The public school system in Los Angeles is at a crossroads, and Nadia Diaz Funn is in a unique position to help forge a path forward.
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has a new superintendent, tougher graduation requirements kicking in and big financial questions. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles charter community is looking to serve more families, which is creating some controversy but also presenting an opportunity for more collaboration.
Nadia grew up in East Los Angeles and is a product of LAUSD who later returned to serve the district for five years in various leadership roles. She is now the executive director of Los Angeles’ Alliance for a Better Community (ABC), where she’s fighting for schools to be a difference-maker for more kids, like they were for her.
Are you a coffee drinker? Tea?
I’m a coffee drinker all the way. Tea never had a chance with me. When I was little, after dinner we’d all sit at the dining room table and eat pan dulce (Mexican sweetbread). My parents would have a cup of coffee with their pan, while us kids had milk. After a sufficient amount of begging, my dad would put spoonfuls of his coffee in our milk to sweeten it up. We’d compete to see whose cup had the most coffee in it. It was a love affair that started very early in my life!
You’re a first-generation college graduate, a product of LAUSD who went on to graduate from Yale University. Talk about how education made you who you are.
My educational journey was not always easy. Transitioning at the age of 18 from an overcrowded inner-city public school in East Los Angeles in a largely Mexican immigrant neighborhood to a very elite, rigorous, largely white university in New Haven, Connecticut, was difficult to say the least.
Everything was foreign to me—from the people (I never realized that I had never met anyone who wasn’t Catholic), to the horrible weather (why did it rain during the summer and why in the world would anyone live in a place where the sun wouldn’t come out for months at a time?), to the academic curriculum (you want me to write how many pages?).
It was as if I had been dropped there from another planet. I didn’t know up from down, left from right. It was incredibly lonely and I knew I couldn’t go home.
My family and community reputation were on the line (at least, in my mind it was). But as difficult as it was, I would not have changed it for the world. I learned so much about myself during my time at Yale. Most importantly, I learned that I could thrive in any situation life put before me. This self-knowledge has provided me courage throughout my life to continue to take risks, to trust my instincts and give myself permission to make mistakes as a part of the learning process.
When you think back on your time as a student, is there one person who stands out as a role model or main source of inspiration or support?
My mother. It has only been as an adult that I now realize the role my mother played throughout my educational journey. Though she didn’t go to college after graduating from high school, my mother was determined to get her two daughters to college from the very start—she even went so far as to name me after the only friend she personally knew who went to college, Nadia Luskotoff.
Over the years she intentionally cultivated friendships with key staff at our schools including my high school counselor (the gatekeeper of course schedules) and the college counselor (the gatekeeper of scholarships and college applications). They have many times told my sister and I the story of how my mother once told them, “I will do my job and send you my girls with straight A’s, and I expect you to do your job and make sure they get into the best colleges.”
With a mom like that, failure was not an option.
The Alliance for a Better Community was created in 2000 to help build, literally, better schools for Latino families in Los Angeles. Talk about that mission and how it’s evolved over the past 15 years.
The mission of the Alliance for a Better Community has not changed much, in fact, our mission to improve the quality of life for Latinos in Los Angeles has held firm over the course of the past 15 years.
What has evolved is the environment and challenges that face our community. In 2000 the major barrier to student achievement was over-crowded schools. Our children were being bused out of their neighborhoods to schools an hour away from their homes and communities while those who were allowed to attend their local public schools did so in extremely crowded conditions. ABC was a leader in creating the movement and public will to fund and implement the nation’s largest public school construction program to address the gross inequities these conditions had created.
Today our educational efforts center on ensuring that our public school system graduates all, not some or most, of our students college-ready so that every student has the opportunity to pursue a college education, should they decide to do so. The issues and strategies for change may be different than they were 15 years ago, but the goal remains the same.
What excites you the most and worries you the most about the current state of public education in Los Angeles?
Our students keep me excited and hopeful. The talent and potential of our Los Angeles youth is undeniable. Just last week a local elementary school in East Los Angeles was named a national blue ribbon school after just five years of operation. The school has really cultivated a culture of success and confidence in our youth and families. It is truly inspiring.
What worries me, however, is the ability to take these so-called “bright spots” to scale. It is not enough to have block-to-block success. Our students and families need consistent quality neighborhood schools throughout the entire K-12 pipeline. Too often, I hear families say they have confidence in LAUSD elementary schools but not its middle schools or they are trying to get their child into a high school across town because they feel their local high school can’t offer their child the same opportunities that another school in a different neighborhood could offer them.
We know what success looks like, but the system falls short of providing those conditions for success to all students.
What’s your favorite film or book about Los Angeles?
My favorite film about Los Angeles is “Crash.” I love how this movie so accurately captures the diversity and interconnectedness of our great city. I can watch this movie over and over again, and it never gets old. In fact, as I get older and my world expands I can relate more and more to it.