Ten years ago, Los Angeles education started over. A force of nature entered the scene. Monica Garcia had just come through a grueling runoff election for the Board of the Los Angeles Unified School District. It was June 6, 2006. The Los Angeles Unified School District, founded in 1853, would never be the same.
As soon as she was elected, board members asked Garcia to provide documents proving she had actually won the election. Understanding the difference between the personal and the political, Monica complied and began to win over skeptics. Together, they came to see the district for what it was — an entitled bureaucracy failing some of our most vulnerable children.
Within months of her election, power began to shift away from the status quo toward Monica’s brand of educational justice. She passed eight resolutions during her first year in office.
Garcia’s booming voice cuts through chaos. Some powerful people don’t like the sound of it, but they know better than to ignore it because Monica isn’t speaking for herself. She’s speaking for us. Hers is the voice of kids, parents, teachers, school janitors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, special education assistants, and people in the community.
What defines Monica Garcia isn’t her voice, it’s her ear. Monica listens. She’ll tell you if something will work or how to make it work. If an idea won’t work, she’s not afraid to tell you.
“When I think of Monica, I think of a fighter,” says LA City Councilman Jose Huizar. “She puts the kids ahead of all other considerations, which is what a board member should do. She’s been tenacious, fighting the good fight, even if she’s standing there alone. She’s been a voice that had been missing from the school board for a very long time, challenging the district to look at itself in the mirror and correct systematic inequalities that have existed for a very long time. She’s been a source of inspiration for education, not only here but across the country.”
The LAUSD has suffered plenty of setbacks in the last ten years. Some were brought about by the recession. Some were well-intentioned initiatives that went terribly wrong (iPads, MiSiS). But with Monica Garcia serving as Board President for six of those ten years, LAUSD has made big progress.
This year, LAUSD’s four-year cohort graduation rate is above 70%, up from about 48% a decade ago. LAUSD has more independent and affiliated charter schools than any other district in the country, offering parents options that can’t be found anywhere else.
Since Monica Garcia’s School Climate Bill of Rights was passed in 2013, suspensions have dropped by about 80%. In the last ten years, the percentage of English Language Learner students being reclassified (meaning they’ve become proficient in English) has almost doubled to 24%.
Monica Garcia can’t be described as a staunch advocate or opponent of any single ideology. She’s for kids, plain and simple. She works everyday to make LAUSD schools better, but if a partnership will get the kids an excellent education faster, Monica’s on board. That may be a teacher-founded pilot school, a partnership school or a charter.
Early on, Monica championed the teacher-led pilot school movement. It was a big change from the top-down leadership LAUSD was used to. Pilot schools allow teachers to design their own educational model, and they’re an example of local control. Pilot schools innovate, they have new expectations of staff and students, and some restructure the school day. LAUSD didn’t know how to support that kind of teacher-led educational entrepreneurship, and Monica was there for them.
Pilot schools gave parents in low-income communities a choice. Suddenly, teachers could create innovative programs to serve communities within the district structure.
Garcia was elected Board President in 2007 when the recession hit hard. She led a board that was willing to make tough choices and cut central bureaucracy by about half. To free up the remaining administrative staff to get more work done, she eliminated redundant, mandatory televised committee meetings that dragged on and accomplished little.
In 2008, LAUSD was building new schools, while the old ones were falling apart. Garcia walked reporters through Hollenbeck Middle School, showing them the dilapidated facility so voters could understand why Measure Q was needed. Thanks partly to her support, it passed, bringing $7 billion to repair and upgrade traditional schools and to support charter schools.
When Monica says “all kids can learn,” she means all kids — including those who have been in Los Angeles County juvenile detention centers. It used to be that when students were released from detention and came back to school, their transcripts weren’t available. Schools didn’t know where to put the returning students because they couldn’t figure out which courses those kids had completed in detention. Confused and isolated, many of formerly detained students gave up and dropped out. Monica addressed this the problem by connecting county services with the district. Now, there’s a bridge that youth can cross from detention back to education.
Following her “all kids can learn” belief, Monica wants our kids to go to college. Her Go East LA initiative is taking off. Students from a family of middle and high schools are guaranteed admittance to East Los Angeles Community College and transfer to California State University, Los Angeles after they meet minimum requirements.
LAUSD’s toughest days may lie ahead. School funding has improved, but the district faces declining enrollment and unfunded pension obligations. We are fortunate to still have Monica and her ability to inspire people to stay focused on what works best for kids.
Monica is up for re-election on Tuesday, March 7. To learn more about her, click here.
Alma V. Marquez
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