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On the frontlines of reintegrating LAUSD

by Bill Boyarsky

August 20, 2014 | 12:22 pm

<em>Emerson Middle School. Image via Wikipedia</em>

Emerson Middle School. Image via Wikipedia

In a city and county that tends to be segregated by race and income, it’s inspiring to meet people trying to reverse the trend. That’s particularly true in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), where a number of parents, many of them Jewish, have been trying for years to convince white families to send their children to public schools.

Recently I talked to two of these parents, both of whom have been at the center of the effort to increase the number of white students at Emerson Community Charter School, a middle school with a mostly minority student body. To explore the issue, I met with Jeremy Bollinger at the Breadbar in Century City, near his law office. The following day, I had coffee with Janet Hirsch at the Literati Café at Wilshire Boulevard and Bundy Drive. 

The two restaurants are different — the Breadbar heavy with lawyers and shoppers, the Literati with people at their iPads and laptops. What the two spots have in common is a certain upscale Westside sensibility that sets them apart from most of the rest of this big city. Within their world, however, Bollinger and Hirsch stand out, in that they enthusiastically immerse themselves in the complexities and emotions of one of Los Angeles’ most troubling matters, the future of public education. 

I’ve enjoyed reporting on the efforts of such people. One of the best moments I’ve witnessed was in March 2010, when I was in the sanctuary of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles where about 450 whites, Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans came together to talk about school integration. Whites had long been fleeing the public schools. These people wanted to do something about it. I felt, as I wrote in the Jewish Journal afterward, “an emotional high,” especially when Rabbi Dara Frimmer, speaking from the bimah, said, “The words above me read: Tzedek, tzedek tirdoff — justice, justice you shall pursue.” Hirsch and Bollinger were among the speakers that day.

I recently had asked Frimmer whom I should talk to about how things were going in the integration effort. She turned me over to Bollinger and Hirsch.

Bollinger, explaining his reasons for getting involved, told me he wanted his daughters to have the public school experience he missed at Jewish day school, The Buckley School and Harvard. He said he felt “a bit of guilt because” of that. His wife, Michelle, had a different view. She attended Westwood Elementary School, Webster Middle School and University High before moving on to UC San Diego. He said she worried that a public school education wouldn’t equip their daughters for the rigors of the college admission race and for college itself.

Bollinger was an active parent at his daughters’ elementary school, Westwood Charter, and through that work, he met two Emerson parents at a meeting and was impressed. “I was trying to get more information and disseminating facts to Westwood Charter,” he said. He set up a meeting with them at his family’s home. “They came; there were 10 of them [from Emerson],” he said, explaining that the Emerson parents brought along others. Only four Westwood Charter elementary school parents showed up. But after meeting for two hours, he said, they all decided to send their children to Emerson.

Emerson, located in a prosperous-looking area near Westwood, has a student body of 592. For the most part, the students don’t reflect the population of the immediate neighborhood. That’s because Emerson draws from a large area that reaches from Westwood, south to the Latino and Asian-American Sawtelle area, and through the Wilshire corridor to the Latino and African-American neighborhoods south of Pico Boulevard. 

School district figures show that at Emerson, 52.7 percent of the student body is Latino, 21.1 percent white, 19.9 percent African-American, 5.7 percent Asian-American and 0.6 percent American Indian or Pacific Islander.

About half the students come from families poor enough to make them eligible for free lunches and other food aid. 

Bollinger said the experience of going there was a huge plus educationally, culturally and socially for his daughter Emma, who now attends Hamilton High School, and continues to be so for her sister, Isabel, now in the seventh grade. His daughters are “in a position to learn this is the makeup of the world, the makeup of Los Angeles,” Bollinger said, adding that Emerson is a “great example of how such a diverse group of students, or people in general, can succeed together …”

Hirsch agreed. “Kids will see the world differently,” she said. “Best thing I ever did,” she said of the decision to choose Emerson. “It’s the only diverse part of our lives.”

Hirsch was born in Zimbabwe, a long-segregated nation that was run by a minority of whites until the colonial government fell and blacks eventually gained control. Her childhood experience in that racially divided land (the family immigrated to the United States in 1987) clearly has shaped her view on the need for an integrated society.

“Make the world a better place,” she replied when I asked why she sent her children to Emerson. “The world I lived in before I went to Emerson [as a parent] was a very segregated place.”

I wondered what her children have absorbed from the experience. “It gives you friends,” she said. “The mother of a friend of my daughter works in the post office. Another kid’s mother is a UCLA professor.”

Bollinger and Hirsch work with Latino and black parents on fundraising and other efforts to improve the school. “It’s not a perfect school,” Bollinger said. Enrollment is not at capacity, which reduces the allocation of funds and the size of the faculty. But, a new gym and athletic field are nearing completion. Teachers have been given more authority to shape the curriculum, and “the amount of parent participation has risen,” Bollinger added.

To school board member Steve Zimmer, people like Bollinger and Hirsch are white parents “who stick with it,” pushing aside doubts for the benefits of integrated public schools. “There a natural and gradual transformation process, and the challenges can be more difficult, but what develops over five or 10 years is that a school is more reflective of the demographics of the neighborhood,” Zimmer said. In the case of middle or a high school, it’s more than a single neighborhood. Schools draw from several neighborhoods, miles apart, which are usually strangers to each other.

I don’t know whether the Emerson parents will succeed in the long run at their difficult task of getting these folks together. Segregation by race and economic class is increasing, not only in Los Angeles, but also throughout the United States. But here in L.A., except for Dodger Stadium and some transit lines, the public schools are one of the few places where people of all races come together. Let’s give a hand to such good people, who are trying to preserve and restore our integrated school system.

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