Given Ninth Street’s history, I was curious to see the new campus and meet the folks who will be running the reopened school—a curiosity that deepened when the new principal and one of the school’s teachers reached out to me by email and invited me to visit. The principal, Dean Simpson, is not your average administrator—he has spent the past decade teaching, coaching and mentoring principals and teachers on effective teaching practices, lesson design, and professional development. I think that Simpson’s appointment is a clear signal that LAUSD is bringing out the big guns for Ninth Street and really wants this school to succeed.
When I first saw the new campus, I was seriously impressed. The campus (which the school shares with Ninth Street Middle School, a charter school run by the educational non-profit Para Los Niños) includes 33 classrooms housed in two buildings, a library, a gymnasium/assembly space, separate play areas for kindergarten, elementary and middle school students, and wireless Internet access for all students. The campus courtyard features a lawn and a vertical garden on one wall. The outer walls of the campus are made of zinc, giving it a look reminiscent of Disney Hall (and also providing extra security to a school located right next to Skid Row). The campus truly is a gem, making Ninth Street one of the most beautiful schools in LAUSD.
But when the Meet the Principal session began, I got a reality check on the serious problems that will have to be tackled by the school. A representative from Union Rescue Mission was there to ask about busing students from the shelter (the mission provides emergency shelter for approximately 100 children). One family couldn’t afford the $10 per child cost of a TB test that is required of all incoming students. And all of the families were shocked to learn that the school will not provide transportation to most students (only homeless and special education students qualify for busing) and there will be no afterschool care for grades K-1. It was painful to hear parent after parent ask the principal what they were supposed to do with their children when school was dismissed. These are the working poor, folks who have no money for private childcare and no ability to take time off from work without being docked for pay or losing their jobs. Many of them also don’t own cars and are dependent on public transportation (and not in an “I’m a green hipster riding my fixie” kind of way), which means the simple act of taking their children to school every day is a potential hardship.
I’ve been asked repeatedly whether or not middle-class loft dwellers will send their kids to Ninth Street and after visiting I have to say: Who cares, really? Middle-class folks have options. They may not be ideal options but if you have a car, a professional job and enough education to understand how to navigate the system, your kid will be fine regardless of what school they attend. I doubt most loft dwellers will consider sending their kids to Ninth Street, at least not until they have some proof that the school is safe and that their children can get a good education there. But the real challenge facing Principal Simpson and his team is this: How do you provide a high-quality education to some of the poorest students in the entire county? How do you teach kids who may be coming to school hungry, poorly dressed, sleep-deprived because they live in a crowded, noisy shelter, who may be victims of physical and sexual abuse, who live in homes with no books and without the means to buy even basic school supplies? How do you teach students who may spend only a few months in your classroom before moving to another school? These issues are related to fundamental problems in our society such as growing income inequality and the defunding of our public schools.
I really want to see Principal Simpson and his teachers succeed. I think it would benefit the downtown community a lot if we had a strong and academically performing local school, but that’s incidental to the main goal: Helping the students at Ninth Street to learn and thrive and have a decent shot at a better life. Will the downtown community support these kids or will we avert our eyes the way we do with the homeless on the streets? I hope we’re better than that.