September 23, 2009
Returning to Public Schools is a Mitzvah
Recently, I talked to new Los Angeles school board member Steve Zimmer about convincing middle-class parents to send their children to public schools.
He believes in recruiting and persuasion. “We have a story to tell,” he said. “It’s as if we were recruiting division-one athletes.” For those who aren’t into sports analogies, division one is the top rank of intercollegiate athletics and its coaches and alums go to extreme lengths to recruit the best players for their schools.
Our interview took place in Zimmer’s office on the 24th floor of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) headquarters on the western fringe of downtown Los Angeles. He is a lively, intense but pleasant man, who was a teacher at Marshall High School for 16 years. Zimmer was elected in March with the backing of the teachers’ union, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He succeeded Marlene Kanter, who retired.
Zimmer grew up in Bridgeport, Conn. His parents favored the strict discipline of a yeshiva, but, at his insistence, he attended public schools. After graduation from Goucher College in Baltimore, he joined Teach For America, through which college graduates teach for two years in urban schools.
I asked him what parents told him as he campaigned in the 4th District, which reaches from Marina del Rey and Venice into the west San Fernando Valley and east through Hollywood.
“The number-one concern was middle school,” he said. “A lot of parents love their elementary school.” He said they were concerned about safety and the difficulty sixth graders have in adjusting to bigger middle schools with their mixture of races, economic levels, and high and low achievers. “This age is rough,” he said. Youngsters, hormones shooting through their bodies as they enter adolescence, leave the security of small elementary schools for a middle school with students from several schools.
“They [parents] brought up they wanted more parental participation,” he said. And they needed convincing that the district would provide a good education from elementary school through high school. “They wanted to know that the choice they were making in elementary school would be a decision for the entire time in school,” he said. “They don’t want to change constantly.”
The conditions in the Los Angeles public schools are of great importance to the Jewish community. Decades ago, Jews were great supporters of public schools. But as poor and working-class Latinos and African Americans became the majority in many schools, many Jews began pulling out, shifting to private schools. High private school tuition and the Great Recession have changed the dynamics, and now middle-class families are taking a fresh look at public schools.
Bringing the middle class back to the public schools would be a huge plus. It would allow politically involved, activist parents to put more pressure on stodgy school-district bureaucrats and politicians to improve education.
Shifting analogies from sports to politics, Zimmer said the process of convincing these parents should be viewed as an exercise in political organizing.
“This is about organizing — listening, communicating and organizing, and school folks are not in the business of organizing and marketing ... [of] being able to tell their story and listening to concerns without being defensive,” he said.
He said parent support groups, teachers and principals will have to hit the streets as if they were working for a candidate, meeting with parents and children to convince them to switch to public schools. “They’ve got to go to churches, synagogues, neighborhood councils, door to door,” he said.
The outreach effort would take place in a time of unusual churning in the Los Angeles district.
The school board has voted to support Mayor Villaraigosa’s proposal to turn 250 new schools over to private charter groups. The plan is full of promise, danger and complexity that I’ll dig into in later columns. The mayor and his allies have not yet explained it well. But what is clear is that advocates of the mayor’s plan, including well-organized charter groups, will be out in the neighborhoods trying to convince parents to support charters.
Another problem for LAUSD is that it has yet to give parents a strong reason to send their children to public schools.
Individual schools and principals are doing a good job of reassuring and recruiting parents, but it depends entirely on the principal. Some work at it, while others sit in their offices, acting defensive at the least bit of criticism. That reflects the way life is in the LAUSD schools. Some principals are great. You walk through the school and see order, with teachers in the hall, the students uniformed, the principal visibly at work, checking everything. Other schools are a mess.
Zimmer and I talked about this and more for an hour, touching on race, test scores, discipline and all the rest of the issues in this incredibly complex issue. We agreed the subject is of importance to Jews, and not only for the sake of their own children and grandchildren. Jewish participation in the public schools — with our community’s history of political skill and effective activism — will help others, a thought worth considering during this High Holy Days season.
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed and the author of the just-published book “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).