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I Tried To Save My Teacher's Job. I Learned About School Politics Instead

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Eighteen-year-old me addressing the school board in of my suburban Minnesota school district on April 10, 2007. The all-black suit was a totally-not-overwrought way to send a message, right? (Screenshot)
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We all have artifacts of our childhoods we'd be happy to leave behind -- diaries, recordings of failed bands, love letters to old girlfriends.

For me, it's a video of myself in high school at a school board meeting, trying to persuade the adults to change their minds about dismissing my 11th grade English teacher.

Six pairs of eyes stared at me -- the eyes of the assembled politicians I was addressing. At least two looked sympathetic. The other four? Were they threatened? Angry? Bored? I couldn't tell.

"The common thread you've all received from our letters is [that this teacher] can walk on water," I said into the microphone, highlighting "walk on water" with a particularly smarmy smile. "I can tell you right now, I know [this man]. He's the best teacher I've ever had, and I wouldn't put it past him."

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Yikes. Talk about cloying.

It was a moment of peak earnestness in my life that I don't care to revisit. Yet I think about it constantly.

For the past eight years, I've worked as an education reporter. My job has taken me to countless school board meetings, where I listen to public commenters just like 18-year-old me echoing the same feelings of betrayal, confusion and anger at being on the butt end of a school system decision, hoping a panel of politicians will hear their plea.

The experience shaped me -- and I carry it with me.

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Interviewing key sources at Leland Street Elementary in August 2017.
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THE RIGHT TO SPEAK OUT

Public comment is great for the First Amendment, but not exactly the best forum to productively address grievances -- legitimate or petty, big-picture or small-ball. Open meetings laws limit board members from opening dialogues with commenters. An L.A. Times analysis of recent County Supervisors meetings even found profanity has become increasingly common during public comment time.

But a trip to the lectern can often be evidence that something went really wrong.

Take for example the circumstances that drove me and a group of my friends to organize perhaps 100 high school classmates and their parents to pack school board meetings to save one teacher's job.

The teacher we rallied around was brilliant and demanding. We had seen his personnel files and previous evaluations -- no red flags.

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But he wasn't tenured, so off he went to the chopping block. The district's rationale: something like, "budget problems" -- an explanation that didn't wash.

In the end, I knew that it didn't matter what the reason was: if you're untenured, your boss doesn't need a reason.

But to us, he wasn't just another teacher. This man coached our high school's speech team. We loved him. (And for the record, speech is like the debate team, except totally different.)

And there was a subtext to his dismissal: It confirmed our suspicions that administrators didn't get us -- that they only really cared about athletics; that they didn't understand how to nurture arts programs.

So we mobilized. Twice.

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The first, as you know from earlier, was mostly speeches -- but the board took no action that night. When we followed up, we didn't make much headway.

The second time, we jammed our horde into the district's tiny headquarters, appealing to elected leaders for help.

My job? Deliver our closing arguments -- and turn up the heat.

"Our trust has been abused in this district," I said on April 24, 2007.

I knew my chances of success were slim going in. But as I spoke, I felt the undecided board members drifting out of our grasp.

LEARNING FROM OUR FAILURES

Our appeals were ultimately in vain. The school board dismissed the teacher with a routine vote (though we did manage to secure a "no" vote or two).

Still, this experience showed me how human and intimate politics can be. I became closer with my parents, who also got deeply involved. It marked the beginning of the end of my adolescence -- and came with a taste of the bitterness of adulthood.

I learned just how important it is to pay attention to the decisions made by people in power -- and how complicated it can be to figure out why something is happening.

So that's what I try to break down in my stories. My mission here at LAist/KPCC is to help you determine what schools are good and what "good" even means. What are the factors that define a quality education and what tools will let you assess your own schools?

In an education system where parent choice defines so much, I look at which students get advantages and which students get left behind.

Within Los Angeles Unified, four out of every five children qualify as low-income. At least 16,000 LAUSD students are homeless and 140,000 are still learning English. At public comment at a recent LAUSD board meeting, advocates worried a program change could leave the 3,500 district students in the foster system even more vulnerable.

My personal experience doesn't compare with the realities LAUSD's students and adults face every day. The district serves children who carry around pains far deeper than the unfairness of losing a favorite teacher.

But it's a personal reminder about whose stories desperately need telling -- and they're not sitting on the school board dais.

They're the ones swallowing fear to walk up to the podium to face the peering eyes of politicians -- because they have so much at stake and nowhere else to turn.