Middle schools are a tough sell

The meeting at Daniel Webster Middle School, in the heart of the Westside, embodied all the difficulties of convincing parents that their children will be safe when they leave the cocoon of the public elementary school for the unknown world of middle school.

“I know this is a scary thing,” said Steven Rochelle, principal of Wright Middle School, located near Loyola Marymount University. “Your baby is going into the sixth grade.”

This is a big issue for the Jewish community, with its deep concern for education. Middle-class and working-class Jews either can’t afford private schools or must strain mightily to pay the tuition.

But they know the public middle schools, comprising the sixth through the eighth grades, will be a huge challenge for their children. There are many more kids, coming in bewildering varieties of aggressiveness, shyness, intelligence, ethnicity, culture, economic class and interests, everything intensified by the dose of hormones hitting them as adolescence arrives.

I know the story. My daughter and son-in-law are among those worried parents, with a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old.

Interestingly, I covered the enormous changes that transformed the Los Angeles schools and led to the white flight to private education. I was there for the Los Angeles Times when the story began. It was in the late 1970s, and the Los Angeles Unified School District was under a court order to desegregate.

While there was no segregation by law, school boundaries were drawn to reflect neighborhoods that were segregated by long-standing real estate practices. As a result, a large number of schools were either predominantly white, black or Latino. Reflecting the neighborhood, schools such as Fairfax High School, were heavily Jewish.

The court order required massive busing. White parents rebelled and began to abandon the public schools.

I was also a parent. One daughter was in Mar Vista Elementary School and the other in Webster, then a junior high school. We didn’t want them bused.

Burying my feelings to meet the constraints of journalism was a strain. The battle continued in the courts for years, and in the end, there was no mandatory busing. But large numbers of whites had left for private schools. That, plus the huge demographic changes in Los Angeles resulted in a predominantly ethnic minority school district.

Now, parents faced with increasing private school tuitions are joining with teachers and principals in a back-to-the public school movement.

It’s not easy.

Raul Fernandez, principal of Mark Twain Middle School, just a couple of blocks from Venice High School, leveled with the parents at the Webster library.

“We’re coming back from a declining enrollment,” he told mothers at one of the tables set aside for individual chats about each school. He made a strong pitch for academic and extracurricular programs at the school, and said, “Whatever urban legends you have heard about the middle school, check us out.”

One woman asked how long he would remain there. Mark Twain has had a heavy principal turnover. Fernandez said that was an important question, often asked by parents who prize a connection with the principal and faculty in a good elementary school.

“I’m committed to stay,” he said. He sounded as if he meant it.

Kendra Nichols Wallace, Webster’s principal, told of the many academic programs at her school. There are programs for advanced studies and for the gifted. Students take Advanced Placement tests in the eighth grade to prepare them for what’s ahead. Each student is on a computer two or three times a week. If they are interested, students are prepared for the foreign language magnet at Venice High School.

Yet, with all this, Wallace knows how skittish parents are about sending their children to an LAUSD middle school.

“There’s a trust factor,” she told me. “Are we going to take as good care of your child as they did in elementary school?”

The next day, I checked the Webster Web site to see what parents said. The comments were generally favorable. A mother offered what seemed to be a smart and analytical view of the school:

“At first I did not want my child to attend this school. It wouldn’t ever be my first choice. The only reason why my child attends is because she would be in all AP classes and there is one teacher that assured me my child would be OK.

“The over all school setting when my child entered in sixth grade (2004) was something to be desired. However, since they have a new principal who really knows her stuff there have been phenomenal changes…. Ms. Wallace is the best thing that has happened to Webster in a long time. Keep up the good work and stay focused!”

Convincing parents of the worth of LAUSD middle schools is a tough sell. But I hope the effort works. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is spending time and energy on the poorest schools, and that’s a worthwhile cause. But Los Angeles always was, and still is, a city of middle-class people, and the mayor should also push the LAUSD to make sure our children have middle schools and high schools good enough to prepare these kids for college.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.