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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

A Freshman Fights for His Education

September 18, 2006|Bob Sipchen

"There's nothing I can do."

It's the official mantra of bureaucrats worldwide. It was the wrong thing to say to Elda Martinez.

Martinez is standing on the sidewalk outside Eagle Rock High School. She's dressed in a pink T-shirt and sneakers, waiting for the bus to bring her son, Daniel, back from Fairfax High where, through no fault of his own, he just squandered the first week of what could be the most important year in his academic career.

Martinez is shorter than most of the students who straggle by. What makes her scary is the confidence with which she clutches her manila file folder -- the universal symbol of a public school mom on the rampage.

Martinez moved to Eagle Rock because she heard the schools were good. When Daniel finished fifth grade, she enrolled him in a charter school west of downtown, near where she works.

Her frustration began when she decided to bring him back to Eagle Rock for high school. The tree-shaded Eagle Rock campus is still on a traditional school year schedule, but it's crowded. The principal allowed his campus to absorb 3,021 students, but many others just couldn't be crammed in. Some drifted to nearby schools. Others, including Daniel, were told they'd be bused 12 miles across town to Fairfax High.

The first day of school was a waste for the overflow students because Eagle Rock was taking a final enrollment count.

The next day, Wednesday, the students and their parents gathered in the cafeteria, where an assistant principal told them the district was sorting out transportation. Around 10 a.m., another administrator told everyone: "Go home, turn on the air conditioning and relax."

A groan swept the room. Martinez spoke up: "How can you say that, when our kids are supposed to be in school?"

On Thursday morning, a big yellow bus arrived at 6:15. Administrators handed the students their registration packets and sent them off.

Martinez's only child's report cards are among the documents she carries in that folder. In three years at the charter school, only one teacher gave Daniel a B -- in Spanish. A's fill all the other boxes.

When she was a child, Martinez says, school was a respite. She cheerfully catalogs the crops she picked while growing up in the Central Valley -- plums, walnuts, apricots, tomatoes, garlic, strawberries, onions. But she's serious when she says that stoop labor inspired her faith in education's power to transform lives.

That's why she wasn't happy when Daniel called from Fairfax to say that no one had been there to greet the bus, that the driver wound up leading them into an office, that staffers looked up at the students and asked: "Who are you?"

As Daniel and others tell the story, the Fairfax folks kept them in a hallway where they stood for two to three hours before security guards herded them into the school's auditorium, where they sat until the bell rang at 3:07 p.m.

The same thing happened the next day as the school continued to register the students. Daniel finally received a class schedule and caught the last 20 minutes of his French class before riding the bus home.

That evening, he tossed his schedule on the table. Fairfax had enrolled him in a regular English class despite his previous teacher's recommendation that he take AP or Honors. Fairfax placed him in algebra, even though he'd already aced it.

"I'm supposed to be excited about high school?" he asked.

For the next several days, his mom hammered the district and barged into offices to lobby for her son. She refused to accept an Eagle Rock assistant principal's "There's nothing I can do."

The administrator denied that she used that phrase, but most parents will believe Martinez. Not that I lack sympathy for the assistant principal. Eagle Rock and Fairfax have almost 6,000 students between them, and it's an accomplishment that most landed in classes on the first day.

I also believe, however, that the district often works on the premise that most aggrieved parents will eventually slump off in frustration, rather than dog bureaucrats until their students get the education to which they're entitled.

That's not Martinez. The single mom began organizing with the United Farm Workers at 16, and now works with the Central American Resource Center as an advocate.

So I'm not surprised when the bus arrives from Fairfax and Daniel hands his mother a new schedule showing he's finally enrolled in the classes he wanted.

Sure, he's already a week behind in the ninth grade -- a pivotal year for determining academic success.

His mom says she's confident that he'll catch up. And for the first time she gets teary as she tries to explain why it was worth taking vacation to get her son into Honors English and geometry.

"You only have one shot at this," she says, clutching that manila folder to her chest.

*

Parents, teachers, students: Have your first weeks of school been fun or frustrating? Chime in at latimes.com/schoolme. Sipchen can be reached at bob.sipchen@latimes.com.

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