On Monday, January 25, the Mid-City West Community Council held its first-ever town hall meeting on education, at Hancock Park Elementary School.
MCWCC Education Committee Chair Eddie Campbell said the idea for the forum, which he intends to repeat as an annual event, came after the MCWCC helped Hancock Park revive a popular student art project in which each year’s class of 5th graders designs special memorial tiles that are fired in the school’s kiln and permanently installed in the hallways of the school. The project had been cancelled due to lack of funding, but MCWCC’s education committee helped get it back on its feet this year. Campbell said that after the success of that program, MCWCC wanted to find a way to help other schools, and to provide a way to bring neighborhood leaders and schools together.
To set the tone for this ongoing effort, the evening’s main speaker, LAUSD School Board President Steve Zimmer, praised the “incredible diversity” in our mid-city schools, but also clearly positioned himself as strongly opposed to efforts (largely from charter advocates) to make public schools compete for resources, students and achievement markers.
Starting with the benefits of diversity, Zimmer said Fairfax High School, in particular, is a great example. “It’s an amazing school,” he said. “Worlds meet at Fairfax,” he said. “It’s very moving.”
Zimmer acknowledged, though, that the city’s incredible diversity does create a challenge to make sure that educational outcomes are equitable for all students. But he also noted that this is not a new challenge, and it has been repeated with each new wave of immigration throughout our country’s history.
According to Zimmer, the solution is not – as many charter advocates claim – to force schools to compete like businesses. If we say that competition is the only lever for change, he said, it forces schools to “turn against each other in the fight for resources”…and it forces students to see each other as competitors as well, as they fight for higher test scores than students at other schools.
Zimmer said that using test scores and other such metrics as the only definition of success is also inaccurate. We “shouldn’t force young minds into very narrow confines of proficiency,” he said, since all students learn differently and reach key milestones at different rates. He also said he “rejects the idea” that you can’t get to”a point of equality and equity without specific test scores or specific numbers of some sort.” And he said he does not accept the idea that schools won’t get better if they don’t compete. He said the only way schools will improve is if we create an environment where schools, parents and communities can learn from each other. “No one,” he said, “has figured out the magic formula for how we can make sure all children can break through and achieve the American dream of public education.”
After Zimmer’s address, audience members asked questions and shared several ideas that might help bring school and community resources together for the benefit of all.
Campbell suggested a possible mentorship program, in which local students are paired with MCWCC members, attend MCWCC meetings and become involved in local issues. Zimmer said mentoring can be very beneficial for both academic and life skills. He noted that when students talk about what has helped them be successful, they often mention connections to other open, responsive adults, outside their families, as one of the most important factors.
Pierson Blaetz, co-founder of the Melrose Trading Post and the Greenway Arts Alliance, noted that there is currently a project in the works, sponsored by the Melrose Business Improvement District (and which the MCWCC could also join), to partner with local schools and place student artwork displays in the windows of vacant storefronts on Melrose Ave. He said the project, which will launch soon in three storefronts, will benefit the students (who get to have their art very publicly displayed), the community (which benefits from beautified storefronts) and the business owners (whose vacant properties remain vibrant looking).
Zimmer praised that idea as well, noting that the project could also be extended to fencing around construction sites – especially those sites where huge houses are being built on residential streets. He said the fences could be decorated with student art or writing, which would help maintain the fences and provide a deterrent to graffiti and other blight.
Although the audience was small for this initial gathering – fewer than 25 people – Campbell said he hopes it will grow in size and scope each year.