A Voice for Choice

By R. Claire Friend
April 9, 2019

All politics is local. The ageless proverb reminds local communities of the importance of stewarding their local government and voting on local issues. Perhaps no issue is a more important investment in our communities than local education. However, when investments fail to payout, action is necessary.

The Inland Empire, home to 11% of the state’s population, has the highest poverty rate of the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas according to 2012 government data. Unfortunately, it contains some of the state’s least educated adults and lowest performing public schools.

Nearly half of IE adults have only a high school education or less compared to 38% statewide. Only 1-in-5 Inland adults holds a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 1-in-3 statewide.

According to 2016 American Community Survey data, 32% of Californians hold at least a bachelor’s degree, higher than the 31.3% national average but both Riverside and San Bernardino County hover around a dismal 20%.

Though around 85% of their students graduated from high school in 2016, only 44.3% of those graduates in Riverside County and 37.6% in San Bernardino County were eligible for CSU/UC admission. Graduation no longer appears to be an accurate measure of successful education.

It’s clear that schools are even failing many of their low-income, minority or immigrant families. Though many parents are often poorly educated, they are well aware of the importance of a good education for a child’s success. However, they are often unable and unequipped to navigate the bureaucratic red tape to insure their children will receive the proper education that has been promised to them.

Though the situation seems bleak, dedicated community members are leading the fight against apathetic schools. Christina Laster, President of the newly formed Inland Empire Parent Union, is an outspoken and effective advocate for beleaguered and overwhelmed parents. As the Education Chairwoman to the NAACP, Laster is well educated, well connected, and on a mission of hope. Thankfully she is on the community’s side.

Founded in November, 2018, the IE Parent Union already has 100 members, all of whom Laster has personally educated, inspired and enabled to counsel other parents in need of information and hope.

Laster employs a multi-layered approach to her mentoring. She feels a sense of urgency because so many IE schools are failing to provide children with the skills needed to become competent, successful adults. The importance of this issue cannot be overstated. For many living in the Inland Empire, education is the only avenue to a better life. Instead of giving up, Laster’s union of parents has given presented the district with a powerful new voice.

Laster centers the parent union around equipping parents with the tools to influence their child’s education. She instructs them how to take photos, document names and file formal complaints with the school district, state and, when appropriate, the federal government.

Laster encourages parents to transfer their children to better schools, charters, or even to be willing to homeschool, as she was forced to do with her own children.

A product of the San Diego Public School system, Laster attended the Early Childhood Center from the age of 2 and was herself hired as an early education aide at 17 when she graduated from high school. A strong proponent of Head Start and First Five California, she feels these programs provide “meaningful” benefits to young children and give them a solid foundation upon which to build their lives.

Her relationship with the NAACP is invaluable. She views their education initiative as helping all disadvantaged children. “Education is a civil rights issue,” she asserts. The NAACP can offer helpless parents powerful leverage.

Laster encourages parents to demand accountability when schools fail to provide appropriate services or safe classrooms. She strongly supports their efforts to enroll their children in charter schools, noting that the IE has granted far fewer charters than Orange County and that all of them have long waiting lists.

Laster noted that parents who initiate formal complaints have a far better chance of success. She prepares them for the possibility of retaliation, something that her children experienced which led to her current relationship with the NAACP.

Education is often the only way to escape from poverty. Its importance in disadvantaged communities is magnified exponentially. Laster is generous with her time and expertise. She wants to “build a foundation that will last for the next generation.” With so many underperforming IE schools, Laster’s dedication and passion are much in demand.

Every month the IE Parent Union brings people together by hosting a Community Fair. Laster has also begun to teach a course for parents called the Ten Commandments of Education, running from March 15-May 24. Christina Laster is making a difference in the lives of many families. She deserves our thanks and support.

Call (619) 807-5117 or email christinalaster @live.com to reach Laster for more information.

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Psychiatrist R. Claire Friend, M.D. retired after 35 years in private practice. She was editor of two professional publications and is now editor of the UCI Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior’s Quarterly Psychiatric Journal. She serves on the volunteer faculty as an assistant professor.

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