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Archived: An East LA Education: What Happened to Those Wonder Years?

The other day I took a walk through the campus of the elementary school in East LA where, years ago, I was a kindergartener in an English-only classroom, sitting at the back of the class, mystified by the words coming out of my wonderful teacher, Ms. Portillo. You see- I spoke only Spanish then, my parents being immigrants. At first, I didn’t want to stay in that classroom, but my parents made it clear I was there to learn, period. Those early days were tough, and I could tell you many stories of just how rough it “used to be” growing up and getting an education in East LA. But I won’t. That’s the past.

Instead, I’ll say that I remember vividly the sights, sounds, and stimuli that were to become in hindsight springboards to the present. I so enjoyed running freely in the spacious grassy yard at school. I was quite good at dodge ball. As for lunch, that free chocolate milk put a smile on my face daily, an activity only topped by being designated an official classroom “milk monitor” that paid an extra box of milk. Field trips were a blast … even got to visit a dairy farm, though I never got to see that magical brown cow that uttered my favorite drink. As for my teacher, well, yes, I had a crush on her, though she was a little tall for me.

Believe it or not, somewhere during those wonder years, my education in East LA took root and came to blossom in time. For example, mathematics caught my fancy early on, and I spent many hours numbed by numbers, perhaps because it seemed like a universal language.  Not to speak less of dinosaurs, space, harmonic notes, and bean crafts… the world that unfolded before me in that classroom amazed me. The key to understanding it, I quickly learned, was the language of Ms. Portillo. So, I came to excel in English. Books became my refuge, oasis, and translator.

Today, that school no longer has much open or green space, many buildings since raised to accommodate the overcrowding.  I hear from the neighborhood kids that soda is preferred to milk for lunch, and there are no field trips to dairy farms. Jeez! They have no librarian! That’s the present.

In East LA, I fear, a sort of “de-evolution” has taken place, where education has been relegated to second-class status, more of an after-thought than the critical precursor that it really is to future success.  Consider that of the twenty or so “traditional” elementary schools now in East LA, none meet the statewide academic performance target of 800 as measured by the Academic Performance Index (API), 2009 base year. But who cares, right? I mean, let’s just push those children onto the conveyor belt like so many hamburgers. They are just kids from East LA.

Seriously, it matters, really. A new report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that 61% of all jobs in California (12 million jobs) will require some postsecondary training beyond high school in 2018. Couple that with the high dropout rates locally, and we have a serious problem brewing.

It must matter, right, if even gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has come to East LA to open a campaign office on a platform of fixing education and providing a first-rate education (EGP News, August 5, 2010). Yet, would we ever consider that issue as more pertinent to East LA when compared to that other issue in the coming election?

Promisingly, some in East LA have actually taken note and are doing something about it, too. The East Los Angeles Education Collaborative, for example, is pushing for innovative education and school reforms that may expand educational opportunities for the children of East LA to promote future success.  In addition, charter, small, and pilot school programs are beginning to take hold in East LA on the hope they will make a real difference, even as the battle over bilingual versus English immersion education continues.

Yet, further transformational change is needed in how education is taking place in East LA. The failed programs and practices in East LA of decades have borne little positive to show, except underperforming schools, disconnected homes, and wasted potentials. As noted by educational leaders Joan Sullivan and Celia C. Ayala, Ph.D., “as preschoolers enter kindergarten, additional steps should be taken to ensure that our public schools live up to their promise” (EGP News, August 5, 2010). We’ve begun to see that, I think, but do not take it to heart as a community, for many remain accepting of the status quo like as if it were a ‘tradición’ around here.

Rather let’s embrace education like a box of chocolate milk, refreshing, inspiring, fortifying, and leaving you with a thirst for more.