Last Sunday’s report on the neglected, dangerous Compton schools struck an emotional chord with readers, even those who live far from the impoverished and isolated district.
The reaction didn’t surprise me. Any parent, anyone who cares about kids, would be outraged by the leaking roofs, the graffiti, the locked exit doors and the absence of textbooks and such basic supplies as toilet paper.
They wondered, as I did, how such conditions could be permitted to exist, and what could be done to remedy them.
On Thursday, I put some of those questions to State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, the person responsible for cleaning up Compton. Three years ago, the state took over the bankrupt Compton district, located in a predominantly African American and Latino working-class and poor community several miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Eastin recounted the troubles of Compton, long dominated by political cliques which, except for periodic major scandals, usually escape the attention of the media.
“Were you in the science wing?” she asked when we discussed my visit to the school. I remembered it--a cold, damp rundown building where I encountered a chemistry class without textbooks. “That science wing was remodeled seven years ago,” Eastin said. “The [people] who ran the school district gave the money to their friends, who did a shoddy job . . . when the state came in, they not only had these terrible conditions but they were $28 million in debt. . . . When you have these kind of endemic problems, you don’t fix them overnight.”
I replied that I understood the complexities of the problem and knew something about the peculiar nature of Compton politics.
What I wanted to know, however, was why couldn’t they repair the leaking roofs. Why couldn’t some of the parents and school personnel persuade a builders’ supply chain to donate some material? Then they could fix the roofs themselves. The roofs are flat. It doesn’t look like a difficult job.
Eastin said she had tried something like that. “I went to the building trades unions and asked them to help,” she said. But two teachers unions were locked in a bitter dispute at the time, and said they wanted no union volunteers in Compton until it was settled.
Too bad volunteers didn’t march into the school in spite of the beef and patch the roofs.
Such volunteerism is part of the life of many school districts. But the grass-roots militancy that surges through other areas, rich and poor, has not penetrated the walls erected by a Compton educational bureaucracy hostile to parental activism.
Two mothers who showed me around Compton High School, Karen Mackey and Regina Nettles, made that point as we toured the shambles of what once had been a proud high school. “The parents won’t get involved,” Nettles said. “That’s why this is happening.” Mackey said she has been ignored by administrators and shouted down and ruled out of order when she complains at school board meetings.
Compare it to the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district often fouls up, but it has some good schools, blessed with talented principals and active parents who have the courage and skill to challenge the bureaucrats. That’s also true of many of the small districts around here.
A reader, Dale Petrulis, principal of La Ballona Elementary School, told of the benefits of such parental activism. Petrulis is also a white West Los Angeles parent who sent a daughter for two years to 74th Street School in a mostly Latino and African American South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood, where Petrulis was active in the parents’ group. The experience, she said, is still valued by the daughter, now a student at Brown University.
“I read your article with great sadness and a sense of urgency of what I can do to assist,” Petrulis wrote. At La Ballona Elementary School, she said, “parents clean and paint restrooms, paint our library and computer lab and have a monthly parent work day . . . students see that their parents believe school is an important place.”
I hope there are more like her. The concerned Compton parents need help.