Not So Fast

We live in a world that values achievement, excellence, hard work, and success. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. In fact, I wish them on us all – on our synagogues and our schools, on ourselves and our children as well.

But the problem is, the message many of our kids hear is that excellence, achievement, and success are the only things that matter in this world. And this is a terrible message for our kids. It’s a message that leads to expectations that can result in a lot of stress and a lot of suffering for our children. Kids who internalize this message end up “doing school” instead of learning. And then, ultimately, they become adults who end up “doing life” instead of living.

The irony of it all is that the system that we’ve constructed to push our children to become successful achievers sometimes causes more harm than good. Study after study demonstrates this. One example is early reading programs. Forcing reading when kids aren't ready can dampen their enthusiasm for literature and even negatively affect the way they think about school itself. Hurrying kids to read before they are developmentally ready won’t make them more successful readers – or students or scholars – down the road.

If we really want to do our kids a favor, if we really want to give them a “leg-up”, we need to give them what they need most of all. And what is that? According to Dr. David Elkind, author of the now-classic book on this subject, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, what kids need most “is a healthy sense that the world is a safe place, that their needs will be met, and that they will be cared for and protected by the grown-ups in their world.”

So what does it mean for us to ensure that the needs of our children are met?

According to our tradition, meeting the basic needs of our children includes providing not just food and clothing, but also a proper education. Torah study is a given. Some sages add that we should teach our children how to swim. Another says that we must teach them a craft.

But as important as learning is, our tradition understands that it must not be rushed: “Rav said to Rabbi Shmuel ben Shilat: ‘Do not accept pupils who are less than six years old…’” (Bava Batra 21a) The message: don’t hurry. For millennia our people, no slouches when it comes to learning and achievement, have waited until a child was five or six to start formal education. And our sages understood that a child should only be introduced to more difficult subjects like mishna and Talmud, when he is ten or fifteen years old.

But one of the most profound lessons about parenting comes in a rather unlikely place. In tractate Yoma, the part of the mishna that details the laws, customs, and meaning of the sacred day of Yom Kippur, we learn:

“Do not make children fast on the Day of Atonement. However, they should be trained the year before or two years before so that they become accustomed to the observance of the commandments.” (Yoma 8:4)

It seems obvious. Toddlers should not be required to undergo a 25 hour fast. It would be harmful to their health and of little value to them spiritually as they would not be able to understand the significance of the activity. When they are older, 11 or 12, they can prepare for adult responsibilities by eating a few hours later than usual. Once they become bar or bat mitzvah, they are required to fast like other Jewish adults. But until that time, they are k’tanim, they are minors and are not required to behave as adults behave. The Hebrew of the mishna is suggestive. It uses the term tinokot, babies, as if to remind us that, in the eyes of Jewish law, a seven year old is still a baby. Just as babies must be protected and nurtured, so too must young adolescents.

And this principle is extended to the post-b’nai mitzvah kids who still live in our homes. As long as they sleep under our roof, our tradition considers them our wards. We are still required to protect them and watch over them.

It is a mitzvah to provide our children with a fantastic education. And it’s an equally (and actually not mutually exclusive) great mitzvah to let our kids be kids. They should play like children and act like children, and dress like children. We protect our kids best when we ensure that their childhoods, their birthright, are not taken from them.

Rabbi Zweiback is a lecturer at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem . He is also the volunteer Executive Director and Founder of Kavod, a non-profit tzedakah collective which is dedicated to protecting human dignity.  Rabbi Zweiback is also Senior Rabbi-Elect for Stephen Wise Temple

Hamilton High’s Sour Note

Most parents dream of having a school administrator like Jeff Kaufman.

As the assistant principal and director of the Academy of Music magnet program at Hamilton High School, Kaufman, a graduate of Hamilton, led his program to win an honorary Grammy, be featured on the Disney series "Totally in Tune" and gain a reputation for academic and musical excellence throughout his 12-year leadership — all the while developing close relationships with his students.

That sterling reputation — which even some of his critics admit to — didn’t help Kaufman when the school district transferred him from the school because of an ongoing power struggle between the magnet at Hamilton and the nonmagnet host school.

Kaufman’s departure has left parents of magnet students up in arms because they believe that his removal is the first step toward erosion of the excellence of the magnet program. For many Jewish parents, the magnet program is one of the few remaining reasons to send their children to public school.

The last decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Jews abandoning Los Angeles public schools for private schools, both religious and secular. According to the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey by The Federation, approximately 42 percent of Jewish children who lived within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) attended private schools, compared to 20 percent of Jewish students in the Los Angeles area who did not live within LAUSD jurisdiction.

Of the 42 percent who were in private schools, 62 percent attended Jewish schools, according to the survey. In the district served by Hamilton, only 43 percent of Jewish children attended public schools, with three-quarters of the private school students attending Jewish schools, the survey revealed.

Although a movement to reinstate Kaufman to his former position failed in a Board of Education vote on Sept. 10, parents of students in Hamilton’s magnet school plan to continue the fight for his reinstatement. Many of the parents see Kaufman’s removal as evidence that the LAUSD administration is trying to undercut Hamilton’s magnet program.

Accounts over Kaufman’s departure differ. Critics of Kaufman say he repeatedly tried to be promoted to principal at Hamilton. They say that when it became clear that he would not get the position, he applied for a transfer and was moved to Emerson Junior High School.

Kaufman supporters say he was forced to transfer after repeated harassment and run-ins with the school district. They also charge that his transfer occurred after his request had legally expired.

Kaufman admits that he applied for several transfers, but said the move from Hamilton was ultimately against his will.

In response, magnet school parents are spearheading a drive against Measure K on the November ballot to provide $3.35 billion for Los Angeles school construction and repair as protest against the administration over Kaufman’s transfer.

As passionate as the Hamilton magnet parents are, their detractors are equally passionate in their criticism of them. Plans to protest the public school bond issue, critics say, is tantamount to leaving economically disadvantaged students to hang out to dry, because the district is not giving the Hamilton parents what they want.

Barry Smolin, a 10-year Hamilton veteran, who teaches English in the humanities magnet, sees the parents’ fears as understandable but misguided.

"The public schools need support now more than ever," Smolin said. "However, one does get the distinct feeling that the LAUSD has declared war on smart kids, and in the name of equity will bring about nothing but mediocrity, a politically correct mediocrity, but mediocrity nevertheless. I would prefer that parents back the bond [Measure K] and support the public schools, even if they are not exactly what they want them to be."

The charge of "mediocrity" comes from what some observers see as LAUSD’s desire to integrate the magnet programs with the larger nonmagnet schools. Hamilton magnet parents fear such a move will dilute the academic excellence of the magnet programs, but may be in keeping with the spirit of the original intention of magnet schools.

Magnets were established in the 1970s to offer outstanding public school programs with a focus on specific areas of study, such as music, that would attract a diverse array of students from different economic and ethnic backgrounds. The magnets at Hamilton — music and humanities — have scored a higher level of academic achievement than the regular school.

In a comparison of Stanford 9 exam reading scores for 10th-graders that was reported in the district’s School Accountability Report Card for 2000, 51 percent of the music and 55 percent of the humanities magnet students scored above the 50th percentile. In the nonmagnet school, 11 percent of the students scored above the 50th percentile in reading.

The magnet student population is 40 percent Caucasian, the legally mandated minimum, as opposed to the regular school at Hamilton, in which minorities make up 95 percent of the student body.

While that type of ethnically mixed environment is one of main attractions for Jewish parents in sending their children to public school, some parents at the larger school see the magnets as a system of competitive, high-achieving schools-within-a-school, that is geared toward white students. They find the magnets elitist and exclusionary. That perception, say magnet supporters, is misguided, and can lead down a slippery slope to a school system that offers no outstanding programs to attract students.

"Maybe when L.A. Unified services only minority or poor parents, and the educated in L.A. have completely abandoned it, will some of its leaders wake up to its own culpability," lamented Hamilton teacher Dean Schenker. "But by then, of course, it will be too late." Schenker’s point hits home for many Jewish parents, who are extremely concerned about the quality of education their children receive at public schools.

"At this point, sending our children to public school is a social statement," said Toni Frederick, a Jewish epidemiologist whose son attends Hamilton. "That we want them to be with children who do not have the same exact background that they do, sets us apart from most Jewish parents. We would hate to see the excellence of the magnet programs diminished in any way that we would feel we couldn’t send our children to school there."

For many Jewish public school families, the magnet schools are the reason for keeping their children in district schools. Students in the magnets perform at a much higher academic level than their nonmagnet counterparts. Hamilton’s two magnets, one focused on the humanities and the other on music, both function alongside the larger, regular public school.

Reading score figures in 2000 for Hamilton students in the ninth through 11th grades illustrate the difference between academic performance in the magnets and the nonmagnet school. In the magnet program, blacks were in 44th percentile, Hispanics at the 46th and whites at the 71st. In the nonmagnet school, the figures were blacks 21st percentile, Hispanics 22 and whites 48.

"The magnets are the last holdout of an excellent academic program within Los Angeles public schools," said Jewish demographer Bruce Phillips, who is married to Fredrick. "If they are compromised, even more Jewish parents will send their children to private schools or find ways to get their kids into public schools in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills."

Roy Romer, district superintendent, was unavailable for comment. Marlene Canter, the former representative for Hamilton’s district on the Board of Education, said, "There is no one here who wants to see the magnet programs at Hamilton decline. I think the situation is blown out of proportion. I think they are mixing apples and oranges, and using the bonds as leverage.

"The poorest of our kids are the ones who are being impacted the most," Canter added. "The Academy of Music is an excellent school, and the kids are really, really talented, and the school does a great job in bringing out the talent of these kids."

Canter suggested, however, that district officials are committed to "equity" between the regular and magnet schools. "In terms of how the school runs within the school complex, there were a lot of problems and a lot of inequities" between Hamilton’s public school and its two magnets.

Magnet school parents, she said, "want something which has more autonomy than a public school can give them…. A magnet school is set up to integrate children, not to please parents."

Magnet parents at Hamilton were not pleased when Kaufman was transferred in August. Kaufman said he applied for a transfer because of an environment of "harassment" in which password access to computers were changed and locks that he should have had access to would not open.

Sources at Hamilton strongly denied any harassment, and said that Kaufman applied for a transfer because of ongoing disagreements with then-Hamilton Principal Lessie Caballero over the integration of the larger school and the magnet, and his own ambitions to become principal. Caballero has since been transferred to another school.

According to Carolyn Dodd, a school district supervisor, "Jeff Kaufman applied for a transfer from his position, and it was given. We are now looking forward to a fresh start." Dodd added, "The magnet at Hamilton is an excellent program, and its excellence is not dependent upon one administrator."

Dr. Carolee Bouge, formerly of Fairfax High School, has been brought in to head the magnet.

Parents remain adamant in their protest of the bond measure, citing not only Kaufman’s transfer, but 1997’s Proposition BB, which provided the school district with $2.4 billion. An audit by State Controller Kathleen Connell was critical of how the funds were handled.

"We’ve become so totally disillusioned by seeing how much money gets misappropriated," Phillips said. "Why should we trust a school district which is trying to kill one of the best programs it has?"

Without strong magnet schools, Phillips said, "Jewish middle-class families will be forced to choose between staying in urban areas and paying for private school tuition, or leaving Los Angeles altogether to find quality public education for their children."