I’m a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Sounds a bit impersonal, perhaps, but I’m proud to report that the teachers I had in the LAUSD continue to influence my life: Mrs. Brenner got me hooked on learning in kindergarten, Mrs. Peterson helped ignite my passion for history in junior high, Mr. Swinford taught me to read between the lines of my favorite books in high school. Like my dad, who taught drama in the district for nearly three decades, they valued the impact they had on kids’ lives and imaginations, even if it meant longer hours than the job required and a salary that made for only a modest living.
Plenty of teachers in the LAUSD still fit that mold. I know because I see them at my son’s school. It’s a small campus—not overcrowded like most of California’s schools. (The state’s teacher-to-student ratio now ranks 50th in the nation.) His school is run by a dynamo of a principal who doesn’t “magically” find funds when there aren’t any; she works her tail off for every penny. The teachers seem delighted to be there, and the parents don’t balk when asked to build garden beds or run the drop-off valet. It doesn’t take just a great teacher to make a great school; I don’t think it did 25 years ago, either. But with draconian budget cuts it takes a more teeming village than ever before.
The district’s challenges can seem, on the surface, insurmountable. Nearly 80 percent of students live in poverty or slightly above the line; 30 percent haven’t mastered English. Arts and music budgets? Both were decimated by Proposition 13 in 1978, the meat-ax initiative that froze property taxes and depleted funds. Even my archconservative father grimly predicted that Prop. 13 would be “the death of the LAUSD.” It hasn’t died yet—my son’s school and many others prove that—but a number of campuses are on life support.
John Deasy took over the less-than-appealing job of superintendent last year. He’s arguably one of the most charismatic orators L.A. has seen in a long time; his reform program is radical and fast tracked. Deasy has won some powerful followers here, but his pleas for civic investment have been met largely with indifference by those who could most easily tip the scales. What impressed me most when I read the profile of the superintendent in this issue, which writer-at-large Ed Leibowitz (who—full disclosure—happens to be my husband) spent a year reporting, is that Deasy remains stubbornly hopeful that his vision can be realized.
Last month my son declared, “I hate summer.” Why? “Because there’s no school.” He’s been marking off the days on the calendar until he can return to a campus that has done so much with so little. We have to give our schools the opportunity to do so much with more.