Two weeks ago, I left a Carthay PTA meeting early so I could run off to a different meeting about a new middle school/high school opening in our neighborhood on the campus of Fairfax High School, a high school that for decades had a predominantly middle class student body, many of them Jewish. My mother-in-law went there in the 50s, as did the rabbi who officiated our wedding and parents of many of my friends. It had been a “great school” back then, but, like many of the schools in our area, its classes are overcrowded because of a shortage of teachers and it struggles for resources and reputation. No-one in my circle of friends and aquaintances talks about Fairfax High School as a place where they hope their child can go for high school. We are still 2 1/2 years away from our older daughter going to middle school, but I wanted to hear what this meeting was all about, since our home middle school is way across town, due to the nearly-impossible-to get-into magnet school, “LACES,” having taken over our geographically-convenient middle school campus years ago.
Arriving about 20 minutes late, I entered a beautiful home, in the affluent Hancock Park neighborhood, with a large living room already packed with eager parents. Among them I saw a handful of familiar faces. Some I knew or recognized from the our kids’s preschool from years ago. Others were moms in the neighborhood — some current Carthay parents, some parents who tried Carthay briefly, and some who never gave it a try. There were men there too, but it was predominantly women and predominanty White women. Like everyone else, I was there to hear about “West Hollywood Academy for Global Sciences” (“WHAGS”)-a LAUSD Pilot School that was building momentum to get off the ground on the campus of Fairfax High School.
The main public face behind the project is Steve Barr, the former chairman of Green Dot Charter schools (which is known for taking over and re-organizing schools in lower-income neighborhoods) and now head of the new organization, Future Is Now. He was speaking when I walked in so I unfortunately arrived too late to hear his whole introduction, but I think I heard him say that he had tried unsuccessfully to take over some high schools in more middle-class neighborhoods, but since that didn’t work, he has re-thought his approach and now was going to partner with LAUSD. Apparently both Steve Barr and LAUSD were coming to a sort of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” kind of attitude. Because he has successfully spearheaded charter schools, he lends credibility to the project, but of course stirred up my defensive insticts as well. Writing this blog about our school and school issues has given me a chance to explore my conflicting feelings about charter schools and how they affect existing schools, and there I was, at a meeting being run by one of the national faces in charter school education. I shot a text to my husband about what a fun time I was having at the meeting.
The teachers involved in the project who got up and spoke were young, energetic, and obviously motivated. One currently teaches at Fairfax and one actually graduated from Fairfax himself. They spoke of a small-school concept that would be different than the typical Charter school take-over approach, in that it would be a school district-approved and -authorized school-within-a-school. They expressed that ideally the new school would partner with the larger school, while providing some alternative, innovative, teacher-driven, student-focused learning. They spoke of decentralizing the allocation of resources and attracting amazing teachers willing to sacrifice the promise of tenure, and instead willing to renew their contracts yearly, based on their success in the classroom.
I was excited to be in the room for this discussion, and excited when an African American woman, who I saw arrive even later than I did, stood up and announced that she was from Fairfax High School and could represent that the school DID NOT WANT this school on its campus and that the teachers and parents RESENTED the ‘secrecy’ and ‘sneaky way’ this project was trying to get in through the backdoor and take over. Audible tension began to percolate in the room. I felt like I was a journalist finally experiencing the clash of ideas over education first-hand and knew this evening was something I would have to write about here. The woman made good points about Fairfax having a diverse student body where everyone mixes together and instead of taking over, there should be a movement to support the programs that are already there; support the overworked, underpaid teachers who are there; reduce class size and provide more resource. One of the teachers, who knew the woman, tried to respond to her accusations that this meeting was part of a sinister plan to start a charter on Fairfax’s campus. Clearly the outspoken woman had missed the beginning of the presentation that explained how the school was not a charter school, and came into the meeting when they were explaining how WHAGS would kind of look and act like a charter school but would work within the school district. WHAGS would not target the kids already at Fairfax that like the school set up as it is now, but would appeal to families that are drawn to charters and alternative-school models. The tension finally dissipated when another parent gracefully expressed that the upset parent had a point – how does this school within the school not become an elitist bastion of upper-middleclass (white) students in a sea of “diversity” (color)? As the outspoken mom had said – Fairfax already has everything and everyone is all mixed up together getting along just fine. It was a question I wanted asked and answered as well. The answer was that the enrollment would be based on a first-come, first-served basis as long as the child lives within the existing high school boundaries. There would be no lottery nor a founding parent pathway to guarantee acceptance based on money, volunteer commitment, or parents’ careers – practices that have sparked controversy, allowed some popular charters to enroll a certain type of student body, and have subsequently been banned.
A lot of the presentation was interesting and exciting and used all the hot buzzwords in education that make hyper-engaged parents without a private school budget swoon with delight: small learning groups, interdisciplinary core curriculum with project-based learning, parent & community partnerships, advisory programs, social justice, environmental science themes, integrated technology, innovation, etc.
I patiently raised my hand until I was finally able to ask the big question I had. What if my kid goes to this pilot school but wants to compete on the high school swim team, march in the marching band, or try out for the musical. Will she be able to? The answer wasn’t entirely satisfactory: Since they are going to partner with the high school, that can happen, but the school day will be organized in a way that keeps the schools separate. The new school will start earlier and end later. They will change class periods at different times so that the two student bodies won’t mix in any halls. So how could my kids be in any of the main school’s programs if the class periods don’t line up? What if the partnership doesn’t work out and the main school doesn’t give such permission to the pilot school kids? I want my girls to have the experience of a real public high school with all the grime, grit & glory. I want them to learn to live in the real world and get a long with people that don’t look like them, don’t live in the same kind of houses they do, who don’t speak the same language at home and whose parent doesn’t obsess about their educational future as much as I do because they have other priorities. I want my children to continue to love learning, but I don’t want to coddle them. I want them to learn to make choices and be independent. Things should be good, but they shouldn’t be so easy that it is taken for granted. Of course, I have no idea what the student body will be like at this new school within a school. Maybe it will have just the perfect mix of motivated students with motivated parents from all over Fairfax High School’s large economically and culturally diverse geographic zone. A real L.A. educational utopia.
Before I left the meeting, while thanking one of our hosts, who had graciously opened her family’s home for this meeting, I spotted the outspoken Fairfax High mom chatting with a group of other parents across the room. They were all smiling. Maybe this pilot school model is the way to go to increase our community’s enthusiasm for our public schools without tearing down the walls. Reform instead of revolution.
I went home and “liked” WHAGS on Facebook so I can keep track of their progress. In a couple of more years, when we need to find our kids a middle school, we can see how it all played out.