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An Open Letter to Matt Damon: Yes, Your Kids CAN Get a Damned Fine Progressive Education in Los Angeles Public Schools

An Open Letter to Matt Damon: Yes, Your Kids CAN Get a Damned Fine Progressive Education in Los Angeles Public Schools

By on Aug 8, 2013 in Celebrities, Education, SoCal Life | 25 comments

Matt DAMON  (acteur)

Matt DAMON (acteur) (Photo credit: startinghere71)

Dear Matt Damon:

It has come to my attention that you and your family are moving to Los Angeles. As a lifelong Angeleno (with Massachusetts roots), I want to welcome you to our complicated city. Our diversity, energy and culture are equal to what you’re used to in New York — you just have to look a little harder and travel a little longer to find it.

Rest assured that LA residents are used to seeing celebrities in our midst, especially in the sort of neighborhood in which you are likely to settle. Locals understand the etiquette: pretend to ignore the famous face, no matter how excited you are to see it. The only problem with this is that it sometimes takes a few moments to realize that the guy you see in the supermarket looks familiar only because you saw him on TV — but I am certain this is also the case in the community you’ve been living in up until now. I’m pretty certain you’ll find that the baristas at your new Malibu or Beverly Hills Starbucks will be just as friendly and normal as the ones in New York.

The one thing I would like to clear up is your misconception about public schools here. I cannot deny that the Los Angeles Unified School District is a dysfunctional behemoth, subject to the worst kind of publicity in the nation, and that the quality of the 800-some schools in the district varies wildly (with those in low-income communities tending to fare far worse). I am hopeful that new funding approved by voters in the last election will help solve some of the inequities.

Believe me, had I enjoyed the kind of income that would have allowed it, I probably would have sent my own child to an excellent private school, as you have decided to do. But now that my daughter is entering her senior year at public high school, I am really glad I wasn’t able to go that route. Because I think it would have been a mistake.

You see, your reasoning — that the public schools in Los Angeles could not offer the same progressive education you enjoyed growing up — is false.

Balboa Gifted Magnet is one of the highest ranked schools in the entire state of California. It is known throughout the city for its high standards and challenging curriculum — and it is LAUSD. ¬†Holmes Middle School has been designated a California Distinguished School for its academic achievement and programs that emphasize both technology and humanities — and it is LAUSD. And the experience my daughter has had at Cleveland Humanities Magnet is akin to what you’d expect from a major university (in fact, most Cleveland graduates report that college is a lot easier). Again, a high achieving school within LAUSD.

And those are just three schools in the San Fernando Valley. There are dozens of other campuses throughout the city, with academically enriched curricula and unique learning programs from performing arts, to environmental science to aerospace science. Oh yes, and lots of math and technology.

I wish you could join us on our morning carpool, Matt, and listen to these kids talk about their classes and their wonderful teachers. They are thoroughly engaged¬†as they learn and apply concepts of history and social justice to the world around them. It warms my heart — and I bet it would warm yours, too.

It’s true that her teachers are not all Ph.Ds, as is the case at the tony Marlborough School where some of our friends send their daughters. My daughter was not required to learn Latin (and with resources so low, Spanish was the only language even offered my daughter in middle school) and her elementary school science lab was far from state-of-the-art. But she and her friends have thrived and have the SAT scores to prove it. And she’s going to get so much more day-to-day use from knowing Spanish than she ever would with Latin, although that would be a helpful language for pursuits like solving crossword puzzles.

Now, I totally understand how someone as wealthy and famous as you would worry about your kids’ safety. That alone is a good reason to place them at Oakwood or Harvard-Westlake or Crossroads, with all the other rich kids.

But that’s the problem, Matt. Rich kids who go to private schools only ever get to meet other rich kids in private schools. Yes, there may be a few scholarship students in their classes, but there’s an awful lot of pressure on those kids to try to fit in, so they may not learn a lot from them. You may be able to counter with extracurricular activities like gymnastics or soccer — but your children may never fully understand how privileged they are. And I fully believe that one of the reasons so many wealthy people in this country care little about their fellow citizens is that they live in their own private enclaves and never get to know anyone but other wealthy people living in enclaves. I think it’s hugely detrimental to all Americans that we have so little interaction across the economic spectrum. That isn’t how it was back when I went to school, and I bet that isn’t how you remember your school experience, either.

By isolating yourself and your family, you do not get to experience L.A.’s most dynamic resource: Our diversity. But maybe that’s just the way it has to be for the families of A-list actors. It’s a scary world out there. In a way, I feel sorry for you.

Anyway, I am looking forward to having the Damons join our merry band of citizens in Los Angeles, and I actually do support your decision. If you have not yet selected your family’s schools, I’d like to recommend this resource created by one of my MomsLA colleagues: Beyond the Brochure. Christina Simon will guide you through the ins and outs of the private school scene here.

Just don’t tell people you’re doing it because the public schools aren’t adequate.




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  1. Such a disconnect between Matt Damon’s public advocacy and his decision for his own kids.

    Christina Simon

    August 8, 2013

    • Yes and no. When you have that kind of fame, it’s really hard — the Beckhams had their kids at the same gymnastics place as my daughter and the papparazzi were a danger to everyone. He has likely heard all the LAUSD horror stories, which are enough to keep any parent with means away. So between that and security issues (and maybe not enough time to really research?) I totally understand his decision – my issue was perpetuating the idea that you can’t get a good public school education here. My fervent hope is that maybe he will mitigate this decision (and assuage any guilt he may be feeling) by giving money directly to the public schools, like Kirk Douglas does with his foundation that bestows playground equipment here. I am reminded of my friends’ silent auction where the top item garnered $100k from a studio exec — all the while I was struggling with our own silent auction which eked out a total of $1500 and that was hard enough to do.

      Donna Schwartz Mills

      August 8, 2013

  2. Good for you. There is so often a disconnect between a celebrity’s personal choices and the injustices they tout.


    August 8, 2013

  3. I can understand the security concerns for a rich or celebrity kid – nobody ever threatened to kidnap MY kid to get to me. But, yes, there ARE wonderful public schools in Los Angeles, just takes a little digging to find them. Thanks for this.


    August 8, 2013

  4. Great article.

    Percy Mills

    August 8, 2013

  5. Hope Matt sees this. I don’t live in California, but appreciate your rationale and invitation to a very wealthy family. Makes good sense. Congratulations on a job well done with your daughter, as success results from more than just the school attended.

    Elaine Plummer

    August 9, 2013

  6. Thanks, Elaine — but I cannot take much credit for my daughter, who was always a very easy child to raise.

    Donna Schwartz Mills

    August 9, 2013

  7. Donna, I’m always up for sticking up for LA to snotty East Coast attitudes. However, I wrote my thesis on alternative education and no where in the US was a hotter bed of progressive education than Boston. I also don’t think money is the issue. I don’t find our leading private schools progressive beyond some have the students call their teachers by their first name. In general, me included, everyone is to freaked out worrying their kids are going to be maids in China one day. The straight ahead academics have been ramped up in all schools. Maybe even in Boston. Maybe it’s a decade thing, not a city thing

    Daphne Brogdon

    August 9, 2013

    • Are you familiar with Wildwood School?

      Beth Leder-Pack

      August 17, 2013

  8. That’s good information, Daphne — I did not know that Boston was an education outlier. But I do maintain that there are wonderful programs in our public schools that many in this city don’t bother to investigate — programs that could be enhanced if we had the will. But the easier story to report is that public schools suck – especially those in LA. And that is what I felt I needed to address.

    Donna Schwartz Mills

    August 9, 2013

    • I have been a teacher in LAUSD for 21 years. I chose to teach at the school my mother attended, Hollenbeck Middle School in East Los Angeles. It is clear that there is discrimination. harassment, and bullying at this school. I’m not talking about the children, I”m speaking about the administration hired by The Partnership for Los Angeles, the ex mayor’s team. It’s not about the $ its about honesty and equity for every child in every public school. And until LAUSD is investigated to the fullest extent possible…I reccommend every parent to go and find out about each of their child’s would be teachers, and the administrators. Check the school for cleanliness and safety. And ask questions….

      MaryChristine Pena

      September 5, 2013

      • First of all, bless you. Public school teachers are my heroes, especially those of you employed by LAUSD. Learning about our children’s teachers and administrators is good advice. Are you familiar with K12 News Network? ( ) — I have a feeling editor Cynthia Liu would be very interested in what you have to say about Partnership for Los Angeles.

        Donna Schwartz Mills

        September 5, 2013

        • Thank you for the response. Additionally thank you for the address I’ll try to connect.

          MaryChristine Pena

          September 5, 2013

  9. Sorry but neither the post nor the comments are intellectually honest. While there may be SOME good programs in LAUSD, the drop out rate is 34%, of the 66% remaining, half need remedial education in college, leaving 33% of students who are minimally equipped for college. Plus the snarky “you just gotta dig to find the right programs” makes no senses – even if you do find one the chances that you can access it – due to numbers, lotteries, school “boundaries” means that NO, MATT DAMON IS RIGHT. So sorry, all you magical (not critical) thinkers, and all the “Rah Rah LAUSD just PREVENTS the kind of radical change needed to save another generation from a failed, not failing, system.

    phil de b

    January 1, 2014

  10. Hi Donna,
    My husband and I have decided to move our family from NYC to LA. We would prefer to send our boys to pubic school once we move to LA for both financial and philosophical reasons, however, I am having a very hard time finding public elementary schools that offer a progressive/developmental based curriculum. There are many lists available of “top” public schools with high test scores,. But we are looking for one that is not in the mainstream. How would I go about finding progressive elementary public schools that are equivalent in their curriculum to progressive private schools such as the Walden and Sequoyah in Pasadena?
    Any information would be greatly appreciated. Meline, NYC


    June 10, 2014

    • I agree with you Meline. I’m trying to find the same thing, but can’t afford $35k or even $25k per year for the only local schools working at a “progressive” curriculum. Did you find anything appropriate for you since your post in 2014? Thanks,


      April 16, 2015

  11. I am a public school teacher working in a low socioeconomic school district with 12 years of experience and a masters from LMU. Okay where do I start. I can honestly say I went back to work because I don’t want my children to go to public school in Los Angeles. Sorry, It’s true. I am working my ass off so they can go to private school. I am sure there are great public schools out there, but there are few and not in my neighborhood. And the charters are a joke? A few lucky kids are admitted through a lottery system, but I don’t want to take a chance. I am saddened by the lack of diversity, but I want my children to learn science and social studies, art and music. There is no funding for these programs at least not at the school where I work. I guess I could move?

    Making up a name

    June 11, 2014

    • I am forced to teach a scripted program all day. Administrators come into my room to make sure I am teaching the scripted program correctly. Science/Social Studies/Art/Music are reserved for the last 15 minutes of the day. By the way I teach 30 first graders with no aid. Oh Yes, and I teach to a test in FIRST GRADE. No way in hell are my children going to go to a school like this! I will make damn sure of it. Then again I don’t want them to become spoiled brats while mom is slaving away.

      Making up a name

      June 11, 2014

  12. My two older children graduated from the progressive private school in NYC that Matt Damon’s daughters attended. They were both “scholarship students” as Donna refers to these children in her letter. My children were able to bring their experiences to their school and share their diversity and culture with their classmates. In return, they experienced what most of their neighborhood friends couldn’t. It was very much a give and take experience and I wouldn’t change a thing.
    Like Mr Damon, I am looking to make LA my home. My daughter is a sophomore at one of LA’s amazing liberal arts colleges- let’s face it- LA is beautiful! As I consider this move, I must also decide where my 4-yr old will attend school. My visit to LA last week was very discouraging! As I read through the many ratings of LA public schools, I found it almost impossible to find neighborhoods that had schools with a 10 rating at every level; elementary, middle, and high school. The very few neighborhoods that did have schools with high ratings, are neighborhoods that I could never afford to live in.
    All of the schools in neighborhoods that I could afford to live in had ratings of 3-6!?! My child deserves nothing less than a 10- and I will settle for nothing less. The few friends that I have in LA- have gotten “creative” in order to send their children to better schools.
    I am grateful for the opportunities my older son and daughter received in NYC to attend a progressive-private school. The outcome of this valuable education is two caring, productive thoughtful and happy adults- qualities that are the foundation of a progressive education. I can understand why Mr Damon would choose to send his girls to a progressive private school in LA. Im not willing to experiment with my little guy – With the limited public school options in LA, I may just have to re-consider my move.

    D Mor

    October 3, 2014

    • I hope I did not come off in my post as anti-parental choice. Of course we are all going to do everything we can to get the best for our children, and more power to you. But you have to understand — ratings and test scores don’t tell the whole story. Unfortunately, they’re about the only tool we have to go by. It’s a shame, because on the campus level, I saw excellent teachers doing a great job with many challenges. The District is a Byzantine mess, but I am so proud of the (yes, progressive!) education my daughter received on an individual level. I hope you find what you are looking for here in Los Angeles — just don’t count the public schools out without looking beyond the numbers.

      Donna Schwartz Mills

      October 14, 2014

  13. The term “Progressive school” just means that they are not traditional, boring, rote memorization, standardized instruction, common core public schools. It has nothing to do with political views. Progressive schools for instance don’t give grades or tests in the traditional manner. There is more project-based learning, hands on learning, and they tailor the instruction for each child based on how they learn. Traditional public schools teach in an auditory-sequential manner and is one-size-fits-all learning, grades, and lots of test taking. What public schools in LAUSD do not teach to the test, give out grades, and are free to teach in the manner that is best for each individual child?

    Natalie Lang

    February 2, 2015

    • No, the public schools are not yet able to throw away the mandated tests – but some of the magnets do a good job of ignoring the testing culture as much as possible. My daughter attended Cleveland Humanities Magnet, which throws out the state mandated textbooks and takes a more holistic approach around core subjects like history, literature and the arts. No scantron forms for their exams: everyone is expected to write a good, reasoned essay at the end of each module. There are more gems like this within LAUSD’s 800-campus district. Yes, ALL public schools should be excellent, and that’s the goal of education activists. I’m encouraged by the increased willingness of parents and students and teachers to protest the testing madness. That’s not the only thing that needs to be changed, but it’s a start.

      Donna Schwartz Mills

      May 9, 2015

  14. The article doesn’t speak at all to “progressive” education in which many of us are interested. You’re going by scores as usual, so your points are undermined.


    April 16, 2015

  15. My kids go to a progressive school. I know people who are thrilled with their education at public school…until the day they see what is truly progressive education. Often due to financial reasons our students transfer to the schools you mentioned. Although the academics are fine, they complain that there is so much to their education that is missing. For example, what can we make with our hands? Why is reading music and playing an instrument important? Why do we write in cursive? Why is theater important? Why do we do art (with our hands and not a computer)? Your schools don’t place importance on these…students are lucky if they get one “elective” per year, whereas at our school these courses are required and considered essential to their education. Charter schools and magnet schools are mainly driven by test scores and rankings which, to me, doesn’t mean that students are well educated.

    J. Logan

    April 29, 2015


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