Multiculturalism at Work

Among those who care about public education, “multiculturalism” is one of today’s favorite buzzwords. But at the Community School, a magnet campus that falls under the auspices of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the concept of multicultural education has been in place for 25 years.

It all began with the Airdrome Plan, a visionary project that brought together Jewish- and African-American families in what has been billed as the LAUSD’s first attempt at voluntary neighborhood integration.

Airdrome Street, a few blocks south of Pico Boulevard, is a nondescript residential thoroughfare that starts in the vicinity of Beverlywood, then wends its way east through Pico-Robertson toward the Fairfax district. Along a one-mile stretch of Airdrome sit two public elementary schools: Canfield Elementary is just west of Robertson Boulevard; Crescent Heights Elementary lies between La Cienega Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. Back in 1971, at a time when school desegregation had become a pressing local issue, the population of Canfield was virtually all white, and heavily Jewish. Crescent Heights, meanwhile, was almost 100 percent black.

This state of affairs was unacceptable to parents like Clive Hoffman. Hoffman, born and reared in South Africa, felt that his own formal English-style education was inadequate for someone destined to live in the modern world. As he puts it, “I wanted my children to have an experience that was broader than the 3 R’s in a multicultural environment.” He and other like-minded Jewish parents in the Canfield neighborhood joined with African-Americans from Crescent Heights in proposing that the two schools merge.

The original plan was a radical one: it called for all youngsters from the two neighborhoods to attend kindergarten through the third grade at Canfield, then move to Crescent Heights for the upper grades. It also put forth the principle of “parent governance,” giving moms and dads the authority to hire faculty and chart the direction of the combined school. This first proposal, which was vigorously opposed by a group of Canfield “concerned parents” fearful about property values and a possible negative impact on their children’s education, was rejected outright by the school board. A second plan, in which a smaller group of students would be voluntarily merged on the two school sites, also met with defeat. It was at this point that supporters of the Community School concept found Alan Friedman, a pro bono attorney, and began preparing a lawsuit against the LAUSD.

Circa 1974, a landmark judicial ruling introduced cross-town busing as a way to integrate the schools of Los Angeles. In this charged political climate, the Community School finally gained approval as an autonomous entity on the two campuses. The Community School began with 120 children, all of them there voluntarily. From the beginning, there was an on-site expert in multiculturalism who helped the children understand their own ethnicity and that of others. In those early days, when 90 percent of the white students came from Jewish homes, the Jewish experience was an important part of the curriculum at every grade level. Jewish holiday observances were studied; the school put on seders and Purim carnivals. Older children studied the Holocaust, which led to spirited classroom discussions of the correlation between genocide and slavery.

As the Community School’s reputation grew, it moved to a site at the rear of Louis Pasteur Jr. High School. In 1977, it became a district magnet school, open to children from all over the LAUSD. Integration mandates stipulate that 40 percent of its students must be white, and 60 percent must represent a combination of other minority groups. Today, the school has 360 students, representing roughly equal-sized white, African-American and Asian contingents, along with a smaller Hispanic group. About 40 percent still come from the immediate neighborhood, and a sizable number are still Jewish. A waiting list of more than 600 is a testament to the school’s enduring popularity.

Some things haven’t changed. The school still embraces a multicultural curriculum, and parents still gather at town hall meetings to hire faculty and make policy. Under Principal Pam Marton, the Community School has found ways to incorporate a variety of cultures. In the past year, students have used an in-depth study of dance as a way to delve into the daily lives of Mexicans, Koreans, African slaves and the Chinese who built the railroads. Though the Jewish experience has been somewhat crowded out by other elements in the curriculum, students still visit sukkahs, and explore Jewish holiday observances. In December, the annual holiday program blends Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa celebrations. When the fifth graders study immigration, Jewish children are encouraged to share their family stories.

Thanks in part to enthusiastic parental involvement, the Community School can boast an impressive list of accomplishments. Last year it was named a California Distinguished School for 1998-2001. It is one of 36 schools in the nation to participate in a flagship program of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Transforming Education through the Arts. Its brand-new playground was built in part through a grant from the Anne and Kirk Douglas Foundation. Parents raise $75,000 a year to give their children enrichment opportunities on campus.

A recent event, complete with entertainment and a dinner prepared by the parents, honored the school’s founding families. Clive Hoffman, for one, is “absolutely ecstatic” that the school has grown and flourished. He’s proud, too, that after 25 years it is “still based upon our model, the model of parent governance.” For Hoffman and his family, the Community School was a special place that pulled two communities together and gave children a broader outlook on the world around them. Hoffman describes his two daughters, both long-ago graduates of the Community School, as having “spent their lives working in multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic settings. They feel totally comfortable in all kinds of surroundings.”