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Imani Robinson exudes energy as she discusses the San Diego Unified School District, her work as a parent activist and the idiosyncrasies of California education politics.

The mother of three — her daughter, Tatiana Steward graduated from Scripps Ranch High School in 2008 and her nine-year-old twin sons Amaan and Deen attend Crown Point Junior Music Academy in Pacific Beach — got involved in local education out of a blend of frustration and love.

Frustration for a system that, as she puts it, “teaches in a straight line.” And love for her twins, who sit at opposite ends of that linear model of education (one is a gifted student, the other has a learning disability).

Over the years, Robinson has discovered the power of her speech and her advocacy as a parent and a voter. She’s attended conferences about parent involvement in education and volunteers as a researcher and organizer for the school district.

With San Diego Unified School District facing financial meltdown, Robinson says there’s never been a more important time for parents to wake up and shake things up. The future of San Diego, California, the United States and the whole world is in the hands of parents like her, Robinson says, and mothers and fathers need to recognize the debt they owe their children.

We sat down with Robinson at Crown Point Junior Music Academy to talk about the troubles at San Diego Unified, how parents can get involved and how she teaches her kids to cope with sub-par teachers.

This school was on the list of schools to close until the board decided to take it off last month. Did that whole ordeal affect your sons’ education at all?

They were ready to fight.

I said to them “They’re trying to close the schools, and they’re trying to take away the buses and put you in your neighborhood school.” Amaan said, “Are they crazy? Are you kidding me?”

They supported me in my fights. When I came home, they’d say, “So what happened in the meeting?”

I don’t always drag them to meetings, but sometimes I do for emphasis, to show them how important this is and how it’s good to have a voice.

I imagine there’s a lot of parents watching all this turmoil unfold at the district and they’re wondering what they can do about it. What can they do?

For one thing, they can join their school site council. I’m the chair of this school site council.

You always have to look for the silver lining, the light in the dim areas.

What I’m seeing that has come from all these budget cuts is that schools have come together. Clusters have been created. So the main thing for parents to do is when they get that recorded message saying there’s a cluster meeting, show up.

When there’s a PTA or a Title One meeting, show up.

What I’ve noticed is that when we weren’t struggling with the budget, the PTA wanted to just make cakes. They wanted to bake the best cake and they didn’t want the school to have any say.

But then, when the PTA saw that they were possibly losing teachers and programs, they said “What can we do? How can we get involved?”

The situation created a way to bring people together.

But what if I’m a parent sitting at home thinking that these are all big decisions, made by politicians up in Sacramento, so does my voice really matter?

Your voice matters! Because you vote!

Every time parents rally and go down to the Board of Education, we make a difference.

You are the biggest stakeholder here. Your child counts, which means you have the right to get the proper education. If you’re not getting it, you can fight for it.

What do you think about the growth of charter schools in San Diego Unified?

I think it’s a little scary.

I think it’s uncharted waters. You hear horror stories and you hear great stories.

The district needs to do something that the charters do: celebrate achievement.

I get that you need to give money to schools that need support, that are failing. But we also need to find a way to say “Hey, if you are successful, look at this big pot of gold over here for you.”

We all need to be motivated in some kind of way. Sometimes, principals are scared that their budget will be affected if they do well. It’s like “We need some bad kids so that we can do well, but if we do too well, then we’ll get cut off.”

With the district on the brink of insolvency, what are you thinking right now, as a parent?

I’m frustrated, for sure. I’m trying not to be angry.

What are you frustrated at, specifically? The Board of Education? The state?

I’d have to include everyone. I’m frustrated with the country. I’m frustrated with the government. I’m frustrated with everyone waiting on someone else to do their jobs.

What I’m not hearing enough about is the achievement of the children.

I’m hearing all about jobs and pensions and I’m not hearing enough about what programs we’re going to put in place to teach these children.

I see them making changes, but I don’t see the road map for those to be successful changes. They don’t do the one-two-three-four-five, they don’t connect the dots.

You said you’re trying not to be angry?

I’m trying not to use this energy in anger, since in anger you don’t necessarily get a lot done.

Instead of being angry, I’m trying to work through my frustration and help find a solution.

What does your dream school look like?

My dream school is one where students are excited to go to school, and where teachers don’t look at children as having problems, and are looking for ways to teach every child, no matter what.

One thing this school focuses on is Suzuki violin (a method of teaching music developed by Japanese musician Shinichi Suzuki in the mid-20th century).

Everyone thought that musicians had to be very highly intellectual and they had to be these special kids and what Suzuki said was no. If any child could learn their mother language, that means they can learn.

He said, “If a child doesn’t learn something, then they were taught wrong.” I wish every teacher had that attitude and didn’t say “Well, it’s the neighborhood they come from. Or “It’s their race, it’s their culture, they have a disability, they have ADHD, that’s what’s stopping them from learning.”

So, that comes down to the relationship between teachers and students.

But one of the big criticisms we hear about the school district, about tenure and unions, is that sometimes there are bad teachers, or teachers who have given up, or who are lazy, and it’s very hard to get rid of them.

Have you ever come across that with your kids’ teachers?

Yes.

Not a lot of times. But what I do is I teach my children to strategize. I figure out what’s wrong with that teacher and I say, “If she’s ignoring you in class, you get your work done and you ignore her.”

That empowers my children.

People are human. I’m a hairstylist and there are horrible hairstylists, we all know.

Yeah, but horrible hairstylists aren’t guaranteed clients. If someone’s terrible at styling hair, people will stop coming to them.

Yeah, you’re right! You got me on that one.

National City and Chula Vista, they’re working on accountability systems. They pull teachers who aren’t making the grade aside and mentor them and give them assistance.

The way this school system is set up, it’s more like nobody wants to step on anyone’s toes. That’s the elephant in the room, nobody wants to say anything. But principals should create a supporting environment to say to teachers, “Let me help you with some ideas.”

When I had issues here at Crown Point, people kept saying to me “Just leave!”

But my thing is that I would be leaving my community or other children behind in a broken system, and I’d possibly be moving to another broken system.

Why don’t we figure out how we can fix the entire system, so everyone can benefit.

That’s why I’m so involved.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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