December 23, 2008
Will recession fuel a return to public schools?
Throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District, the recession is prompting middle-class parents to take a look at public middle and high schools they have long disdained. Private schools are just too expensive for many people. |
A large number of Jews, whose heritage and culture put a high value on education, are in this economically stressed category. That is why the present and future of the Los Angeles schools is a Jewish issue, one that deserves a place high up on the community's agenda.
"The number of people who can't afford private school is increasing," said Marlene Canter, the Los Angeles school board member who has for two terms represented the Westside and its many Jewish residents and who is about to step down. I met with Canter and her field representative, Paola Santana, for breakfast last week in Westwood to talk about her efforts to persuade Westside residents to send their children to public schools. She represents the Fourth District, which extends from the Palisades and Brentwood to Marina del Rey and includes Mar Vista, Palms, Westwood, Westchester and Venice. It also reaches as far east as Hollywood.
We discussed the current recession's impact on Jewish families who began abandoning the LAUSD generations ago, when court-ordered desegregation touched off a white exodus from the school system. While this was happening, Los Angeles' population was changing, and many schools became predominantly Latino. The change is reflected in high schools in Canter's district.
University High School's student body is almost 60 percent Latino, 18.6 percent black, 8.9 per cent Asian and 10.3 percent white. At Venice High, Latinos comprise almost 73 percent, whites 11 percent, blacks almost 11 percent and Asians almost 4 percent. Hollywood High School's students are 77.8 percent Latino, 9.4 percent white, 4.7 percent black and 3.8 percent Asian.
Canter said she starts with the premise that "every child should have an opportunity to get a great public education in a public school."
You can't very well make the argument that the schools throughout the Los Angeles district are great schools. The district is huge and covers the Southland's poorest and toughest neighborhoods. LAUSD's leadership is unstable and uncertain, smothering initiative with a huge blanket of bureaucracy. The teachers' union opposes attempts to change work rules that shelter the incompetent. So does the principals' union. (Yes, unbelievably, they have a union, too).
But there are many talented teachers and principals in the Los Angeles schools. I saw some bad principals, but good ones, too, when I wrote about the schools for the Los Angeles Times more than a decade ago, and I was reminded of the high-quality personnel in September when I met with Los Angeles High School teachers for a column for Truthdig, the web magazine. I was impressed.
In this climate, Canter is stepping up her efforts to urge parents to consider sending their children to middle and high schools in their neighborhoods. There are, she acknowledged, other choices within LAUSD -- charter schools and magnets. But charters are often located far from home, and for admission to magnets, parents must navigate through a complicated lottery system based on points. Local schools are making an attempt to improve, and they could be an attractive choice.
What's more, many public schools aren't the same monolithic campuses that they once were. There's been a movement to create small learning centers, offering special programs known as Schools for Advanced Studies, for example, for honors students, or specialized "academies" for kids particularly interested in math, science or performing arts, among others. These schools-within-schools are very popular, creating not only specialized learning centers for the students, but also a sense of community. And they take only a simple application for admission. You can find them in many LAUSD middle and high schools.
Earlier this year, Canter arranged for Ray Cortines, the recently named LAUSD school superintendent who at the time was deputy superintendent, to meet with a group of parents at a Westside Coffee Bean to tout the virtues of University High. Kathy Gonnella, principal of Emerson Middle School, has also hosted a wine and cheese evening for parents. My daughter, mother of two children, went to the latter and came back impressed. Earlier this year, I attended an evening meeting at Webster Middle School, where several principals pitched their Westside middle and high schools.
"What we are doing is breaking down perceptions," Canter said, attitudes that have been 30 years in the making, dating back to the desegregation controversy.
She said the principals and teachers have to play a big role in bringing about the change. "Principals in private schools spend a lot of time marketing themselves," she said. But in the past, she said, "our principals have never tried." The schools, she said, "must open the doors to the parents."
In addition, she said, the school board must make marketing LAUSD a high priority.
Of course the need to bring back middle-class parents extends far beyond the Jewish community. It is important throughout the district. It is unfair, unjust and simply dead wrong for a parent to be forced to mortgage the family future to send a kid to a private school that may or may not provide the education the child needs. Harvard Westlake is a good school, but graduation from there is not an automatic ticket to the Ivy League.
Los Angeles' public high schools should be a path to Harvard, UCLA, Berkeley, USC, Cal State Northridge or any other college. As a matter of fact, they already often are. The district is making an effort to improve and has succeeded in many schools.
With more parents considering such an alternative, it is up to the L.A. school district to convince them that it is a good choice.
Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at email@example.com.