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Jewish Journal

Diverse Daniel Pearl magnet nurtures leaders

by Rachel Heller

November 3, 2010 | 10:45 am

Principal Janet Kiddoo confers with students at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School.  (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

Principal Janet Kiddoo confers with students at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School. (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

Ask anyone who knew him: Daniel Pearl loved music. He joined bands in Atlanta, Paris and Mumbai, relishing the way a good melody can draw people together.

So imagine how the slain Wall Street Journal reporter, killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002, might have felt watching the second-period choir class at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School as its members stand, roll their shoulders back and belt out a lilting rendition of “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent.”

“I look around and think, ‘How did we get here in one year?’ ” marveled principal Janet Kiddoo, her eyes welling up as she surveyed the classroom.

This fall, Daniel Pearl Magnet High School (DPMHS) celebrated its second year as a stand-alone high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) by moving into its own facility in Van Nuys. Formerly a part of Birmingham High School, the magnet and its parent institution parted ways when Birmingham became a charter school last year. With 315 students, the Pearl magnet is now the smallest comprehensive public high school in the district.

That’s not all that makes it special. Taking cues from the other love of the man for whom it’s named, the magnet is the only school in the district that focuses on journalism. That means students learn the craft of writing and reporting news while also taking traditional subjects like algebra, literature and physics.

“Our mission is to send students out as leaders, in any context,” Kiddoo said. “This school is dedicated to the importance of the written word. Our hope is that wherever these kids go, they become great communicators and live by the principles of honesty and integrity.”

Specialized classes include Journalism I and II, and media workshops in which kids use cameras and editing software to produce short broadcast journalism segments. Yearbook is also a full-time class, turning school memories and class photos into substantive lessons in layout and publishing. On top of that, the school is in talks with California State University, Northridge, Pierce College and “NBC Nightly News” to offer internships to students.

All of this lets kids know that “they go to a unique school,” said Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl’s father, a UCLA computer science professor and a Jewish Journal columnist.

Layout of The Pearl Post, the school’s newspaper, gets a critical review. (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

Speaking recently by phone from their home in Encino, he and Daniel’s mother, Ruth Pearl, said the school’s efforts to pay tribute to their son have created a rich learning environment for students.

“The school has a name that is recognizable the world over,” Judea Pearl said. “That gives students a sense of uniqueness, togetherness and purpose — they can feel like they’re part of a movement. Learning journalism teaches them about serving the community and being citizens of a ‘global village.’ I don’t think many high schools have this window to the world.”

A cursory glance at the pale, squat building, nestled between school district offices on Balboa Boulevard, might not suggest anything extraordinary. But inside is a different story.

Walking through the halls during the students’ morning break, Kiddoo greets by name every student she passes, and most smile widely as they greet her back. Laughter rises from small groups of students gathered around picnic tables in a courtyard.

Whether they plan to pursue journalism as a career or not, kids say they appreciate the school’s emphasis on writing as a means of self-expression.

Stara Jackson, 14, wants to be an obstetrician, but she likes to utilize her writing talent on the school newspaper. She’s written op-eds on immigration and the closure of Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensaries, subjects that have sometimes landed her in hot water with friends: “I’m very opinionated,” the amiable sophomore admitted.

For Sarkis Ekmekian, 17, journalism classes with teacher Adriana Chavira awakened a love of the craft he didn’t know he had. Now editor in chief of the school newspaper, The Pearl Post (students last year came up with the name themselves), he enjoys covering campus events for an audience of his peers.

“I like the feeling of being in the newsroom — the pace and the excitement,” Ekmekian said, waiting in the journalism room with friends for class to start. “You contribute to informing the student body and spreading the word about what’s going on. It’s an important task, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Having someone like Daniel Pearl as a role model is a boon for teens at the school, Kiddoo believes.

“We want kids to be able to relate to him — to see him as a model of a young man who had a sense of humor, loads of integrity, who was a beautiful writer and a down-to-earth person,” she said. “I don’t want his to be just another name on a school. I want students to feel like they can connect with him as a human being.”

Or, as Judea Pearl tells kids whenever he visits a school: “Danny was one of your peers — he carried with him a laptop and a violin, and he went out into the world to learn and to spread friendship. His example says, ‘Look — you can do this, too.’ ”

As the population of the Daniel Pearl magnet grows, media teacher James Morrison wants to have roving teams of students produce a weekly broadcast news show. Kiddoo wants to add an ethics class. And science teacher Stephen Schaffter has proposed a novel idea: To skirt the hassle of lockers and save on the cost of textbooks, why not buy a Kindle (Amazon’s portable e-book reader) for each student?

Currently, the school still has space for more than 150 new students. The Pearls would like to see more Jewish kids in the wildly diverse hallways, where students speak Russian, Armenian, Hebrew, Spanish, Farsi and Korean, to name a few.

Selling points include the school’s first-year Academic Performance Index (API) score of 776, and the fact that 94 percent of its first batch of seniors last spring graduated — compared with LAUSD’s overall graduation rate of 52 percent.

Kiddoo is proud — but not surprised. “Any student can flourish if you teach them well,” she said.

For the Pearls, that’s music to their ears.

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