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The Good Overcomes the Bad and the Ugly

A mixed verdict: Tough, driven kids can thrive here, but what of the others?

September 07, 2003|Therese K. Lee | Therese K. Lee is an occasional contributor to The Times. She has spent 14 years as a parent in the L.A. Unified School District.

A few years ago, I got a call from my son's doctor. He and his wife, parents of a 2-year-old, were deciding where to purchase a home and thinking ahead to the school years. Your kids have been through L.A. public schools, he said. How has your experience been?

It was a tough question. My daughter is currently a senior in high school. My son is now a college sophomore. Both of them attended L.A. public schools from kindergarten on. But could I recommend the experience to someone else?

My first thought was of the day a can-do school secretary had agreed, on short notice, to have a copy of my son's transcript waiting in the high school office -- a bureaucratic miracle. I picked up the transcript, impressed with the secretary and pleased that it had gone so smoothly. Then I decided to stop at the girl's restroom before I faced the rush-hour drive on the freeway. Two of the stalls were so disgusting I couldn't even walk into them. A layer of water and dirty paper towels littered the floor. There was no toilet paper. A wave of guilt passed over me. My two children faced this every day.

For L.A. families who have a choice, deciding where to educate their children is never easy. I feel, ultimately, that our two children were well served by L.A. schools. But they're not for everyone. The LAUSD path is full of frustrations for parents and exhausting days for kids.

From what I've seen, kids who need hand-holding to learn, kids who have a lot of after-school activities, kids who need flexibility and kids who have a hard time dealing with difficult personalities are not well served by L.A. public schools. They are best for those who are tough-minded and focused on school.

Our kids were lucky in having test scores that enabled them to apply to some of the city's best schools. But that was just the beginning. We still had to carefully navigate the magnet system's arcane rules, and the kids had to travel long distances to get to school. Starting in middle school, they had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to make the bus.

Some families hated the buses with a passion. As I had no intention of driving back and forth from West Los Angeles to the Valley, I didn't criticize them much. To me, it was a marvel of modern organization. Thousands of kids, from San Pedro to Topanga Canyon, are bused in every direction without losing anyone -- at least not for long.

About twice a month, the bus was more than an hour late. When that happened, you called the 800 number and gave them your bus route number. They told you where the bus was, why it was late and when it would arrive at your bus stop. The kids were still late, but I always knew where they were. For my kids, busing worked out well because they were able to do their homework and study for tests on the bus. However, for kids who get motion sickness or are easily distracted, it's lost time.

In our experience, the ratio of great teachers to the less inspired was about 50-50 -- and that was in the good schools. A wonderful third-grade teacher, as part of the nutrition lesson, asked the kids to prepare a meal with all four food groups. If parents invited her, she would come to dinner. She said she wanted to get to know the families better. About half of the class took her up on this. That was 15 evenings, unpaid. On the other hand, one of my daughter's teachers told the class repeatedly that it was stupid. Fortunately, the kids knew they were not stupid.

The curriculum choices at my daughter's magnet high school (the same one from which my son graduated) are something like this: honors physics or AP physics; AP calculus or AP statistics; AP American history or consider another school. In effect, there are no electives. In order to fill their schedule with college prep courses and satisfy the "soft" graduation requirements, the kids are encouraged to take life skills, mechanical arts and health classes at community colleges during their vacations.

Occasionally parents can fight and win on important issues. My daughter's negative teacher was replaced the next year. But usually taking on the system is a losing battle.

A few years ago, I was part of a group of parents fighting a year-round schedule for our high school. During one surreal school board meeting, the board members sat on a lighted stage and conferred with one another and their aides, seemingly oblivious to the people in the darkened auditorium. Our principal gave an oddly disconnected speech that I remember only because he used seashells as a metaphor. A teacher and union representative spoke passionately about how we couldn't build more classrooms on campus because, then, where would the teachers park? Parents presented alternatives to the multitrack schedule, complete with funding options. The board listened politely but voted at a later meeting to convert to the year-round schedule. All the time and trouble by the parents were a complete waste.

Did we ever consider private school? Not really. The expense would have been a burden, and I knew that, despite the difficulties, my kids were thriving. Their grades were good. They found like-minded friends. Their conversations were full of good-humored complaints about their teachers, their homework and the endless test taking. They had a soldier-like pride in their shabby campus and in the difficulties they endured together.

My children got a lot more from public school besides esprit de corps: the wonderful diversity of students and the realization that education and life are not simply served up to you. You have to work hard for them.

When my son told me that his freshman year at Yale was easier than his junior year in high school, I knew we had made the right decision -- for him.

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