By Beth Shuster | Opinion From the Los Angeles Times
June 29, 2009 - As an education editor for The Times, I tend to see the worst of Los Angeles' public school system. Budget cuts, teacher layoffs, high dropout rates, low test scores. The list goes on. And on.
As the mother of a Los Angeles Unified School District graduate, I saw the best the system has to offer this month.
There in the football stadium at Cleveland High School in Reseda was a portrait of America as it is today.
Sitting shoulder to shoulder on the bleachers, we cheered along with the sisters and brothers of one graduate as they held up a homemade sign: "First Male in our Family" to get a diploma. One mom said her son is going into the military. I recognized a family whose daughter is going to Sarah Lawrence College and another whose daughter is going to UC Santa Barbara. Success has many definitions on graduation day.
The evening began with a speech by Principal Bob Marks. One mom in front of me didn't recognize him, and that was OK with her. "Thank God we don't know him," she laughed.
I looked over to the crowd standing next to the bleachers. They couldn't get seats. They were my daughter's humanities magnet teachers, smiling, talking, joking. They were cheering on these kids they had taught philosophy, art history, literature and film -- all without the help of textbooks, instead using photocopied materials and a few field trips to plays, an opera and art museums. These teachers made up for a lack of resources with their determination, dedication and ingenuity.
Three students made heartfelt speeches, and another rapped his heart out. The audience roared its approval. Forty valedictorians (those with a 4.0 grade point average and above) had gold tassels hanging from their mortar boards.
Then about 700 kids' names were called out by counselors with all the enthusiasm of Trevor Denman proclaiming the winning horse at Santa Anita. Air horns blew, drums rolled for band members' friends, and the deafening whoops from family members added up to a cacophonous celebration of success.
I heard the names of kids we had known from preschool, elementary school, middle school. Where did the time go?
But it was the last name called that drew tears universally. Kenza Kadmiry, sitting in a wheelchair, was handed her diploma by the principal. She had become the soul of this class, its tragedy and its hope. Kenza was hit by a car in February as she walked her bike across the street, and is now a quadriplegic. But her smile that night was huge. A fundraiser for her the week before drew about 500 friends of Cleveland. Families pull together in times of trouble, and this public school is, wonder of wonders, a family.
And then it was over. A swift 80 minutes (Thank you, Mr. Marks) and the gates were flung open. We ran onto the field, searching for our graduate.
The troubling stories that I had edited that week vanished from my mind as I finally found something to celebrate: a public school that worked.
Beth Shuster is the K-12 education editor at The Times.