Thursday, February 04, 2010


By Diana L. Chapman

Classes were in session at Dana Middle School in San Pedro. The main hallway sat long, empty and quiet – except for one thing. There, standing outside a classroom door, was a little guy, named David, all of 11-years-old and just beginning at the middle school.

Popping out of a classroom and surprised to spot David hanging out in the hallway, I asked: “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for my next class to start,” David stated shyly, shifting his backpack uncomfortably between his feet.

“But class isn’t for another twenty minutes. Where were you before this?” I prodded. He was scared.

“P.E. I was sitting on the bench,” he explained, “so I left so I wouldn’t be late for my next class.” That was the beginning of David’s career at middle school. He was shy, behind in reading, an absolutely wonderful kid, but not quite prepared for the big-world campus of some 1,800 plus students.

For all the David’s in the world – for which there are thousands– I can actually applaud LAUSD for launching a pilot program beginning this fall that will allow hundreds of children the choice to remain in the sixth grade at ten local elementary schools; Another 19 in South Los Angeles will -- on a mandatory basis -- adopt the same program in the fall due to severe overcrowding issues at its feeder schools.

For years now, typically sixth graders are shunted off to large, intimidating campuses that are often overcrowded, difficult to fit into socially, harder academically and come with a pile of negatives they might not have dealt with in the first tier of their education, such as drugs, alcohol and bullying.

Los Angeles School Board Member Richard Vladovic, an educator for 40 years, had long wanted to change this “from the moment he arrived on the board,” and it became his second priority, said David Kooper, his chief of staff. Vladovic’s first mission was to get students off a year round calendar system that was not nearly as effective in educating as the traditional fall to spring school calendar.

“By 2012, the schools he represents will be off of the multi-track calendar,” Kooper said. “Now is the time to make the push for K-6.”

If the proposal for the ten local schools meets with parental approval – which I suspect it easily will – the program begins in the fall. It must also pass muster with school site councils. Schools were selected partly if they had enough space to accommodate the additional students.

I want the parents to have a major voice in the education their children receive,” Vladovic said in a statement. “This decision will be made at the school level. I insisted on a parent component with this pilot. Parents need to be engaged and play a major role in their child’s education. This entire process needs to be parent driven and parent supported. I have always believed in an equal partnership with parents.”

Ever since 1985 – when Vladovic served as a principal at Locke High School -- and watched the newly designed configuration of sixth through ninth grade, he believed it wasn’t healthy for the students.

“As you know, I sponsored the ‘Small School Resolution’ which aims at personalizing schools and providing more individual attention to students, he said. “This is a continuation of that philosophy. This is a partnership with parents, community, and staff and it is aligned with our call for quality school site personnel.”

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines encouraged the action adding: “"I am very

supportive of local communities coming together and talking about important
instructional issues like grade configuration. This is a great way to involve parents,
teachers and administrators in important conversations about student achievement.”
The action, Kooper explained, was in no way meant to attack the operations of middle

schools – just the size of the campuses.

All of the elementaries included in the pilot are under Vladovic’s jurisdiction, which stretches from San Pedro and Wilmington through Carson, Lomita the Harbor Gateway and includes parts of Gardena and South Los Angeles.

The ten campuses targeted for the pilot in the Harbor area with their principal’s blessings include: Crestwood , White Point, Bandini, Barton Hill, Taper, Leland, Park Western – all in San Pedro – and 156 Street in Gardena, Annalee in Carson and Van Deene Avenue in the Harbor Gateway.

Along with those schools, the nineteen elementary schools in South Los Angeles will become mandatory in the fall due to severe overcrowding at the middle school complex that feeds into Fremont High School. Those campuses include: 61st, 66th, 68th, 75th, 92nd, 93rd,96th ,99th, Florence, Graham, Holmes, Lillian, Manchester, Parmelee, Russell, South Park, McKinley, Miller and Miramonte.

Parents will have the choice to send their children on to their middle schools or retain them at their current campus.

Over the years as a volunteer – I watched parents including myself -- fitfully turn over their youngsters starting at age 11 to gigantic, public middle schools.

Parents are right to be concerned – especially if they have no time to become involved. Middle schools are a place that can make or break a kid. The campuses are often overcrowded. Some students are just too young coming out of sheltered environments and are influenced by older peers.

They also switch from one teacher all day to having sometimes as many as five teachers a day in 50 minute slots where it’s hard to bond with friends, much less connect to a teacher. Instructors , on average, might teach 150 kids in a single day leaving them little time to get to know more than a handful of students personally.

In my book, there simply is just not enough adults to go around at most middle schools to help guide children, who now might be coping with social ineptness, academic hardship and an inability to ask teachers for help. Schools at this age level should never have grown so large in the first place. It’s unfair as a child develops to be swamped with so much change at once.

For the most part, middle schools turn off the tap as far as fun and nurturing and kids are pushed through the chute like they are cattle -- with little personalization.

Allowing them one more year of maturity before that happens is not a solution to the struggles of a middle school child. It is, however, a respite that gives them a better chance to survive an onslaught of change.