Sunday, April 15, 2007

How a Community Can Take a School Back....One at a Time

By Diana L. Chapman

It started out small, but that’s how the seed was planted. An elementary school teacher, Karyn Douglas, stood on a dusty school yard on a cold dreary day, looked around the asphalt campus at one of the Los Angeles district’s betters schools and said: “It’s time for the community to take back our schools.”
She didn’t say: It’s time for the administrators to take the schools back. She didn’t say it was time for the teachers. Nor the parents.
She repeated it: “We need to take our schools back,” – meaning all of us – the communities that surround them.
Rooted to the ground, those words would resonate with me for the next two years, and while I didn’t know it at the time, would take me on a wild toad ride journey of gathering with the right people, at the right time, at the right place to start improving a middle school considered close to bottom of the barrel in the neck of our San Pedro port town.
Why would I, a dedicated mother, school volunteer and writer – pick the one of the two middle schools in our neighborhood – Dana Middle School – that’s reputation was so abhorrent that other parents were engaged in full debates about why I made this choice to send my son there?
My compatriots believed by reputation alone that the school was littered with gangs, juvenile delinquents and in a poor neighborhood. The gossip about my “choice” began to bubble about the inadequate decision for my 11-year-old son. But I stood firm for one reason. There was one aspect to me that the other school didn’t have – one extremely courageous point on the part of this particular Los Angeles Unified School District middle school, or any school with about 2,000 students. It was this: while perhaps it was a narrow opening, the door was still somewhat ajar to allow parents in.
That’s what I wanted.
I wanted the opportunity to oversee my son’s education and to spend volunteer hours with other students who needed attention in dozens of ways, because I so clearly remembered the disaster years in my middle school in an affluent area of Glendale.
At 11, I was thrust into a school where students were doing heavy-duty drugs, overdosing and falling out of their seats in the classroom, having sex, drinking – and participating in orgies. No one could have prepared me for that – and no 11-year-old should have to be. Students were terrorized with fights, and many were unhappy and fearful, including myself, going to school every day. And that was considered a good school.
As the years coursed by, it repeatedly was clear to me that not much had changed –and many educators will readily admit it – middle schools are the most ignored population of our three-tier public education system. That just make no sense since it’s such a pivotal time of a child’s life where they will build their value systems and start forming career choices. That explains perfectly why 50 percent of LA Unified high school students drop out.
We’re not catching them when we need to – in junior high; we are not giving them the spirit, confidence or exploration they need. We’re not making them feel safe – so how can they study? The students receive a basic education, that’s good. But not enough. District policy states if they are not receiving a C average, they are banned from attending any extracurricular activities, including school dances.

The attitude I was getting from the kids who were “below par” – was why I am I here? There’s nothing here for me. I’m stupid. I can’t do anything anyway. What’s the point? That angers me…because we all know that every child has something to offer.
When my son and I walked into Dana’s doors, a new principal, Terry Ball, had arrived with fresh ideas. Kim Blanks, a teacher’s aide whose own children went there, was waiting in the wings to start many programs she wanted to accomplish for several years, including a school newspaper. We launched Dana’s Data with another parent, Doug Epperhart. And less than a block to the north sat the Boys and Girls Club, run by my friend, Mike Lansing, the executive director of the Los Angeles Harbors Boys and Girls Club and an LAUSD school board member – who was willing to work together to start after school programs to keep more kids off the streets.
It’s clear that improving schools has little to do with the mayor of Los Angeles; perhaps it doesn’t even have much to do with Los Angeles school district’s new Superintendent. Other than, David Brewer III’s philosophy -- that the responsibility doesn’t fall solely on the educators, but on the community. I realize this must be done at a grassroots level.
Much of what I think now; the changes belong to the principal; it belongs to us, the community.
With that, the birth of a great collaboration was born. We began lobbying local businesses, parents, talking with then the Los Angeles Police Departments’ Police Captain Joan McNamara; We even met with colonels to ask them to bring back their families -- most of whom flee from attending Los Angeles schools. It’s no surprise one of the best elementary schools in our area, White Point, has partly reached high tests scores and academic levels because the military families provide the tremendous backbone as a volunteer force.
By the end of the 1 ½ years, a combination of the community – teachers, parents, local businesses, the police and the few military families available have attempted to cluster students into smaller after school clubs, to help make them feel safe and actually, in my mind, provide them a second home. Keeping them off the streets is imperative in today’s racial climates where children are getting continually killed in gang retaliations. I’m angry. My reasoning: if we can do it here, then we can do it at dozens of other school’s – and keep our kids safe. One more shooting of an “innocent” should be driving us all the edge of upheaval. How can we allow innocent kids to be killed for being nothing more than a different color?
Thus at Dana, .we began an art club (in association with Art to Grow on), a Spanish Club, a swim/surf club where Boys and Girls Club vans take students to a local pool, a tennis club, and our teachers added to their current list of ecology and history clubs by adding a chess, quilting and cheer leading after school program.
Proposed clubs include a basketball club, the junior Police Explorer’s Academy (which should start next week), In addition, a local restaurateur. the Omelettee and Waffle Shop owners, Mona Sutton and Leslie Jones, plans to start a cooking club shortly. I grew even more excited when the former Corner Store owners, Susan McKenna and Marisa Guiffre, offered to teach cooking classes as well! Now, that’s talking about truly taking care of our kids, poor, rich, or otherwise.
Success comes in small ways – as we are starting up a new club every other month. But I can point to our most successful program – the Art Club – which has an average of 40 students every Thursday after school. Special education students, gifted students, troublesome students (who had to sign a contract with me and stay in the club for the rest of the year instead of stiffer penalties for some bad behavior) and our regular kids all mix – and they all get along, meeting other students they would never have “hung with” before.
The best part includes watching how well they get along.
When we opened up a tennis club the other day – in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Club – 22 kids signed up! I shiver to think how many will want to join the Basketball Club.
Some how, it paints the true picture.
As my friend, Doug Epperhart, always says: “Our new principal has done more for my daughters’ education then the mayor or the new superintendent ever will.”
And if you add the principal with community efforts, we will wind up with what everyone always seems to want – a much better school. And a seed turns into a beautiful tree with flowing and healthy branches that can be seeded everywhere.