By Robert Schroeder
“With the restructuring of education, particularly in urban areas, children are being turned into migrant learners.”
The Ballot Box
Like pretty much everything else in Los Angeles, the first task of defining the city’s Jefferson Park neighborhood is identifying its Interstate highway borders: the 10 and 110.
Beyond the eight-lane highways stands a neighborhood of neat rows of pastel-colored ranch houses with slightly withered lawns almost sighing in the arid sun. The sense of tidiness does not reflect the bursting populace inside the neighborhood’s tiny 1.42 square miles: the area’s 23,130 residents reflect the highest population density of any neighborhood within the City of Angels.
Jefferson Park’s concrete borders are literally figurative: more than 32 percent of all residents were born abroad, largely originating from Mexico and El Salvador. And from this melting pot, with African Americans and Latinos representing more than 90 percent of the population, an education revolution of sorts has sprung from the grass roots like the singular palm trees dotting the landscape shooting up to the high blue skies. Using California’s “parent trigger” law, Jefferson Park parents have set their area schools upon a path that few public schools and charter schools have ever followed: a merger.
The neighborhood’s 24th Street Elementary School had struggled for years to boost student proficiency in math and English. In the half-decade prior to the parents’ push in 2013, less than one-third of students met proficiency in English and slightly more than one-third achieved proficiency in math.
Amabilia Villeda and Maria Alcala had prodded the Los Angeles Unified School District for tangible changes at 24th Street for some time. Both Spanish-speaking parents of children ranging from ages 6-14, the two watched as protests and signature drives proved fruitless in changing the educational climate at 24th Street.
California law empowers parents to seek various turnaround actions for flailing public schools, and Villeda, Alcala and dozens of other Jefferson Park parents sought to do just that. A new petition drive secured a place on the ballot for a question as to what to do with 24th Street Elementary. More than 70 percent of parents backed a novel solution: combining the public school with the nascent Crown Preparatory Academy, a 5th-8th grade charter school opened in 2010 right next door to 24th Street Elementary.
“Involving ourselves in this civic duty was a way of getting things done and getting them done correctly,” Alcala said.
Jefferson Park in Los Angeles is simply the newest front in a quest to answer a half-century old question: do our children need to attend school in their own neighborhood or at the best school possible?
The Meaning of Space and Place
The debate over where children should attend school is often framed within the political context of charter schools, vouchers, school closings and consolidations. At the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education, Pamela Quiroz, PhD, professor of educational policy studies argues the issue of student mobility should be framed around the sociological perspectives of space, the geographic location of schooling, and place, the interpretive lens through which meaning of space is constructed.
Researchers, teachers, education reformers and parents in communities often view student mobility through the lens of the deficiencies plaguing some urban communities. Low-income, underserved, disadvantaged, traditionally marginalized, migrant learner; the homogenous group labels of urban students are as ubiquitous as the plights of the urban schools some parents seek to avoid.
The mobile children themselves concoct their own curious interpretations of place and space based on their educational experiences, with vastly different results. Students’ focus on the upward mobility of their adopted school community is a facet of learner displacement surprising researchers and teachers.
Quiroz and Kisha Milam Brooks, PhD educational policy studies student, are studying how children attending school outside the confines of their own troubled neighborhood label their own social class. Originating from one of Chicago’s most economically-disadvantaged neighborhood on the city’s West side, these youngsters consistently labeled each other as middle class, creating a challenge for their teachers in connecting students with their home neighborhoods. The student’s home neighborhood has been defined by a history of economic shortcomings and disinvestment fueling a rampant drug trade, resultant violence and a city government and police force unable or unwilling to provide any bulwark against the resulting social strife.
“This is a very common phenomenon [for children attending school outside of their neighborhood], even as their teachers try to create a consciousness among them,” Quiroz said. “The children base this on the middle class values of owning a car and time spent out of the neighborhood; they have seen themselves as different.”
Even for the youngest learners, the geography of space and place in education is impacting social and cultural development. Space mobility impacts a young child’s life opportunities in the context of their health, educational access, exposure to cultural opportunities and active time in the natural world.
Parents who seek educational mobility for their children frequently seek greater social mobility outside of schooling. Quiroz and Brooks found families in troubled neighborhoods tend to leave on the weekends, seeking access to safe play spaces or sociocultural opportunities for their children. The two researchers were surprised by how disconnected children were from their neighborhood; only one or two claimed a friend in the neighborhood, and one student identified a friend as the mailman.
The shaping of educational place is creating a new politics of community. Young learners are carving out social, geographical, political and civil spaces partially structured by their parents, partially structured by school but also structured by children as active participants in this sculpting process. The ethos of urban children’s place is requiring educators and civic leaders to rethink the notion of community.
Quiroz cautions these new communities do not necessarily represent an explicit rejection of children’s home neighborhoods. As mountains of educational research have documented, parents and the family remain the initial site of aspirational development. Children spending eight or ten or 12 hours daily at a school outside their neighborhood may not consciously disassociate from their home community but naturally identify with an environment that provides greater stimulation, where they are given opportunity and quite simply, where they are surrounded by friends.
There is a distinct benefit arising from the creation of these new educational places: the normalization of academic achievement. Schools specifically set up to welcome in children from distant neighborhoods—charters, selective enrollments, magnets and private schools—can foster growth of knowledge of social problems and global awareness as a means to build identity with home neighborhood. A successful education for these migrant learners almost requires imparting higher levels of critical thinking to aid students in forming the meaning of their role in the spaces they occupy.
For decades, numerous arguments have been marshaled for and against educational mobility. Quiroz argues that the actions of African American and Latino parents in low-income urban areas reflect a wanderlust typical across the economic spectrum.
“It’s sort of an American feature of society,” Quiroz said. “The notion that we demand African American and Latino children stay in a community, or that the only way to give back or continue to identify with that community is to live in it, is illogical.
The Early Seekers of Educational Place
The debate over the intersection of school and place in American education history intensified after the Second World War. Prior to the war and what some historians term the Second Great Migration, de facto segregation, whether by law, coercive acts or individual choice, created neighborhood, municipality and rural schools reflecting the localized homogeneity of the populace.
At the war’s end, with large numbers of African Americans who migrated to obtain war industry jobs settled in northern cities and an influx of White males returning home from the war set to begin their own families, the stage was set to redefine the makeup of schools in America’s urban centers.
The first test of school and place occurred in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. Black parents in Charlotte challenged the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district’s consolidation of schools that created schools with largely African-American populations in the city’s center and white populations at the city outskirts. The high court’s 1970 ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education held that racial imbalance in schools was not acceptable even based on geographic proximity to school. The decision was one of several court orders leading to the 1970s era of desegregation busing, seeking to achieve intradistrict integration.
More than four decades later, evaluations of desegregation busing are mixed. Some historians claim busing eroded pride in local neighborhoods; others claim desegregation busing contributed to “white flight” from urban areas to suburbs. A number of African American civic leaders question the assumption that a Black child needs to sit next to a white child for educational success. Studies on growth in educational achievement for African American students conflict as to any tangible gains.
The era of intradistrict busing came to an end with the Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley in 1974, when the Court ruled that busing students from predominantly African American Detroit to predominantly white suburbs was unconstitutional unless the bussing was set up by the suburban schools. Some historians claim the decision increased the migration of economically well-to-do white families from urban areas, particularly in Detroit, seeking de facto segregated suburban school districts for their children. In the two decades following the decision, for example, the Detroit Public Schools reached a population comprised of 90 percent African American students.
With this history, today’s student movements are nothing drastically new. The debate over space and place remains focused on students of generally lower economic status seeking educational opportunity outside the confines of their own neighborhood. Desegregation busing has given way to charter schools, selective enrollment schools, private schools and magnet schools.
The new calculus of educational movement is reflected in the composition of the school makeup of America’s largest cities. For the 2013-14 school year in Chicago, the city’s educational landscape is composed of 54 private schools, 130 charter schools, 52 magnet schools, 25 selective enrollment schools and 536 public schools. Thirty-two percent of the city’s schools offer parents an option outside of a neighborhood public school.
The Creators of the New Educational Place
What that school would look like was up for debate—whether it be a charter school or a district-run public school, she simply wanted a forum where the mantle of accountability for the advancement of her students would rest with her.
Today, McGowan-Robinson has realized her dream—she has her own school. It simply does not look like what she ever envisioned before. The 2003 alumna of the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education, MEd Instructional Leadership-Secondary Education, is leading the hybrid public-charter school in Los Angeles’ Jefferson Park neighborhood as the principal of Crown Preparatory Academy, the 5th-8th grade charter school she founded in 2010.
“I always have believed that demographics do not determine destiny,” McGowan-Robinson (below, speaking) said. “Just because a kid lives in a certain zip code does not mean that should be the foundation of the education they receive.”
Her work as the principal of Crown Prep is informed by her time as an urban high school teacher in Chicago and Los Angeles. She recalls students entering her classes in the 9th or 10th grades at 4th or 5th grade reading levels and her attempt to bring their skills up to grade level in nine months, a task she calls “impossible.” McGowan-Robinson took part in a fellowship program called “Building Excellent Schools,” which included a study of 30 high-performing charter schools across the nation, schools located in areas of high poverty that outperformed both local schools and schools in areas of greater economic resources.
Since April 2013, McGowan-Robinson and LAUSD have worked side-by-side to create this unique new educational place for the Jefferson Park neighborhood. After only four short months to rethink the K-8 process for the area, both schools re-launched in August 2013. The schools wrapped up their first semester in the hybrid model in December 2013.
“When the parents came to us and said, ‘We want you to partner with the district,’ I didn’t know what that even meant because I had never seen it,” McGowan-Robinson said. “It took some time for me to think about it myself, as well as our board, because we were already running a successful school and were worried about jeopardizing the kids we already had.”
The public vs. charter debate in Jefferson Park, a debate over school geography that has traditionally divided communities, states and legislatures, has started to crumble in the nexus of these two schools. The schools’ tenuous relationship has been replaced with frequent meetings between leadership, professional development events, an inculcation of shared values and instructional practices expanding beyond school walls.
“These are things we wanted to grow, so this is huge for the district and a charter to have these types of conversations in just a few short weeks,” McGowan-Robinson said. “We’ve already broken a lot of the us vs. them and the huge divided that exists between charters and districts by focusing on doing what’s best for the kids.”
Under the previous school model, parents of students at 24th Street Elementary could choose to send their children to Crown Prep or to continue with public schooling starting with fifth grade. With the new hybrid model, 24th Street Elementary and Crown Prep teachers are working closely to align their curricular goals and ensure a smooth transition for students from one school to the next. Fourth and fifth-grade teachers collaborate to build complementary lessons, and both schools strive to make teachers from the elementary school available to students entering the charter school to ensure continuity of community.
“Partnering with a large organization working toward the same goal but with different ways to get there, and coming together on common ground and learning to work with each other is a stretch, but it’s a good stretch,” McGowan-Robinson said.
Those Who Stay
Researchers understand the sociological impacts of leaving a neighborhood to attend school. For parents, the concerns are often more practical: the lack of a personal vehicle stands as the first barrier, and the time commitment conflicting with employment a close second.
Amabilia Villeda and Maria Alcala cited a third reason for demanding an equitable education for their children in their own neighborhood: civic duty.
“I can solve my own child’s problems by moving them to a different school, but what about the hundreds of other children?” Alcala (right) said. “The problems will still continue—it’s better to solve the overall problem rather than just my own personal problem.”
Villeda said she feels a sense of ownership of the school as a resident and subsequently a sense of responsibility to fix the problem. She acknowledges she considered moving her family to a different neighborhood but made the conscious choice to remain and lobby for school improvement.
“Seeing the changes now is very fruitful, seeing all the happy kids,” Villeda (right) said. “I gave it 100%; I missed doctors appointments, I would leave the school after dropping my kids off to get petitions signed, so when I see the changes now, I couldn’t be happier because I know I helped change it.”
Alcala sees these changes manifested in her own first grader, who now reads at 85 words per minute and is building a close relationship with her teacher. She contrasts this with the experience of her son in sixth grade, who never received the strong literacy foundation of her younger child and continues to struggle with his education.
“LAUSD is so broad and big, my children and I deserve to stay where we are when in the district there are different schools that are succeeding because they have a better location,” Alcala said. “Even though my kids are not going to a bigger, nicer Beverly Hills school, these kids still deserve the same high achievement and expectations as other schools despite their location.”
Those Who Leave
For some parents, the opportunity their children deserve simply does not exist within the confines of their own community. The College’s Kisha Milam Brooks is studying a unique subset of Chicago Public Schools students impacted by CPS closings—those whose parents have chosen to avoid their assigned welcoming school and exit completely from CPS by sending their children to private schools. Brooks is examining how children’s sense of community and place is impacted by attending school not just far from their familiar boundaries of their neighborhood life but with ties completely cut from the public school system.
“You hear from parents they want their kids to have the best possible education, the education they didn’t have,” Brooks said. “When they decide that a school outside of the neighborhood has the most to offer in terms of social capital and experiences, it becomes way more important [for parents] than keeping children in the neighborhood.”
Parents are cognizant of the sacrifices made by choosing a private school far from their neighborhoods. Brooks described one father whose commute to work has ballooned to two hours each way to enable him to ensure his child reaches school on time before the father heads to work. Brooks’ research on children’s reaction to this school-neighborhood displacement reveals that students experience a disconnect between how students perceive their neighborhoods versus the realities on the ground. Students in the study were asked to draw images of their favorite places in their neighborhood and also supply photographs of that place, and Brooks’ study found the drawings were largely not reflective of the actual places depicted in photographs.
“These children are not as connected to their neighborhood in the traditional sense,” Brooks said. “If you think of community schools as connected with neighborhood, these children are considering their school to be their community as opposed to their home community.”
Brooks says she is neither a school choice supporter nor opponent; her research interests lie in examining what best practices of any school can be imported to a system at large. In this particular case, Brooks highlighted the social justice theme of the private school studied as a model for potential success in a neighborhood school serving the same students. The respect for students’ culture and school efforts to uphold, celebrate, appreciate and intertwine student culture into curriculum is a major strength Brooks believes can be replicated in community schools.