Our Education Needs Are California's Needs

Our Education Needs Are California's Needs

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Editor's Note: Students of color, low-income students and immigrant students make up 70% of California’s schools and will form the majority of high school dropouts. Jolene Rodriguez, a junior at a Long Beach high school, speaks up for students of color and worries about the future of California.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s not a very original question, but I hear it often, from parents, teachers and administrators.

But here I go again: My name is Jolene Rodriguez. I am 16 years old and I attend Cabrillo High in Long Beach, Calif. And when I grow up, I want to be a social worker and work with kids.

But to be honest, I’m not sure I’m going to get there. Not because I’m not smart enough or don’t work hard enough, but because I’m part of a segregated school system that does not adequately prepare me for college and a career after I graduate.

In 2008, less than one out of four of Cabrillo High’s students graduated with the required A-G courses to be eligible for a CSU or UC school. Only two percent of juniors and seniors were enrolled in advanced math courses.

Those statistics shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to education in California over the last decade, where the education budget has been cut $17 billion in the last two years alone, and less than 57% of black and brown students graduated from high school.

That’s why this May 11, as a reminder of the 1955 Brown v. Board of Education case that was supposed to desegregate schools, the Campaign for Quality Education is heading to Sacramento. Instead of getting grades, this time we’re giving them, presenting our elected officials a report card on the California public school system from 2000 - 2010.

As expected, the grades aren’t so good, with ‘F’s’ in Funding, Graduation Rates, and College and Career Readiness.

The theme of the day is “M.I.A.: California Ditching Schools from 2000-2010.” But we’re not going to Sacramento to point fingers. We’re going there to highlight our challenges AND offer real solutions. We know most of the elected officials there weren’t even there at the beginning of the decade when all these problems began.

However, they can be part of the solution. They can begin to see that we cannot cut our way to a healthy state and school system. They can also understand that together we must come up with ways to raise state funds and then spend it more wisely. And they can make decisions based on the needs of the people they represent and not just political survival. They can look ahead and not over their shoulders.

But most importantly, even before we pass bills or create working committees, it’s critical that one thing be understood: Our needs are California’s needs.

Students of color, low-income students, and immigrant students make up 70% of California’s schools. We are California!

It’s estimated that by the year 2020, 40 percent of California’s jobs will require higher education. With so many dropouts, who is going to fill all those jobs?

It’s funny, but to me, it all seems so clear. Like in what I learned in my math class: The more you invest into something, the more you get out of it. An educated California pays more in taxes, is more likely to vote, is physically healthier, and creates job opportunities and businesses.

For the last 10 years, California has been creating a lost generation of young people, and they don’t just disappear. They are more likely to be pushed into the criminal justice system, use social services, or just hang out and get into trouble.

It’s been said over and over again, but California spends $7,571 a year per student and $47,000 a year per inmate. I visited UCLA this past winter and loved it. $47,000 could pay all four years of my tuition there!

It’s obvious that California is in a real crisis and changes need to be made now. Not just for me, but for my little sister who is only eight years old. She will have to deal with a school system that will probably be even worse off than it is today.

Over the past two years, I’ve spoken to a number of elected officials, from school board members to mayors, and state senators and assembly members. Of course, they ask me what I want to be when I grow up.

The next time I will not answer, but instead ask them: “What do YOU want ME to be when I grow up?”


Jolene Rodriguez she is chapter president of Californians for Justice, a grassroots non-profit that works for educational justice. In January 2010, she was the youngest person featured in The District Weekly’s “People to Watch” issue for speaking up at a City Council meeting about environmental health issues at her school.

For more information, go to Quality-Education.org.