Wendy and I were shocked when we received a memo from the LAUSD stating that Castelar Elementary had been identified as a possible site of co-location by Metro Charter School. What an insane idea to have a charter school occupy the “unused” classrooms at our daughter’s campus. Besides the fact that most of the space was utilized by Chinatown children for music, art, science, and P.E., two schools on one campus would be a logistical nightmare, as well as an unhealthy environment in which the school and students on either side would be in constant measurement and competition against each other. And how tragic would it be for Castelar to be drained of kids and resources by Metro–the pattern in co-location–weakening Chinatown’s historically excellent neighborhood public school and trusted resource for generations of immigrant families. What would be the social repercussions in the neighborhood where my grandparents, in-laws, and now daughter had found a community?
Neither Wendy nor I considered ourselves to be activists, possessing resumes that have mutated from indie publishing to organizing DIY punk rock matinee fundraisers, but our unique backgrounds turned out to be useful in Castelar’s fight against co-location. When a march to popularize our struggle didn’t receive media coverage, I wrote a blog about it that has garnered nearly 2,200 views. And then I posted a petition that has been passed around and received more than 1,800 signatures from family, alumni, community members, and other supporters–complementing 600 physical signatures gathered in front of the school and around the neighborhood. Wendy used her graphic design skills to create bold, wall-sized posters that communicated to parents exactly what our children would lose and what events they could attend in English, Spanish, and Chinese. And then every morning she used her limited Cantonese to get as many Chinese parents to sign the petition and attend the Metro board meeting as possible.
Observing our efforts, a lot of my good friends pitched in even though they didn’t have kids at Castelar. Wendy, Eloise, and I collaborated with Save Music in Chinatown co-conspirator Gabie Strong to host a special #savecastelar radio program on KCHUNG to discuss saving public education in Chinatown, DIY activism, and punk rock. Artists Susie Ghahremani, Nate Pottker, and Martin Cendreda provided incredible #savecastelar pieces that we used for posters, flyers, and social media. Filmmaker and actor Daniel Wu posted a #savecastelar photo on his Instagram page, instantly giving our cause a boost to fans of his work and also the Chinese press. For them to put themselves out there means a lot to us, because charter schools are not only a divisive topic among parents but backed by people and groups with a lot of dough.
We made new friends, too. When we attended a TEAch meeting wearing Castelar T-shirts, a retired teacher walked up to Wendy and me in her vintage Castelar sweatshirt and said, “I know who you are and what you’ve been doing.” We became instant allies with Phyllis Chiu, who shared valuable information and forwarded letters to politicians for us. She introduced me to King Cheung, a member of the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, who could be our translator. He and his wife Diane Tan became our activist mentors. It was sort of like being like a kung-fu movie where we met different masters that would train us in their specialties and then accompany us in our journey.
A handful of us parents joined forces and rallied 50 family members to get into cars and pack Metro Charter School’s tiny board meeting room. We had at least two dozen Cantonese speakers, and King translated for half of them. We had numerous Spanish speakers, as well, and spent about 30 minutes detailing why we didn’t want our classrooms taken away and how important Castelar is to the Chinatown community. While our hosts were civil and repeatedly emphasized that they never chose Castelar, they never said they would not be coming at the meeting or when I followed up with a thank-you email.
Metro Charter School might not have chosen Castelar, but if they invoked Prop 39 and asked to co-located in public classrooms they should have expected resistance from the targeted school and community.
Attending the Chinese American Citizens Alliance lodge meeting with the hopes of getting a letter of support was both surreal and cinematic. While chatting beforehand, the president frankly told me that she would have to invite someone from Metro Charter School to hear their side of the story. Crap! But after I finally gave my spiel, several members stood up and said that the lodge had to support Castelar, their kids’ and grandkids’ alma mater. After my allotted time was up, I tuned out while the last of three politicians tried to curry support from the organization until the president asked me about the LAUSD’s timetable. Members unanimously voted to bypass the lodge’s protocol and promised a letter of support for Castelar on the spot! I felt like I was in a Jimmy Stewart movie, and that was a real cool moment that I will never forget.
Our efforts didn’t go perfectly. Not once but twice, I posted that organizations had supported our cause prematurely. How awkward to put potential supporters in a position like that. And then after weeks of pushing our case on social media, a Metro Charter School parent accused me of spreading rumors. I posted a photo of the February 22 memo and she turned out to be quite reasonable. Not like the other one who mocked me for being “so dramatic” without ever denying the possibility of co-location.
One of the hardest-to-take moments stemmed from one of the most minor events. A Downtown-based online news site ran a puff piece about Metro Charter School having a tough time finding a new location, and described resistance from Castelar community as a “minor outcry.” Since when does more than 2,400 signatures on a petition and 50 Castelar family members and supporters traveling across town to voice disapproval to the Metro Charter School board meeting qualify as minor? I had actually provided the writer with the facts before the article posted, and then asked him to correct the piece but he has stuck by his verbiage. He considers it minor because Metro never chose to locate Castelar and had chosen not to take LAUSD’s offer and, in his opinion, the Castelar community was making a big deal out of nothing. He is entitled to that take–and his outlet doesn’t have the largest audience anyway–but calling the response minor is not only untrue but dismissive to an entire community. This misinformation also lives on in a dark corner of cyberspace and I’m still pissed off about it.
And that’s why, even as this particular struggle against co-location is wrapping up, it’s important to talk about and document what has happened. The LAUSD Facilities Services Division and and other charter schools that might be considering to occupy Castelar in the future need to know that the Chinatown community will not give up its neighborhood school without a fight. The families in Chinatown and kids who attend Castelar, as well as other schools that are fighting against co-location, need to know how families banded together and what steps we took to protect our community, and the Chinese newspapers and KPCC were the only media that responded to our outreach.
Before Castelar’s Open House, a small group of parents attended an LAUSD committee meeting to present our case and personally invite board members to see the school were were trying to protect and attend the assembly afterward, with the intent of having a packed auditorium voice dissent with co-location. The lion dance opening the assembly was perfectly cathartic, totally powerful, and could only happen in Chinatown. And when Principal Shum was given permission to announce that Metro Charter would not be occupying our classrooms, everyone could really feel the room brighten, lighten, and practically elevate. Afterward, many of the Cantonese-speaking ladies that Wendy recruited thanked us for letting them know what was happening and how they could help stand up for Chinatown’s school–a nice ending to a steep learning curve and emotional roller coaster.
Thanks to everyone who signed and shared the petition and spread the word. Thanks to the parents who stood outside school with clipboards, joined community groups, and attended board meetings. Thanks to our new friends and allies who support public education in Chinatown. And thanks to the faculty and teachers who supported us and voiced their appreciation all the way. What everyone had in common was how much all of us love Castelar and Chinatown and, while these weeks have been scary and exhausting, our children and community are worth fighting for. With the Broad Plan for privately-run charter schools to take over half of all public education in L.A. over the next few years, we’ll likely be doing it all over again sooner than we think.
And thank you for reading all the way to the end of this post. Click and scroll through the petition comments at change.org to read additional testimonials from alumni, family, and friends of Castelar.