Monday, December 15, 2008

Public schools advocate Sandra Tsing Loh

Last month USA Today ran a Q&A with public school advocate Sandra Tsing Loh.

Here's an excerpt from the interview. To read the full story, click here.
Last June, when Los Angeles performance artist and public radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh helped lead a rally to the California state capitol for more school funding, perhaps no one was more surprised than Loh herself. Her transformation from popular author and comic to public schools activist began four years earlier, when her plans to get her older daughter into a good kindergarten went awry. She eventually started an organization called Burning Moms. Loh recounts the journey in Mother On Fire (Crown, $23). She talks with USA TODAY about her experience:

Q: It's 2004. You, your musician husband and your two daughters live in Van Nuys. Your 4-year-old is in preschool and you begin searching for a kindergarten. What happens next?
A: We're a middle-class family, which feels like we're the last middle-class family in Los Angeles — the last one had packed up the Volvo wagon and gone to Portland a year earlier. When kids hit school age, people just start fleeing the city unexplained. So I didn't have much real information. … I'd go on, look at the statistics, freak out and not even visit my local school, which is what many parents do.

Q: You began looking into private schools, but many had "nosebleed tuition."
A: I found that the religious ones were more affordable — the more religious, the more affordable. Catholics were more expensive, Lutherans middle and Baptists were the only ones we could afford. The Quakers were off the charts, particularly if there's the word "Friends" in the title — or if the kids were being taught in an old Quaker wooden schoolhouse with authentic Shaker furniture.

Q: You tried to get your daughter into a Lutheran school, but things didn't work out on the entrance exam. She was supposed to name as many animals as she could in a timed test. What happened?
A: She named animals — lion, tiger, hippopotamus — that's a big word for a 4-year-old! And then it turned out, to my horror, she had flunked the entire test and had to be held back a year because she was "developmentally impaired."

Q: Stopping at "hippopotamus" was her mistake?
A: She was waiting for praise, and the instructor just sat there with a totally flat face and a stopwatch.

Q: I don't want to give away too much, but she ends up at a nice public school where the teachers are great.
A: Many of them, they've taught for 20 years. And I think teachers are very unsung. They don't have any fancy new theory about what they're doing. They've simply moved 20 kindergartners across classrooms, playgrounds — and, of course, in and out of the bathroom! — for 20 years. The children learn, they have fun — there's no fancy new theory, it's just decades of teachers' day-in, day-out experience, the love of their work, the joy. Of course there are headaches. But in my experience, most teachers do love their work — why else would they do it? There are easier ways to make a living.


  1. Wow, this sounds very much like the same journey faced by the folks who worked on Daniel Webster.

    Word on the street is that Daniel Webster will change from 7:50 to a later start time next year, for those who want a Spanish Immersion program without an early start time. I, for one, was thrilled with the change and now have Daniel Webster on my list rather than Alvarado--and perhaps have a better chance at getting in to an immersion program, too.

  2. You'll be much better off at DW than at Alvarado.

  3. This may be the last year that DW may be easier to get into. Maybe next year too, but schools flip so quickly in terms of popularity! So in terms of the lottery, DW is a much better pick than Alvarado this year--slip in while you can! And while Alvarado is a fine school, it is very rewarding to be in a school community that is on the move like DW. I know, because we were a family that "slipped in" to Alvarado before the surge of popularity there, before it had already "arrived." It's been great--but if I were looking for K now I would definitely consider DW. Seems like it is where we were back then with Alvarado.

    Love Sandra Tsing Loh, btw. Her descriptions of the school search are so funny! Even though some of her cultural references are specific to L.A., there is much to connect with the experience here.

  4. Does her kid know all about Hanna Montana and Rap music and TV and "learning is fun!" BS?

  5. I don't understand that last comment. Maybe you can explain? Or maybe I am humor-challenged. (Sorry.)

    Sandra Tsing Loh writes about LA school search process, which has its own quirks just as SF does. She writes about the diversity of LA that includes a large Armenian community, among others. She writes about the Hollywood set. That is all fairly particular to L.A. In terms of the parental anxieties and absurdities she describes about looking for a school, there is much that is similar to our experiences--and behaviors--here. Her descriptions of different sorts of private schools, from Baptist to Lutheran to Quaker to Waldorf to high-falutin "independent" are dead-on. Plus her descriptions of the easy way many upper-middle class but oh-so-liberal parents dismiss the public options out of hand without even looking at them. All very similar to what goes on here, or used to until recently when public schools hit the radar as a viable option. So it is funny, in a rueful sort of way ;-).

  6. I just read her "Mother On Fire" book and it is a riot. The kind of thing where you want to grab the nearest person and read large chunks of it at them because it is so funny. Although her school search is specific to LAUSD, there is still a lot of it that I recognized from our process in SF.

    Anyway, go get the book, it's great.