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STUDENTS | OUTSIDE THE TENT

Times thinks public schools have cooties

An occasional column in which the Los Angeles Times invites critics to slap around a Southern California newspaper whose star columnist hangs out on skid row.

October 23, 2005|Sandra Tsing Loh | Sandra Tsing Loh's current show, "Mother on Fire," is playing at the 24th St. Theater. Her commentaries can be heard on KPCC-FM (89.3).

DEAR TIMES, thanks for giving me these few column inches to note that your coverage of the Los Angeles Unified School District is horrendous. By treating L.A. Unified as an ongoing crime story, you've made a great subset of L.A. parents -- say, the type who read newspapers -- too terrified to set foot in our public schools. Good job! L.A.'s booming private school industry -- so massively lucrative that its revenues look like the gross national product of Suriname -- thanks you.

I've reviewed every L.A. Times story written about the LAUSD in the last year. I'm so exhausted I can't see straight, but I'd say of all the stories in which a specific school was mentioned, half the time that school was the troubled Jefferson High. Other Times faves are Crenshaw, Roosevelt, Fremont and Locke. The news wasn't bright. (Brute force headline from March 4, 2005: "Majority of L.A. 6th-Graders See Violence.") I read about schools on contaminated landfills, schools losing accreditation, overcrowding, shootings, gay-bashing, how -- shockingly enough -- huge numbers of Californians polled believe California schools are failing.

Times coverage of the LAUSD is simply reactive to bad news. There's no higher vision. It's as though The Times is not fully convinced that L.A. public schools are a good idea. And perhaps that's right -- public education is hard. So hard that, well ... I'm the sort of ill-mannered crank who'd enjoy seeing a published list of schools Times editors, writers and other decision-makers actually send their kids to. Actually, I don't need to, because I know. Hint: I'm so Outside the Tent, I can't afford them! In public radio, not only are we poorly paid, we're easily fired.

Times editors and writers should be required to live in the neighborhoods and send their kids to the public schools the paper covers. Don't you think?

One piece, I thought, cut to the heart of things. On Labor Day weekend, Current ran "A Slacker Mom's Self-Loathing" by a Times staff writer. This mother humorously described camping out in line, before dawn, to secure a place for her son in "not a charter or a magnet school" but simply the ordinary Long Beach school Lowell Elementary.

It didn't say why, though. Two minutes on greatschools.net, and one could parse the probable tale not told. We live in an increasingly brown basin -- the LAUSD student population is less than 10% white and more than 70% Latino (of those, many are poor and English learners). Lowell is a statistically high 79% white, has a stellar academic performance index (API) of 921 and has just 9% of students in the reduced-price lunch program. Within a three-mile radius are schools whose students are overwhelmingly Latino and poor (82% and higher in the reduced-price lunch program.) These schools have APIs in the 600s, and almost half the parents reporting their educational level did not finish high school.

This is the unspoken reality of Los Angeles -- a mosaic of browner schools dotted with the occasional whiter enclave that middle-class parents knock elbows at dawn to get into. Highland Park abuts South Pasadena. An inch separates those who attend Silver Lake's Micheltorena (poor Latinos' kids) from those who go to Ivanhoe -- hip, urban college grads' kids. And don't even start me on the ethical contortions parents go through to get their kids into Laurel Canyon's Wonderland School.

Yet, at the same time, a great epic story is unfolding. One of the friendliest mothers at the brown Van Nuys magnet school my very blond daughter is attending is from Iraq. Another mom reports that her Latina child, who's heading for veterinarian school, went to -- and thrived at -- the fabulous Zoo Magnet. A good-hearted Caucasian dad I know labors to bring his crunchy-granola "peaceful conflict resolution" to "charters of color" -- not a lot of color, but he's working on it.

The LAUSD is a metaphor for society itself. It represents our belief in the ability of public institutions, however imperfect, and incredibly diverse populations to react to and serve each other. But LAUSD teachers and administrators say they call reporters to witness the good things, and the reporters do not come. Never mind. These public school teachers cheerfully forge on, the passion pouring off of them.

You can see them in every part of the city every school day, their faces beaming at the arriving yellow buses. If only Times reporters and editors would look up as they shuttle their precious cargo off to Marlborough, Crossroads, Harvard-Westlake, Oakwood and similar pricey learning boutiques.

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