It was midday at McKinley Elementary School and a changing of the guards was taking place. One group of parents was picking up kids after their morning at preschool, and another group arrived to drop off theirs for the afternoon class. This is one of 19 free programs for 3- to 5-year-olds at Compton public schools.
And right in the middle of it all was the head of the school board, Micah Ali.
Dressed in a soft blue waistcoat, stylish mauve shirt and jeans, Ali greeted parents with an outstretched hand and broad smile. The children got an affectionate hair ruffle.
“I’m very much interested in hearing any challenges, impediments, concerns, or hurdles that parents may have so I can address them on their behalf,” he said. “These folk are my boss. I answer to them.”
It sounds like politician speak, but Ali says he regularly visits schools at pick up time so he can meet parents and office staff, teachers and the principal at McKinley Elementary.
Born and raised in Compton, Ali has spent six years on the school board because he says he wants to improve his neighborhood. The district pays him a stipend of $1,000 a month. He also works a full-time job is as the Associate Director of the Los Angeles County Education Foundation – though Ali said he’s often mixing the two roles.
When Ali first ran for the school board, his slogan was: “Educate Don’t Incarcerate.”
“At that time, in 2007, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was arresting almost 600 or so folk under the age of 18 in Compton,” he said.
“These are kids,” he argued, “that should be in school, not in jail.”
But perhaps his biggest push since he’s been on the board has been a focus on preschoolers.
When the state asked school districts to introduce at least one Transitional Kindergarten class last year, Compton, under Ali's leadership, added the new grade to every elementary school - for a total of 32 classes district-wide.
Preschool, he said, will “not only bolster the community with an educated workforce, but also bolster California.”
He sees quality education for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds as a key part of the solution to many of the city’s bigger problems: crippling unemployment and high poverty. Compton’s unemployment rate last year pushed 16 percent. Its poverty rate of almost 30% is one of the highest in the nation.
The statistics roll off his tongue.
“The early childhood educational space contributes some $1.7 billion to the local economy in LA County. How? Job creation,” he said in an interview. “But also when you look at a school district, if we start at an early age educating children they’ll be … far more agile and be truly competitive in a global market.”
In 2012, the rest of school board selected him to be the body’s president – and kept him in the job when decision-time came back around this year.
When Newark Mayor Cory Booker came to the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles in September to talk about the importance of preschool, Ali was there, dressed in a dapper suit, hobnobbing with early education heavy hitters.
He wanted people to know that Compton has a “firm commitment” to early childhood education.
“We talked about foster youth, individuals who are English language learners, as well as individuals who are just simply disadvantaged by the mere vicissitudes of life,” he said.
He brought an on-the-ground perspective from Compton.
During his visit to McKinley, he connected with parents, from the young couple who arrived in a pick-up truck blaring Alicia Keys, to the recently arrived African immigrant grandfather, to the non-english speaking mothers.
This is not the Compton Ali grew up in, but Ali said he's happy about demographic changes in Compton – 77 percent of the district’s students are now Latino. He’s learning Spanish to be able to communicate with their parents.
During his recent visit to McKinley, he was surprisingly effective in communicating with one parent, despite the language gap.
After the school visit, Ali headed off to the headquarters of the United Association Local Union 250, which represents plumbers and other blue-collar workers. He was meeting Joe Macias, who runs the union’s apprentice program.
They bump into each other in the parking lot, and they go right to work.
His pitch: the apprenticeship program could really help some of the parents he’d met that morning.
“While their children are in …preschool,” he told Macais, “the parents could possibly receive either job training or be part of the apprenticeship program.”
For Ali, this is all part of helping kids get an education. How can children learn if their parents are unemployed or don’t have a stable home environment?
By the end of the conversation, he had convinced Macias to come with him to school at drop off one morning to recruit parents.
Parking lots, he said, are where his best deals are made.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Ali was unpaid for his work on the Compton School Board. In fact, he receives a stipend of $1,000 a month. KPCC regrets the error.