Twelve years ago, I joined the education reform battle in California because too many of our kids were failed by traditional public schools in our communities, including me.
Monica Garcia, a social worker by training who was a staffer for a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board member, wanted me to meet a couple of charter school leaders. I didn’t know what charter schools were, but I trusted her judgment so I met with Steve Barr and Marshall Tuck, who were then founders and CEOs of Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles, respectively. They had a vision of transforming LAUSD, the second largest school district in the country, and Monica thought that as a community organizer and strategist, I might be aligned with them.
Kids dropped like flies at LAUSD schools, where the graduation rate was about 45 percent and only 10 percent of students had college preparatory classes, meaning a select few had the minimum requirements to apply to college.
Organizers with whom I had worked for years didn’t trust Steve and Marshall because they were white and trying to “privatize education.” Their harsh warnings were clear: affiliating with them would make me a sellout. Others told me that they were good, decent guys trying to do the right thing. Some told me that they were just plain crazy. So, I walked into our first dinner with an open mind.
I learned about their backgrounds as Democrats, as people who made personal sacrifices to start and run high quality charter schools in very low-income communities of South Los Angeles and East Los Angeles. One was a devout Catholic and the other was an unapologetic progressive Democrat. Their values mirrored my own: The most progressive stance in education is education excellence for all, especially the poor and students of color.
My gut was clear: Maybe these guys were crazy. But they were my kind of crazy.
They listened and asked thoughtful questions about what it would take to raise awareness about how bad things were in our schools and how we could inspire action through hope. They wanted to know what I thought were solutions to the lack of engagement. We compared notes. We landed together.
We agreed that schools belong to children and local communities, not to the people they employ. The institutions are rarely accountable or inclusive.
We agreed that bureaucracies often stifle progress because they get caught up with the way things have always been and that practice hurts too many children.
They had been working on reform with the superintendent. Change wasn’t coming fast enough. They realized that they needed to build an army. That night, I became more than inspired—I became their lieutenant.
My reality taught me that parents in poor communities aren’t listened to, much less able to set the expectations. Parents like mine were forced to settle for crumbs. The vast majority of children are forced into low-paying jobs, menial work and limited upward mobility. Forever.
Too often, the darker we are, the more invisible we become.
And in 12 years, we have accomplished much, but not enough. We climbed from a 45 percent graduation rate to a 77 percent graduation rate. We went from 1 in 10 students having access to college preparatory classes to now having a policy where all students are supposed to have access. But the truth is, the spirit of the policy is not being upheld. The policies we fought for are not funded.
There is not a clear pathway to college or a career for many students; only 27 percent of English language learners graduate.
I was then, and am now, committed to becoming a more visible advocate for reform.
As Latina women, we are often encouraged to not be seen or heard. And personally, I’m more comfortable working behind the scenes.
Silence, in this case, is not an option for me.
Education is the only way out of poverty. If we are worried about poverty, we must act on education now. We must be warriors for reform—strategically, fearlessly. We cannot allow our political alliances to keep us from doing the right thing. The urgency is real. Our kids only have one chance. If we don’t stand up to fight for them, who will?