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The Education Crisis at Roosevelt High School

It’s a new semester at Theodore Roosevelt High School. Lisa Alva scans the classroom full of 30 new ninth graders. She can’t help but wonder how many of them will still be here to graduate in four years. She will probably lose a few girls to teen pregnancy, a couple may be killed in gang violence, many will miss too many classes due to family priorities and even more will give up because they either don’t see the point in learning to read or they find it to difficult. At Roosevelt “about 45 percent of incoming ninth graders will actually graduate four years later with a diploma,” said Alva.

Los Angeles Unified School District has the second worst graduation rate in the country at 40.6 percent according to a report by Education Week in 2007. The national average graduation rate was 68.8 percent in 2007. In LA County, the area of Boyle Heights, home to Theodore Roosevelt High School where Alva works as a ninth grade English teacher, ranks seventh for the highest percentage of adults who never completed high school out of 265 schools in Los Angeles

“We don’t see a sacrifice for the sake of education. Not very often,” Alva said. She has spent the last 12 years of her career as a teacher in East L.A. trying to figure out why.

Chris Berru, a twelfth grade U.S. Government teacher at Theodore Roosevelt said that he thinks the drop out mentality “starts in ninth grade because they get straight F’s and they say ‘I’ll never recover.’”

Alva is not at all surprised by their lack of effort, however. “Their background in school so far has been to be promoted without making that extra effort- because I’m a year older I move to the next grade – it’s only at the high school level you begin to have to earn credits,” she said.

By then, for many of her students, it’s too late and they have already developed a lackadaisical attitude toward education. “My lowest reader is a second grade level my highest reader I think is a 4.4 grade equivalent,” Alva said. She only teaches ninth grade classes. And although she tries to increase their reading level with flash cards and mandatory reading every night, few of her students ever attempt to improve.

In her second period English class she has 10 students, the highest grade in the class after midterms was a “D”. And when students filled out grade reports they weren’t concerned at all. All the students smiled and laughed as if their grades didn’t matter.

“When something’s interesting or vital to you, you’ll learn it… For some reason our students don’t really feel that they need to know how to use a semi colon,” Alva said.

Sam Diaz works as a counselor at Roosevelt and speaks directly with students about their education on a daily basis. He believes that motivation needs to come from home.

“I personally think that it does have to do with the culture at home to some degree. When parents don’t instill that importance of schooling in a way that students understand that it is vital to do well in school, I think we lack that urgency at that level in terms of parenting,” said Diaz.

Alva has noticed parents no longer take an active role in their children’s education the way they did when she was a child. “Parents don’t read to their children at home. They don’t go over their letter sounds with them and take them places and point things out, or even have conversations at the dinner table about what they learned today,” said Alva.

It may go even further than just their understanding of the importance of school. The language barrier that schools such as Roosevelt, which is 99 percent Latino, must tackle is anything but helpful. And many families are new immigrants to America who don’t speak English at all.

“I think if you go to another country…keep your customs, keep your traditions, but I always tell them you have to learn English. You’re just not going to make it. You have to know it,” Berru said.

Alva has found that even relating Spanish words to English words won’t always work. She has experienced that parents are often not very well educated and speak only 500 to 3,000 Spanish words so students have too little vocabulary to relate to English.

“Increasingly the language problem that I’m noticing is that there’s just so few words, the child has so few words,” said Alva.

“If you take a couple of steps back you could say it’s not doing us any good to accommodate everybody’s language,” She adds.

This lack of English or even Spanish translation means students must make extra effort to achieve the same level of education as their English-speaking counterparts. “I’m forcing them to make progress, but it’s forcing them. Too many have to be forced,” Alva said.

Many parents either are unable to or don’t even see the need to show up at conferences anymore.

“That’s another tragedy, very few parents show up. Maybe out of 100 students maybe 20 parents show up,” Berru said. And those that do show up often can’t communicate with teachers in English at all.

Students are often absent in order to act as translators for a family member who must visit a doctor. In their priority list, Alva has noticed family always comes before school.

Not all teachers put in the time and effort Alva finds necessary to see progress either. “Not everyone who is in a classroom in front of kids should be there,” she says.

Berru agrees, “There are some that should be out of the profession.” Alva even recalled one time when she captured a picture on her cell phone camera of a substitute teacher asleep in the library when he or she was supposed to be working.

The high drop out rate at Roosevelt, however, may have to do with more than just language. “If my home life is unstable there’s no way I’m going to be able to focus in school,” Alva said.

And Roosevelt students aren’t sheltered when it comes to social issues. The neighborhood has a well-known gang presence.

“This is like a haven for them… this is like a safety net. The gangs don’t shoot each other here. Out there it’s every man for himself,” Berru said.

“People get shot on your street on a regular basis,” Alva agreed. She lives 2 blocks away from Roosevelt.
Carlos Osunas, a graduate of Roosevelt who is currently attending University of California Berkley, remembers gang life as a part of high school.

“I have been in incidents where I know a lot of friends who decided to join a gang,” Osunas said. He, however, never joined a gang and focused on school instead. He credits that to his mother’s love and encouragement.

Alva has also noticed about five percent of the girls she teaches become pregnant.

“We do have a large number of students who are pregnant. It creates a great deal of difficulty for them,” Diaz said.

Roosevelt even offers child day care on campus due to the high number of teenage mothers at the school.

Diaz has also noticed a problem with kids drinking on campus. In the past three weeks he caught three ninth graders drinking excessively at school. And the budget crisis plaguing LAUSD only makes things worse.

“If we had the resources that we need to fix the many problems that we have I think we would be able to really make a dent in the issues that we have. Funding is constantly cut and there’s no money for anything basically,” Diaz said.

Programs to keep kids engaged after school and tutoring either must go unpaid or are cut due to a continually reduced education budget from the government.

Silvia Tovar, the Principal of Roosevelt, said the learning environment is unsatisfactory for students and teachers due to the lack of funding as well.

“My teachers have to contend with the challenges of not having air conditioning, not having heating, having partitioned walls instead of real walls, and given all of that they do an amazing job,” Tovar said.

The dumbing down of education in the classroom in order to help students who made it to high school without the knowledge of junior high content is harmful to everyone. Students who are accepted to college often lack the knowledge they are expected to have learned in high school.

“You wonder really how well qualified they are to be successful in that kind of an environment,” said Alva.
She is not the only one who fears for their future as a student.

“I think that a small number of our graduating seniors are prepared,” said Diaz.

Osunas has first hand experience entering college after four years at Roosevelt. He said that most students never talked about or even knew about college when he was in high school there. And the competitive expectations at UC Berkeley were shocking for him.

“I had no idea about the academics and the environment I was getting myself into,” Osunas said.

Osunas said he would remind teachers to keep encouraging and pushing students that seem like they are slipping through the cracks.

“I feel like those are the kids that really need help the most because teachers are just letting them slide by,” said Osunas.

He also said he would make students more aware that “what you’re doing now will affect your future and education is definitely the key to succeed in life.”

And if there is a student at Roosevelt who is willing to put forth the effort to achieve a better education “I’ll do anything to help them,” said Alva.

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Dorsey: Learnin’ in a Great Big Way

There is a dead cat in front of Los Angeles’ Dorsey High School. It is unclear if this feline wretch is intended to welcome visitors or warn them. There are no obvious signs of trauma on the gray-and-white corpse, so my first guess is that poor Puss came to Dorsey to die. Given the discouraging scenes I’ll encounter inside the school, this cat isn’t the only one with a dubious future at Dorsey.

The Dorsey campus consists of several identical, long, low buildings that resemble military bunkers. Sprawling banyan trees in the overgrown courtyard give the impression of the ruins of an ancient Mayan high school. Inside C-building is room C-4 (an inauspicious name for a room with barricaded windows and windowless metal doors dead-bolted from the inside) and inside C-4 is history teacher Lacey Buidosik and her world history class.

The students, freshmen through seniors, are wandering around the classroom, chatting. A passing grade in world history is required for graduation, but apparently that isn’t enough incentive to take the class seriously. Buidosik is describing their assignment: a chance to teach each other and show Buidosik how they’d improve the class. A chorus of complaints showers Buidosik, but she shouts them down.“You guys should be using this time wisely!” she admonishes, “Especially since most of you didn’t do the last project!”

Buidosik’s words underscore the student apathy that she considers the greatest threat to her pupils.

“Education is not a priority for these kids, and it’s a family thing, a neighborhood thing,” said Buidosik after class. “Their parents haven’t gone to college and don’t understand that it won’t come easy.”

She tells me that earlier in the semester she offered one hundred extra credit points to anyone who could convince their parents to attend a parent-teacher conference. Only a handful showed up. When she went to the Dorsey homecoming football game later in the week, it was standing room only. Dorsey has produced eleven currently active NFL players, but only six of Buidosik’s students have hung a college pennant in her classroom.

To some degree, Buidosik can identify with her students. She is a product of Chicago public schools, which, like LAUSD, has a checkered past dominated by class conflict issues. Her parents weren’t college graduates either, but Buidosik said the difference was that she took pride in her work.“I can teach history, I’m good at that, but it’s a different kind of challenge to teach people to care about what they are doing in school.”

When I first knocked on Buidosik’s classroom door, the students were just starting to get settled. Edgar, a Latino version of Eddie Haskell, opened the door, peeking into the hallway. He appeared profoundly disappointed to see me and stuck his head further into the hall hoping to glimpse someone more interesting before Buidosik hollered at him to sit down. This scene played itself out six more times as tardy students trickled in.

While other students halfheartedly worked on their assignments, Edgar, a junior, roamed the room, chewing a toothpick, starting conversations, and concocting elaborate excuses to Buidosik whenever she chided him for disturbing his classmates.

“Why don’t you do your work for this class? You need a passing grade to graduate,” she said, finally cornering Edgar at his desk.

“I will, starting next week!” said Edgar. There were three weeks left in the semester and Edgar currently held an F average.

“Do you do your work for other classes?” pressed Buidosik.

Edgar shifted uncomfortably, trying to evade her gaze. “Sometimes, yeah, I do the work for English. I’ve got a C in English.”

Buidosik kept asking about the rest of Edgar’s schedule, and he slowly divulged other details about his academic career. He was failing biology, math, and art in addition to world history. He was holding a steady B in physical education. He once got an A from a teacher who was dating his brother. He didn’t want to go to college, or even see a point in going. For some reason, he brought up the possibility of an extra credit project.

“What’s the point, Edgar? You didn’t even attempt the one that you’re trying to make up for,” said Buidosik. There was an extra credit opportunity announced the previous week, but Buidosik seemed confident that she wouldn’t be receiving any submissions.

“Your 15-week grades will not be good,” Buidosik told the class. They didn’t seem surprised or even interested.

Buidosik, who has also taught at Jordan High School in Watts, said that while some aspects of Dorsey culture were frustrating, she had no desire to leave the district or even Dorsey itself. “I’m very involved, very invested here. I was on the district’s standard lessons board for the history curriculum, I was on a history grant appropriation board, I was a [representative] for Dorsey on the UCLA-LAUSD partnership committee. I’m just pretty invested in teaching,” she said. “If I went to another district I’d lose my seniority, I’d lose what control I have.”

So, Buidosik is entrenched. How would she improve Dorsey?

“In education, everyone’s blaming the teachers. It’s not easy,” she said. “But we’re circling the wagons.”

I asked what she meant, and it turned out that Dorsey teachers have an ace up their sleeve: Dorsey’s API (California’s Academic Performance Index – a test designed to gauge students’ grasp standard curriculum statewide) scores have risen nearly 100 points in the last six years.

“A lot of people want Dorsey, they want to take it over and make it a charter school,” said Buidosik, visibly bristling at the notion. She said there is no benefit to being ‘taken over’ and that special education students, ESL students, and physically disabled students. Dorsey, being only one story, draws disabled students from throughout the city.

In spite of Dorsey-wide success on API scores, Buidosik lashed out at the tests.

“They’re unfair. The content is unrealistic. Even just the history portion requires so much information to cover what they call ‘standard’ – we have to go from 2000 b.c. to 2000 a.d.”

I tried to jump in, but Buidosik was rolling. “We have kids who are reading English at a 4th grade level trying to take this test or first-time English learners trying to take this test. There is no Spanish option for the test even though a lot of LAUSD schools have subject classes taught in Spanish. There are kids with federally-defined IEPs who are taking the same test.”

I finally managed to interrupt her tirade and asked how, in spite of these myriad obstacles, Dorsey had managed to improve by 100 points.

“There was a push on the part of the teachers and the administration – we just made kids aware of what the test results would mean, and we tried to have the kids separated by what academic level they were at.”

While this type of separation means that classroom instruction can then be tailored to similar ability levels and learning styles, it is prohibited by law. I called Buidosik on this fact.

“No, you can’t legally say that you have all the A students in one class,” she said, stopping short.

Robert, a pint-sized sophomore with cornrows, is an A student in Buidosik’s world history class. I hovered over his shoulder while he prepared his assignment in class, but he didn’t appear distracted. In a classroom where Edgar’s are roaming the room in search of an escape hatch and Olga’s are escorted to the principal’s office by the assistant football coach, concentration is a valuable skill.

“I’m not just gonna stand up there and talk,” Robert told me about his project, which is supposed to teach his classmates about a chapter of their textbook. “The teacher wants something more. I want to do it proficiently.”

Behind Robert, an enormous senior with a thin mustache named Brian thumbed through his textbook. “There’s so many idiots here,” he said to no one in particular.

I asked Buidosik if Brian was right.

“No, there’s very few idiots here,” she said, “but maybe a lot of distracted students. The neighborhood isn’t conducive to learning.”

I asked her to elaborate.

“Well, there’s gangs, drugs, violence –“

I cut her off, saying that I knew about inner city archetypes. How did this translate to LAUSD schools? She made a comparison to a notoriously well-heeled school in Woodland Hills.

“It means that a lesson we teach here isn’t the same lesson at El Camino – and that’s the environment, that isn’t the fault of the teachers. The tests and all that look at numbers without considering the outside environment.”

As she stops talking, Edgar walks over to ask for a bathroom pass. This isn’t his first attempt, and the total amount of bathroom pass requests from the class must easily number in the double digits by now.

“No,” said Buidosik, “I’m not giving out any bathroom passes to anyone until further notice.”

“What?” Edgar protested, “No one? What if your own mother was here?”

Buidosik stuck to her guns. “Nope. Not even if my own mother was here.”

Deflated, Edgar shuffled back to his seat and, exhausted by his teacher’s indomitable will, opened his textbook.

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Special Educator Arlisa Coleman

Special Education

Arlisa Coleman was tired and wondered out loud if she would make it through her next class: 5th period math. This would be the toughest test of her Thursday.

Coleman’s 5th period math students have been a challenge for her this year. They have been noisy, uncooperative and lacked focus in the classroom, but she has been determined to get through to them, especially to John, the raucous class clown who can spontaneously break out into songs or loud expletives in the middle of lessons.

The bell rang and her 8th graders started filing in and settling into their seats. John came in the classroom in his usual form, loudly singing a song.

Class promptly began. Coleman demanded attention and was about to start her lesson on fractions when one of her students abruptly and loudly declared: “John’s going to regular classes.”

Ms. Arlisa Coleman

Other students then echoed the news.

Coleman turned to John, who said nothing.

“Is that true? Are you leaving us?” Coleman asked.

John gave nothing away but a shy grin.

Coleman suddenly shrieked with joy. She knew John well enough to know what his shy grin meant; she knew it was true. She rushed towards him and embraced him. “I’m so proud of you!” Coleman exclaimed.

John had made it out of the special education classes. He would be entering the general education curriculum on Monday.

Coleman suddenly looked rejuvenated. The difference in the tone of her voice and the expression on her face before and after John’s news was noticeable if not striking. She was smiling. Her tired look was gone.

Arlisa Coleman teaches special education and has the reputation of being one of the toughest teachers in her school. However, underneath that tough exterior, there is a teacher who cares about her students and cherishes every small classroom victory, knowing how rare they are these days working in a school district she strongly believes is broken.

“Kids are no longer the priority anymore,” she said. “It’s all about the adults and politics.”

Coleman teaches math and science to about sixty 8th graders at Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School in south Los Angeles. All of her pupils have been identified as “special needs students.”

Students with this label perform poorly at school, suffering from a wide variety of learning disabilities, from auditory and visual processing deficiencies to autism; many with behavioral problems are also included.

“Most of my kids have processing issues,” said Coleman. “They’ll see something on the board, they’ll write it down, but then a few minutes later, they won’t remember it. It’s like they’re looking at something but they can’t see it.”

Coleman’s class sizes range from 12 to 15 students. She tries to conduct them in a strict, no-nonsense kind of way, which has garnered her a well-earned reputation in the halls and classrooms.

“Everybody here knows that she actually teaches,” said Cinnamon Bee, Coleman’s 23-year-old teaching assistant. “She doesn’t take any crap and she controls her class. She teaches discipline.”

“The kids really respect her,” said Charmaine LeBeouf, a long-time colleague and history teacher who shares a number of students with Coleman.

Ms. Coleman prepares for class.

Just recently Coleman was out sick for a day. When she returned, she found her classroom “trashed” and a defeated report by the substitute who had lost complete control of her students. Coleman was angry with her students. She immediately made every one of them write an essay about their inappropriate behavior and a letter of apology to the substitute.

“That kind of stuff does not get tolerated in my classroom,” she said.

What does happen in her classroom is math. Coleman’s goal for her students is simple: understand the essential basics of mathematics: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. However, she has found this to be easier said than done.

“Some of my kids have trouble with basic multiplication like two times two,” said Coleman. “It’s challenging but it’s a good challenge. I love it when kids finally get something; when they get it. I love that.”

Coleman said the greatest challenge she faces when teaching, aside from the learning disabilities, is her struggle to deal with the stressful problems her kids bring to her classroom from home and outside the school.

“It’s a wonder to me that they have any attention at all with some of the things that are happening to them,” Coleman said.

She explained that many of her students have serious problems at home with parents or guardians who are negligent or absent. She said other students are consistently involved with violent confrontations with other kids.

Ms. Coleman's classroom.

She said one of the toughest cases she had to deal with involved an 8th grader she lost last year to drugs and to the streets. She explained that his behavior became more troubling and defiant as the school year went on. Things finally erupted into an altercation in her classroom. She said the police had to be called. He never returned to school. She said that one broke her heart.

“She cares about them, not just in the classroom but outside the classroom as well,” said Paul Ngwoke, a special education teacher who works closely with Coleman. “She’s concerned about them overall. They’re like her own kids.”

Coleman added that the other great challenge for her in teaching is the Los Angeles Unified School District system itself.

“L.A.U.S.D. is not working. It’s broken,” Coleman said. “A lot of teachers like myself, who care about the kids, come into work every day and are expected to teach at a high standard without the resources we need.”

She is upset with how L.A. teachers have been poorly portrayed recently in the media. She said that, in general, teachers are being treated unfairly and that most of the criticism has been undeserved. She pointed to the L.A. Times’s recent printing of L.A.U.S.D. teacher evaluations as an example. She said that she understands the newspaper’s intent, but she said it was misguided and their reasoning was inherently flawed.

“Evaluations or test scores don’t tell the whole story,” said Coleman. “For example, this year, I was told to teach the science class two days before school started. I don’t even have the teacher’s edition (book) for that class. I’m learning along with the students. I’m doing the best I can. If my students don’t do well on the test, is that entirely my fault? Is that fair?”

Coleman also explained that teachers now are faced with having less time to concentrate on their primary job of teaching. She said they are being forced to take on more administrative and extra responsibilities because schools are cutting so many administrators, staff and support personnel on a daily basis due to budget cuts.

“I would throw out the entire system and start over,” she said. “Everything we’re doing is just band-aiding. And it’s just not L.A.U.S.D., it’s California-wide.”

Coleman is one of fifteen special education teachers at Bethune. Her school is one of twelve middle schools in District 7 of the L.A.U.S.D. grid system, covering the neighborhoods of Watts and Avalon Gardens among others. It is the highest scoring middle school in the their district with a 619 API, Academic Performance Index. The API is a measurement of academic performance and progress of individual schools in California. Scores range from a low of 200 to a high of 1000. Scores of 700 are generally considered to be adequate to acceptable.

Bethune Middle School

The total number of students attending the middle school is about 1,990 according to the most recent survey. Out of that number, over 200 of them were identified with a disability or needing special education.

Coleman fears that the continuing cuts by the school district could result in her or many of her colleagues losing their jobs in special education programs where she feels they are needed most.

She and the rest of her special education instructors have reason to be concerned. According to a report in the L.A. Daily News, special education funding was dropping but the special education population was not.

The total number of students enrolled in L.A.U.S.D. is about 672,000, it’s lowest point in over a decade. Eleven percent of that number was identified as being special education students.

Currently, special education is funded based on a district’s total enrollment, not on the number of special education students. So, as L.A.U.S.D. loses more students to increasing charter enrollment, families moving out of Los Angeles and other factors, it loses funding for special education.

Bethune’s Principal Carlos Gonzalez, however, in recent school announcements stated that he wanted to focus more of the school’s energy into improving the scores of their special education students.

(Ms. Coleman, In her own words, What it takes to be a special education teacher)

Bethune serves the community of south Los Angeles where roughly 60,000 people live around the school. According to the latest census figures, over 30 percent of the local residents are African American and close to 45 percent were identiftied as Hispanic or Latino. Only 36 percent of the area residents had a high school degree, with the average household income being just over $22,000, compared to the US national average of $42,000.

These figures are reflected in Bethune’s student population and in Coleman’s classes. Her classes are predominately populated with Latino and African American students.

Coleman, a Los Angeles native, said that she understands the community because of her own background and feels a connection with the students, especially the children with special needs.

She started as a young teaching assistant in the L.A.U.S.D. system and worked her way up. While working, she also attended school and received a Master of Arts in Special Education in 1996. She has always wanted to be a teacher. She explained that both her mother and grandmother were teachers who paved the way for her.

Coleman has taught at every level, public and private, and has over 30 years of experience in schools as an educator and administrator. Before arriving at Bethune, she was an assistant principal for two years at the Willenberg Special Education Center in San Pedro. After failing qualifying tests that would keep her on the job as an assistant principal, she decided to get back to teaching. She ended up at Bethune but she quickly regretted her decision.

“I felt like I’d been thrown into the pits of hell!” said Coleman with a laugh. “I was here for three days and I left. I couldn’t deal with it. In fact, it was so bad I was going to leave the district. I was thinking about going into a whole different profession. I had to leave for three months.”

Ms. Coleman prepares for her math class.

The difficult environment at Bethune initially traumatized Coleman, who had been away from teaching for two years. However, after some time away, she found herself missing teaching and decided to give it another try.

During her short self-imposed sabbatical, she realized she had to adjust her expectations, not of the students, but of the school if she wanted to make her teaching career work. She had to learn to do more with less.

She will turn 50-years-old next year and is looking forward to retiring as soon as she can. She has her eye on helping out her daughter, who is starting a non-profit organization that would help at-risk students and their families in many different facets, including counseling with crisis situations, education, and medical issues.

For now and the near future, her plans are to continue teaching her special education students.

“I love kids and we need to help them,” Coleman said. “I’m going to be an old woman. What are these kids going to do for me in the future if they’re not prepared and educated?”

She then mentioned her student John. “I’m so happy for him,” she said. “He looked scared. I think he’s scared to go into general education, but he has to go. I’m going to miss him but it’s great for him. It really is.”

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Teacher Finds Success With Students Despite Widely Reported Racial Tensions

Once regarded as an excellent institution, Ulysses S. Grant High's reputation has deteriorated in recent years. (Photo by Reut Cohen)

While many teachers complain about ill behavior of students, often linked to racial and ethnic tensions, one teacher in the San Fernando Valley has consistently proven to be a positive force in the classroom.

A little over two decades ago, Ulysses S. Grant High School was regarded as an excellent public institution. Since the 1990s the school’s reputation has drastically changed, largely due to ethnic tensions between Armenian and Hispanic students. These tensions have often resulted in gang violence or riots that are, invariably, picked up by local news stations.

In March 2005, one of the biggest fights on campus erupted into a full-blown riot involving over 200 students. In 2008, an Armenian remembrance event turned nasty when tensions again erupted due to a squabble between a couple of students of Armenian and Hispanic ethnic backgrounds, putting the school in “lockdown” mode.

Alumni from the school say they remember such ethnic tensions between Armenians and Hispanics existing in the early 90s. One of the first incidents of violence culminated in two stabbings and a shooting just outside the campus’ gates at the start of the academic year in 1994.

Peer mediation has slightly alleviated the situation, helping to connect fragmented communities at Grant High School. Yet much of the understanding and acceptance between students usually begins in the classroom.

“I don’t have a problem with behavior, I don’t know if it’s my personality,” said Barbara Novinger, an instructor at the school who has been at the campus since 1986.

Barbara Novinger began teaching at Ulysses S. Grant High in 1986. (Photo by Reut Cohen)

Novinger remarked that a disconnect between students and teachers exists, but said it is the teacher’s job to reach out to their students.

With large class sizes and with some teachers at Grant having over 50 students in a classroom during one class period, the educational system is often likened to a machine in which teachers attempt to effectively lecture rowdy students and prepare them for standardized exams.

“It’s like a factory, you’re moving people through…. I try to humanize [teaching] as best as I can,” explained Novinger.

As some students confessed, it’s much easier for the teachers to pop a film into the VCR than figure out how to control a room filled with resentful teenagers.

But Novinger, who is among the most beloved and recognized teachers by her former students, has no problem controlling either Advanced Placement or ESL classes.

Her secret? Empathy.

“When they don’t turn the work in, I care. When they’re absent, I care. I try and notice when they get their haircut, when they get a new outfit or some groovy shoes on. It’s the little things that make the kids realize that you really do care about them and you’re not just there to make a buck.”

Novinger’s began teaching at Ulysses S. Grant High in 1986. Her fluency in Spanish allowed her to teach ESL World History before venturing into her own field of psychology in which she has a degree from Occidental College. She continues to teach ESL which, she says, is a rewarding endeavor.

“I have a kid in my World History, ESL, who lives with a group of gangsters. His whole family, they are all involved in gangs. He comes to class maybe once every two weeks. But I don’t yell at him, I don’t scream at him, I don’t make him feel bad,” she said, noting that while the student will not pass the class, teaching through humiliation is a terrible tactic.

The demographics in the last two decades have shifted at the high school, with many first and second-generation immigrant students from different backgrounds making up the campus community.

Novinger says she loves the vibrancy at Grant and claims that the differences makes the school the very definition of what being “American” is all about.

“That has to be your attitude when you’re a teacher in L.A,” she said. “You’re getting students from all kinds of backgrounds.”

Beyond empathy, Novinger has been one of the most successful teachers in preparing her students for exams such as the Advanced Placement.

While some characterized Novinger’s teaching style as amusing, including her use of mnemonic devices and games, her tactics to prepare students for high-stake exams work well.

“The teaching style and techniques were effective and made the material interesting and easy to remember,” said Ivan Mendoza, a former student who is currently a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. “She used psychology to teach psychology. She is definitely a teacher who cares about teaching the material to the students and treats people in the classroom with respect.”

Novinger has had pass rates as high as 80 percent on the Advanced Placement exam—and, perhaps most rewarding for her, she teaches students from all sorts of backgrounds, proving that beyond the ethnic and language boundaries students can succeed in education. In recent years, she has taught at least two sections of Advanced Placement Psychology per year. Plenty of students sign up for her class, with each AP section having well over 30 students.

Ultimately, Novinger argues teaching is about the student. She tries not to let the bureaucracy of the Los Angeles Unified School District affect her teaching, though she argues many decisions, such as cutting school time and adding “staff development days” which take away from class time, have been insupportable.

She also questions the number of administrators on the campus, which include six assistant principles.

“Right now we have more administrators than we’ve ever had and less students than we’ve ever had. There are not enough teachers, clerks, custodians, security,” said Novinger. “There are way too many administrators who are earning way too much money. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for the district to just say every high school should just have a maximum of three assistant principles,” she contended.

While API scores are often a source of contention for many schools, Grant has made some modest gains. Novinger argues the exams are often unfair and filled with confusing questions students cannot answer even if they are familiar with the material. However, she has done her best to make do with the LAUSD standards.

“I am very pleased with the way we’ve been performing. We’ve been making gains every single year,” said Novinger.

Novinger’s goal, largely attributed to her family, many of whom were teachers, is to make learning exciting and to make students feel respected. Her former students, many of whom were from underprivileged households, feel she was the best teacher Grant had to offer.

“I would definitely say she had an impact on students,” said Natalie Warrick, a scholarship student who went to UC Berkeley following high school. “She made people interested in psychology by making the subject applicable to students’ lives. Everyone loved Ms. Novinger.”

While she’s been nominated for and won several awards, she says having her former students nominate her for teaching awards is far more rewarding than trophies and placards.

“I want my students to feel loved and supported,” she said.

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No Time to Wait for Superman: The Challenge of Public Education at San Pedro High

At least once a week, Maria walks into her 8:00 a.m. Honors English class at San Pedro High School drunk.  She rarely smiles, and her sad eyes belie the fact that her angst is caused by more than teenage insecurities.

Under the guidance of English teacher Steve Gebhart, she writes poetry that details the pressures of her home life.  She resents her single mother, whom she writes hates her and can’t wait for her to leave their home.

Another student, Sofia, reveals a similarly tortured family background in her poetry for Gebhart’s class.  She writes about her father, who was addicted to heroin and incarcerated.  At the end of her poem, she reveals that he is now dead.

Welcome to San Pedro High School.

Ranked three out of 10 – with one being the worst – by the state of California with an Academic Performance Index (API) of 675, the school sits on a hill overlooking the heavily industrial Port of Los Angeles, and draws many students from dockworker families.

The neighborhood surrounding the school is split down the middle by Gaffey Street, which runs parallel to the port.  Uphill, above Gaffey, the neighborhood is squarely middle class.  However, as one descends downhill below Gaffey and towards to port, drugs, crime, and poverty mix to create a struggling neighborhood with troubled students.

Over 50 percent of the student body comes from an unstable background, including homeless students, students with abusive parents, and students with absent or incarcerated parents.  Drug use in the neighborhood is pervasive.

“There’s a real diversity of socio-economics in San Pedro,” said Gebhart.  “Its really unique because there are a lot of economically middle class families that are not educationally middle class because of the port and the docks.”

The dockworkers “make three times as much money as I do, so what am I going to offer them educationally if they can make it without the education?” wonders Gebhart.  “There’s a real diversity of people at this school, and the confluence of all those different influences impact my classroom.”

Steve Gebhart knows the Los Angeles public school system.  Born and raised in Gardena, he attended Gardena High School and, after a stint as an engineer for what is now Northrop Grumman, returned to Gardena High to teach 11 years ago.

Six years ago he moved to San Pedro and began teaching English, Humanities, and Journalism at San Pedro High.

“Its so nice living in the community in which I teach,” said Gebhart.  “I see my kids all over the place and it gives a whole different perspective, both that I have of them and that they have of me.”

Gebhart has a charismatic persona that endears him with his students.  He is bespectacled and balding, but with the sporty physique of an athlete that is vaguely reminiscent of blogger Andrew Sullivan.  He has an assortment of tattoos on his arms, including one that his students particularly like which reads, “knowledge is power.”

His presence – in the hallways, in the classroom, in the community – is gregarious and compassionate.  Between classes, he stands in the hallways and cracks jokes with students as they make their way to class.  On Friday nights, he brings his wife and kids to the high school football games.  For him, teaching is a mission that goes beyond just being an instructor in the classroom.  Instead, he tries to be a positive role model to his students, demonstrating through his own life the importance of being a well-rounded individual.

Gebhart is part of a young, new generation of public education advocates who choose to be teachers, turning down other, far more lucrative careers in order to try to make a difference in the classroom.

Like many teachers in this new, idealistic generation, Gebhart is not waiting for superman and is anti-charter school.  He is a vocal advocate for the public education system.  His four children either went through or are currently going through Los Angeles’ urban public schools.

“If the parents’ goal for their child is to really make them a citizen, a real member of their community, then public schools are the best way to do that,” said Gebhart.  “That is the real way to expose them to reality, to expose them to different experiences and people.  Here at this school, we’ve got kids of all races, all socioeconomic classes.”

While public education is the bedrock of society, it is admittedly coming under criticism for struggling, especially in the state of California.

In the perfect illustration of his advocacy, Gebhart came to my interview with him armed with articles, including a recent one by George Skelton in the Los Angeles Times arguing that California’s public elementary and high schools are “pretty good, given all the problems of funding a diversity.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District encompasses an incredibly diverse student body.  “A fourth of K-12 students are English learners who go home and speak another language,” writes Skelton.

San Pedro High is 70 percent Hispanic and draws from an area with a significant percentage of English language learners.  Despite these challenges to test performance, numbers across LAUSD are improving.

Education consultant John Mockler – who authored the education finance law Proposition 98 – notes that, over the past seven years, the number of Latino students who scored proficient or advanced in reading doubled from 20 to 40 percent.  In math, the number of Latinos who scored in the top two ranks jumped from 23 to 39 percent over the same time period, an increase of 70 percent.

But if the schools are to continue to improve, Gebhart believes that all parties involved, from teachers and parents all the way up to politicians and educational reformers, need to start cooperating.

“The untold story [of schools] is the interrelationship between the community, the school, the teachers, and the bureaucracy – and the impact each has on the other,” said Gebhart.  “They’ve almost got an oppositional, rather than supportive, relationship.”

Increasing standardized testing requirements are hindering real learning and fail to properly summarize the accomplishments of students, according to Gebhart.

“There are so many below the surface factors that are not being considered in overall student lives,” he said.  “If Maria felt better about her mom, she wouldn’t be drinking.  Or if Sofia’s dad hadn’t been a heroin addict.  They’re not able to perform at their peak ability.”

Standardized testing and teacher evaluations fail to accommodate for such circumstances, which are sadly not uncommon in Los Angeles’ urban schools.

The teacher is but one element in the complex maze of parties invested in the success of public education.  “The current dialogue only puts the blame – and therefore the solution – in my lap.  And I’m doing everything I can,” says Gebhart.

The fruits of his labor are undeniable.  His students rave about the positive influence he has in their lives.

At the end of each year, students in his English and Humanities courses write a personal poem and share it with the class.  To establish trust among his students, Gebhart shares a personal story of his own.  Last year, he told his students about the challenges of raising his son with his ex-wife.

In return for his show of trust, students like Maria and Sofia share with not only him, but also their peers, intimate poems that detail their own triumphs and struggles.

“A lot of kids feel like they can open up to him because he does the same thing to us,” said student Eric Gallegos.  “He definitely provides support for us not only as a teacher but also as a friend and counselor.”

“He’s definitely my favorite teacher,” said fellow student Jennifer Robles.  “When I had him for English, I was not good at writing at all.  Then when we would do essays on books we would read, he would help me with writings standards and all of the sudden I got really good.”

Robles is now taking Gebhart’s Journalism course because of her positive experience in his English class last year.  Another student, Gabriella Herrera, also enrolled in Gebhart’s Journalism course after taking English with him.

“He’s a great teacher, he’s an awesome teacher,” said Herrera.  “He works with you, learns your strengths and your weaknesses, and works with you to improve upon them.”

The testimony of Gebhart’s students shines, providing a positive example of what education done right can accomplish.

The challenges of the underfunded, overcrowded public education system are immense.  As a heated debate about the benefits of alternative systems like charter schools and magnet schools rages around him, Steve Gebhart spends each day in the classroom, trying to make a difference in the halls of San Pedro High.

In his classroom and in those of the teachers around him, nobody is waiting for superman to save public education in America.  Instead, a committed group of fallible humans are connecting with students on a personal level, trying their best to teach the next generation how to be responsible citizens in a complicated world.

* * *

(Maria and Sofia are not real names, which have been changed to protect the student’s identities.)

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The Gift of Art at the Heart of South Central

At first glance, 13-year-old Jasmine Taylor resembles a quintessential South Central Los Angeles middle school student.

As she escorts a pair of captivated couples through the Hold Up Art Gallery on East 2nd Street, Taylor confidently discusses canvas choices, color schemes and photography. What distinguishes Taylor and her classmates from their peers is the way they will spend their free time this December – as docents their her class’s self-produced art collection displayed in downtown Los Angeles.

“Photography is my way of expressing myself,” Taylor said. “I like painting and all other types of art, but photography… it’s my life. But, I couldn’t do it without our Room 13.”

Room 13 student Jasmine Taylor gives a tour of the Hold Up Art Gallery.

Taylor is one of 170 students involved in Room 13, a student managed and financed, multi-media studio at the James A. Foshay Learning Center in South Central L.A. One of only 83 similarly designed student-driven art studios worldwide, the Room 13 alternative classroom model focuses on original, creative learning and problem solving within a public school context, providing students with the necessary tools to become professional artists.

“Room 13 is the complete opposite of a LAUSD program or any traditional education program,” said John Midby, founder of Foshay’s Room 13 program. “It’s not a franchise, where they bring you the paperwork and you repeat the language and repeat after them. You come up with a system that fits within your school culture, where students and adults can create an art studio and business model.”

Teaching five classes daily to students from 6th grade through high school, Midby launched the first Room 13 program in North America three-years-ago, encouraging his students to both pursue personal expression through art and explore sustainable business models. When he’s not teaching, Midby is working overtime planning fundraising events, workshops and exhibitions during is conference periods and after school to help fund the self-sustaining studio.

“John [Midby’s Room 13] classroom really gives our students a chance to see how artists make a living and how to run a successful business,” said Foshay’s Principal, Yvonne Edwards. “He is so committed, and his sense of commitment and expectations for his students have made them rise to the occasion.”

Founded in Fort William, Scotland in the early 90s, the Room 13 project is a facet of Art Studio International, which includes an network of innovative classrooms across Europe, India, South Africa and North America. Foshay’s Room 13 is one of three similar programs currently operating in Los Angeles.

Beginning his career as an independent filmmaker, Midby used substitute teaching to support his cinematic endeavors until becoming a full-time English teacher eight-years-ago. After helming a study on highly effective teaching methods, Midby was approached with the idea of starting a Room 13 classroom.

Room 13 Instructor, John Midby

“It’s more like being a coach because the students can call the plays also,” Midby said. “I’m letting them know what the possibilities are, what Room 13 is, and then together, we figure out what we are doing day-to-day.”

To help guide students in their artistic discovery, Midby enlists the help of local artists and past Room 13 graduates to both inspire and mentor students. His students engage in virtually every conceivable artistic medium, from painting and stencils, to photography, video and even journalism.

Rogelio Santana – an 11th grader in Midby’s high school period of Room 13 – considers Midby his most attentive teacher, constantly thinking about his students and encouraging them to vehemently pursue what they are passionate about.

“He gave me the ride [to the exhibition] tonight. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have come,” Santana said. “He’s always trying to make me go to other places to learn more about art.”

The Room 13 model encourages each classroom to be self-sustaining and to be led by a student management team, responsible for decision-making and the implementation of the business model.

“The goal of the class is to support itself,” Midby said. “We do everything from appearing at farmer’s markets, to doing collaborative workshops and exhibitions. About ten percent of the time, we have to do things like sell pizza… but for the most part, we’re putting on exhibitions and selling our art.”

Midby and his students continue to lead a number of art workshops in South Los Angeles, teaching children and community members how to make recycled art and silkscreen original designs on T-shirts.  In the classroom, Midby is part teacher, part producer, giving his students the agency halfway through the school year to plan their own class time. At this point in the school year, Midby’s five classes are far beyond strict lesson plans.

Midby with his class at the Hold Up Art Gallery

“One of the main things that I teach them is that the image is an idea, and the image and idea can come in any form,” Midby said. “It could have started off as a painting and it can end up as a sticker or a poster. But the design is forever.”

Although Foshay boasts comparatively high Academic Performance Index (API) score for the South Central L.A. area at 657, its scores fell under the district average of 709. The figure summarizes a school’s performance on the 2010 California State Standardized Testing and Reporting Program (STAR) and the 2010 California School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) tests.

As a whole, Midby believes the learning center model has worked for the surrounding community, allowing parents with both limited time and resources to ensure their children have the opportunity to attend a good public school. Operating much like a typical middle school, Foshay’s high school is smaller and more selective than the majority of those in LAUSD, giving priority to in-house graduates when applying to the high school.

“The neighborhood is kind of in flux… it’s really a Mecca for them in the neighborhood,” Edwards said. “There are a lot of houses, mostly single-family homes and very few apartments around the school. So you have people who are committed to their families.”

A community whose population used to be predominantly African American, the demographic breakdown of the area of South Central L.A. surrounding Foshay is now more than 50 percent Latino, according to recent US census data. Despite renovations to the area and construction projects – such as the Metro Rail construction along Expedition Blvd. – the median value of homes in the area remains more than $150,000 less than that of the rest of California at $217,082.

Despite it’s location, Foshay is considered a more effective than average school, according to the LA-Time’s “value-added” analysis. The analysis is a statistical method that estimates the effectiveness of an LAUSD teacher or school by looking at the standardized test scores of students.

With more than 1,000 LAUSD employees losing their jobs earlier this month, Midby said he watched a number of qualified teachers, classroom aides and campus employees at Foshay lose their jobs. Although skeptical of the recently published LA-Times study on teachers’ performance in the classroom, he considers the project a necessary step in a tough economic climate.

“Whether they publish this in the LA-Times or not, every good teacher hates the fact that the union protects lousy teachers… hates it,” Midby said. “Why should the ones of us who work so hard have to see and work with other people who obviously don’t care?”

Although his program has been relatively successful with the school’s administration, students and parents, Midby admitted that alternative teaching methods are not popular with the entirety of the district. In lieu of recent layoffs to a number of LAUSD teachers, Midby said the system has lost a number of talented teachers whilst retaining some who, in his opinion, should have moved on to another profession.

“The problem has always been that [teacher’s] union [UTLA] has gone too far in protecting teachers,” Midby said. “Because of this, the district has had no viable way to separate bad teachers from good ones. When there are a bunch of cuts, it just increases the percentage of teachers who don’t really care about what they are doing.”

A number of class’s pieces will continue to be shown until January 8 at the “Gift of Art” exhibition housed at the Hold Up Art Gallery. Presented in conjunction with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the exhibition will feature art by Room 13 students alongside that of prominent L.A. artists, such as Bill Farroux, Chor Boogie, Ernesto Yerena, Kathia Dungplata, Magda Audifred, Mear One, Pep Williams, Philip Lumbang, Shark Toof, Steven Lopez and Timoi, the class’s artist-in-residence.
“The whole show is about the artists who helped influence these kids and their understanding of what contemporary art is,” said Brian Lee, founder of Hold Up Art Gallery. “Half the gallery’s profits from the show will go to support Room 13.”

For Midby, Foshay’s Room 13 artists represent the Los Angeles of today – young, expressive, multi-racial and creative.

“I just want them to see that you can do things even from the 6th grade that no one else can do and that other people are going to respect,” Midby said. “I tell my students, you can engineer your fate. You can pick what you want to do in your life, and you can accomplish it.”

To become a sponsor or for more information about ROOM 13 LA, please contact John Midby at Room13LaFoshay@aol.com or 213-973-8349.

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Making Room For Art in Arlington Heights

Robert Bendall loves guitars.  It’s one of the first things his fifth-graders at Arlington Heights Elementary school mention about the man they affectionately call “Mr. B”.  Each day, Bendall brings one of the showpieces from his extensive and impressive collection to class.  “He plays for us!” exclaims Stephanie, 10.  Some days he plays the Les Paul and some days the Parker, but the guitars are one of many unconventional methods Bendall employs to expose his students to the arts.

As products of public school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the arts are something the children don’t see much of.  A dance teacher comes once a week and Bendall offers an after-school art class, open to all students, each Wednesday.  But in the wake of massive cuts to Los Angeles’ education budget last year, arts and after school programs have been one of the first visible casualties.  That’s one of the biggest problems Bendall has with the district.

“LAUSD is the big dysfunctional gorilla,” says Bendall.  “It’s top-heavy, paranoid, not a great district.”  The key flaw, echoed by his colleagues, is the district’s sheer size.  With more than 800 schools, it’s the 2nd largest in the country (after New York).  In an attempt to maintain some uniformity among so many schools, LAUSD requires schools to adhere to standards Bendall believes are far too rigid. “Everyone toes the party line.  It’s corporate, it’s not artistic, “ he explains.  “Principals are frightened of getting moved to another school.  It’s almost like the military; if you’re doing a good job they’ll yank you out and send you to a low-performing school.”

Bendall admits he doesn’t “toe the line” as much as his principal, or the district, would like.  He spent two years in the Marines, made it out with a barely-honorable discharge, and has devoted himself to artistic pursuits ever since.  After a successful acting career (including an appearance on Night Court) went South, Bendall figured he’d try his hand at teaching.  Thirteen years later, Arlington Heights is the only place he’s ever taught.  In his spare time he paints, surfs, and plays the aforementioned guitars.  During work hours, he deviates from the required curriculum in favor of sharing those passions with his students as much as possible.

“I should be a lot more strict,” he says.  “It’s just not in me.  I don’t know if they’d learn any more.”  He spurns the idea of hanging student work in the classrooms, which the district likes to see, as “bells and whistles.”  Indeed, it appears that if Bendall doesn’t impart his love for the arts to the kids, they won’t get it anywhere.  When he assigned his students to look up the artist Alexander Calder online and asked who had computers at home, just four of the 24 children raised their hands.  When he asked who had books about circuses or animals (two of Calder’s favorite subjects) at home, only one child said she did.

For at Arlington Heights, many of the children come from difficult socioeconomic situations.  It’s a Title I school, meaning more than 40% of the students are eligible for free lunch.  Nearly all the students are in the English Language Development program, as is to be expected of a neighborhood where 41% of the residents are foreign born.  It isn’t uncommon for the children to live in one-bedroom apartments with 5 or 6 family members.

That’s exactly why the children need a more structured environment when they come to school, says Arlington Heights principal Zoe Jefferson.  She agrees the LAUSD is “too big”, so the onus falls on the individual schools to provide an environment most conducive to overcoming these challenging situations.  Jefferson explains that part of creating that environment, despite Bendall’s protests, is hanging up the students’ work.  “It’s like scaffolding for them,” she says.  “Seeing the work of others helps them become more accountable to themselves.”

But gauging whether the classroom efforts have been a success is in itself quite a struggle.  In Jefferson’s six years at Arlington Heights, the school’s API score has increased from 633 to 743 (barring a momentary dip in 2009).  Yet individual test scores remain quite low, especially in Language Arts.  In particular, it is difficult to determine which teachers have the greatest impact, since the LAUSD has no definitive evaluation system.  When the Los Angeles Times released its “Value-added Analysis”, the staff at Arlington Heights was skeptical.

“I don’t think they should have listed names,” says Jefferson.  “Maybe just a percentage.  It’s so hard to make the playing field even.”  She has seen teachers in her own school teaching directly to the test, for fear that low test scores will negatively impact their careers.  Bendall found the ratings didn’t correlate at all with his perception of the quality of his colleagues’ classroom work.  Some wonderful teachers, he says, received surprisingly low scores.  As for Bendall’s own rating, he acknowledged running right to the computer to check as soon as he could.  He fell slightly above average in math, and well below in language arts for an overall rating of “average”.

And that’s just fine by him.  “I would have been more upset if my scores were lower,” he explains.  “But I don’t  mind being average as a teacher, because I’m in a school that’s way below average.”  Far more significant to Bendall than test scores or evaluations is imparting lessons to the children they otherwise wouldn’t learn, such as Alexander Calder or an exercise last year, when he had the children pretend to buy stocks and follow the market.  Of even greater import is establishing personal relationships with his students.   In Bendall’s opinion, one of the reasons the LAUSD’s high-school graduation rate is so low (69.6 %) is that kids get lost in the system after elementary school.

“The anonymity starts.  You’re in a class with 50 other kids so the teacher doesn’t know your name,” he says.  “It’s inner city warfare” in the middle schools and high schools.  Martin Kass, a fellow fifth-grade teacher at Arlington Heights, agrees that personal connection with students is key.  “If you have confidence in the kids,” says Kass, “they’ll do well. “  He concurs that being a part of the LAUSD can make that a challenge.  “We have to keep compliance in mind, which detracts from the autonomy we need,” he says.  “They even want us to teach certain subjects at certain times of day.”

But he and Bendall both note that Kass runs a tighter ship in the classroom.  “He operates a little more abstractly,” says Kass of his colleague.  At a rehearsal for a Christmas performance with both classes, Kass took on the drill sergeant role while Bendall teased and chatted with the students.  For Bendall, forging a bond with his kids is a much greater reward than raising their test scores.

One of his favorite moments was just this year.  After Bendall played the guitar in class, a boy named Armando asked if he could have a turn.  He knew a few things, he said, but asked if Bendall could teach him a bit more.  So the teacher showed Armando a few chords and scales, which the boy picked up rapidly.  Bendall was so impressed with his ability that the following day he went to his favorite guitar store and purchased an inexpensive electric guitar for Armando and his twin brother.  He takes great pleasure in seeing the boys fight over their new “toy” in the schoolyard.

It’s an alternative approach to teaching, especially within the bureaucracy of the LAUSD.  Bendall understands the reasons behind the district’s shortcomings, such as size and lack of funding, but that’s why he’s content to keep on teaching his way, one child—and one guitar—at a time.

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Technology In The Classroom: Ms. Sujata Bhatt Strives For More

It’s Thursday afternoon and after the final bell rings and all her kids leave, Ms. Sujata Bhatt is finally blessed with an empty classroom. She sits down at her desk, looks at the clock and starts to pack her bag.

“It’s nice to have a moment to yourself,” Ms. Bhatt says looking across the deserted classroom.

After only 20 minutes of relaxation, Ms. Bhatt gets up and walks from her 4th grade classroom to a room across the playground. Patiently waiting is a group a kids, sitting on the ground, eating Skittles. As they see Ms. Bhatt walking towards them, the students enthusiastically jump up from the ground and eagerly wait at the door.

What awaits inside is a room full of computers, something just recently installed at Grand View Elementary. Ms. Bhatt’s day is barely over as she now teaches a program called the Alumni Academy, a course she started earlier in the school year.

The Alumni Academy is an opportunity for some of her past students to come back to Grand View Elementary and work with current 4th and 5th graders in a technological setting. Together they brainstormed a project idea, which has resulted in the making of a video yearbook for Grand View Elementary, something to sell to the community in order to help raise money for the school.

The students quickly pair up, open up iMovie and continue to work on their individual assignments. They shot their own footage, interviewed faculty members, and edited their own videos, something that some first year journalism students don’t know how to do. Even though the kids have already put in a full day at school, the room is filled with excitement and eagerness as the students, whether they know it or not, continue to learn. A result that cannot come from a text book.

“Look, they’ve been in school all day yet their happily working away,” points out Ms. Bhatt, “Anything that gets them out of the enclosure of their classroom and actually be involved in the real world, these days is technology based. It takes them out into the world.”

Ms. Bhatt’s passion for teaching grade school didn’t come until she had a child of her own as her initial plan was to become a university professor. Her maternal instinct is what makes Ms. Bhatt a great teacher as she is aware of what keeps her students interested in the curriculum. Through songs, games, projects and technology-based learning, Ms. Bhatt makes learning fun, a word not commonly associated with school.

“What I really like about Ms. Bhatt is she’s not one of those teachers who focus on text books,” explains 6th grader Jackie Lopez, “She has a lot of projects and put all our projects on ThinkQuest. When we were working on dinosaurs and fossils we could make fossils online and we excavated like real scientists.”

Jackie attended Grand View Elementary from pre-kindergarten to 5th grade and was in Ms. Bhatt’s class for three years. Recently Ms. Bhatt helped Jackie obtain a six year scholarship to Wildwood School, a private school down the block from Grand View. Although Jackie can no longer attend the Alumni Academy, she has been able to take and use all the tools Ms. Bhatt has taught her in the class.

“Right now in Wildwood, I have to do a presentation on Power Point during science and it’s great because I know how to use Power Point already, Ms. Bhatt taught me. I remember my friends were asking me how to use Power Point and it was really fun because they kept on asking me stuff I already knew,” Jackie excitedly explains.

Harvard educated, Ms. Bhatt’s commitment to teaching is obvious to anyone who watches her but she hopes to make the biggest impact through the use of technology.

“I hope we can become a technology academy, where we infuse technology into a real project based learning environment. Where kids have the freedom to control how they want to display their learning, which is more than just a test, and to me that’s more applicable in life,” states Ms. Bhatt.

A modestly build school in the heart of Mar Vista, Grand View Elementary is a Title 1 school that faces more challenges than other schools as the majority of their students come from low-income communities and are english language learners.

According to Los Angeles Times School Guide, almost 88% of the student body is Latino, 61% are English leaners and 82% use free and reduced-price meals. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service states that a family of four must have an annual income of less than $29,000 to qualify for free meals. This statistic is particularly interesting considering that the US Census shows the annual medium household income for the surrounding neighborhood is $62,611.

Many studies have shown a high correlation between economic status and educational attainment and although Grand View has an Academic Performance Index ranking of 3, it is important to note that the school has continually improved over the past three years in national standardized test, most recently jumping 45 points from 2008 to 2009.

“I think the results reflect the work that we’ve put in because we have tremendously grown. We have four National Board Certified Teachers, Ms. Bhatt being one of them and I think it does reflect the effort these teachers are putting in with the kids,” explains Mr. Alfredo Ortiz, principal of Grand View Elementary.

Coming to America as an English learner from Nicaragua, Mr. Ortiz has a particular interest in the success of his students because he sees himself in his kids. With a career spanning 22 years in the LAUSD, Mr. Ortiz agrees with Ms. Bhatt in that the best way to increase the learning capabilities of their students is through the use of technology.

“I’d like to get caught up in the technology aspect of educating our children. I feel that people tend to speak about the achievement gap as being something just in reading, writing and math but it’s also technology because now it’s all about access to information. I feel that’s one area that our children are behind,” explain Mr. Ortiz.

J. Wang, writer for The Journal claims that technological skills are particularly helpful for language learners because they can practice the language by writing emails or conducting online research.

The only computers Grand View has is restricted to one classroom that can only accommodate a small group of students and budget cuts have hit the school hard and they don’t have the funds for additional technological equipment. In order to get the gadgets Ms. Bhatt wants for her lessons, she has had to write grants.

“Technology helps students absorb information better, it’s real life, it’s lived, not just book knowledge. The challenge every day is to take book and abstract knowledge and make it real for them. That’s why I wrote the grand for the GPS systems because longitude and latitude are really abstract concepts but if you take it and walk around and see the elevation changes, it makes it real,” Ms. Bhatt explains.

This commitment to better educating her students is what parents say, makes Ms. Bhatt a great teacher.

“She’s energetic, she gives the kids enough work and she pushes them a lot so they do well in school,” states Martiza Bautista the mother of Arturo Vasquez.

One parent who could not stop gushing over Ms. Bhatt was Graciella Lopez, who is forever grateful that Ms. Bhatt was able to help her daughter Jackie get into a school that could provide an atmosphere more suitable for Jackie’s learning capabilities.

“Ms. Baht is more than a teacher, she was a friend. She really cares for her students and doesn’t give up. She’s one of those teachers who doesn’t mind staying late to tutor in order to help the kids catch up to the other students. She’s very invested,” explains Lopez.

After nine years of teaching, Ms. Bhatt sees nothing but potential in both her school and her students. She doesn’t need fancy equipment to teach, it’s a tool that she believes works best with her students.

“When they get excited about an idea and what they get excited about learning, that’s a nice feeling. When people want to participate it’s sweet, it means you’ve hooked them. That’s all you want to do, you’ve hooked them into learning so they will go learn on their own and the next year and forever.”

Video: Science Time!

Video: Dream Jobs of 4th Graders

Slide Show: Grand View Elementary

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Concussions: Not Just For Grown-Ups

Noah Harris lay motionless on the field during practice for his little-league football team, the Dearborn Tigers of Michigan.  Noah’s parents and coaches rushed over, but after taking a particularly tough hit, the 9-year-old tight end couldn’t speak to tell them what was wrong.  Several minutes later, when the team medic suggested calling 9-1-1, Noah mustered the strength to say he was okay.  He was frightened and breathless, but uninjured.

Noah was lucky.  In October, the medical journal Pediatrics published a study showing that football-related concussions and other head traumas among the elementary and middle school set more than doubled between 2000 and 2005, for a grand total of 502,000.  Some Pediatricians attribute the rising numbers to increased competition–more parents and coaches pushing the children to elite levels–and some say it’s simply that head trauma among youths is more widely recognized and reported.  But one thing everyone in the football world agrees upon is, something’s gotta give.

Just last week Pop Warner, America’s largest youth football organization with nearly half a million participants in 44 states, announced plans to heighten player-safety going forward.  The group, which is also the oldest in the nation at 81 years of operation, is where many professional players get their start.  Going forward, teams will require a doctor’s note before any child who has suffered a head injury can return to play.  Additionally, Pop Warner created a new medical advisory board composed of leading neurologists and athletic safety experts to oversee the application of the greatest possible safety measures among its young players.

Steve Antonowicz, who coaches 10-year-olds in Weymouth, Massachusetts, thinks the problem isn’t the current safety standards, but the age of the children.  “They really shouldn’t be starting to play contact until they’re a little bit older than ten”, he says.  “But they do.  They start even younger.”  He says the key to avoiding dangerous hits and injuries is good coaching, but that grade-school aged boys are too young to retain many of the techniques.  And though the Weymouth Wildcats recently invested in top-of-the-line equipment, one player still suffered a concussion this season (one a year is average, says Antonowicz).

Noah Harris’ mother Deanna says that when her son, now a high-school freshman, started playing at the age of eight she disliked the idea.  The time commitment (practice five days a week in August, three nights a week when school starts, and games on Saturdays through early November) seemed too strenuous for such a young boy, and the practices too rigorous.  “The coaches were very rough, and tough on them, and I didn’t like the way they spoke to the boys,” she says.  But her husband and others dismissed her concerns, saying the violence on the field was “just the way it is”.

It’s the same argument NFL players used in October, when the league announced it would crack down on helmet-to-helmet hits by imposing mandatory fines and suspensions.  Explaining that violent hits are an inherent and understood part of the game, some claimed the new rule would necessitate them re-learning how to play football, and suppressing techniques ingrained in them since childhood.  Pro-bowl linebacker James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers even threatened to retire (but didn’t).  They believe the potential benefits of playing football—discipline, camaraderie, glory and thrill of victory—make the risks worthwhile.

Cari Horton, whose 9-year-old Jack is a three-year veteran of the Pop Warner Mighty Mites in Huntington Beach, California, concurs.  “Jack has such a passion for it, it’s just a big part of our life,” she explains of the sport.  Has she ever been worried he’d be injured?  “Never have I ever been concerned,” she says.  “They have so many pads on, and [Pop Warner] is a very safe organization.”  She acknowledges that if Jack were to come home concussed she probably wouldn’t be able to recognize the signs, but has faith that the on-field medic (Pop Warner requires each team to have one present at all times) would.

As for Jack, he’s equally unruffled by the idea of injury.  The fourth-grader swears he’s never been scared, but says prefers playing defense “because when you’re on offense you get hit, but when you play defense you get to make the hits.”  He knows about concussions because “when I watch pro, they get up and then fall down again.”  But the boy says his coaches don’t talk about them, and they certainly don’t factor into his dream of playing linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings.  What’s Jack’s favorite part of being a football player?  “Hitting,” he says mischievously.

With such philosophy instilled in these young boys, who spend their Sundays watching the NFL, precautionary measures seem more ceremonial than practical.  Nonetheless, Pop Warner officials hope they can do their part to disassociate from the violent stigma attached to football, and ensure that the concussion rate among youngsters doesn’t continue to rise.

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