Students Fight for their ‘Second Home’
Westchester-Emerson Community Adult School faces possible closure to accommodate charter school expansion
By Gary Walker
For many of its students, Westchester-Emerson Community Adult School is a place to acquire new skills, move down another career path, earn a high school diploma or take the first steps toward applying to college.
For Ingrid Valxero, it was a lifeline to salvation.
Valxero, 37, was a victim of domestic violence for years but was afraid to talk to anyone about it, lest her two young sons become her boyfriend’s next victims. Once she enrolled at Emerson, however, she found teachers and students who gave her the confidence and resolve to leave her batterer.
“When I came here, I couldn’t speak English and I didn’t have any idea about how the laws work in the United States. I was so scared that I was about to die, but in this school they taught me that I didn’t have to be scared and I can get help and call 911. You can’t imagine what they’ve done for me,” said Valxero, a native of Colombia.
Valxero was one of several students who spoke out during a Nov. 5 rally to keep Emerson in Westchester, organized after school officials learned that LAUSD may close or relocate the campus next year to accommodate charter school expansion.
Sami Juman, 28, of Culver City said the acceptance that he has found at Emerson stands in stark contrast to his educational experience in Saudi Arabia, where ethnicity often determines economic mobility. Of Ethiopian descent, he would not been able to pursue an education in his homeland to the degree that he can in the United States.
“I’ve found opportunities here that back home I wasn’t supplied with. … I see this as a second chance, and this school has become a second home for me,” said Juman, who had dropped out of school to help support his family. “I used to envy the locals back home because they had it better than us. We were always looked at as second-class citizens, and once [the government] realizes that you are a foreigner, most programs don’t apply to you.”
Juman hopes to become a pharmacy technician. Valxero plans to study to become a medical assistant after she completes her English courses at Emerson.
“They made me strong here. They’ve changed my life. If we lose this school, it will be like losing my home, my friends and my family,” she said.
Emerson’s possible move and charter schools’ growing interest in classroom space on the Westside is happening against the backdrop of an unprecedented move to expand charter campuses throughout Los Angeles, a plan backed by philanthropist Eli Broad.
The LAUSD Board of Education will soon consider a proposal by The Broad Foundation to enroll more than 300,000 students — half of the students of the nation’s second largest school district — into charter schools by 2025. Charter schools are publicly funded but operate under fewer state and union regulations than traditional public schools.
United Teachers Los Angeles has pushed back against The Broad Foundation’s charter expansion plans. Patrick Meyer, who teaches at Emerson adult school and is its UTLA representative, said the anxiety is palpable among the students and faculty there.
“For so many of them, nothing in their lives has ever been secure. There’s a fear that it could be taken away at any time,” he said.
At a Nov. 2 Westside education forum, LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer pledged that he would not support cuts to any adult school programs, as there had been in prior years, but did not comment directly on Emerson’s future.
“As long as I am your school board president there will not be cuts to adult education classes on the Westside, and we will make sure that it’s understood that our adult school students depend on public transportation to get to their classes,” Zimmer told the audience, which included a number of Emerson faculty and students. “Schools are communities, and we’re not interested in breaking up and dividing communities.”
LAUSD officials have been noncommittal about the possibility of Emerson moving or closing due to charter school classrooms moving in.
“The district has been meeting with parents and community members as we look for ways to accommodate the growing enrollment at our schools in the Westchester area,” said an LAUSD spokesman. “We are considering a number of options that will allow us to serve the needs of all of our students.”
Students at Emerson are not likely to learn their fate until next spring, when LAUSD tenders offers to charter schools where there are unused or empty classrooms, as mandated by Proposition 39.
“A lot of this is because there has been an abandonment of local schools. And LAUSD is trying to balance that on the backs of our students,” Meyer said.