Parent, Educator Allison Bajracharya: ‘I absolutely think it's possible to serve all kids’

This lightly edited interview is the first in a series of Q&As with some of the candidates running for the LAUSD Board in District 5 on March 5. To read about other candidates, click here.

Speak UP: Tell us about your background and why you're running for school board.

Allison_Family-4704.jpg

Allison Bajracharya: I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. I'm Jewish, and my parents grew up in Kansas City and faced a lot of anti-Semitism. That experience instilled the concepts of social justice and working with people who might not be in our immediate community. There are so many decisions made in our world today that are leaving so many people powerless. And it feels especially true in public education, when we're saying to a certain family, “you can only go to this school, and we're sorry that that school only has 4 percent proficiency, but that's your neighborhood school." Or "we're sorry you had a long-term sub for three years, but that's the best we can do." And it's true with our federal administration when they're making decisions or claims that suggest that certain people should be treated as second-class citizens. I absolutely disagree.

I've worked really hard to think about how to bring power to communities, and I really think education is the No. 1 opportunity. I've worked in education for the last 18 years, starting as a high school teacher and then pursuing a Masters in Public Policy because I recognized that what was happening in my classroom where I taught was really the result of a system-level failure. So I thought if I go and get my Masters in Public Policy I could look at how to influence education at a systems level. I’ve worn a lot of different hats for the last 18 years, starting as a teacher but then working at the district with Marlene Canter, who was [LAUSD] school board President. I was her Director of Community Affairs.

SU: You're also a parent in the district now. How many kids do you have and where are they in school?

Allison: I have two kids, definitely the greatest source of pride for me. My daughter, Miri, is 9 years old, and she's in 4th grade and my son, Leo, is 7, and he's in 2nd. They attend Franklin Avenue Elementary, which is our neighborhood school in Los Feliz. We’ve had amazing teachers every year, which in any school is pretty unusual. The community is a very rich part of the school. The fact that we get to walk to school is so unusual in L.A.  

SU: Did you look around like a lot of parents do or did you know or move into that area for the school?  

Allison: We used to live in Silver Lake, right across the street from Ivanhoe, which was the school everyone wanted to go to. When we had our second child, we found this great house and so we moved out of Ivanhoe into Franklin. We didn’t know a lot about Franklin, but we knew it was good. Franklin had a diverse community, which really appealed to us. Given my field, though, I wanted to pursue all of our options, and so we did. We applied to Gabriella, which I loved, Citizens of the World, and Larchmont. The big joke is that when we applied, I was working at the California Charter School Association, and we didn't get into any of the charter schools. I actually thought it was a really great example that there was no way to work the system. It was a random lottery. So it made our decision easier. We already were favoring Franklin in the first place, loved the idea of having a community school. I continue to apply to charters every year because I want to have that choice. But we continue to stay at Franklin. The teachers are super loving. My daughter is thriving. My son is a different learner and so we're figuring that out, but they're having really positive experiences, and I would love to see something like that in every neighborhood in L.A.

SU: How has having your kids in an LAUSD school affected your view of LAUSD and what might need to change?  

Allison: As somebody who spends time as an operator of charter schools and takes a lot of pride in innovation, I've seen what some of those changes are that can take a school to a whole other level. Not every child does well at the desk every day. We also have a very active parent group but a very active parent group that's getting worn out. They're trying to raise money, and we’re lucky that we're in a community where we can raise money, but the district’s made it very hard. So much bureaucracy, so many hoops to jump through to host events. Talking to our principal, who's been with district for a long time, she feels very constrained in what she can and cannot do. So when I talk to her about some of the social-emotional work that I know the community wants so badly, it's not something she feels like she can immediately opt into. That innovation, the flexibility, being nimble is just not something that is a strength of the district.

SU: Can you tell us about your current work at Camino Nuevo?

Allison: I'm the chief operations and strategy officer. We have six charter schools and a preschool so we operate eight campuses serving 3,600 mostly low-income Latino families. I oversee all the operations of facilities, compliance, technology and also all our programs: mental health program, our parent engagement work, our student support services, our college success work and then our fundraising and communications. So I wear a lot of hats. It's been really eye opening to just understand how hard it is to operate schools because we have families whose needs are extensive, especially in this political landscape, where so many families are living in fear, and that creates a fear of institutions. It creates a fear of going into public, and it creates a fear of asking for help, and that's the last thing we want. We actually have a couple of parents who were detained, and one of them was actually deported. It was not at school. It was early in the morning, but the fear and immediate acute feeling of anxiety that creates is so extensive.

SU: Did the school do anything to help?

Allison_Family-5006.jpg

Allison: We did. We went out and did a lot of fundraising to help cover costs for legal fees but also to pay rent for that family. We also partnered with ACLU and CHIRLA and other organizations, just recognizing the more resources we could bring to bear and the more pro-bono legal work that the families could benefit from, the better. That has been our approach as an organization forever. Community matters, and community partnerships matter because kids, in order to do well in the classroom, they need to have their basic needs met.  

SU: Camino Nuevo has unionized charter schools. Do they all serve all kids in their attendance boundaries?

Allison: We have six charter petitions. Two of them are public school choice charter schools. That means we are the neighborhood school for that geographic boundary. Camino Nuevo Cisneros and Camino Nuevo Castellanos. Both of them have a bilingual program. The Cisneros campus, which is in Echo Park, also has an English-only program. Cisneros is one of our highest performing schools. It models a lot of innovation. You walk into a classroom there, and you just immediately feel support, that the kids' needs are being met, that the teacher is excited to be there and kids are learning, but they're learning in all different ways. That school also has about 10 percent of kids who are homeless. So they're not only serving all the kids in the attendance boundary, but they're really serving students whose needs are significant, and they’re doing so exceptionally well.

SU: Are all the Camino Nuevo schools doing well?    

Allison: We have some schools that are doing really well, Cisneros being one of them, Kayne Siart being another. Our Burlington Campus, which is our flagship school, is doing well, and then two others aren't doing as well. We have one high school that's done really well and another that we’ve really struggled to get off the ground, and we're sort of moving in a positive trajectory, but that experience has reinforced that there is no silver bullet, and, again, that this work is so hard.

SU: What's the difference?

Allison: Leadership really matters. A strong principal is so critical to setting the tone and the expectations, and that's true in charter schools and traditional public schools. A strong principal then fosters strong teachers. And at the end of the day, schools are successful because they have strong leaders and strong teachers.

SU: How do you see that translating to the district?  

Allison: We have to place a much bigger focus on what does great leadership look like? And how do we support leaders to get there if they're not? We have to provide ongoing training, support, feedback and accountability if it's not working. I think at the schools where there have been turnarounds with the district, it's because you had a really strong leader who said, “I'm going to do this. I'm going to do it on my terms.” 

SU: What are some of the big things you would try to change if elected?

Allison: The first thing I want to see is graduation requirements that are reflective of high expectations. Right now, the district has an A-G policy, which is a big win. Because all students have to take A-G classes in order to be able to apply to a Cal State or UC. Before that, kids weren't even taking those classes. The problem right now with the policy is that students only have to have a D or higher to graduate in those courses, but to apply to a UC or CSU, you have to have a C or higher. Right now, 46 percent of high school graduates in LAUSD do not have a C or higher, meaning they are not eligible to apply.

SU: You taught in traditional district schools. You have your child in a traditional district school, but you work at a charter network, and you worked for the charter association. The main funders of these races are typically the charter association and the teachers union, and there are a lot of attempts to divide parents into these two camps, district versus charter. You obviously have a foot in both worlds. What do you think about these attempts to divide parents into these camps?

Allison: I absolutely think it's possible to serve all kids, and that's really what's motivated me to run in this race. When I think about L.A. as a very progressive city that, in theory, really embraces all communities, we can't have an education system that reflects the polarization and vitriol of our national society right now. Unfortunately, I think we do, and so I'm really eager to move past that because our kids need better public schools now. We can't say 30 percent proficiency is OK. It's not, and we have to be honest about that. The only way we're going to change is thinking differently and getting to solutions for kids. There are some really great district schools and some really great charter schools, and neither entity is perfect. We have to figure out where there are things that are going well and how we fast track them to many more kids, especially in low-performing communities.

SU: What do you think of Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos?

Allison: I think they've done a complete disservice to public education. They really devalued how challenging this work, how important it is. They have distracted people who are working really hard from focusing on good solutions by suggesting that private schools with public dollars are OK. It's a horrible idea. And they’ve really convoluted what the concept of charter schools are, especially charter schools in L.A. I do not think [for-profit charter schools] should exist. Public dollars should stay public. I think they've perpetuated more distinctions instead of bringing people together to focus on solutions in public education. 

SU: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to district finances?

Allison: The district is in a very dire place right now fiscally. If they aren't able to make changes, they're going to lose authority over their budget, and that's really scary when we think about wanting to see public education thrive and succeed. So there has to be a real conversation about sources of revenue. I appreciate that there's already movement towards a ballot measure in 2020 to increase public funding. I think everybody in LA absolutely has to support that. I also think the district has to play a key leadership role in really addressing the state pension question. Pensions are throwing everyone under the bus right now, districts and charter schools. They are far too expensive. And they're making the concept of a pension really unsustainable. That’s happening at the state so that is not something the district can solve, but the district can apply pressure to the state to change that. I [also] think healthcare costs are real. Right now, 30 percent of per pupil revenue is going to healthcare costs, and it's going to rise to 50 percent. So one of every two dollars in 10 years is going to go to cover the cost of healthcare.

SU: What are your thoughts on the impending teachers’ strike? How do we solve the issues the teachers are having?

Allison: I think for the most part, the issues they have are all legitimate. Nobody wants a giant class. My daughter went from third grade to fourth grade. Third grade, she had 23 kids in her class. This year, she has 34. That is daunting. That is hard for a teacher, for sure. That is absolutely a reasonable request, and, of course, we want to have more nurses on campus. Then counselors, [we need] more staff on campus who can help take some the burden off the principals. Right now, they're doing way too many things for one person. So all of those requests are absolutely valid, and things we need to be working towards. I think the question is, where does the funding really come from? I worry that the district, the way they articulated their budget, is actually more accurate than not. The implications are severe if they were to make all of these commitments now. So what's really important is coming together and figuring out, OK, where can we cut some of the bureaucracy? Because the bureaucracy has not been downsized at the same rate as enrollment has. Where can we free up some revenue there? How can we work together on a parcel tax now? I definitely understand teachers' frustration. As a parent, I absolutely support and want to see those things. I also don't want to see kids caught in crossfire.

SU: It does feel like kids and parents are caught in the middle. How are parents at your school feeling about the prospects of this strike?

Allison: There’s a whole variety of feelings. There are a lot of parents who empathize with the teachers. Our teachers are doing amazingly important and hard work. We want to see them supported. The school year is already fairly short. Every day matters for our kids. The prospect of kids not being in class and missing those instructional minutes, and then the real practical question of what do you do with your kids when you're working? Those are all really hard, scary things. So it evokes a lot of emotions and uncertainty and some fear, for sure.

SU: In your job at Murmuration, you helped register under-represented parents to vote. Board district 5 is divided into two areas, the north and the south. Apparently, it was drawn that way as a result of the Voting Rights Act to maximize Latino voter participation, and some people view this as a Latino seat. You are not Latina. Can you talk about why you are the person to represent some of the underrepresented communities in the southeast that have often been ignored and how you would reach out to those families? 

AllisonB.JPG

Allison: Yes. I am white, and I have grown up with a lot of privilege, and I acknowledge that and own that, for sure. But I've spent my career, really 18 years, working with families in low-income communities fighting for great schools. I work at Camino Nuevo, which is over 90 percent Latino. And I think it's really important in this vitriolic world, regardless of our skin color, we show how we can represent and listen and connect with and support and advocate for all communities. That would be absolutely my intention. There is a lot of inequity within Board district 5 alone, and that needs to be addressed in terms of funding. The district's resolution around equitable funding was a good step forward. But, most importantly, it needs to be addressed in terms of outcomes. We really have to see all kids being challenged and living up to their fullest potential.

SU: What is your vision for the district five schools and LAUSD as a whole?  

Allison: My vision is really having a school like Franklin that meets the community needs in every community in L.A., and I don't think that's overly idealistic. If we can focus more on what excellence looks like, what equity looks like, what innovation looks like, we could actually have schools that are consistently meeting these needs. That happens through the policy piece around graduation requirements. It happens around making sure basic needs are met related to safety, but also thinking about social-emotional and mental health work in a different way. And then really focusing on what it means to have parents as partners. At Camino Nuevo, that's something we've done very well, and we've got resources behind that to make that happen. I feel like if we want to get all of our schools to a place of excellence and equity, we need to make them welcoming for parents and make them places where parents feel supported and engaged and can also learn so they're going home and then supporting their kids. It does require thinking differently than we've always thought, and it requires bringing resources for it, as well.

SU: How do we address persistently low-performing schools?  

Allison: Schools are like ecosystems. There is not just one thing that changes everything. It's about how everything is interacting. So if a school is historically not doing well for kids, and a principal has been coached and supported and trained and evaluated and is having honest conversations, then it's probably time to figure out how do we bring a new leader to that school. If the principal is new or a principal hasn't had that, then we can bring those resources to build that capacity, but of course seeing historic trends around things that are not changing, we absolutely have to do things differently. That means thinking about talent and how we’re directing resources so a school isn't always being staffed by long-term subs. 

SU: The district is losing enrollment, and one thing the district doesn't do is ask families, “Why are you leaving?” Often the answer is, they had five different subs in six months and their kids are falling through the cracks. Or they got a teacher who's yelling at their kid. It often comes down to their kid's teacher and whether they’re getting the education they deserve. And these are issues with the teachers contract and state law. How do we deal with that? 

Allison: We can't wait until parents are leaving to figure out why they are leaving. We actually have to think proactively about what would enable them to stay. So that means [looking at] how the teachers are engaging parents, and if teachers really aren't able to meet those expectations, then they should be encouraged to go elsewhere. That's a lot easier said than done, for sure. There are some very challenging pieces of the [teachers] contract, but if we can change the dialogue and get away from the us versus them, then maybe we can also have some really legitimate questions about how do we all move forward together and ensure there's a contract that protects teachers where they need protection but also protects kids? Because at the end of the day, it's all about them.

SU: Right now every person in the school building has a strong union representing their interests except for the kids. Do you believe parents should have a greater voice in the system to represent the kids, and what would that look like?

Allison: Absolutely. The kids and the parents don't have a voice right now, for sure. That's why the work you guys are doing is so important. For so long, parents have felt like they couldn't engage, or like their voice didn't matter, and that’s just not true. We have to figure out how there's an opportunity for parents to feel valued and actually be heard.

SU: We have a lot of Speak UP parents in district 5 who have kids with special needs and English language learners. How can we improve services for these kids?

Allison: One, creating some clear goals. By doing that, you're saying I care about this group, and I know that this group can and should do better, and that sounds so simple but it's actually a fundamental culture and expectation shift. And then it's really digging into the data and the practices and figuring out where things are going well and where they're not.   The district has worked really aggressively to serve students with special needs better, but they’re still far from getting there. And charters have really struggled with how to serve students with special needs better and have made a lot of improvements. Charter schools are now much more on par in terms of what percentage of students with special needs they are serving, and they are much more innovative in making sure they are serving kids across the continuum of need. There are a lot more proof points on how inclusion can serve kids well. I know in Board district 5, however, there are definitely some schools that are focused specifically on students with special needs, and there's a desire to keep those schools because the students have such high needs, and the school has really thought holistically about how to make sure those kids feel welcome and have all of their needs met, so I want to understand that better and figure out what else can be learned on that front.

SU: What sets you apart from all the other candidates in this race?

Allison: This is not a stepping stone for me. I've been in public education for 18 years because I care about it immensely, and I'm interested in continuing to figure how from a systems level can we reverse inequities of decades past. So that is something that is very authentic and true for me. I bring my whole self to this campaign, and I think it is unique that I'm both a parent in the district and an educator, and really understand the challenges and opportunities ahead. There will be very little learning curve for me.

SU: There's a lot of debate about evaluating teachers and how hard it is to measure that. But parents often have a really good sense of the teachers that they want and those that they don't want. Do you think there's a way to incorporate parent and/or a student feedback into those evaluations? 

Allison: [There should be] multiple data points, and I think parent voice should absolutely be a part of that. And teachers as professionals should want to be evaluated. Who doesn't want to get feedback on how they're doing and how they can grow? So we have to reverse the culture around that. 

SU: Some teachers are only evaluated every five years. What do you think about that?

Allison: No, I definitely don't want to wait five years for my teacher to figure out they are doing great or need to grow. That's not OK.

SU: Tell us more about your experience teaching?

FP2A8732 (1).jpg

Allison: When I taught [in New Orleans], I was teaching high school English and science. I had 50 kids on my roster, and only 20 or 25 were showing up. My kids were amazing people, full of personality -- loved reading, loved being challenged, but they really hadn't been challenged in the right ways for so long. And so my 11th graders were really on average reading between a 3rd and 5th-grade level. And that's not OK. That inequity that I experienced firsthand, when I realized it wasn't just isolated to my classroom or the school or to New Orleans. It was really happening across low-income communities across the country. That’s why I've stayed in public education and try to pursue closing the equity gap and reversing this system from so many different lenses, and I do think it's possible.  

SU: Tell us about your students and what you learned from them?

Allison: Most of my students were black, with a small subset Vietnamese. I had some really important life lessons coming in as a white woman. You don't just come in with a lot of assumptions. You have to build relationships. My first year as a teacher, I had this student who was a total leader. She was super smart, super vocal, and I was teaching a lesson on synonyms in October that I thought was a really great lesson. I looked up and I saw a lot of the students were sort of laughing and smirking, and I was trying to figure out what's going on. [The student] was circulating a petition to have me removed from the class. That was a really, really hard experience. I took a deep breath. I tried not to be outraged. I tried not to laugh.  

In some ways, as somebody who loves community organizing, I was so proud of her for being an activist, but I was also so hurt. It took a lot for me to get out of bed [the next day] and get back into class. So over those next two months, I worked a lot on relationship restoration, building trust, trying to understand better where my kids were and what their needs were. Come January, we were switching classes and [the student] was not on my roster the next semester. She actually came back to me and asked for me to make an exception to put her on my roster. It’s humbling, and I've taken that experience with me. I absolutely connect with teachers and how hard that job is, and no matter how much your heart is in it, every day is unpredictable and can be hard. It can feel hurtful, or can be inspiring, and being supported and feeling like there's hope is so critical to a teacher’s success. I see that, and I want to continue to see teachers thrive because they are the biggest indicator of a kid’s success.