Florencia and her son Jose
I have been asked by people for an update about Fairfax High and I am sorry to say it continues to be a mess. Last month I wrote about plans for a new middle school which will serve a primarily white high socio economic group of families in West Hollywood. This school will push out a program of mostly black and brown Special Need Students (of lower socio economic means) at Fairfax High. Now, one month later, this social injustice continues to be a real threat on a fragile group of Los Angelenos. While it is a smudge on the progressive values that are often celebrated in West Hollywood, the cavalier adventure of “Let’s-Make- a- School,” is also hurting moms like Florencia and her eighteen- year old autistic son Jose. It is a level of cruelty I didn’t think possible in 90048 but then ever since November 2016, it is clear there is no place safe from lack of transparency and the hurt it brings to the innocent.
I met Florencia soon after the CTC (Career & Transition Center) teachers were told by LAUSD District West that their school would be moved off Fairfax for the WHFA (West Hollywood Fairfax Academy). I realized early that the narratives around WHFA were cloaked in misinformation and it seemed to me that my grandmother’s favorite expression, “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing” was in effect. As a parent in LAUSD for a dozen years, I know confusion is easy. Between all the departments, endless personnel and the voluminous acronyms (SSC, API, CTC) a parent can be forgiven if they are confused. But in this case, it was starting to feel like that there were moves by people in power to keep everyone in the dark or perhaps hide actions in the fog of parent confusion. I decided I would go to CTC and ask some basic questions.
My journey started last month when I waited by the rust colored gate next to Building 500, one of the buildings used by CTC. When the bell rang and the gates unlocked, I was awash in a sea of young men and women with profound disabilities. The sidewalk was crammed with CTC students. The young Latino girl with Down syndrome, holding hands with the aid taking her to a bus. The two boys who looked like brothers (maybe twins) with impaired gaits using walkers as they navigated the crowded sidewalk and despite the hurdles of jockeying through the crowd, the boys were laughing and giving high fives to their fellow CTC students as they boarded the bus. There was joy on that sidewalk. While I saw all kinds of young men and women with clear intellectual disabilities, I noticed one young man, quiet, waiting off to the side. Because some students of Fairfax High who have no disabilities also use this gate, I thought that the young man may not be a CTC student. However, I took a longer look and noticed his kind face had perhaps too broad of a smile, I saw that his body was rocking ever so gentle and his large brown eyes were in a faraway land deep inside his world, I knew like most of us in 2019 know, these are the telltale signs of autism.
The long November shadows of shade stretched over the sidewalk and into the parking lot casting a chill on anyone caught in the shadow. I watched the young man, Jose, move a couple feet to a spot in the sun, perhaps to warm his body, he clocked his head just a bit so that his ball cap protected his eyes from the stark sunlight. I wondered if the logo on the hat was his favorite team.
I met Florencia, Jose’s mother, a few days earlier. Florencia and another mom had just left a meeting where they were told by district that CTC was being moved to accommodate WHFA. They were a combination of shock and sadness. They both did not want the school moved. The one mom whose daughter attends CTC said, “The Fairfax area is safe, I feel good having her here.” Florencia nodded in agreement. When I asked them if a move would be hard on their kids they said, “Yes.”
I told them despite whatever they were told that the WHFA school was far from a ‘done deal’. I said that members in the community were fighting this social injustice. They were relieved but I also knew I was talking to tired moms.
How long were their days caring for their children? How much fight did they have in them? Even a righteous fight where their kids, one brown, one black were being pushed out for a privilege group of predominately white students. It is still a lot of work.
I saw that Florencia was holding a small paper plate with a tangerine and a cookie and in her other hand a glass of orange juice.
I asked her, “What did you think this meeting was gong to be about?”
Florencia said, “I just thought it was a principal’s meeting.”
I’ve been in countless principal meetings, served those same humble refreshments but never did district personnel pull the carpet underneath me or my family at such a meeting. I asked if the district told them that there was a meeting the next day where parents at the Fairfax campus would have an opportunity to talk to Board Member Melvoin and they could ask important questions of him and District West? Florencia and the other mom shook their heads ‘no’. My mind clicked, “Score one for ‘keeping them in the dark’. Score zero for transparency.”
A few days later when I returned to the gate, Florencia came up to me. I hugged her and asked if she received a notice from the district on December 3rd like the Fairfax parents telling her that the vote for WHFA was delayed?
She said, “No. I didn’t get told that note.”
The last official information she had received was November 21st at the principal’s meeting.
I suggested she might want to write to District West and ask why they are not communicating with CTC. Later in the week, I followed up with Florencia and she introduced me to Jose. I shook Jose’s hand, which was warm, his face open and although shy he seemed excited to meet his mother’s friend.
Florencia said in strong voice, “Say hello to Tracy, Jose.”
We both said our hellos.
I asked Florencia if I could take a photo and write a bit about the two of them. She agreed and after I took their photo, we talked about her journey with Jose.
Florencia told me, “Jose was born early 2001.” I noted he was about four months older than my own son also born in 2001. I asked, “When did you know something was going on?”
Florencia replied, “He was between one and two years old and he was not talking. My older sister said, ‘Jose should know simple words by now, ask your doctor.”
The doctor identified the speech delay and Florencia was directed to take Jose to the Regional Center. After his hearing was checked and he began treatments for speech therapy, Jose was diagnosed with autism. While some children will be diagnosed on the autism spectrum and attend regular schools, Jose’s autism was more severe and his K-12 was all Special Ed programs.
After Jose completed 12th grade, Florencia was advised to enroll him in CTC where he could learn skills to transition to the community.
“I don’t want him to stay in the house, I want him to be happy and independent,” she said to me.
I asked what Jose said about leaving Fairfax and she replied, “He said, ‘I don’t want to move.”
Florencia also explained that he has occupational and speech therapy services at home that go into the evening.
I asked, “How long is his day?” She responded, “It goes until eight at night with services.”
I wondered how a move to another school could impact this schedule of support services to a small family that already has a long day.
I also wondered about those elected officials and bureaucrats who are supposed to be transparent, not because it is nice and not even because it is ethical, but transparency is paramount for us to trust that those in power are working for the public good. Once that is blown, us regular Joes and Janes begin to lose trust and begin to question motives or people’s ability to do their job. In the case of WHFA, the last seven months have been short on transparency but long on apologies. Ask Laurel K-8 span school in May and again in November how lack of transparency hurt them. Then on November 22, Fairfax community was told a lot of excuses and apologies. On November 25 it appears some stakeholders and members of the media were told about the delay in the WHFA school board vote — but it was not until December 3 that the Fairfax High families were told everything was delayed when they got a robocall and email. As of Friday December 6, CTC community had yet to be updated.
At the Fairfax meeting I asked Board Member Melvoin if WHFA is not approved by the Board can CTC remain? He said Yes.
In his response, he also said that Special Need students are being returned to their home school. This is a conflation of facts. Special Needs for K-12 students have been returning to home schools. But there are NO home schools for CTC. This is an apples to oranges comparison. There are only a few CTCs in the whole district.
Also, in terms of the K-12 students, it is important to note that moving Special Need Students may work for some students but not all Special Need Students. Having spoken to many people, I received much clarity. CTC was not moved to Fairfax. It originated three years ago at the campus and has grown every year.
Yes, there is an understanding that if CTC wants to move, they can, but this community of families and teachers and staff were never under any impression that they were out of Fairfax in 2020. This was squeezed on them when WHFA emerged in November. Obviously, neither Board Member Melvoin or District West has made it a priority to keep CTC in the know.
Since (as of Friday December 6), CTC staff and families have NOT been informed of the important fact that WHFA has been delayed. I know a few parents and stakeholders began reaching out to District West last week to ask them why CTC was in the dark. Are these people in position of power content to do what they want and then apologize later? Perhaps.
Standing there on the sidewalk, I told Florencia that I hope District West will communicate to her and the rest of CTC.
Florencia nodded and said, “I will have my daughter, Jose’s younger sister, help me send the email.” A cold breeze blew on my arms. I thought Florencia’s face seemed lighter when she mentioned her daughter. I thought of the support she must bring her mom. I wondered where in her soul Florencia’s daughter bears the responsibility of having a special needs sibling. Did mom and daughter talk about Jose’s life after his parents have died? I could feel my eyes wet with anger I wondered how anyone could be so selfish to make Florencia’s family have even one more second of stress than they already endure. I shook inside my skin.
“You deserve more respect,’ I said. She smiled and nodded. We then hugged and I watched Florencia walk off with Jose in the chilly shade of the Fairfax High parking lot.
UPDATE: Late in the afternoon on Monday, December 9, 2019, I received word that some CTC families were updated at 12:00 pm on December 9 via phone call that the vote for WHFA had been postponed to the new year. Perhaps the emails the District received last week requesting better transparency were effective.