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City Year South Africa visit: I left my heart and bomber in Soweto

Out of all of the 76 Peace Corps countries I could have been sent to, I was invited to the only one with an international City Year site. What are the odds? You do the math — slim to none.

City Year is based  mostly in major American cities and in two international locations – Johannesburg and London. I came to South Africa a quick month after completing my City Year in Los Angeles. My corps year with CYLA means a lot to me, so of course I had to pay City Year South Africa a visit. Nelson Mandela Day – on July 18th – is a national service day in South Africa; I couldn’t think of a better way to serve than with City Year!

City Year South Africa gave me the opportunity to spend two days with a team – one regular service day and Nelson Mandela Day. City Year South Africa serves in townships around Johannesburg. Huw, the external relations manager, set me up with the Bapedi Primary School team in Soweto.

Of course the experience was phenomenal. I was welcomed onto the Bapedi Primary School team as part of their family. The team had that same type of familial spirit and love my Markham team had. Although it made me nostalgic, I also realized I now have two City Year teams!

Bapedi Primary School team 2013!

Bapedi Primary School team 2013!

I spent Wednesday and Thursday at Bapedi. Wednesday was a regular service day – team meetings, prepping for Nelson Mandela Day, after-school program and final circle. On Nelson Mandela Day, we cleared an area to make a recycling center for Bapedi, helped plant seeds in a garden the Bapedi team started in April and painted a playground set. On Friday, I watched physical training (PT) in downtown Johannesburg, showed pictures from my service year and did an informal Q and A with the whole corps.

Painting for our Nelson  Mandela Day project

Painting for our Nelson Mandela Day project

Clearing this space for a recycling center

Clearing this space for a recycling center

What’s so incredible about this experience is that I clearly see how everything’s somehow connected from these past two years of service. I met people at City Year South Africa who know people at CYLA. Huw – City Year staff – knows the area I serve in South Africa quite well because his dad used to live and work as a doctor there.  I stood in on team circles expressed completely in Zulu and understood a good gist of it. Everyone called me Mpho instead of Liz. I saw City Year culture fuse with African culture – team chants and readiness checks done in Zulu. I introduced myself in Zulu and got the silent applause. And best yet – how ya feelin’? SIYASHISHA FIRED UP! (We are fired up in Zulu). I saw South African learners perform PT. I never imagined that I’d get to experience City Year culture in my Peace Corps host community’s language. It’s a small, small, small world.

Power pumps!


I now feel a lot more connected to South Africa because of everyone I had the privilege to meet this week. I saw Soweto through the eyes of a local — Lindiwe, the Bapedi program  manager, gave me a tour, took me to her house and I met her family. I met people on the Bapedi team who talked about how much they love community service and are very involved in Soweto. One has already written a plan to start a non-profit that will give ex-convicts job training. It’s an unworldly feeling to know South Africans are doing the same work I’m doing and have that same idealistic hope for our world’s future. I’ve always known I’m part of a powerful movement, but now I know just how powerful. We all – South African or American – live for a strong purpose. Spirit, discipline, purpose and pride that is!


Reciting the City Year pledge

I traded my yellow CYLA bomber with Lindiwe and now have a red City Year South Africa bomber — a right of passage in my Peace Corps service country. Lindiwe said she’ll frame the CYLA bomber. I’ll definitely hang mine from my rafters in my hut.

Huge thank you to Lindiwe and Huw for making this trip possible!

Lindiwe, the Bapedi program manager. What an amazing, amazing, AMAZING woman

Lindiwe, the Bapedi program manager. What an amazing, amazing, AMAZING woman

Small heartYours in service,

Week 32: CYLA’s Spring Break 2012: Destination Education

Although I’ve lived in Los Angeles for nearly four years, I don’t care much for the entertainment industry or celebrity sightings. However, working for a nonprofit in Los Angeles has its perks: You can fundraise through the entertainment industry!

On Saturday night, City Year Los Angeles hosted its second annual City Year Spring Break: Destination Education at Sony Studios (corps members refer to this event as The Gala). Haley Reinhart from American Idol and Robin Thicke performed. There was a ton of food, booths hosted by different corporations and television channels and plenty of drinks for the guests.


Setting up for the event

Celebrities such as Quinn from Glee and cast members from the Hunger Games attended, among a few others. My favorite celebrity spotting was Alex, the middle sister, from my favorite television show Modern Family! Luke, the youngest sibling, was there too, but unfortunately I couldn’t find him.

Two of my roommates who are returning to City Year as senior corps members next year got to take pictures with the guests as they walked in. The rest of us performed physical training for the audience and asked them to join in. After we ran out for physical training and surprised the audience we got to wander, mingle and see all the booths. Some included Microsoft, E! News, Sephora, People magazine, Food Network, NFL, etc. We also got to hear one of our own corps members deliver a speech, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy speak in favor of City Year and watch the musical performers.

The development and communications staff members of City Year Los Angeles have been planning this event nearly all year. It was a great success thanks to them and all the generous help they received from companies involved with funding of the event.

CYLA’s goal was to raise 1.2 million dollars for next year’s 2012 corps year. We met our goal! That’s right CYLA!

Here’s some media coverage and more photos of the event.


I snatched a photo with Andrian at The Gala; he is a new and upcoming celebrity!


Some of my roommates Molly, Marissa, Lauren, Mercedes and I pose for a photo on the way out

On the school front, students are starting California Standardized Testing (CST) testing this week, which is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. I may not have been able to drastically help them change their scores, but I know I tried and I’m content with the work I’ve done. I’m not in the classroom while they’re taking the test (if I was they’d be constantly saying, “Ms. Liz! I NEED HELP! And of course I can’t help them), but after they took the first portion of this test this morning they ran up to me and hugged me in good spirits! They seemed confident they did well, so I’m proud of them.

Best of luck my kiddies! I care about you and believe in you!

-Ms. Liz

Week 30-31: remembering the 1992 Los Angeles Riots

I took a break from blogging last week because:

1) I’m sick of writing about my students right now because of the way they’ve been acting and treating me.
2) I had a sub for three weeks. What could I honestly blog about besides complaining about my student’s behavior and how most of them probably only wrote a total of five sentences over the span of three weeks?
3) These past couple of weeks have been the exact same.

I’m thrilled to share that my teacher has returned! I survived! I tried to prep my students for that big ol’ standardized test that’s coming up in two weeks, but I hate to say that I failed because my students refused to do any work (except a select few). Instead of getting frustrated, I’m at ease because I know I tried to teach them while their teacher was gone. When I asked them what they learned this month, they said “nothing”. At least they were honest…

I’ve been delaying working on a project for City Year communications because I got really caught up with Peace Corps stuff. The project is a photo and audio slideshow showcasing South LA: The community we serve. I’m supposed to get interviews with community members, students, teachers, corps members, etc. and take lots of photos that illustrate our community. The theme of the project is to show all the good things about South LA because so many people stereotype it as a “bad” neighborhood and associate it with the LA Riots.

The 20th anniversary of the uprising and the peace treaty between the bloods and the crips was this past week, which motivated me to actually make progress on this project. Yesterday, I went to Watts to take photos for the project. I stumbled upon a community resource fair hosted by the South LA Community Coalition on a lot at 81st Street and Vermont Ave that is still vacant due to the 1992 uprising. The vacant lot is soon to become a park. The Mayor and community organizations and activists spoke.

It was moving to see so many South LA residents working together for a common cause: To rebuild South LA. Ironically, unemployment has risen in South Los Angeles, which was one of the sparks for the 1992 Riots. According to a LA Times article, a post-riots report said the area needed an investment of about $6 billion and the creation of 75,000 to 94,000 jobs.

The federal and state governments spent as much as $768 million, according to a 1994 estimate, but the private sector has not invested much in South Los Angeles, which is where the jobs are. Larger businesses don’t invest in South Los Angeles because of crime and poverty –will people break into my store? Will people have the money to purchase items from my store? Unfortunately, this type of investment is what South Los Angeles needs. Reading up on the LA Riots this weekend reminded me about a couple of interviews I conducted over the summer about the riots. My radio reporting professor, Judy Muller, was my favorite interview. She covered the LA Riots as an ABC correspondent. I found an awesome radio story she reported for KPCC Los Angeles public radio that brings you back to the moment the riots started.

During my last semester at USC, I had to write a paper based on the play Twilight, which is a collection of interviews about the LA Riots. My professor asked me to do a similar style of interview and find those who experienced the riots or focus on race. I compiled a list of interviews I conducted, which make me question so much about society and Los Angeles today.

Like Tiki TorchesJudy Muller, former ABC correspondent who started reporting in Los Angeles in 1990 after moving from the east coast; she is now a professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Short blonde hair with bangs, wears glasses, slender, dresses stylish. In her late-50s. Eccentric personality, welcoming, very intelligent. Caucasian. We talked over the phone because she is away from Los Angeles at the moment on vacation in Colorado.

ABC News hired me as a TV correspondent
and based me in Los Angeles.

My first thought was, ‘oh boy, this is a desert
 nothing will happen there.’

And then Rodney King got beat up and we were off running.

So I covered both the criminal trial of the cops and then the federal trial
 for violating Rodney King’s civil rights.

But it was after the first criminal trial, 
when the cops were acquitted by an all-white jury
 in Simi Valley.

I will never forget it.

I was in the newsroom; we had just reported
 the verdict.

And we looked up at the monitors of the news screen and within a couple of hours
 the city was coming apart.

It was ugly.

Very few of us actually went into the areas where there were rioting.

It would have been just foolish to walk in with $6,000 camera. 

A lot of coverage was from the helicopter.

And when things quieted down, 
we were able to go back into the neighborhoods.

I’ll never forget it.

Never forget palm trees on fire
 like tiki torches.

Anybody who did go out got a bullet-proof vest.

Our news director said we don’t have enough 
for everyone.

Some things have not changed.

The high unemployment rate in areas where minorities live, 
Watts, South Central.

The opportunities for young people 
aren’t there.

And as long as you have that, you’re going to have a lot of resentment…
should there be anything to torch that flame, ignite that problem…

Jobs, jobs, jobs we should be looking at.

The police department is no longer what it is.

It used to be an occupying force, 
us against them…
predominately white, racist. 

The face of the police department looks more like 
the people.

A lot more Hispanic, African American, gay officers.


I was going to say diverse.

But [Los Angeles is] more than that,
 it’s complicated.

And that’s what I love about it.
 I keep discovering new things about it.
I feel like I just arrived.

This isn’t just about a bike lightLuis Garcia Rico, a USC student majoring in political science and American studies. Large Hispanic man wearing baggy jeans and a black zip-up with a red shirt and matching red and black baseball cap. He is sitting at a table with other panelists, including an African American USC Department of Public Safety officer, white Los Angeles Police Department officer and a young Hispanic woman and man who are serving as the moderators of the discussion. The blackboard reads, “Bridging the Divide.” Garcia discusses a time when he was pulled over on his bike by LAPD around the USC campus on his way to get dinner at Wing Stop.

It became kind of blatant at that point.

I said, ‘okay, this isn’t just about a bike light.
‘I couldn’t help but think – were they looking for someone?

Did they just want to mess with someone?

It’s kind of hard to trust the judgment that they are doing 
the right thing.

Police officers are humans, tooAsst. Capt. John Thomas of the USC Department of Public Safety, former lieutenant of the LAPD – Thomas grew up in South Los Angeles and is a graduate of Crenshaw High School and the University of California at Los Angeles. Prior to coming to USC, he served as a lieutenant in the LAPD. He is a short, big-boned African-American male in a beige DPS uniform. He has a black mustache and bald shiny head. Helpful, and has a friendly personality. He is one of the panelists at the same event Garcia spoke at.

The riots were a wake-up call.

You can actually look at the racial percentages
 in Los Angeles and they will
 mirror the LAPD.
The officer is thinking, ‘Am I going to stop all
 these people on their bikes, versus just south 
or west of campus where people know they are 
supposed to have lights on their bikes?

[admits that officers may racial profile because they are looking for someone to keep the community safe]

This is why officers are aggressively doing stuff. 

There’s an LAPD policy that if a person files a complaint that isn’t frivolous
 the department will investigate it.

The worst [a victim] can do is ignore your feelings
 and say nothing happened.

As long as police officers are recruited from
 the human race these situations will continue.

Police officers are humans too,
 you’re going to get good
 and bad. 

Our goal is that the community
 does not think
 [these incidents encountered], 
reflect the entire force.

We’re still rappin’ and flappin‘ – Linda Guthrie, A former Los Angeles Unified School District middle school teacher who has also been an officer the United Teachers of Los Angeles (the teacher’s union). She ran for president of UTLA in 2003. Wearing a khaki button-up shirt over a orange t-shirt. Sitting at a table with other panelists. She spoke at an event that discussed the “the myth of a post-racial society” in America – and specifically – Los Angeles after Barack Obama, the first black president, took office. She is an African American woman in her late 50s.

It’s mythology that propels us forward.

It’s the mythology we have to contend with
so when we have the myth of a 
Post-racial society.

You have to approach it in a different way.

Black women and children,
 they are raised at the bottom of 
the heap.

Still in L.A. Unified, you can still see that black children 
are consistently under-performed. Resources aren’t directed toward them.

The suspension rate is 300 times as much as 
other children.

But we live in a post-racial society
 where it doesn’t make any difference.
America is a spin over substance.

Post-racial is the latest slogan to find its way into the popular culture.

It’s the gist that racism has occurred in the past. 

My feeling is that when I mean, when I heard the term
I wanted to know what they were smoking,
 and where they live.

 [Audience laughs]
Every morning when I get up,
 I’m acutely aware of the fact that I am a black woman 
in America.

As I told my students in a multicultural class,
 as a black woman in America,
 that I am at the bottom of the heap.
When I have students approach me 
and automatically approach me
 and act a certain way, 
when they see the color of my face then I know we don’t live
 in a post-racial society.

When I turn on the TV and see black women
 referred to as ‘bitches’ and sexualized in a way
that as akin to what happened during slavery.

I cannot say that we live in a post-racial society.

When you ask children what black people are about, 
we’re still rappin’ and flappin’.

Within our own races. Jessica Wallace, a 28-year-old outspoken African American woman. Big-boned and slightly overweight. She is wearing a black t-shirt and red bandana. Stood up in the audience during the public comment portion of the post-racial society event and spoke loudly with many hand and arm movements. A student at Cal State Los Angeles.

It used to be white people were racist with you every day.

This and that.

And then there were the people racist on the top
 were also white.

But now we have interracism 
within our own races.

That’s the colonial racism…
that people have.

Maybe Latinos have against black 
that is your have a darker skin than me
 so I’m going to be racist against you.

We have, sadly enough,
 is that you weren’t born here 
and we were born here.

And that’s how they do it.

So, based on these interviews, the question is, even if the LAPD changed, has much else changed? Do we live in a post-racial society or is that a myth? If we live in a post-racial society, then why are the schools that struggle the most like Markham full of only minority students? Why are minority students getting a second-rate education? Why are we still fighting against different races? Why is unemployment even higher than it was in 1992? Why is violence still prevalent in our communities? I wish I knew. What do you think?

City Year Los Angeles’ deputy director sent all the corps members an email last night about how things have changed since 1992: there is more discussion among people and our civic leaders are diverse, but people still live in poverty and violence that circulate through the schools we serve.

We serve in these neighborhoods that were affected by the riots to help prevent anything like that again. We encourage our students to be leaders and receive a decent education so they can come back later and help their home neighborhoods. We are those who are finding a solution to the problem.

Our deputy director said that after our service year, we have to share the story of these neighborhoods and vote “honor the legacy of those we served.”

I will do so. I will also push to be my best in my last five weeks of service.

Yes, we really have only five weeks left…



Mural in South LA

Just another day at Markham: defaced already? Part two


My hood

I decided to keep track of how long it took for one of the murals City Year painted at Markham over spring break to be defaced. Although I’m about a week late posting a picture of the scene of the crime, it took about a week and a half.

But hey! Someone tried to spray paint over what someone else tagged. I’m not sure if this was an act of kindness to clean the mural up, or another gang wanted to over up the tag. I would hope the former.

Why can’t this be OUR hood – students, teachers, corps members, non-gang community members and gang members – together? If only…

Oh, it’s just another day at Markham Middle School.

Week 29: chronicles of a substitute classroom part one

I came back to school after spring break to find out that my teacher would be out until the end of April. In other words, I have a sub for three weeks.

I got lucky and my students have the same sub for two weeks. She has subbed for my teacher when she was on maternity leave in the past, so she has a good relationship with her and has the class under control compared to other subs I’ve had in the past.

Here’s a glimpse into the life of a corps member in a sub classroom:

“STOP throwing food, it’s disgusting and you’re acting like first graders,” I yelled.

“IT WASN’T ME!” said my student.

Throws food again.

“I just saw you do that. Get up right now and sweep the floor.”

“It wasn’t me, you need glasses or something?!”

“Actually, I have perfect vision. Get up right now and sweep,” I said, completely frustrated and annoyed.

“Whatever, it wasn’t me,” as he mumbles things (about me probably).

It’s hard to not yell at my students because they can be so rude when we have a sub. They think they can get away with anything. I try hard to be patient and to pick my battles, but sub days bring the worst out in me. I sit at a desk in front of the classroom, so every single thing my kids do — like rip up paper and throw it at each other, whisper and and cuss each other out, pass notes, not listen to a word the sub is saying, interrupt and talk back the sub, run around the classroom, chase each other with the classroom broom, throw chairs, spit water at each other, walk on top of tables, physically hit each other, and so the stressful list goes on and on.

Having patience with sixth graders isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Before I started working at Markham, I thought sixth graders would still be innocent and cute elementary kids. Of course some students act like how I expected them to, but after being in a middle school environment like Markham for almost a year, they know just exactly how to get under mine or a sub’s skin.

Case in point: The other day a kid pretended he had a nose bleed to get out of class. Was it actually blood? Yeah right, it was kool-aid.

However, sometimes when I call students out, I am in the wrong. I apologized after yelling at one of my trouble students, but still told him that even if he wasn’t throwing food, his track record when a sub is here gives me a reason to think he’s acting up.

I plan to survive the end of week 30 and week 31 by taking students out of class every period and working with them in the library. Well, more like the students who actually want to do work. I experimented yesterday and took table by table out each period to play a memory game with sixth grade English CST vocabulary. I was lenient and let them listen to music, which wasn’t helpful because they weren’t invested in the game. Right now, they have no authority back in the classroom telling them they need to work with me and respect me, except the students that ask me, “Can we go to the City Year room today?!”

I think a perfect comparison for weeks like this would be that the classroom is like a zoo.

“Hey girl, how you doin today?” said my student after I gave him the “are you serious right now” scowl after he yelled at one of his classmates.

Think I’m going to respond to that? Nope. PICK YOUR BATTLES.

Please, oh please Peace Corps, assign me to be a high school (and not middle school) teacher!

Yours in service,

Stressed and Aggravated Ms. Liz


The scene of the crime: All the trash my students threw at each other and the brooms they enjoy hitting each other with on sub days

Week 28: a magnificent spring break

Spring break is usually associated with lavish parties and vacations. Here at City Year, we have to do what we call “ball on a budget” (I only get paid $990 a month…minus rent, that’s not a lot!)

Last week was LAUSD spring break; all of our kids got a nice, relaxing break before coming back to school and cram for the CST. We still had service and training-related work, but all together it was a perfect week. My roommates and I enjoyed the sun with some BBQing, laying in our front lawn, beaching it up and hiking. The sun has finally come out in Los Angeles and the weather has been in the low 70s, which is beautiful beach and tanning weather because it’s not too hot. This week has reminded me how much I love Los Angeles and how hard it is going to be leave this summer. I really consider this city my home. After this summer, where’s my home going be? I don’t have an answer to that, except to that it’s time to find my next home…

Aside from my house’s spring break festivities, all of City Year Los Angeles participated in two service days. One was at the school I serve at, Markham Middle School, and another one was at Ford Blvd. Elementary School in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. CYLA does not serve at this school. However, service days like this are ways we reach students that we can’t directly work with, but can still impact.


My ear of corn. I swear, that corn took me at least four hours to paint…

Other than painting murals, we also had tutoring training. A bunch of City Year corps members who are a part of the Service Action Model Committee presented different tutoring games and techniques to us (shout out to my teammates and roommates who were facilities, good job!) We had training sessions for math, English and English as a second language. Our fellow corps members gave us tangible games and activities we can take back to school and use with our students to prepare for the CST. My favorite activity that I plan to use was a memory-style vocabulary game. The point of the game is to play memory, but with CST vocabulary like plot, sequence, simile, metaphor, etc. I think my kids will have a lot of fun with this, so hopefully it motivates them to study for the CST.

The sessions were helpful, but I wish I had the ESL training in the beginning of the year because it has been such a struggle. I think I was placed in an ESL class because I was a journalism major and have a lot of experience with grammar, spelling, writing and punctuation (I had to take a grammar, spelling and punctuation exam my sophomore and if I didn’t pass I was kicked out of the major…journalism schools don’t screw around about that). Although I have this experience, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be an effective ESL tutor, especially when I only speak next-to-nothing Spanish. Oh well, there’s not much I can do about it except keep trying to help my students.

I feel rejuvenated and ready to head back to school. I’m going to stop taking excuses from my students; I only have eight weeks left with them! Crazy. I don’t even want to think about that right now.

This week, my students will be forced to do one-on-one and small group work with me, regardless of how much they complain, which will focus on math and English sixth grade standards. For example, I plan to go back to the beginning if the year and work on fractions, proportions and the elements of a fiction story. How proficient!

I have a lot to look forward to for the end of the year: a trip to Vegas with the whole Markham team, beach camping with my roommates and possibly a trip to Washington D.C. to visit my best friend. All of these exciting events will help me get through any hard times to come within the next two months.

I refuse to realize that this year is ending quickly…

By the way, still no news on the Peace Corps front. As I’ve said before, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services reviews nominee’s medical packets if they are scheduled to leave within the next four months. It’s been a month since the Peace Corps received my medical forms. My nomination is for an anticipated departure date of this July-September. July is four months from April, so I’m assuming my files will be looked at soon. If not, then I guess it’s safe to say that I will probably be leaving in August or September. It’s so soon, yet so far away!


My roommate Lauren and I catching some rays on our lawn. Long live spring break 2012

P.s. I’ve reached 4,000+ views on my blog. Thanks to all that have been reading/following an alternative voice in education!

Back to the grind,


Service day at Markham: things changed, and that’s just the way it is

Few Markham students take pride in their campus. From my observations, students throw trash on the ground like their school is a dump (but with so much trash in the community, it doesn’t take brain science to figure out where they get that tendency from). Tagging is another issue at our school; you can always tell when a wall was tagged because it will be painted over in a color that’s not the same color as the wall.

But that’s not for long!

Today, City Year Los Angeles corps members from other schools showed that Markham Pride and made their mark on Markham. We transformed the school from having blank and brick walls to having colorful, abstract and inspirational murals. I remember at the beginning of the year my roommate/teammate Daniel repeated numerous times that our school needed murals. He never gave up on that vision of his. For months, he’s been working hard to make today happen. That’s what’s up.

I have never been as happy at Markham as I was today. That’s not saying I’m never happy there — I’m happy there everyday (ok, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration). It was just another kind of happiness; it was such an amazing feeling to see most of the corps and some Markham students working together to change this school, especially nine of my 13 roommates.

My favorite mural we painted today was Tupac’s face with a quote from one of his raps, “Keep Ya Head Up.” Tupac not only has inspirational lyrics in his raps, but his raps really resonate with our students. Our students, regardless of what they go through, always gotta keep their heads up.

We gotta make a change…
It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes.
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
and let’s change the way we treat each other.
You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do
what we gotta do, to survive.

Today, we made a change at Markham that will always be remembered. Well, that is until someone paints over it.

Here’s an audio/photo sideshow showcase of all the projects we completed today!

Stay tuned for a post about the student reaction’s to the murals.

Yours in service, as always,


Week 26-27: exactly a year later, I’m still baffled

March 22, 2012

I sit here in the English class that I serve in while they take their third periodic assessment test, a test that is scored on a Los Angeles Unified School District. My students are gazing off into space, some diligently working and others struggling to write. I make eye-contact with one of the troublemakers of the class. He shows me his well-written five paragraph essay. I smile and give him a thumbs-up. This kid is very smart when he applies himself. I wish he applied himself all the time, but as a child of the projects and someone I’ve heard call his school a “prison” countless times, his environment doesn’t reinforce his intelligence.

All the scores from this test will be recorded downtown at 333 South Beaudry, the infamous address of Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters.

I sit here holding back tears, not only because I’m worn out, but because I’m starting to lose hope.

My English teacher explains the test questions to students who ask her for help. She’s an amazing (and every other synonym for amazing) teacher. She’s taught here for nearly 15 years because she knows where’s she’s needed in Los Angeles. However, being an unforgettable teacher can’t solve every problem. As much as we hate to admit it, money goes hand-in-hand with a quality education.

I just got a glimpse of the proposed budget for next year at Markham Middle School. Our Title I funding, which is extra federal funding a school receives based on how many students are “economically disadvantaged,” has been cut drastically for next year. And to top that off, the school lost thousands of dollars due to absences. During the common assessment test, one student sits at his desk with barely anything on his paper; he has been absent for nearly three weeks because he “couldn’t wake up in time for school.”

What will happen next year if my teacher can’t make copies for her students? What if she doesn’t have the classroom materials she needs to foster a challenging learning environment for her students?

Still, she knows where her skills are needed: here at Markham in Watts. She’ll make it work, somehow, someway.

This month, according to a Los Angeles Times article, LAUSD sent about 11,700 layoff notices to teachers and other staff. The district has laid off more than 8,000 employees over the last four years but eventually hired many back.

Likewise, since 2007-08, the number of full-time teachers has declined by 32,000, or 11 percent, in California.

Luckily, City Year wasn’t affected by any of these budget cuts at Markham because the money the school has to pay for us to be there falls under a federal school improvement grant. This is amazing news that my team recently heard not only because our students will have a City Year next year, but also because City Year returning to Markham is not at the expense of any staff positions that will probably be laid off next year (I’m talking staff positions people have held for 30 or more years at Markham).

If Markham wants to generate more federal funding, students need to bring up their standardized test scores. The higher API score (Academic Performance Index) a school has, the more funding it will receive based on the No Child Left Behind Act. There’s no doubt that the school and my team have been frantically trying to prepare students for the California Standardized Test (CST) they’ll take in mid-May.

The common assessment test my students were taking on March 22nd is based on 6th grade English California state standards. How my students score on this test is likely how they’ll score on the real CST.

Students have merely become scores — far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient and advanced — leading up to this test. “Make your mark at Markham!” is the school’s advertising campaign to push students to jump a performance level.

I face a challenging reality because I do not believe in standardized tests and feel guilty that I’m robbing students of an interesting education and instead just teaching to a test (and hey, only seven percent of teachers believe in standardized testing!)

But, I have to get over that and get over it quickly because public eduction policy isn’t changing anytime soon. I have to reassure myself and my students that the CST still makes sense. I justify any CST prep by telling my students that the more funding the school gets, the more sports equipment they’ll get and fun activities they’ll get to do, including more elective classes.

I remember taking these standardized tests from elementary school to high school when I was a California public school student. I dreaded it. I questioned how it measured my intelligence. I complained every year that it gave me no room to express my creativity.

Part of my hatred toward this test when I was a student is that I never scored well on it. I was like my students – “below basic or basic.” I even bombed the SATs in high school (1510 out of 2400) and probably had one of the lowest scores in my college graduating class. However, I still made it to USC – a top university – and graduated with honors (however, the road to get there was much more challenging than it was for others who performed well on the SAT). I believe I am living proof that these tests don’t mean much.

I recently finished reading book called “That Used to Be Us” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum about America’s decline. The authors identify public education as an economic issue rather than a social issue.

Because of the merger of the IT revolution and globalization, raising math, science, reading and creativity levels in American schools is the key determinant of economic growth, and economic growth is key to national power and influence as well as an individual well-being. -Friedman and Mandelbaum

Likewise, the authors call for American students to play with their creativity to find new ways to do routine jobs or expand technology.

An excerpt from the book

Another fascinating article I’ve read recently by Thomas Friedman is “Pass the Books. Hold the Oil” in the New York Times. Friedman discussed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest study that maps the correlation between a country’s natural resources GDP and scores from the Program for International Student Exam (PISA), which is a worldwide exam that tests reading, math and science.

In short, how well do your high school kids do on math compared with how much oil you pump or how many diamonds you dig?-Friedman

Students in countries with minimal natural resources like Singapore and Japan scored higher, as opposed to counties like Kazakhstan and the US that have plenty of natural resources.

Countries that value education teach their students to be creative, which correlates to the country’s economic growth because people in these countries are finding new and interesting things to do for work and to make money unlike countries that export natural resources to make money. In a way, it’s kind of like a game of survival of the fittest. What countries are more fit to think creatively and take advantage of having an educated population? Definitely not America because education is seen as a social issue and not an economic issue here. Other countries understand that they have to focus on the masses instead of resources.

Point blank, I agree with Thomas Friedman that education is an economic issue and will determine America’s place in the world sooner than later. How do lawmakers not see this? Why aren’t we investing more in education? WHY are we teaching kids how to take a standardized test instead of making school creative and fun? I made it without doing well on those tests, can’t we find another way to educate students and fund public education? If we keep ignoring it, not only will other countries become more innovative, but it’ll also affect our national security (whoah there, right? Who’s going to make our military weapons? Military power is tied to economic power, and so the reasons go on. See, education really does affect everything).

To me, Markham is just a snapshot of every other LAUSD school and other schools in low income areas throughout the country. The issues schools like Markham face with funding and layoffs is surreal, especially because education is valued so much more in other countries.

April 2, 2011

Exactly a year ago, I was a USC Annenberg student journalist working on an investigative story about some of the schools City Year works in – including Markham – and didn’t get why it should even be a story because it was so intense and in my own words “messed up.”

April 2, 2012

Exactly a year later, I STILL don’t get it. But now it’s a little different. I’m no longer the removed journalist secretly rallying for social justice (yeah, the stereotypes are true. Most of us are opinionated and liberal, duh). Now I see them struggles of the public education system on a daily basis and people who are close to me are directly affected by it. Now I personally know sixth grade students who the public education system has failed to raise.

I don’t think I’ll ever get why education isn’t a priority here in America. I hope it is in whatever country I end up serving and teaching in with the Peace Corps. After this year of AmeriCorps service, I vow to bring back with me whatever I learn from teaching in a foreign country to the US to do something about the public education crisis. I mean, hey, a psychic once told me I’d live abroad for a couple of years (which is happening!) and that my career would be something “creative” that I will come up with to help others. That sounds about right.

March has been by far the hardest month of service and as the end gets closer it’s going to get harder. Although this year of service is almost over, I need to look at it positively: it’s not the end; it’s only the beginning.

Just another day at Markham: battle of the team leaders

Who is the better TL? Britt or Lauren? I’d say it’s a tie.

The student’s reactions to the mention of the CST in this video is priceless.


I’ll rush into the best news that my team has heard in a while: City Year at Markham Middle School has been sponsored by OneWest Bank for THREE YEARS! Likewise, OneWest, a Southern California based bank, is sponsoring the other programs at Markham. After we get “OneWest Bank” embroidered on our bomber jackets, we will officially be the OneWest team at Markham Middle School! The sponsorship entails $100,000 a year for Markham.

City Year Los Angeles’ Development Director, Erin Ross, personally told us the good news on Friday. This is the first sponsorship that City Year has taken part in since the economic downturn and also one of the longest commitments. Erin told us that OneWest asked her what the highest need school was in all of the schools CYLA serves in, which is Markham, hands down.

I’m not trying to boast about how hard my school is or any of that nonsense, but the reality is we have NO resources at our school: no whiteboard markers, no sports equipment, no printers, minimal computers, no bandaids, etc. There isn’t even enough ink and paper for teachers to make copies. The only abundance of any supplies our school has is butcher paper, no joke. Granted, I’m not sure what it’s like at other schools, but I can say we (and everyone who works at the school) definitely struggle at Markham.

Erin said that this action taken by OneWest is straight-up philanthropy and none of that social corporate responsibility junk. The company is investing in Markham to truly see changes in Los Angeles, not to just be able to write on pamphlets and mention that it donates to inner-city children.

Our reactions to the news were priceless. I really wish I caught it on camera or video, but I was in the same state of shock as the rest of my team. We are so stoked and will take ANY help we can get for Markham. All of our mouthes were literally wide open in disbelief that what Erin was telling us was really real.

I’m not positive if we will even be affected by the sponsorship since we only have three months left at Markham, but we’ve come this far with limited resources so we can keep going. My team and I discussed this at happy hour on Friday (of course we had to celebrate!) and we see ourselves a just the foundational team at Markham. We may have not been able to do everything other CY schools do, but we struggled through this year and paved the road for next year’s team. We started the Markham legacy. Our team unity, love and perseverance to keep going at this school even after the hardest days shows next year’s team they can do everything we did and do even more.

My teammates and I have had conversations lately about whether or not City Year will be invited back to Markham next year because our student’s test scores are unlikely to go up due to a multitude of factors. However, because CYLA decided that this sponsorship should go to Markham indicates that at least CYLA believes we’ll be back next year. If so, this three year sponsorship means that my students will have City Year on campus until they are in 8th grade. And honestly, I don’t even care about academics at this point, especially with my girls. Even if a CY isn’t in their classrooms next year, if they remember the relationship they had with me, then I know they will at least befriend the next City Years. They still need a mentor to talk to and someone, like me, who will give them a blunt reality check when needed.

I had to give my girl students their first reality check about drugs and alcohol this week. I told them I know the they’re going to run into it sooner than later and they likely WILL try it, but they have to be smart about it (ex: don’t be stupid and do anything on campus like other students may do). That’s better than telling them that they should never ever do it and it’s a horrible thing to do; when people hear things like that it makes them rebel even more.

This talk I had with my students seriously wanted to make me cry. In the beginning of the year, they were these shy, innocent, cute girls. Now all they do is cuss each other out and talk back to everyone without a care in the world. I was talking to my dad about this and how much I think the school atmosphere has corrupted my students, but then my dad gave ME a reality check. He told me that I was swearing by the 6th grade and doing everything my students are doing. Now that I think about it, I did get sent to the office multiple times in middle school and I remember flipping off a teacher in 7th grade…

So, I guess that’s just a part of growing up. You could go to Markham or Cunha, my small town middle school, and still exhibit similar behaviors. Right now, I’m giving myself a reality check: although I’ve seen my students change so much since the beginning of the year, I still love them as much as when I met them. They still crack me up and make every day worth going back to Markham. I also have to be grateful that although my students are sassy, none of them have fought this year and I hope it stays that way.

It was Markham’s turn to host pueblo Friday, which means we cooked breakfast for the rest of the South Los Angeles schools and performed an interactive skit that embraced all City Year values.


Setting up for Friday breakfast hosted by our team; theme: Markham in Vegas

The Markham team performing a “Markham in Vegas” skit during community Friday

It’s late and I have to be up at 5:30 tomorrow.

Good night,