Los Angeles is my home. It is my family's home, my students' home, and my colleagues' home—and I hope one day it will be home to my own children. As an educator I know students here—like kids in many cities—don’t have equal access to a high quality education, but there is a real lack of civic engagement around the issue. However, this lack of engagement is not just an epidemic here. It's a national epidemic and I’m determined to do something about it.
Along with a group of eight other Los Angeles public school educators, I've organized the March as One—a three-mile long march taking place this Saturday, February 16th to elevate the issue of educational inequality in the city's schools. We've scheduled the March as One three weeks prior to Los Angeles' March 5th school board and mayoral elections—and three days prior to the voter registration deadline—because we're asking candidates to commit to educational equity.
The march deliberately parallels the civil rights marches of the past. The route will travel from one of Los Angeles' most disadvantaged communities to one of its wealthiest. Statistics clearly demonstrate that unequal access to high quality education exists along lines of race, class, and documentation status—thus, this is a civil rights issue, and just one manifestation of how our country has fallen short of achieving true equity.
Indeed, the march's roots stem from an experience I had in September of 2009 when I was teaching at John Liechty Middle School in L.A.'s Westlake neighborhood. I stood before my eighth grade students, guiding them through an inquiry experience where they were given images of schools and communities from 50 years ago and the present. I asked them to compare and contrast these images.
They observed that, like schools in the past, present-day schools are still segregated. Schools in their community—a predominantly low-income, Mexican, Central American, and African American community—are not as “nice” as schools in higher income communities. And while they had nearly forty students in each classroom, classrooms in private schools and in higher income communities have significantly fewer.
We then analyzed the rates of high school graduates from their community who’ve taken the classes needed to attend a four-year university, and the rates of those who proceed to higher education, and take more than six years to graduate. They were perplexed—they could not understand how fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement not much had changed. Their confusion soon became anger—an anger that then fueled their yearning to change their reality.
I could relate to that trajectory of emotions. I was raised in East Los Angeles—just twenty minutes away from where I was teaching—by parents who came to this country from Mexico. I attended public schools my entire life until I was accepted to Harvard University.
During my first week at Harvard, I received the results of my placement exams and I felt humiliated—I didn't want anyone to know that a Mexican-American from East L.A. had been placed in a remedial writing class. I did not want to reinforce the stereotype that perhaps I had been admitted solely because I was "brown."
But beyond my humiliation, I was puzzled. How could it be that after taking every AP course possible and graduating at the top of my class, I was still unprepared for my first semester of college? And I wondered, if I was not prepared, then what about my high school friends who did not take college prep courses? In that moment, my eyes were opened to the vast inequality that persists in our education system—the same ones which my students were blind to until that lesson.
I refuse to let our low-income communities and communities of color be blind to any longer. My March as One co-organizers and I envision a world in which attention is drawn to this vast inequality at a much larger scale—not just classroom by classroom—and in which people are empowered to take action.
The decisions made by our local leadership are the ones that have the most direct impact on our city, so it's problematic that in the last joint school board & mayoral elections, only 230,000 of Los Angeles' 1.6 million registered voters turned out to vote—a 14 percent voter turn-out rate. Educators must not only call attention to the disparity in access to high quality education, they must also create opportunities for civic engagement.
To that end, we also hope to provide our community with the information and tools to shape the future of our public education system. We will be driving voter registration at the outset of the march, and have created the city’s largest non-partisan, balanced education forum, which will take place at the march’s culminating point. The forum is an opportunity for Los Angeles’ mayoral and school board candidates to address our community and share their approach to strengthening our public education system.
I charge you to dig into the educational outcomes for students of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in your hometown, and raise attention to the disparity that you uncover. I charge you to consider the civic engagement of all people in your hometown—particularly in local elections—and lean into the reality you unveil. I charge you to believe that you as an individual—or as a group with like-minded community members—can take a stand. I will stand in solidarity with you.