September 18, 2014

Parent’s POV: Dorris Place Elementary

DorrisToday’s post was written by guest author Camille Irons Coakley, a downtown Los Angeles parent. Read on for her perspective on moving from Beverly Hills to DTLA and discovering a great LAUSD school for her kid.

For years we managed to dodge the whole public school nightmare by nesting in Beverly Hills, where really wealthy people pay high taxes so that families like mine can take advantage of the great public school system. But because it was time for us to downsize and to be closer to work, we made the move to downtown Los Angeles.

Having other kids for our son to play with and safety were major concerns, but our biggest concern was LAUSD. I’ve always feared LAUSD from what I’ve heard and read, but now I was forced to face it head on.

After hours of research, including coming across this Web site, I started to feel reassured that there were some viable options through the open enrollment program. However, since it was mid-year, many of the good schools were not accepting new students. Luckily for us, there was a shortage of 4th graders at Dorris Place Elementary.

Dedicated Principal

It didn’t take long for me to realize there was something special about Dorris Place. When I first called the school to see about enrolling my son, I was told the principal would call me back. A few hours later, I received a phone call from the principal, Mrs. Susan Schmidt, and an invitation to visit the school. This is probably typical behavior at small charter schools, but I did not expect this from a principal at an LAUSD school.

Dorris Place is housed in a beautiful historic brick building on a quiet, tree-lined street. As I toured the school with the principal, several kids came up to her to suggest ways they could help the less fortunate. If it didn’t feel so authentic, I may have thought it was staged and that every time visitors came, Mrs. Schmidt would go to her stash of healthy goodies and give them snacks if they went along with the act. But, this has happened several times since.

Mrs. Schmidt took the time to talk to me about the school and answer my questions, which is another testament to her accessibility and how she runs the school. What I found most intriguing about Dorris Place was how it achieved an API score of 884 last year considering the demographics of the school. The school is 72% Latino, 18% Asian, and less than 1% black and white; plus 86% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. I have done my fair share of research on minorities in education to know this was unusual, so I was determined to find out how she did it. She told me that it came down to the teachers voluntarily taking classes on teaching gifted students and how the whole school was taught as if each child was gifted. I came out of my meeting with Mrs. Schmidt sold on Dorris Place and feeling like I could be a part of something revolutionary.

As an African American family, being a “minority” is not unusual for us here in Los Angeles, but at Dorris Place my son was now a minority to a minority. I have always struggled to find good schools that had a black population above 5 percent in Los Angeles and now we found ourselves in a school that had less than 1 percent. I wasn’t sure how this was going to play out with my son, but to my surprise and satisfaction, he loves it at Dorris Place. He was warmly received by the kids and immediately made friends. His teacher was even surprised at how well and fast he transitioned. The school even uses some of the same text books as his other school and was actually ahead in some subjects.

The commute is a breeze in the morning, taking only 10 minutes from downtown. The school has a valet drop-off service in the morning, which makes it very convenient for those of us that don’t live in the immediate area. Coming back is a little more challenging because of the traffic and can take up to 15 to 25 minutes.

There is an after school enrichment program called LA’s Best that we all love. My son loves it because of the fun activities the program offers such as chess, Wii, Pokemon, and sports. I love it because it’s free, they help with homework, and the program runs until 6 p.m.

Strong Parental Involvement

The school does not have a PTA but has a non-profit organization called Partners of Dorris (POD) which supports the school. I attended my first POD meeting and was impressed with its founder, Blair Lennane. She seemed to have a natural knack to lead and is very passionate about the organization’s purpose. This group has accomplished a lot in a short period of time, including reopening the school’s library after it closed due to budget cuts and purchasing musical instruments to keep the school’s music program alive.

My son’s biggest complaint is that there’s not a playground for the older kids and they are not allowed to play tag on the yard. He also complains about the lunch and insists I pack his lunch every day. Lunch at the school is only $1.50, but apparently you get what you pay for. I guess he got spoiled in Beverly Hills where lunch is $7.50 per day and apparently well worth it. Another downside is that the school’s auditorium is small and cramped, but again, we may just be spoiled.

All in all, Dorris Place has been a pretty good move for me and my family. My husband is happy he doesn’t have to get out of the car to drop our son off in the morning and my son’s happy he can play Pokemon every day. But what I like most about the school is the passion I’ve seen from the principal, teachers, and parents that make up this school. There seems to be an overwhelming sense of community and a cooperative effort to ensure the kids at this school receive a quality education. I’m excited to be a part of it and I look forward to contributing my talents and resources to make sure Dorris Place continues to exceed expectations and defy the odds.

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About Alisa Rivera

Alisa is a writer whose work has been featured in the Oregonian, the Syracuse Post-Standard, Latina magazine and other publications. She has also had her short fiction published in the Berkely Fiction Review and Iris: A Journal About Women. Alisa and her husband, James Hightower, have been happily raising their son, Nathan, in downtown Los Angeles since 2008. You can learn more about Alisa's work at www.alisarivera.com.