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Am I a Teacher First? Or a Parent?

Do Los Angeles Unified School District teachers have an obligation to send their own children to public schools? If they elect to send their offspring to private schools, are they, in essence, saying that public schools aren’t delivering a quality education? MARY REESE BOYKIN spoke to two LAUSD teachers, one with a child in the LAUSD and one who opted for a private school.

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MARIETTA COUNTEE

Counselor, math and science magnet, Dorsey High School

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When I transferred to Dorsey in 1983, my daughter Georgette was just 2 years old. I wanted to work closer to my Windsor Hills home so that I could spend more time with her. When Georgette began elementary school, she was dropped off after school at Dorsey. She attended football games and other evening activities that I supervised. Basically, she grew up here. As a young child, Georgette would say, “When I go to high school, I want to go to Dorsey.”

By the time she entered ninth grade, she had chosen law as her career goal. Dorsey offered a law and public service magnet that same year. There were those who didn’t accept my decision. “Why would anyone want to go to Dorsey?” they would ask. Georgette attended Palms Middle School and was among a small group of achievers offered an interdistrict permit to Beverly Hills High School. She was taken on a visitation to Hamilton High School.

So why did I choose Dorsey? Not only am I committed to public schools, I am committed to the school where I work. I have worked at schools throughout the district: in the inner city, the Valley, at Palisades High. I know the district’s academic programs. I find Dorsey’s programs comparable to those at other schools. I felt it was better that Georgette attend a school where I know the curriculum, the staff, the programs. I was not worried about safety because working here, I know that we have lots of nice students. It’s a small group who misbehave and gain the public’s attention.

My decision to send Georgette to Dorsey is not unprecedented. I know at least six other Dorsey educators and staff who have opted to send their children here. When my neighbors--two professionals--pondered where to send their son, I encouraged them to visit the school, to base their decision on their observations, not on hearsay. That young man is now a 10th-grade Dorsey magnet student.

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Of course, there were some challenges for Georgette early on. Teachers who saw her talking to students who were problems in their classes would tell me about it. Students would drop by my office to report if she was tardy for a class. These challenges were manageable, and in time, Georgette established her own identity.

I have no regrets. Georgette entered high school with a fear of math. But her teachers here boosted her confidence to the point that she now takes calculus. I have measured her progress through her SAT scores. With an SAT of 1,210 and a weighted grade point average of 4.04, she has been accepted at USC, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, UCLA and Spelman College.

Georgette has been involved in so many activities at Dorsey, from student leadership to academic commissions to basketball and track. I don’t know whether she would have been as involved at another school. All along, I have known all the opportunities available to her and made sure that she took advantage of them.

Dorsey has served Georgette well. I would make the same decision again.

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LOTTIE KNIGHT

English and social studies teacher, Orville Wright Middle School I have always believed in the philosophy of the public school, but my faith dwindles every year. My daughter, Starr, attended Windsor Hills Elementary School, where she was identified as a mentally gifted student. She entered Orville Wright middle school and I transferred there. It’s a school referred to by some in the district as the country club among middle schools. Starr was at least a year younger than most of her classmates. I looked forward to spending lots of time with her.

Gradually, I noticed Starr’s lack of excitement about school. There was not enough teacher interaction, support, sensitivity or expectations on the part of most of her teachers. By the time Starr entered eighth grade, I realized that keeping her in public schools would interfere with reaching her goal of becoming a physician. I began the search for a private school. I chose St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey, a parochial school.

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Let’s just face it: Something has to be done to save the public school system. While the academic programs do a commendable job of meeting the needs of honors, gifted, and magnet students--and Orville Wright is among the highest performing schools in the district--the needs of students in the regular program are often overlooked.

I have had students who were in these special academic classes but then put in my regular classes because of discipline problems. Why give one group of teachers a classroom of students who function at the same level? Doesn’t research prove that heterogeneous grouping helps students of all ability levels? Why should some teachers be given all classes where they must constantly spend much of their time getting students to focus?

We also must do a better job of teaching values in our public schools, particularly teaching students respect for one another and for their teachers. Public schools need to be safe for students and teachers. Recently, at Orville Wright two black teachers received letters containing death threats. It was disturbing to me because teachers initially were not told what action the school was taking.

We have to do a better job in public schools of making parents feel welcome. It is one thing for a teacher to feel threatened by a parent who may be verbally or physically abusive. It is quite another to feel threatened by a parent who asks questions about the curriculum, who wants to sit in the classroom to observe instruction.

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I think that I made the right decision by placing Starr at St. Bernard. The school functions as one happy family; some of the faculty are alumni. When I visit the campus, I feel welcome. I like the strong academic program, the high teacher expectations and the spiritual emphasis. Starr is always working on a paper, a project, a lab. She and her classmates talk as enthusiastically about meeting at Loyola Marymount University to do an assignment as some students do about going to a party. School and community involvement is stressed.

And for Starr, there was no better way to end a high school career than the way she did: as a starter on the Lady Vikings Division IV girls’ state championship basketball team.

She is an honors student. This fall, Starr will attend UC Riverside on an athletic scholarship. The program Starr has chosen is one linked to medical school entrance.

As a public school teacher, I do what I can to change things, but taking my child out of the public school system was the best thing for her. If parents are given vouchers, it is likely that more and more of them will choose private schools unless we in public schools can do more to attract them.

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