D’Anza Rodriguez is the Director of School Transformation, Secondary Literacy, at t the Partnership for LA Schools. D’Anza received her Master’s Degree in Education through UCLA’s Principal Leadership Institute. In her role, she works with school teams to positively impact student achievement results in literacy at the secondary level.
It is the fall of 1983. I am a curious, extroverted, Black five year old who is excited to try on this thing I first heard about on Sesame Street — school. I am no longer just the little girl with the plaits in my hair making mud pies in my grandmother’s backyard. I am now a big girl. I am now a kindergartner. Attending school is a rite of passage. And for me, that means I get to make the exciting journey from my grandmother’s house on East 25th Street in Los Angeles to 28th Street Elementary School a few blocks away. Holding on to my grandmother’s hand, I walk down the street, watching the neighborhood kids all saunter towards the schoolhouse. As we get closer to school, I suddenly feel more and more excited as I think about losing myself in learning and meeting kids my own age who love to read as much as I do. I am excited as I think about hearing my Romper Room-like teacher look into her magical mirror at the end of the day and call out my name in a soft, singsong voice: “I can see D’Anza…”
But none of these things happen. As we practice writing our letters, I decide to try cursive writing. When I bring my paper to my teacher, she reprimands me for scribbling. When the class starts to sound out letters to form words, I race through sight word list after list; I am a bibliophile after all. When my teacher sees that I know my kindergarten sight words and that I am plowing through the third-grade word list, she sits me in a corner with a book. While the rest of the class learns together as a community, I am isolated. By the end of my kindergarten year, the light in my heart that shines for learning starts to dim. The extroverted, curious five-year-old me becomes an introverted student whose questions sit at the bottom of her belly like rusting anchors.
Fast forward almost forty years, the spark that was ignited in me as a child was threatened by the extinguishing effects of isolation, a sense of non-belonging, boredom and the oppression that comes with being a passive participant within a system designed to see me fail. My grandmother saw my love of learning turn into apathy. She contacted my elementary school, I was tested, and I qualified to enroll in a highly gifted magnet program. But my elementary school did not have a highly gifted magnet program. And so, at the age of six, I had to board a school bus and travel forty miles round trip to a school that would meet my academic needs — even though there was a school four blocks away from my house. At my new school, I was provided with excellent academic opportunities. But, community was always missing from my school experience. I was visibly invisible and yearning for connection. Thankfully, there was a light at the end of my dark tunnel.
Today, I work alongside schools — all within seven miles of my old kindergarten classroom — at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. The Partnership believes that for a school to be truly transformational, it must consistently demonstrate “a schooling experience that fosters joy as students learn and grow, where students develop a positive sense of their identity, where student voice is empowered, where culturally responsive pedagogy and practice is enacted, and where students and families see the school as a liberative force within the community.” It is so important for students of color to be able to attend schools in their own communities that provide them with academic and social experiences that keep them on the path to achieving their hopes and dreams. So the fact that the Partnership’s network of schools exists makes my kindergarten heart full. As Audre Lorde said, “Without community, there is no liberation.” As a young child who yearned for the community, the learning, and the learning within my community, I felt shackled to a path that was determined for me, but one that was not for me. It is my hope that Partnership schools become truly transformative in service of our students.
It is my hope that our schools continue to prioritize teaching that respects and cares for the souls of our students and provides the conditions necessary for deep and intimate learning to begin. I want our current and future community of students to possess the tools of self-empowerment, to feel deep respect for one another, to journey from class to class, not begrudgingly, but with anticipation because their first-period teacher is sparking some awesome conversations grounded in a Chinua Achebe text or their fourth-period math teacher helped them to see the mathematical genius that is in all of us. I want our school community to ask how many black students, multilingual students, and students with special needs do we have in our school. How many do I know? What are their stories? What are their hopes? What are their dreams?
Thirty-five years ago, I had to get on a bus and travel twenty miles each way to the San Fernando Valley to attend school because the elementary school I attended was not able to provide for my academic and social needs. Today, our Partnership students have the opportunity to attend transformational, public schools in their own communities. Schools that work to ensure that students like me are challenged academically. That every student who looks like me finds joy in the authentic relationships that are built with teachers and classmates. Schools that persist in communicating: I am going to challenge you. You got this. I believe in you. Schools that connect curriculum to students and students to curriculum. Schools that see students’ highest selves.
For many, school is a refuge. A place of possibilities when life seems impossible. I know this because that was the community school I hoped for in my dreams as I rested my head on that bus seat driving to a school twenty miles away from my home. A school that provided me with exceptional academic experiences, but also a school that did not know me because it did not know my community. So the fact that we have a network of schools in our communities that are striving to do that work makes my heart feel free.