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Healing the World, One School at a Time

by Rachel Heller

November 25, 2009 | 12:25 pm

Emerson Middle School principal Kathy Gonnella (wearing scarf), Rabbi Dara Frimmer (back, second from right) and congregants from Temple Isaiah meet with fifth-grade families at Brockton Avenue Elementary School.  Photo by Barry E. Levine

Emerson Middle School principal Kathy Gonnella (wearing scarf), Rabbi Dara Frimmer (back, second from right) and congregants from Temple Isaiah meet with fifth-grade families at Brockton Avenue Elementary School. Photo by Barry E. Levine

When Robyn Ritter Simon first checked out Canfield Avenue Elementary School for her sons in 1995, she didn’t like what she saw.

Test scores weren’t stellar. The school grounds needed improvement. And in the heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson area of West Los Angeles, where the public school is located, hardly any Jewish families were sending their kids. Ritter Simon’s eldest son would have been one of few white children — and even fewer Jewish children — in his class.

But while other mothers in her Beverlywood neighborhood were budgeting for private school, Ritter Simon and a group of friends went to work fixing up the school and wooing local families back to the campus. Over a nearly 10-year period, the “Beverlywood Moms” stumped for the school at neighborhood gatherings, organized house meetings and successfully recruited hundreds of local Jewish families back to Canfield. Today, the school her peers once shunned is “an anchor of the neighborhood,” Ritter Simon said, and that enthusiasm has caught on elsewhere.

“We really galvanized parents about public education, which ended up improving elementary schools throughout the Westside,” she said.

Now the group’s model for revitalizing Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools is graduating from elementary school to that place that still causes many Jewish parents to bite their nails in anxiety: middle school. And, for the first time, some major Jewish institutions are joining the effort.

Through a community organizing program, congregants of Temple Isaiah are mobilizing to kick up support for Emerson Middle School, one local intermediate school that serves a wide swath of West Los Angeles. Temple Isaiah activists are waging a two-pronged campaign — urging local Jewish families to look past the rumors and give the school a chance, and working to activate non-Jewish parents at Emerson’s feeder elementary schools so they’ll stay involved when their kids get to middle school.

To be sure, many Jewish families, including most Orthodox families, don’t send their children to local schools, choosing instead to enroll them in private day schools emphasizing Judaic studies from childhood through high school. But not all the effort from the Jewish community is about enrolling in a particular school, rather the focus is on getting involved in offering support. To that end, for example, the congregation at IKAR, which includes residents from throughout the city, is about to embark on an effort to bolster a public school in a struggling neighborhood that is not in their facility’s immediate neighborhood but is in great need of assistance.

If concerned parents of all ethnic and religious backgrounds work together, these congregations believe, they can help strengthen public education for children everywhere.

The timing is right, too. In a struggling economy with private school tuition rates climbing out of reach, more Jewish families are looking at their neighborhood schools. And they want to be assured the schools are good.

But this time of uncertainty also offers a chance to return to the core Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world): Choosing public school, some say, is simply the “right” thing to do. In her Yom Kippur sermon in September, Temple Isaiah’s Rabbi Dara Frimmer made the case:

“The prophet Jeremiah said, ‘Seek the well-being of the city in which you dwell ... for in its peace you shall find peace,’” Frimmer said. “The well-being of the city in which we dwell depends on a strong, public education for all children. It’s about the future of Los Angeles.”


Building Relationships

At 4:45 p.m. on a drizzly October evening, about 40 parents of fifth-graders gather at the low-slung kiddie tables dotting Brockton Avenue Elementary School’s library. Principal Kim Lattimore opens the yearly parent meeting with a welcoming speech, also translated into Spanish, then she introduces a guest — Emerson principal Kathy Gonnella, who will have most Brockton graduates at her school next year.

Scattered among the crowd is a handful of elementary school parents from across town, Temple Isaiah congregants whose children are also zoned to go to Emerson in a few years. One of them, Jeremy Bollinger, introduces himself, saying he plans to send his two daughters to Emerson when they graduate from Westwood Charter Elementary School.

“I’m excited to come and meet you, because we all share the same interest in making Emerson a great school for our kids,” he says.

It’s a conversation many Brockton parents — who are predominantly Latino — would later say they’d never had before.

Starting dialogues like this is a fundamental part of Temple Isaiah’s approach. By building relationships among community groups that have a stake in the school, activists believe, they can create a network of involved parents who will advocate for higher-quality education all the way up through the system.

These relationships are key according to One LA-IAF, the community organizing agency Temple Isaiah partnered with in 2007 to get the ball rolling on this initiative. One LA works with congregations of all faiths, as well as nonprofits and unions, to help create momentum for tackling social issues such as housing, labor and health care. Other member synagogues include Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Temple Israel of Hollywood and Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

When the 1,100-family Temple Isaiah first began work with One LA, organizers held a series of meetings to pinpoint civic concerns members wanted to address. Public education was a recurring answer and, more specifically, Emerson.

Parents told stories of paying top dollar for a home in the pricey Westwood area to be near a “good” elementary school, then by middle school getting scared off by Emerson’s reputation and scrambling to budget for private school anyway. Older congregants talked about using up the inheritance they had hoped to leave their children to help finance grandchildren’s private school tuition — to avoid the local middle school.

“We heard from parents who felt completely disconnected from the values they were brought up with and the ones they wanted to express — about equity and democracy and making friends in the neighborhood and letting their kids grow up with a realistic view of Los Angeles. They had abandoned all of that because they just couldn’t make the choice to go to the local school,” Frimmer said. “We need to start talking out loud about public education and why we’re not going. People are broken and stressed out and feeling compromised morally. People don’t feel empowered — they feel helpless.”

Synagogue members started by reaching out to Emerson principal Gonnella last year and touring the campus to understand what the school had to offer and what its needs were. Then they came back and held meetings, inviting other congregants to voice their concerns in a public forum.

The outreach was a boon to Gonnella, who had made wooing neighborhood families back to the school a priority in her first three years as principal.

“It was so heartwarming to hear a rabbi from our neighborhood say, ‘We want to help you get the local community back,’ and that we share a vision of having Emerson be the school of choice for Westwood families,” Gonnella said.

Members of IKAR hope their own outreach to a Los Angeles public school will be met with such enthusiasm as they get ready to start a similar school-improvement campaign.

Last year, the 400-member-unit congregation began a community organizing program that also turned up public education as a top concern. The group is still deciding on a specific focus — since the IKAR community is so spread out, there isn’t a central school of relevance to all members, so they’re instead looking at schools in the low-income south-central part of the city.

Participants want to take a “holistic approach,” viewing the school as a vehicle through which to strengthen an entire community, said IKAR member Matty Sterenchock, co-chair of the education initiative. That means taking into account where kids go after school, whether the neighborhood is safe for children and what services are already in place to aid local families. So far, members are talking about mentoring students, holding after-school workshops and coordinating adult literacy programs to get the whole community engaged.

But the ultimate goal in these efforts is not for a handful of Jewish activists (Temple Isaiah’s contingent includes about 50 active congregants; IKAR’s includes about 30) to bring about change on their own — they want parents of all backgrounds, including the neighborhood parents, to partner to improve local schools.

Temple Isaiah members are taking that message on the road, visiting principals and parent groups at Emerson’s feeder elementary schools including Westwood Charter, Brockton and Castle Heights, to encourage activism to begin early.

“They will have this culture of taking not just an interest, but ownership in their schools,” said synagogue member Bollinger, who has become the resident Emerson liaison at Westwood Charter. “When parents are involved in a school, it shows kids that school is really important. Kids achieve at a higher level when they believe that, teachers are more accountable, and, as a whole, it really lifts up the performance of a school.”

Language barriers come into play as well — at Brockton, for instance, the population is 77 percent Latino, and some parents shy away from participating in the school because they don’t speak English. Immigrant parents often feel intimidated by the school system and that they don’t have a right to get involved, said Sister Maribeth Larkin, Temple Isaiah’s One LA organizer. So when synagogue members show up to their school and say they want to work together, it’s an empowering statement. Throwing money at a school will buy kids a new playground; inviting parents into the school will ensure generations of families care enough to maintain it.


Urban Myths

One part of the problem keeping Jewish families away may be schools’ outdated reputations.

Of Emerson, Bollinger said, “We heard horrible things — that there were gangs, there was bullying, that it wasn’t a safe place and the scores were so bad you couldn’t get a good education. I wrote the school off, and immediately thought, ‘OK, we have to start saving for private school.’”

For a lot of families, the story stops there. But Bollinger and his wife talked to parents of Emerson students and went to meetings in support of the school. “We found that all of those rumors were false, and the people who were spreading them were people who had never stepped onto the campus,” he said.

At 10 a.m. on a recent morning, there were no signs of gangs roaming the school grounds — a spread of beige and salmon stucco buildings that sits behind the Mormon temple on Santa Monica Boulevard near Beverly Glen Boulevard. Inside, the halls are clean and students dressed in blue and white garb — the school’s dress code — wave hello and say “Good morning, Ms. Gonnella” as the principal walks by. Late morning, Gonnella makes her way to a busy pedestrian intersection outside and oversees student traffic. As kids stream past, she calls out orders to lower a sweatshirt hood, spit out gum, tie shoelaces, button a too-revealing shirt.

The facility needs a grass field (gym is currently held on a blacktop area) and $50,000 to replace the aging computers in the computer lab, but overall the campus is well-kept and bright, with the hedges trimmed and flower pots lining outdoor walkways.

Emerson didn’t always have an image problem. Opened in 1935, the neighborhood school changed when LAUSD closed several nearby middle schools in the 1970s and ’80s, and students from poorer neighborhoods had to be bused in. This prompted heavy “neighborhood flight,” Gonnella said, to private schools or, through permitting, to the Beverly Hills school district. Emerson’s white student population languished from the mid-’80s until Gonnella was charged with bringing it back up.

In the last three years, the school’s white enrollment jumped from 10 percent to about 17 percent, and parent involvement has increased “tenfold,” Gonnella said. Emerson’s Academic Performance Index (API) scores have been rising, too — to 709 this year, up from 701 last year and 689 in 2007. Emerson is still considered a “failing school” according to the controversial federal No Child Left Behind Act, but teachers are adjusting instruction to cater to struggling students, she said. And, with just under 1,000 children, the school is small by LAUSD standards.

Many families don’t take the time to find out about Emerson’s plusses, Temple Isaiah parents say — they either go private, try to get their children permitted into the neighboring Paul Revere Middle School five miles away, or ply the magnet program’s arcane points system to secure a quality public education they fear the local school can’t offer.

“It’s sometimes painfully slow to change the entire thought process of a community,” said Ritter Simon, the Canfield Elementary mother. “Parents talk to other parents and take their recommendations. As long as we have parents saying, ‘Don’t go there — don’t even go and look,’ it builds a climate of people just staying away.”

There are about as many Jewish school-age kids in L.A. public schools as private schools, according to the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) in Los Angeles. Out of about 52,000 Jewish children in grades K-12, around 20,000 attend Jewish and secular private schools, said BJE director of day school operations Miriam Prum Hess. The rest, Hess guesses, must be in public schools.

Ritter Simon thinks more families would choose public schools if they took the time to see what they have to offer.

“There are a lot of outstanding teachers and administrators and parents that are doing phenomenal work in making schools successful, and they don’t get enough attention,” she said. “All you hear about are the problems and the horror stories — not enough textbooks, not enough seats. But you don’t hear about the teacher that stays after school every day and works with the kids to make sure they get it.”

Since becoming Emerson’s principal, Gonnella has held outreach meetings and monthly chats she dubs “Croissants and Conversation With Kathy” — anything she can think of to dispel the longtime “urban myths” that poison local white and Jewish parents’ interest in the middle school. She’d rather they work through their concerns by becoming active parents at Emerson.

“A lot of parents feel that they don’t have the experience or the skill set to get involved in the school, so they just stay away,” she said. “I want to take away that fear and let them know that they are wanted and appreciated and respected, and they can then become an integral part of not only their student’s education, but the whole educational process.”


Work in Progress

The fruits of that strategy can be seen at elementary schools across the Westside, where Jews have for years been at the forefront of efforts to bring middle-class families back to the public school system. Involved parents are holding house meetings and starting conversations with friends, hoping to recruit families back to their neighborhood schools in a bid to strengthen public education for the broader community.

Canfield Elementary has been the most visible success story, with the vocal — and mostly Jewish — Beverlywood Moms group starting work in the mid-’90s to turn the school around. Starting when their sons were just months old, Ritter Simon and three friends recruited a swath of local families back to the school, helped raise needed funds and refurbished school grounds even before any of their children set foot on the campus.

Going to public school wasn’t a financial necessity for them, said Ritter Simon, a longtime community activist who has run for Los Angeles City Council twice. The mothers wanted to go on principle. “We didn’t feel like we took leftovers,” she said. “We chose public school. For a lot of families, it’s not because of money — it’s because they believe in what they’re doing.”

Local families have returned in recent years to nearby Castle Heights and Fairburn Elementary schools too. In the early 2000s, Fairburn catered mostly to students coming in on permits from other areas, recalled former two-term LAUSD school board member Marlene Canter. By the time Canter left office last year, the school had attracted so many neighborhood kids that there were no longer spots for kids on permits, she said.

“We started to invite parents to the schools and in the area now, eight years later, all my elementary schools are filled to the brim with parents, and their scores are much higher,” said Canter, who served as school board president from 2005 to 2007 and called on families to support their local schools during her tenure.

That primary school energy is already starting to spill over to Emerson. As a result of outreach, led in part by Temple Isaiah parents, 33 Westwood Charter graduates started at Emerson this fall — more than double the number from last year, according to administrators.

But the influx of middle-class families has drawbacks, too. Schools that receive Title I funding — federal funds for low-income students — find their revenue streams shrinking as the number of students for those programs falls.

Three years ago, 71 percent of students at Emerson qualified under Title I, meaning they are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Last year, 56 percent qualified. That means the school received only $600 per qualifying student, down from $900 when the school was over the 65 percent mark. Over the last three years, Gonnella said, Emerson took a $200,000 hit.

Compounded by recent district budget cuts, she said, the revenue drop is hurting everything from extra security at the school to library supplies and field trips.

“That is going to have to be made up by the local families,” Gonnella said.


Jewish Values Breed Activism

Fortunately, Jews have a lengthy résumé in grass-roots organizing that they can leverage to benefit schools in need.

“Jews are an important political force, especially in West Los Angeles,” said author and columnist Bill Boyarsky, who writes for The Jewish Journal and the local blogs Truthdig and L.A. Observed. “They have a long tradition and continue to be politically active, and have vast knowledge of how to campaign to get things done. They know how to put pressure on the school board members and the principals to improve things.”

As LAUSD schools scramble to fill budget gaps caused by education spending cuts, active parents can pick up the slack, Boyarsky said, using their organizing savvy to raise the funds needed to salvage at-risk programs.

And in the Jewish community, that kind of action is more than just a noble goal — it’s a moral imperative.

“As Jews, we are taught the importance of being responsible for not just our children, but for the world’s children,” said Gonnella, who grew up attending Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “Jews have an obligation to be a voice. When inequities occur, when needs are apparent at the school, it’s a plus to have more parents who have knowledge of how to work systems, who aren’t afraid to make demands that are reasonable but need to be made. When they speak out, it benefits all the students at the school.”

The pursuit of social justice is enshrined in the Torah, part of a seemingly contradictory set of commandments that calls on Jews to remain separate as a people through unique customs but also to champion the strength of the wider community. “We have to figure out a way to balance preserving not only ourselves but also the city, and looking out for not just our best interests but everyone’s best interests,” Rabbi Frimmer said.

For Temple Isaiah member Janet Hirsch, who sends her two children to Emerson, that balance can be achieved when more Jewish parents abandon the notion that their kids would be “guinea pigs” in Los Angeles’ much-maligned schools, and start thinking about how supporting public education can boost the entire city.

“A lot of people are prepared to risk their kid until fifth grade, but then they go private,” Hirsch said. That kind of “my kid only” mentality, she said, perpetuates the problem.

Frimmer wants to see more families having that conversation out loud.

Supporting the local school is an appealing notion, most agree, but some parents say they just aren’t ready yet.

With two children at Castle Heights Elementary, Elissa Thompson said she wants to stick with public education for her kids’ intermediate school years, but the local Palms Middle School is “not where I’d want it to be.”

Palms, with about 1,800 students and a 2009 API score of 840, is generally seen as a good school.

But, Thompson said, the family is prepared to move as far as Calabasas or Orange County to be near a higher-performing school district.

“The process of picking a school for your child is very personal,” Thompson said. “A lot of parents feel differently, but I’m just not there yet.”


‘Escape’ to Charter Island

Charters and magnet schools have long been bright spots of Jewish enrollment in the public school landscape. Westwood Charter — a prized fixture of the heavily Jewish Westwood community — and magnet programs such as Millikan Middle School’s performing arts magnet and Hamilton High School’s humanities magnet have typically drawn a large Jewish student population.

There’s support at the Jewish institutional level, too. In 2007, the Skirball Foundation partnered with a Los Angeles-based charter school organization to open Jack H. Skirball Middle School in the Watts area. Uri Herscher, CEO and president of the Skirball Cultural Center in West L.A., said the move honors the memory of Jack H. Skirball, an ordained rabbi and film producer whose advocacy for education led him to help found the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The school brings a “positive energy” to its Watts neighborhood, said principal Joy May-Harris. The school’s API score is almost 200 points higher than other neighborhood schools, and its college-prep curriculum pushes kids to achieve more, she said.

Jack Skirball called public education “the anchor of democracy,” Herscher said after the school’s official naming ceremony on Oct. 28. Funding the school also reflected the Jewish value of giving back to the community, he added.

That was Matt Albert’s motivation for last year’s opening of New Los Angeles Charter School, a middle school that serves the Carthay neighborhood and boasts a social justice-themed curriculum heavy on community service work.

A former Milken Community High School educator, Albert said he’s seeing a rise in students coming to the charter school from private Jewish day schools. Much of it, he believes, is because fewer Jewish families are able to afford tuition for a K-12 Jewish education.

“Middle-class Jews are getting priced out of being Jewish,” Albert said. “I don’t believe the current system of Jewish education is sustainable. There are fewer people who can actually afford it as we go from generation to generation. At a certain point, the system of grandparents helping pay for tuition will dry up.”

For a lot of families, charters and magnets are seen as a “safe” entry point into a system some still harbor misgivings about. The motivation in these cases often isn’t to support public schools, said former LAUSD board member David Tokofsky; it’s to escape from them.

Smaller schools and learning communities are often a vehicle for parents to “gate off” from the system and protect the interests of their own child, Tokofsky said — to board a life raft to escape what is often seen as a sinking ship.

“Jews have cherished the ideal of equality, so it’s that much more tragic that in the politics of today, we’re not speaking a language of inclusion,” he said.

Albert understands some of the concern. Charter schools are more intimate, with as few as 200 students compared to 2,000 at some LAUSD middle schools. Teachers know the kids better, and class sizes are smaller. Parents feel less like their children could be “lost in the system.” Ideally, he said, families should be able to trust that their local school can provide a quality experience — whether it’s charter or not — but that’s not always the case.

Many parents also view LAUSD gifted and talented programs the same way. Honors programs, which conspicuously favor white students, are often seen as safer “islands” within district schools, some said.

Caucasian students only make up 8.8 percent of the LAUSD population, which is 73 percent Latino and 10.7 percent African American. Yet 24.7 percent of Caucasian students are in gifted programs, compared with only 6.6 percent of Latino students and 5.7 percent of African American students, according to the California Department of Education.

“It’s seen as a safe stepping stone,” said Hirsch, the Emerson parent, whose children are in the school’s honors track. “For a lot of parents, to go into that program kind of makes it OK to choose Emerson. If you were not identified as gifted for that program, your kid went to Paul Revere [Middle School].”

The issue raises tough questions about race and class that many find difficult to face, parents said.

“There are people who think, ‘The school is too black, the school is too Mexican,’ and all of a sudden you see a lot of ugly things about people,” Ritter Simon said. “Prejudice still exists. For a lot of people, that’s a very uncomfortable zone.”


Hard Work Ahead

Community leaders agree it would take years of hard work to bring Jewish families, en masse, back to the system. Parents would have to abandon fears and biases to embrace a vision of what public education in Los Angeles could be if everyone collectively rolled up their sleeves and committed to turning mediocre schools around.

“It’ll take a lot of determination and a lot of principals like Kathy and rabbis like Rabbi Frimmer all over the city,” Boyarsky said. “It’s like organizing a political campaign. You have to go door-to-door, block by block to convince people.”

But observers say the kind of grass-roots programs taking place at Temple Isaiah and IKAR are on the right track.

Faith organizations can be a powerful arm of support for public schools, Emerson’s Gonnella said — they can reach out to parents who might otherwise be too intimidated by the system to voice their desires and provide guidance on how to get involved. A handful of public school activists at a church or synagogue can also help shift the opinions of the broader religious community. “Just being here sends an incredible message to other parents: ‘Hey, if it’s good enough for their kids, maybe my kid will go there too,’” she said.

Former school board member Canter called Temple Isaiah’s support for Emerson “amazing.”

“The way they stepped up to the plate, they can be a role model for what other faith institutions can do in the community,” she said. “People should follow their lead — the schools are there to meet everyone’s needs, and we should all be working toward that.”

Schools could do their part to appeal more to Jewish families by tweaking their curricula to spotlight ancient civilizations studies and promote social justice themes in the classroom, Tokofsky said. New L.A. Charter, for instance, engages kids in community service activities, such as reading to elementary school kids through The Jewish Federation’s KOREH L.A. literacy program, learning about the environment through Heal the Bay, and collecting food for SOVA food bank.

In the meantime, Frimmer is trying to stay realistic about the time it will take to reform the system — and Jews’ perceptions of it.

“I’m not looking for an overnight revolution,” she said. “My hope is that people build relationships and do the work necessary to transform public education; that this wouldn’t be a top-down revolution or a one-time, inspirational renaissance that a year later people fall away from. Hopefully this will activate these congregants’ Jewish identity as well as their sense of civic responsibility and in five or 10 years we’ll be amazed at how much more certain we feel about our ability to make change — not only in our lives, but in our whole neighborhood.”

For those still on the fence, Castle Heights Elementary mother Elan Levey offers concise encouragement: “If everyone went to public school, it would be everything we’d want it to be.”

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