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40 years of change in Los Angeles Unified

During her tenure in the district, Roxanna Ross has experienced the relative abundance and optimism of the early 1960s to the austerity and layoffs of today.

June 17, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • Roxanna Ross graduated from Narbonne High in 1963. Next week she'll retire from the Harbor City school, stepping down as its librarian after a 40-year career as an educator with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Roxanna Ross graduated from Narbonne High in 1963. Next week she'll… (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles…)

She is the daughter of Scottish immigrants, tough people whose travels across the Atlantic first took them to the austere East Coast whaling and fishing hamlets. There is a shipwreck in her family history. A relative was lost at sea.

But it was on the dry land of Southern California that Roxanna Ross' life took root. Not long after arriving as a teenager, she enrolled at a high school built on a drained swamp to serve a community then known as "the celery capital of the world."

Most of the old farms in Lomita and Harbor City are gone. But Narbonne High is still there. "The trees are bigger," Ross told me, but much of the campus looks the same.

Ross graduated from Narbonne in 1963. Next week she'll retire from Narbonne, stepping down as the school's librarian after a 40-year career as an educator with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

From the relative abundance and optimism of the early 1960s to the austerity and layoffs of today, Ross has been on a sometimes bumpy, often wonderful ride through California's public education system.

She began her studies at what was then Long Beach State College three years after the California Legislature adopted a master plan to open up higher education to working families. Ross, the daughter of a Navy butcher, eventually got a graduate degree at the university.

"If we hadn't moved to California, I probably wouldn't be where I am today," she told me as we sat in the Narbonne school library, surrounded by books, many of which she purchased in more abundant times.

Ross made a career trying to give other sons and daughters of the working class the same sort of opportunities she had. First she worked in the classroom, then in the library.

When I asked her how the schools have changed in 40 years, budget cuts weren't her starting point.

"Parents are incredibly stressed out," Ross said. "Everything is so expensive. They struggle just to keep up, let alone get ahead."

Over the years, Narbonne High offered many different people an avenue to social mobility. But the rollbacks of the last few years are yet another blow, she says, in a generalized assault on middle-class life.

When Ross started teaching, most of her students still had stay-at-home moms. These days, it's usually two parents working long hours to pay car and health insurance bills that are bigger than mortgages used to be.

"I feel great despair when I think of what my money can do today and what it used to be able to do," Ross told me.

Harbor City is one of those places that's not in the news much but is, in its own way, at the center of things. It sits, both geographically and metaphorically, roughly halfway between the heights of Palos Verdes and the flatlands of Compton.

"This campus has always been very diverse," Ross said. Back in the early '60s, it had white, black, Asian and Latino students. Over the years, it's stayed diverse. "I've had students who lived in their cars and students who lived in Rancho Palos Verdes," Ross told me.

Ross has lived much of her life in the Harbor City-Lomita area.

Back when she started, working people there paid their taxes and in return they got a school system that offered their kids a world of learning — French, Latin, art, drivers ed.

More parents could afford to donate either time or money to the school. For those kids not destined to go on in academia, there were excellent classes in such practical subjects as culinary education. Over the years, Ross said, Narbonne sent many graduates to the nation's best culinary schools.

That was then.

At Narbonne, as at countless other public schools, drivers ed was done away with long ago. "So our parents have to spend hundreds of dollars on private driving schools," Ross said. The money the school's parents association used to donate to the library is gone too. Among other things, it's being used to keep the athletic programs going.

Electives — art and music — are being cut. The culinary program will disappear next year.

Beyond all that, there's less respect for the teaching profession than ever before. When Ross first started, teaching drew people with a fiercely independent streak. "You could be creative. It was fun," she remembered. Now we treat our teachers like bureaucrats, quantifying their performance.

"State standards don't take into account that intuitive experience that a teacher has with a student," Ross told me. "It's not that the standards aren't credible or valuable. But it's all so cut and dried, black and white."

When Ross completes her last day June 24, she will leave a legacy of a library filled with computers and excellent reference books, including a complete 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary.

Some things haven't changed, she told me. Students still come in asking about Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The Illustrated Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the schools' most popular books. But other parts of the job are recent arrivals.

"Ms. Ross. How do I check this disc for viruses?"

"Just a minute. I'll show you."

Ross, white-haired and 65, gives a teenager a basic computer lesson.

She's also taught almost the entire student body how to use the school district's new digital library.

"It's one of the best things the district has done for school libraries," she told me as we scrolled through its databases. "I hope and pray the district doesn't do away with it."

She wants to think that, after she leaves, students will still have it to research questions on any subject that enters their minds — AIDS, the Civil War, American literature.

But in these days of illogical and cruel slicing and dicing, no one can know that for certain.

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