The year 2014 was defined by my oldest sons, JJ and Joah, being suspended at their preschool. JJ was 4 years old and Joah was 3. I wrote a blog about it for the Omaha World Herald in March of 2014. A few months later, CNN ran a bigger story about preschool suspensions that featured our story. CNN also featured the Los Angeles Unified School District and its suspension woes.
The following year, in 2015, for reasons unrelated to this, my husband expressed a deep desire to move our family to Los Angeles. I was immediately skeptical. I worried about my boys and the potential consequences of moving them to a city like Los Angeles, especially after learning about all the problems in LAUSD.
My boys survived 2014, but I was tired of the survivor story. I survived our country’s education system. I refused and continue to refuse to raise survivors of the system.
In February, I took a leap of faith, and despite my worries, we moved to the San Pedro neighborhood in Los Angeles. We enrolled JJ at an elementary school in LAUSD a day after we arrived. A few weeks later, we enrolled Joah into an early education center through LAUSD. JJ is a first grader now. Even though he was suspended three times in 2014, he was the least of my worries. In Nebraska, he was above his grade level in every subject. But Joah, who is now 4, was the child I was most worried about. In Nebraska, he didn’t seem to be learning very much and didn’t appear as though he would be ready for kindergarten in the fall. Joah also received about 10 suspensions in 2014.
The Center Joah attends is an income-based program through LAUSD, which has been the biggest blessing for me and my family as we made the biggest transition of our lives and took the biggest financial cut of our lives. The Center primarily serves working, low-income families. I wondered how things would turn out because I’ve seen programs like these fail. Programs that typically serve low-income families often times have low expectations and low outcomes. However, in less than two months, Joah is blossoming. I cannot believe that the boy who cried about going to school now walks in with his head up and a smile on his face. Joah is learning at a pace that has brought tears to my eyes and my view of early childhood education and its importance is on steroids.
When I look at the success of this school, I credit several things:
- Program Culture – if you walked into this school, you wouldn’t know it was an income-based program. This culture starts with the program officer – the first person you see when you enter the building. Having been in my share of buildings like this, she doesn’t make you feel like you’re low-income or less than or anything like that. She treats every adult and child like they have just entered the White House. This culture continues through the building with the way the facility is set up, the cleanliness and the building’s layout. My only critique on the culture would be the building’s exterior. It looks more like a prison than it does a school.
- Teacher Diversity – The staff is made up of men and women who look like the population they serve, which is primarly black and brown kids.
- Teacher Training/Qualifications – I don’t know how they’ve done it, but they have the best group of educators I’ve seen on this level. The teachers in the building have high expectations for their students, but also realistic ones considering the age group. Every teacher has incredible interpersonal skills and brings a sense of community to the classroom. As a parent and an educator, it has been a surreal experience. I immediately knew my son mattered. More, I knew I mattered. To add, I believe leadership sets the tone for all of this. The Center is ran by a passionate educator who could have taught on any level given her passion for this work, but chose to devote her life to early childhood.
In the past, Joah has been described as a danger, quiet and shy, but at this Center, his teacher sees him as my husband and I see him. Joah is comfortable and that shows from the moment we get out of the car every morning. His current teacher, Mrs. Brown – who has no knowledge of Joah’s past – describes Joah as a vibrant child who has lots of friends. She says he was shy the first week of school, but since then she hasn’t seen that kid. The biggest thing she is quick to point out is Joah’s behavior.
“I don’t know what you all have done at home, but Joah is such a good boy. That alone will take him far,” she said.
When Joah first started the program, Mrs. Brown asked Joah if he liked school.
“No, he replied.
“Well, we are going to see to it that you love school by the time I’m done with you,” she said with a big smile.
These are normal, everyday things his teacher says as we are picking Joah up from school. And as always, right as we are walking out the door, she yells, “Joah, now where is my hug?”
Do I believe LAUSD has issues? Yes. Our system has a whole has issues. But this is the one thing LAUSD got right!