When I was a child, “The Little Engine that Could”,  was one of my favorite picture books. I loved the colorful illustrations of the silly clown and the giraffes and the anthropomorphized milk bottles and lollipops.  According to, this iconic book “repeated refrain of “I think I can™” has become a symbolic representation of healthy childhood development, encouraging children to believe in themselves, demonstrate bravery, and build self-confidence.”

September was a dark month at our school. Our principal had left and although we had a couple of nice-enough interim principals, things were happening that I felt we had no control over.  In general, since the charter school boom here in LA, September is the month of charter hustling – that phenomenon I talked about last year where kids disappear without saying goodbye as their parents gleefully move them into newly available spots in new charter school locations.  I spoke to some kindergarten parents that decided to come to Carthay because of our outgoing principal, and now that she was leaving, they weren’t sure they wanted to stay, despite good experiences at the school so far.

dark clouds w lightning

So, off they went, often stealthily as if sneaking off into the night. When it came to “norm day,” when the district takes a snapshot of enrollment numbers to determine resources your school will receive for the year, we were three students short to retain one of our teachers.  Kids throughout the school were reshuffled into new combo classes.  It wasn’t always clear how decisions were made and understandably, some children and parents were upset. Parents threatened to leave.  Despite the enthusiasm we felt at the beginning of the year and with the magnet designation around the corner, it felt like our captainless ship was going to sink.   At a PTA meeting, when we were discussing our under-enrollment, a couple of kinder moms told us that after they heard how much their children were enjoying the school, their friends came to try to enroll their own children and our office turned them away.  I gasped in disbelief. How could this be?

Apparently LAUSD didn’t give us any “open-enrollment” spots this year, meaning you can only come if you live in the neighborhood or if you went through the more complicated permit process.  Even though we didn’t have enough students!!  I am not sure what the rationale was. I guess someone in an office somewhere downtown was crunching numbers and came up with some logarithm that seemed to make sense to him or her, but the result was that we got kicked while we were down.  We were restricted from filling our classrooms, then penalized for not having enough kids, by taking away a teacher.

I didn’t write in September, because I didn’t want to put all this in writing.  It was too sad.  Plus, I didn’t want neighborhood families to read it and run away like my daugther used to do if she was afraid to face the conflict in a child-friendly movie.  Some friends asked if we would start looking for other schools for next year.  I thought about it for a split second.  Of course we wouldn’t go.  Maybe, like the little engine from my favorite childhood story, we just had to chug up that hill a little slower and chant our mantra, I think I can, I think I can, a little longer until we made it to the top of the mountain.  One mom friend pointed out, if your kids are still happy and thriving, you are still blessed to have been sending them to your neighborhood school all along.  Maybe we weren’t cursed. Maybe this was just the conflict in the story that makes the happy ending so much more rewarding?


Of course, that was last month, this is October.   A season of transition and change. We have a sharp new principal who is already working with our school activists to bring us more resources and get our magnet plan off the ground.  We represented ourselves at the magnet fair and got good feedback.  Apparently Carthay differentiated itself from other schools’ information tables by giving out not only brochures, but also donut holes. (I’m not sure how donuts fit into an environmental theme, but no open house or volunteer day goes by without food at our school!)

So many positive things are happening now.  Our weekly GATE pull-out program just started.   As part of our growing garden science program, one of the projects the school has been talking about for a while is on the way to being funded purely by donations on   By early next year, we should have our new hydroponic, hydraulic system in the garden up and running, that filters fish excrement through soil, thus fertilizing the soil and purifying the water so that it can be pumped back into the fish tank.  A microcosm of environmental studies right there!


I worked in the garden on this past Sunday and felt my love of the garden, the school and our goals renewed.  Hauling and stacking cement blocks and getting my hands dirty mixing soil, while our two very happy chickens strolled around freely eating bugs, gave me a physical outlet for my angst.  Sitting around and feeling sorry for ourselves gets us no where.  Hard work and patience is what pays off.  Isn’t that what we want our children to learn?

carthay garden w chickens

Oh, and speaking of bugs, we just got word that we will be the only school in LAUSD that is going to partner with the Museum of Natural History in making our garden a bug collection site for its new project BioSCAN!


Our engine is starting to rev up again. We appealed to LAUSD regarding the lost teacher and it looks like we have a good chance to get the teacher back. Our website is getting updated to show off all of that great programs at the school and our first magnet school tour is happening tomorrow morning at 9am (don’t be late!).  Last week I met a new mom on campus, who told me that they moved from South Pasadena to our neighborhood, just for our school, because she heard that the kids are so happy here.

Thus, I find myself falling back on the lessons of my favorite childhood book even today. Rooting for that little engine is like rooting for our little school.   We may be small and less fancy than the other engines, but with tenacity and heart, we will get up over that steep mountain and deliver the goodies to the children waiting on the other side.

I thought I could, I thought I could!