Why Is The Right School So Hard To Find?

By Charla Austin Harris

When my oldest son was about four years old, we began the arduous yet exciting task of searching for the perfect school for him. Like so many families examining our choices, we spent the better part of a year researching, visiting and touring a variety of schools, including district schools, private independent schools and charters.

Out of 14 schools we were considering, our search turned up three that appeared to be a good fit for our son and our family: Los Angeles Unified’s Open Magnet Charter, Citizens of the World Mar Vista charter (CWC) and Da Vinci Innovation Academy charter in Hawthorne.

Having been an educator myself for more than 20 years, including teaching at an elementary school in Compton, I was pretty clear about my son’s learning style and needs. And most of the schools we visited were just not going to work for him.

Aside from being a very rambunctious, outgoing, outspoken, inquisitive, and strong-willed little fellow, he was an advanced reader who had started reading fluently by the age of 2 1/2. By 5 he was reading at a 3rd grade level. When we asked each principal how the curriculum and classroom structure would accommodate his particular learning needs, we simply did not receive the answers we needed to hear.

But there was still hope. We applied to the three progressive charter schools, including an affiliated LAUSD charter/magnet, and hoped for – expected the best. Five months later, we learned that our son was number “something in the double-100s” on the waitlists at each of those three schools.

How could this be? He’s supposed to be in school, isn't he? Not just any school, but a school that celebrates and embraces all that he naturally and authentically is and does not require him to silence himself in order to fit into the narrow, prescriptive mold of what some still refer to as education.

But things weren't shaping up the way we had hoped – an experience so many families in all parts of Los Angeles have had. Feeling hurried and somewhat desperate, we reconsidered our neighborhood school in Westchester but knew with unwavering certainty that the traditional format would not be a good fit for him. We thought about the independent schools again but knew that our pocketbooks couldn't handle the weight of the price tags.

So, we took the plunge and decided to homeschool. While this wasn't our ideal choice, in this case, it was the best choice for us at the time, and I was willing and able to put my career on hold to do that. As we embarked on our homeschool journey, we often crossed paths with other families and friends who would ask about the school we had chosen for our son. When we explained that we had decided to homeschool for now, we were surprised to learn how many families had some of the same concerns and disappointments with their schools.

Some of these reasons included lack of diversity, restrictive learning environments, indoctrinating instead of teaching, rote learning and teaching to the test. Some shared very detailed stories of the personal challenges their children were facing trying to fit into a rigid learning model that just did not take into account their personal learning needs. While their concerns and disappointments varied, they all had one thing in common. They felt they had no great options.

Hearing these stories time and time again struck a chord with me. Why were there so few “alternative” education options for families? Why was the traditional “factory-style” education model still the most used but yet the least effective education model being practiced in public schools?

Again, knowing my son’s learning preference to be something other than sitting and listening for the better part of the day, part of my job as a homeschooling mom meant I had to research, experiment and try something different.

This process ultimately led to my calling and visiting school leaders across the country and exposed me to a whole new innovative school movement taking off and resulting in success. Students were showing marked improvement in literacy and numeracy and demonstrating impressive cognitive abilities beyond basic expectations.

I wanted this for my son – both my sons. I wanted this for my friends' children. I wanted this for those that had succumbed to and settled for a mediocre education experience believing this was their only option.

A year later, my son was admitted to our first-choice school, LAUSD’s Open Magnet Charter School, for first grade. This project-based, flexible, personalized learning environment has proven to be exactly what my son needed. He is thriving and loving his school experience.

But, I’m still concerned for those students and families – of all income levels in all parts of the city – who have not been so lucky. That concern, coupled with my passion for teaching, my research and the experience homeschooling my son, has given birth to my idea to open a charter school.

The school I am creating, Learning by Design Charter School, is a K-5 elementary school slated to launch in fall 2018 in South Los Angeles. This week, I begin partnering with Baldwin Hills Elementary School, an LAUSD magnet, to pilot some of our personalized teaching ideas with a small population of students and teachers.

When I taught in Compton, the most common instruction I heard parents give their kids was to behave and follow teacher directions. While teachers, of course, do want students to behave, I want to make sure that all students – including African American students – are not robbed of their own perspectives, as well as the ability to articulate their thoughts, desires, opinions and learning needs. 

Our goal is to meet kids’ needs wherever they are, while constantly seeking student feedback, and to bring some of the innovative, experiential and flexible learning experiences of West Side charters to more underserved areas of Los Angeles.

The school I am designing is a school that is more reflective of what students are currently experiencing in their lives and responsive to what they will need to know in the near future. A school that takes into account each student's personal learning needs and creates a unique learning path especially for each student.

It’s also a school that allows students the opportunity to explore, create, discover, build and prototype. A school that challenges students to step outside their comfort zones and encourages risk taking. A school that celebrates failure knowing it is a critical step in the learning process. A school that offers a different option for families seeking one.

Because, in the end it’s all about options. The right option for each student. All families in every part of the city want and deserve that. I’m happy and excited to be working toward offering another viable option for families so they don’t wind up where I was when my child entered kindergarten – with no great option, except to stay home.

 – Charla Austin Harris is a wife, mother of two boys, educator and charter school founder in Los Angeles