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standardized tests

Magnet Schools for This Mami: Forcing LAUSD to Work for My Daughter

I'm not bragging when I say, “My daughter is smart.” I started reading to her when she was a newborn. At four months old, she could turn the pages on a book as read to her. At 18 months, she was giving me driving directions to her favorite park. At 2 years old, after a temper tantrum, I asked her, “Honey, can you tell me why you were so angry?” She stopped drinking her milk, and responded, “No, Mommy. Not angry. I frustrated.” So, yeah, I have a smart kid. This story is about her smarts and how we got her what she needed from the very large, imposing and depersonalizing Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). She was horrifically bullied in kindergarten, physically and emotionally—including threats to cut her throat with scissors, punches to the chest so hard she thought she was going to die, multiple boys spying on her while she used the potty and were caught by LAUSD staff but not punished. But that’s an article for another day. Her first- and second-grade teachers told us during our parent/teacher conferences that she was bright, caring, a great reader and gifted in math. In fact, her second-grade teacher told us she needed us to help supplement her classwork because she had “no more to offer” our daughter. To illustrate, she recalled the time the children were asking her any questions they wanted, like how plants grow. My daughter wanted to discuss the difference between a black hole and dark matter. (On that one, I blame my husband, who watches the Discovery and Science channels with her on weekends.) Although students are supposed to be tested for gifted and talented aptitude in the second grade, we were told that LAUSD is a full year behind on testing. We were frustrated, because we knew she was likely to test as gifted, and then be able to transfer to a gifted magnet school. Our only other option was for her to “test into” gifted status by passing a standardized test called the OLSAT. Her second-grade teacher showed us some of the sample OLSAT test questions, and, I must admit, they looked quite challenging (and I passed the California Bar exam on my first try!). She also said that no student had passed the OLSAT from my daughter’s school in two years. We were not hopeful, and wondered about having her tested privately so we could try to get her into a gifted magnet school. Then, just three weeks before the end of her second-grade year, we got a letter from her principal, saying that our daughter had passed the OLSAT and was considered gifted by LAUSD. We were thrilled and immediately set up a meeting with the principal. She was equally excited—our daughter was the only child in the school who had passed the test! At the same time, she admitted, the school simply didn’t have the resources to give our daughter the educational challenges she needed. She loved our daughter—her spirit, enthusiasm, her “big personality,”—and enjoyed having us as an active family in the PTA and school activities, but had to recommend we try to get her into a gifted magnet school. Unfortunately, it was too late to apply through LAUSD’s open enrollment for a new school for third grade. We resigned ourselves to another year at a school that appreciated our daughter’s intellect but simply couldn’t challenge her. After her second day of third grade, I asked her how she liked it. She said, “I love my teacher, Mommy! She’s really nice and I know a lot of kids in class already.” She paused. “But Mommy, I need more stimulation.” I asked, “What kind of stimulation?” She replied, “You know, mental stimulation. So I won’t get bored.” My heart sank: On her second day of class, she already felt she was going to be bored. In October, we began the “Choices” process at LAUSD to apply for gifted magnet school enrollment for her fourth grade year. We attended an evening open house hosted by several magnet schools and, in speaking with a teacher from a gifted magnet, I mentioned my daughter had passed the OLSAT. She asked about her scores, and I told her. She was very interested and said, “If she’s already passed the OLSAT, she can apply for a place at a gifted magnet on a ‘space available’ basis. I know we have space in our third grade class. She could transfer at the end of the semester and start with us in January.” I had never heard about this option before and was surprised. My daughter, who was listening in (of course), immediately piped up, “I want to do that. Mommy, I want to transfer to a gifted magnet.” I turned to her and said, “But what about all your friends? Won’t you miss them?” She did not hesitate. “I can have play dates with them, Mommy. I need a new school, I need the stimulation.” She’s 8 years old and was determined to make this change, as soon as possible. Her father and I discussed this with her several times over the next month and she never wavered. We also talked to her teacher and current principal and they were supportive. We visited a few gifted magnet schools and one stood out for us, and for our daughter. She even chose which third grade classroom she preferred. We submitted our application for “Choices” for her fourth grade year on a Friday in November. The following Monday, we submitted a “Space Available” application for the gifted magnet school we thought was the best fit. Considering that LAUSD is behind in testing second graders for gifted status, there was plenty of room in the third grade class at the school we wanted. The next day, the gifted magnet coordinator emailed us to say our daughter had been accepted to start school there in January 2016. We were elated and relieved. That night, at dinner, I told my daughter, “We have a surprise for you!” She smiled a huge smile and guessed, “Did I get into the gifted magnet?” She had been asking every day since we had attended the magnet open house. When we said yes, she immediately responded, “My best friend is going to be shocked! We didn’t think I would get in!” I had a brief flash of what college admissions are going to feel like. Her last month at her old school was bittersweet. She happily counted down the days to winter break, knowing she was going to be attending a new school. Her friends were supportive and sad. Her teacher and principal were happy for our whole family, and also sorry to lose us. My daughter rode the excitement and adrenaline until the day before her first day at the new school. The night before her first day, she told me she was scared she wasn’t going to be smart anymore, and was worried she wouldn’t make friends. I reminded her she was always going to be smart, but maybe she wasn’t going to be the smartest student in the room anymore. And that was ok, because education is not a competition with anyone else. I told her, it’s a competition with yourself to learn and grow as much as you can. She nodded and replied, “That’s true, Mommy. If its easy, its not worth doing.” I was flabbergasted by this comment and asked, “Where did you learn that?” She said, “It’s just true. I learn the most from the things that are difficult for me.” About friends, I told her to think of her first day as planting seeds. Sometimes seeds grow into beautiful flowers; others become weeds; still others don’t grow at all. It would take time to see how her friendships grew at her new school. She was silent, then asked, “Why are you telling me this?” I responded, “Because I don’t want you to be sad after school tomorrow if you don’t make new best friends right away. It’s going to take time.” She nodded, “OK. I get it. I really want to grow some strong, bright sunflowers, Mommy!” I am proud and relieved to say, her first week at her new school went very well. She was warmly welcomed by her new principal as the only new student this semester, and was placed in the classroom she wanted. She loves her new teacher and her “teaching style” (my daughter’s description). She talks excitedly about her “seedlings”—the new friendships she has started. She has more and different homework, and for the first time since Pre-K, has actually needed help with it. She got a perfect score on her first vocabulary test. We couldn’t be happier with how she’s begun this new chapter in her education, and hope her seedlings grow along with her character.
An original version of this post appeared in La Comadre.
Jerilyn Lopez-Mendoza is the environmental affairs program manager at Southern California Gas Company.

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