The next chapter in Los Angeles school reform: Great Public Schools Now

Like many Angelenos, Myrna Castrejón is struggling with what she calls "the calculus" of finding the right public school. It needs to be academically rigorous, first and foremost. It also needs to be the right fit for her son's learning style. Ideally, it's near their home — but also close to work.

"It's absolutely a puzzle, to line up all those elements," says Castrejón. "And the reality is, sometimes we don't get it right."

Even for this seasoned education professional, "the calculus" is hard. And Castrejón is well aware that she's an exception to the rule in LAUSD.

"The reality is, most low-income families, they don't have this choice," she explains. "They can't say, 'OK, we will move, we will go to a better school.' They're stuck with whatever is available."

That struggle is at the heart of her work at the nonprofit Great Public Schools Now (GPSN), where she was named executive director in January 2016. GPSN grew out of a previous school reform proposition that initially focused on charter schools — except now the focus has shifted and grown. Castrejón is charged with leading an all-school plan — charters, public schools, magnets, pilot programs and the like — to ensure that high-need communities in Los Angeles have high-quality public education options, without regard for governance model.

Formerly a strategist with the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), Castrejón is by no means new to the terrain of public education in Los Angeles. For the decade before she joined CCSA, she helped develop early education centers in low-income areas of Los Angeles and was a champion of programs that engaged directly with families, including a turn as director for family engagement for the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project (LAAMP), a key nonprofit in local education form.

She understands the sheer size of the second-largest school district in the nation, which serves more than 640,000 students, at 900-plus schools and 187 public charter schools, spanning 720 square miles. She's well aware of the history of acrimony between the school board, teachers union and charter schools, of which Los Angeles boast the largest program in the nation.

And she is not dissuaded.

Castrejón is joined on the GSPN board by other long-time education reformers who also have a sense of how we got here, today.

For Maria Casillas, it's a bit of what she calls "déjà vu all over again." Casillas began teaching in LAUSD in 1973 and eventually rose to become superintendent of some of the most distressed schools across South and East Los Angeles. After a stint in her native El Paso, she returned to LA to found Families in Schools and serve as president of LAAMP. In 2014, Casillas came out of retirement to step in as LAUSD's interim Deputy Superintendent of Instruction. The arc of her career gives her a unique sense of the city's education reform movement — and a firm belief that an inside-outside partnership is what it takes to succeed.

"I felt that in my past reform life — and I've had several iterations — we might not have gotten it right either," Casillas explains. "We have to influence the system; we can't just break away from the system. Inside and outside have to have the same vision and at least agree on some strategies to get there."

Virgil Roberts, another GPSN board member, shares a similar sentiment. Toward the end of his time as chairman of the board of LAAMP, he says, "We had a feeling that we were not moving the needle in the way in which we hoped." LAAMP funds — a $53 million challenge grant — were used to broaden and deepen the success of reform efforts already underway across the district, a boost to those already making positive change. But as funds waned, the board decided against a future of fundraising — and their efforts gave way to the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, which still exists today.

Roberts, who first encountered LAUSD as an attorney representing the NAACP in a school desegregation case back in 1971, still sees the core issue of reform — and similarly, the mission of GPSN — in terms of the kids.

"I am focused on poor kids, kids of color that are failing. We want to try to create schools where they can succeed," says Roberts. "Our goal is not to double the number of charters schools; our goal is to try to create as many schools that work for kids as possible."

For Castrejón, the mission is also about the parents. In her mind's eye, there are mothers — fictional composites — who she is serving.

"Maria takes two buses to clean houses across the city," she muses. "What are we doing for her — for her kids? How are we making her life better or easier?"

Castrejón images a future where any mother can take what she knows about her children — how they learn, their challenges — and the realities of her own life — where they live, where she works, whether she has child care — and plug all of that information into a database to find a high-quality school that's best for her family. It's a scenario where choice, access and quality coalesce.

"We are a ways away from that vision, but it's our north star," Castrejón explains.

Compared to that north star, the GPSN mission is exceedingly simple — better public schools across high-need communities in Los Angeles Unified School District. But the road ahead is anything but.

Still, there's an optimism that courses through Castrejón's language when she talks of the not-so-distant future. It's not challenges, but opportunities. It's not fixing problems, but being a catalyst for change. It's not about deficit orientation, but setting a vision.

"LA is a city of dreamers and of strivers and of doers, but it's a deeply disconnected community, because of how spread out it is," says Castrejón. "We're also a city that has a tremendous amount of energy and, to me, a city of optimists. I want our schools to match that vision — and to continue to transform our city into the beacon of 21st century urban success that we know it can be."

—Laura Lambert for Great Public Schools Now

This sponsored content is produced by Tribune Content Solutions on behalf of Great Public Schools Now. The newsroom or editorial department of Tribune Publishing was not involved in its production.

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