The parents I met on 104th Street in Watts are immigrants from Mexico, for the most part, but they’re well established in Los Angeles.
They own pickup trucks and vans, and many proudly claim to be either legal residents or naturalized U.S. citizens. Even though Spanish is their first language, most have lived here a decade or so and are fairly fluent in English.
One aspect of U.S. culture, however, remains a great mystery to them: the school system.
“In Durango I learned my times tables by the time I was in third grade,” Gerardo Jasso, a 43-year-old metal polisher told me, describing his childhood in northern Mexico. “I had to memorize them.”
Now Jasso has a son in the eighth grade at Markham Middle School who struggles to remember the answer to six times eight.
You’d think that a wealthy U.S. city like Los Angeles could boast of better schools than the impoverished urban and rural corners of Latin America from which Jasso and many others departed in search of a better life. But at Markham, one of the most troubled campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District, that may not be the case.
“When I went to school, I always carried a backpack and books,” said a 30-year-old cook named Fidel, who grew up in Guerrero, Mexico, and never got past grade school. “But here, my daughter doesn’t carry anything. She says she doesn’t have any homework. Ever.”
I met Fidel and other parents as they sat in their parked trucks and vans, waiting for their children to emerge through the campus gates.
A minute or so later, as if to prove his point, Fidel’s daughter walked up in a sky-blue Markham T-shirt but in possession of no educational materials other than her brain.
Has Fidel ever walked into his daughter’s classrooms and demanded more of her teachers? No, he said. And the mildly perplexed look on his face told me it’s never even occurred to him that he could.
Fidel needs to start complaining soon. Because we won’t have great schools again in L.A. until working, immigrant parents start to demand them. I know they’re busy, I know they work hard. But their kids make up a big chunk of the student body. And if more of them don’t speak out, all of us L.A. parents will suffer.
These days being an L.A. parent with a school-age child is a job unto itself, as many a desperate mom and dad can attest. Those of us who are educated quickly learn to cajole, complain, smile and plead with teachers and school officials on behalf of our kids.
Like shoppers, we scour the city for the best deals. We scramble in search of magnets, charters or private schools.
Once we buy into a school, we feel it’s our right to hold its teachers and principal accountable.
The Spanish-speaking parents I talked to at Markham don’t quite know they can do those things. They grew up in countries where people are taught to respect the authority of schoolteachers -- “el maestro and la maestra” -- as much as Americans respect judges.
“I want my son to finish his studies,” one Markham parent told me in Spanish when I asked him his educational goals. “And I want him to behave himself.”
Many immigrant parents believe that their local public school is there to make good on the government’s legal obligation to educate their children well enough to get by in the world.
They are naïve to think this way.
Markham and two other L.A. schools are the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed last month contending that state budget cuts and the resulting layoffs of LAUSD teachers had an adverse effect on underperforming schools.
Younger teachers who work at tough schools like Markham were among the first on the chopping block. At Markham, more than half the teachers were suddenly gone, replaced by a series of rotating substitutes. The school was thrown into chaos.
Catherine Lhamon, an attorney with the public interest law firm Public Counsel, said state and district officials should have foreseen that some schools would be “decimated” by the cuts.
After Public Counsel and two other firms filed the suit, two students from Markham spoke to The Times about the conditions there. An eighth-grade Markham teacher penned a Times op-ed. Even the principal, Tim Sullivan, spoke out in support of the suit. “I’ve been working in schools for 21 years and I have never before now felt the sense of hopelessness . . . that I feel around me now,” he said.
But I couldn’t get any of the adults with Spanish surnames who were listed as plaintiffs in the suit to talk to me.
Outside Markham this week, most of the parents I talked to hadn’t even heard of the lawsuit. Some were reluctant to tell me their full names.
All had complaints about the school, though most were unaware that Markham’s test scores are in the bottom tenth of schools statewide.
Rosa Mendez, 38, told me she talked to school officials about her ninth-grade daughter’s poor reading and math skills. She said they told her to file a “request to the state.” But she decided it wasn’t worth the effort. “For what?” she asked me in Spanish. Para que? “You complain and they don’t do anything.”
Others described meetings with school officials about safety and fights at the school.
For parents like Fidel, the cook with a grade-school education, violence is the one thing that will lead them to get in the face of a school official.
But these parents don’t seem to know that if they don’t fight the system, their children will suffer a fate more enduring than a black eye. Principal Sullivan would like them to know he has an advisory council with a small number of dedicated parents -- and he could use a lot more members.
Another mom, born in El Salvador but a U.S. citizen, told her 11-year-old daughter to talk to me. The daughter described disorderly classrooms, a school “lockdown” and other scary incidents.
A few hours later, that same mom called me at The Times and begged that I not print her daughter’s name.
“My husband got mad at me,” she told me. “He said, ‘Why did you let her speak to him?’ Everything my daughter told you is true. But sometimes you get in trouble for telling the truth.”
And sometimes, señora, speaking the truth loudly and openly is the only thing that can save you.