he thought about founding a charter after he heard a girl tell her mother she was afraid to go to Nightingale Middle School in Northeast Los Angeles, which had nearly 4,000 kids, because she heard they beat up kids in the bathroom.

“That changed my way of thinking,” he said. “Whether or not it was true, it was the fact that she believed it was true that she was going to go into a middle school where she didn’t feel safe.”

Rodriguez cited rhetoric about children being stolen from LA Unified by charters and about the corporate privatization of public schools.

“This is really about desperation, about not being listened to and about a system that’s not working for everybody,” he said.


Borrego, who worked as a teacher in LA Unified, said when she asked the parents of her class of 35 second-graders why their kids weren’t doing their math homework, the parents asked her to teach them how to help their kids. The students then started finishing their homework.

“I really couldn’t create the momentum in the public system that would keep students through the trajectory,” she said.

She returned to the neighborhood where she grew up and has founded three schools and is opening a fourth school in 2017. She wants to change the narrative of Pico-Union.

“Our families have to fight for an education,” Borrego said.

At least one self-described charter-school cynic attended the event. Karla Salazar, a board member of Families in Schools, said early on she felt charters were driven by rich, white people, who came to “save the day.” 

But she said she found the stories from the parents very powerful.

Najera’s response to people who say charter operators, like Barr, are making millions is: pay them more.

“As a parent, I don’t like to hear that he’s a white, rich man that came in and took over, I don’t care. Had he been a martian from Mars and was green, if he educates our kids and gets our kids to university … I don’t care,” she said.

Barr, who had no experience in education but was a political organizing force who co-founded Rock the Vote in the early 1990s, got involved with Shalvey and Hastings in their fight to expand the law on charter schools.

He said he mentored kids at Jordan High School, who were getting Bs, but eventually dropped out of college. He read a Los Angeles Times article in 1997 that showed LA was 100 high schools short of serving the population and the greatest need was in Lennox, so he worked with boxer Oscar De La Hoya to establish a Green Dot high school.

“How do we scale what’s working? That’s the greatest political question of our time,” Barr said, adding people should be concerned about all schools in LA.

He said the influx of immigrants who arrive in Los Angeles at different levels and skills and the low per-pupil funding the state spends on education compared to other states have percolated to create a powerful force for charters in LA.

“This is as close as there is to a movement in the country,” he said.

Rodriguez encouraged people to vote in the March school board elections, without naming particular candidates aside from Mónica García in District 2, who is running for re-election.

“If we have one other person, that could really help us think through how you create an agenda that really helps kids and that’s really about kids first,” he said. “That would be powerful for us.”

Maria Elena Yepes, a retired East Los Angeles College professor and a former member of the LA County Board of Education, attended the event and said she liked that panelists and audience members discussed some of the complexities in education and charter schools, including the “regional isolation of people.”

“A Chicano-Latino who lives in Mt. Washington does not have the same experience as a Chicano-Latino who lives in Lincoln Heights or Boyle Heights,” she said.

Corri Ravare, chief operating officer at Extera Public Schools, said she wanted to have more events like the town hall. 

“I wish we could see these happen all over the city, with this kind of size, where people can really hear directly. The personal stories were good.”

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