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Sunday, March 20, 2011

That Problem School

During that 2004-05 school year, the one we thought we be our last one together, all the laughs and good times contained a degree of sadness and even the unpleasant moments seemed worth somehow enjoying. Some days we’d start school late because no one wanted to walk away from wherever we were gathered—the truck, the lunch tables, wherever we were casually talking, teachers and students, we didn’t want it to end.

I think we were all falling behind on lesson plans and marking papers. I know I was. I guess I always try to assign too much work and if most students comply then I get buried in it (I’m buried in it right now as I write this).

For some reason our first ten week report card was always printed after about seven weeks—still is—and that sudden dead-line usually forces me to get caught up. This time it helped distract me from all the turmoil about our future. Then I got an Email from Chris Baker who had just graduated in June and was at Grambling University.

Dear Dad

Heard Charlap is on his death bed and the school is closing next month. Any of this correct?

Grambling is cool. I’m going to get a teaching credential and come take your job if they don’t close middle college.

I don’t know why that note got to me the way it did. Thinking back now, there is so much to it. Of course, the overstatement of Charlap’s health—which, it turns out, was sadly prophetic—along with the overstatement about the school closing and just the simple gesture of calling me Dad. Somehow it got me fired up.

I remembered when our district superintendant, Roy Romer—the former governor of Colorado—sent an Email out to all the teachers and other employees offering an open exchange of ideas about how to do things better, suggesting we shoot him an email whenever we have something to say to him. So now I had something to say to him. Midnight on the night of Tuesday October 28th when I sent this:

Dear Governor Romer:

I’m a 12 year veteran of LAUSD, a national board certified language arts teacher. I created the AP English program at my school where I am also the journalism teacher (we produce, I think, the only weekly school newspaper in the district), athletic director, cross country and boys varsity basketball coach. As you might imagine I work at one of our smallest high schools, Middle College High School, the one on the campus of LA Southwest College, the one with an uncertain future.

Of course, I would like to see you or someone in LAUSD or the community college districts—or bothdevise a plan to preserve what I will argue is a school worth saving. I can imagine some of the reasons not to save our school. Actually, from the community college point of view I cannot imagine why they would want us off their campus. We provide LASC with their best college students. We bring life to an otherwise dead campus. But that is something about which I imagine you and LAUSD can do very little. I also imagine that preserving our school in some other form at some alternate location would be costly and that distributing us allteachers, students, administrators, support staff, instructional materials and equipmentthroughout the district might be more cost effective. But I’m not sure that formula really works. I mean that I believe what we have created here at Middle College is much greater than the sum total of all its parts.

You know as well as anyone that there are a number of good schools in this district. Even within problem schools there are good teachers, good programs, and good students. Middle College is a great school. I do not merely say this to be self-serving. Nor can I assume much of the credit for this distinction. It is a great place to work, a great place to practice the art and science of teaching, and it can be a great place for a child to attend schoolan oasis in a part of the city where children and parents speak fearfully about their neighborhood high schools.

Last year’s graduating class is full of examples. One young man told me he was considering dropping out in the 8th grade. He said there was no way he could have survived four years at Fremont, his neighborhood school. He’s at the University of Idaho now. Middle College is also a place for troubled students to get the kind of adult attention they need to survive, to thrive. We’ve been a reason for homeless students to stay in school, for mediocre students to become scholars, for lost souls to get found through a rigorous student-centered education. Most of our students go to college after they graduate. All of them believe they can. This is a stark contrast to what I encountered this summer teaching at my own neighborhood school, Venice Senior High. Both of my classes were full of great kids but many of them had low expectations for themselves. I do not blame this on their teachers or administrators. I believe the size of the school makes it impossible to reach out enough to create an academic climate for all students.

If MCHS closes and I have to find another position somewhere, I know I’ll be an asset to that school in every way I can. The same is probably true for my colleagues and even for many of our students. But something special will be lost.

I’m not sure what our options arethe district’s, I mean, given the June 30th expiration of our school’s lease with LASC. Find a vacant lot and drop some bungalows into it. Make Henry Clay a 6-12 school, something like Elizabeth Street and Foshay. I think that the college component of our school has been a great thing (more than 30 students have graduated our high school with their AA degree from southwest college) but even without the college I believe our school is worth preserving. At the athletics meeting August 31st, Jeff Helpern mentioned how many new high schools were going to be opening in the coming years. I’ve also read about your commitment to creating small learning communities and while I think that two or three hundred is better than five or seven hundred students and that stand alone schools would be better than small schools carved out of big ones, I understand the budgetary limitations with which you and the board are faced. In any case, I hope you realize that you’ve already got a very successful small learning community worth preserving and that you’ll work on finding a way to preserve it.


Larry Strauss

Middle College HS


Did it matter that I wrote this letter and sent it to Superintendant Romer? He never answered it. I guess there is a good chance he never read it. But I’m glad I wrote it because it needed to get written and Romer should have responded.

Ultimately, of course, it all worked out and LAUSD will probably one day—when that new building is complete—take credit for saving our school, but they will be lying. They really did not go very far out of their way for us until they had to. We were a nuisance. If they could have ignored us, if we would have just gone away, they would have let that happen.

But we didn’t just go away.

About a year later, our current principal, Wanda Moats—who had just been hired to replace Pam Jackson—met Superintendant Romer. When he heard what school she was principal of, he said, “Oh, yeah, that problem school I keep hearing about.”

“Fuck you,” Ms. Moats told him. Not really—but she should have.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Second Chances

The year that this was all going on—2004-05 school year—I kept a diary of what was going on and it actually continued into the next year, until I got to page 824 and got an electronic warning message on my computer that the file was too big and in danger of crashing.

I haven’t looked much at what I wrote, mostly just calling upon what I remembered, but recently I started scrolling through it to help with that remembering. I saw the name Kevin Moncrief [not really, I changed the name] and stopped to read about his antics that fall.

Kevin had graduated in 2003 after four tumultuous years vexing teachers—including one short-timer who attributed his departure from MCHS to his dealings with Kevin—with his smart mouth and mischief, smoking weed, selling weed, breaking hearts—inspiring girls to fight each other—organizing crap games and card games, sports books, and pay-per-view live boxing in the handicapped stall of the men’s room.

His mother was secretary to one of the college vice presidents, one of many college employees who enrolled their children or other relatives at MCHS. LA Southwest College didn’t want us in its midst but the people who worked for the college kept entrusting us with their children.

Since "graduation," Kevin had been a full-time LA Southwest student and for all we knew was still selling drugs to some of our students. He had at least one girlfriend attending our school. A year ago, his first year after graduation, he’d spend a semester as a uniformed police cadet on campus writing parking tickets on the cars of HS teachers he hadn’t much liked and harassing the basketball team on which he’d once played. When they stood up to him, he’d called for backup. Three squad cars of LA County Sheriffs descended on my basketball practice (I think one or two might have still had powdered sugar and jelly on their mustaches) and nearly made two arrests before realizing that their cadet had been abusing his uniform and his radio.

Kevin made it up to his former teammates, though, donating his DJ services during our first game of last season, scratching and bumping records and taunting the players on the other team with his microphone until a referee ejected him from the building.

Now, a year later, he seemed to have sobered—in pretty much every way. I saw him sitting on the wheelchair ramp shredding documents outside the registration bungalow. I teased him about the cigarette in his hand. He says, “Yeah, I got to quit or I’ll end up looking as old as you.” He’s never formally thanked me or Ms. Jackson or anyone else for all the second and third and fourth chances we gave him at MCHS, all the encouragement and tolerance and second chances, including the letter I wrote to a judge on his behalf after he got arrested the first week of his senior year. And I’m not sure he quite saw the irony now, in the fall of 2005, when he said, as I was walking away, “Hey, I hear y’all about to get kicked out of here.”

Last month Kevin came back to MCHS—after more than seven years. He returned as a volunteer drug counselor, preaching sobriety to our students. He gave a presentation in my homeroom and a few others. I watched him nervously talking to my students. Afterwards, I showed him where our new school building is going to be. He was very excited for us.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


At the rate I’m going, the new Middle College HS will be completed long before I finish telling the story of how it got there. But maybe I can step up the pace a little though there is a part of me that wants to tell the whole story of the school, everything I can remember from every year—and I know that as I skip ahead, some students will feel left out. But, again, I invite anyone reading this to add their recollections and insights to the story, a story which is anything but mine alone to tell.

I often find myself explaining to students, teachers, and others how it is that our school has changed over the years—and I wonder always whether those changes were for the best.

A few years ago, when our students were getting mugged regularly by students from nearby Henry Clay Middle School and Washington High School I was reminded of how, the year I came to MCHS, some of our students were banished from a daily school bus for picking on students from Washington.

How did we go from being (our students anyway) the bullies to the bullied?

It was a fairly slow process—and perhaps an inevitable one. My wife who worked at the original Middle College HS in New York saw a similar thing happen there—the school’s concept of “at risk” broadening to accommodate teacher and administrator temperament. She saw it happen at another alternative school in New York City. Other alternative educators we know tell similar stories.

It goes something like this:

-A school opens to served students no one else is serving—at risk, undisciplined, violent (I can recall at least half a dozen of our students who had come to MCHS after assaulting a teacher or administrator at another high school).

-The school may have success with some, perhaps even most, of its students, but never all of them and the losses are sometimes heartbreaking. The work is rewarding but extremely challenging and quite draining.

-Less challenging students begin to find their way to the school—either because the school is convenient, because it is small, because they know someone attending the school, or, as in our case, this school with all these dangerous and potentially dangerous students ironically—because of being small and having a really committed staff—becomes a relatively safe school.

-These less challenging students make the more challenging ones seem like even more of a burden.

-Teachers burn out—or leave for other reasons—and the new teachers have no ownership (and may even have no knowledge) of the original mission. Tolerance for the most challenging students continue to erode.

-Policies are enacted to kick students out of the school that was supposed to be a school for students who had been kicked out of somewhere else.

-Intake policies keeping those challenging students from ever entering the school.

In our case much of this was justified by our desire to please LA Southwest College so that they would tolerate our school’s existence. So it is ironic that in 2005 they conspired to obliterate us anyway.

I wonder sometimes whether we could have won the battle to save our school if we’d stuck to our original mission—or if we would even have lasted until 2005. I doubt it.

I suppose one could argue that we hadn’t abandoned our mission at all, that we still did—and still do—serve at risk students. In South L.A., pretty much everyone is at risk. And many of our students still come from difficult situations—single-parent or no parent, foster care, poverty, abuse. They’ve seen and been victimized by violence. But most of the students we see now have never been sucked under by the streets, a testament to their own resilience and perhaps their parents or guardians and some teachers they had before coming to our school. One of those teachers, Mr. Negrete—who a number of our students have credited with helping them survive three years at Bethune Middle School—is a 1992 graduate of ours.

Still, when I think about that original mission of MCHS—to help at risk student with academic potential who might be awakened in a college environment—I cannot help thinking about two of the smartest young men we had and how one ended up a career sailor never attending college and the other is in a federal penitentiary.

My Boucher and I and some of the other old-timers used to argue with our newer colleagues about preserving—or going back to—or original mission and about the identity of our school but maybe we were just being romantic about it. Maybe we were never as good as we thought we were at helping the most at-risk students. We definitely got to some of them and made a difference but we lost a lot of them too. Some came back years later and said that we had helped them even though it hadn’t seemed like it at the time. One guy said that he’d spent three years in prison and that while he was alone in his thoughts during those years, he kept hearing our voices and that it had meant a lot to him.

I don’t begrudge any student who has ever attended our school and I’m honored to teach every class assigned to me—and my job, of course, is much easier now that I am teaching students who are more easily motivated—but sometimes I see those lost boys (and girls) strutting past our school toward Henry Clay MS or Washington HS and I wish someone was doing more for them. And I’m afraid that once our beautiful new building is up, there will be even less chance of us ever helping anyone like that again.

By the fall of 2004, the beginning of the school year we were told would be our school’s last—about half the teachers who had been my mostly crazy and idealistic colleagues when I came to Middle College were gone. Burn-out, career ambition, retirement.

Most were replaced, at least for a while, by what Charlap [my English-teaching colleague] called, “Short-timers.” Longterm sub wouldbe actors and musicians, deadbeats and revolutionaries or just regular teachers unable to put up with the disorder and intenseness of working in a small school with no buffer between us and the students.

Battersbee herself had retired in 2002 and some of us had wondered then what would become of our school. Her replacement, Pam Jackson had seemed, at first, determined to whip us into shape—but seemed almost immediately to appreciate what we’d been doing and became our strongest ally. She organized things and figured out ways to get us in compliance with the education code we’d for so long been ignoring, but she did it in a way that didn’t intrude on our free-wheeling style. She found filled the gaps in our staff with teachers who mostly fit in with all us passionate misfits and brought stability to the faculty. She used to tell us that Middle College was the best place anyone could ever work and most of us agreed with her. She used to say that when she was really old that this was the place she was going to, in her senile delirium, insist she needed to go.

Still, in the fall of 2004 she was philosophical about our impending demise. She had been a student, a teacher, and an administrator in the LA Unified School District for most of her life and understood the political concrete of this bureaucracy—and of the LA Community College District, which had once been part of LAUSD.

She did, however, enroll the largest freshman class in our school’s history—nearly 120 of them (to replace only about 80 graduating seniors)—in the fall of 2004. She told some of us, in private, that if the school districts intended to shut us down, she wanted to make it as difficult as possible for them.

I remember, in mid-September, when she confirmed all the rumors and told all those 9th graders that they and their parents needed to start thinking about another school for next year. Some of the kids seemed not to be able to get their minds around it—they couldn’t think that far ahead—while others looked visibly scared. Some cursed aloud to express their anger and Ms. Jackson told them they should be angry and that they could direct their anger at her but that they needed to continue to work hard and have a good school year no matter what happened. One girl checked out of the school the next day and enrolled at Washington High School a few blocks away. She returned a day after that, begging Jackson to let her back in. Later, the girl described to me classes in disarray and a lunchtime food fight that had left her and others covered in macaroni and cheese.

A few days after that, a former student from the early 90s approached me with his nephew who his family was desperate to get into our school after he’d been repeatedly beaten, robbed, and threatened at his neighborhood high school. This happened at least once every year and Pam was almost always sympathetic. This year we had to caution the boy and his family that we could not offer him more than one year.

But mostly we all went about our business and the ticking clock became white noise while we all but forgot that we were now all short-timers.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Spot

I‘m not sure whether this photo was taken my first day at MCHS but I’m pretty sure it was my first week. A lot of these guys had a rough road but I hear from a few and they still remember all the fun we had inventing a basketball team out of nothing.

A few years after that picture was taken, the backboards and their poles were uprooted and the yard filled up with old equipment and furniture and other trash. We called it the “bone yard,” and occasionally found treasures we could recycle for our classrooms. Years later the refuse was cleared from that spot and a shipping and receiving dock was built there. Now that structure has been demolished to make way for our new school building.

I paid some serious dues my months at MCHS.

Those overpopulated classes were like teaching in a crowded elevator. They wore me out. I knew I wasn’t reaching everyone and it weighed on me. I tried to keep them all busy and on task. I gave out jobs—writing discussion notes on the board, passing out this, collecting that, looking up words, I even assigned one boy to perform sound effects if we read a story aloud. When, toward the end of one short story we were reading, a car exploded, my sound-effects master detonated a firecracker.

My room became a lunchtime hangout, and then I never had a break from the kids—from their noise, their hysteria, and their profane bravado—but it was what I needed, to be immersed in the energy of the kids. Those chaotic lunches provided teaching opportunities. Students encircled my desk and we would talk—and they would listen much better than during class, and I began to believe that I could do more teaching in these informal moments, once the charade of a class no longer bound me or my students. I broke up fights by hurling my body between the slugging students and miraculously never got seriously hurt. It was the thing I did best, and I had a lot of practice—probably because I never reported the fights and thus the kids knew they could do battle in my room with impunity. Sometimes I had to chase after a boy to talk him out of “dropping a dime,” calling “the homies” in order to carry out some vengeance for an offense no one would probably ever remember. I should have reported anyone who threatened to make such a call but I believed so strongly in the underlying goodness of these kids that I just wasn’t willing to give up on anyone, even if it meant risking my safety, my credential, and the lives of a lot of people I had no business risking. Thank God nothing ever happened because of my recklessness.

It almost did. One day a huge fight involving six guys wound up in my room. It had started outside and then moved like a hurricane through several other rooms before bursting through the door of mine as if into a safe house. Before I could intervene a police officer charged in and grabbed one of the combatants. The young man struggled and the cop put him in a choke hold. The students in my class that period, already terrified —though also exhilarated—watched in horror as one of their peers fought against the night stick at his throat. I pleaded with the officer to let go, to ease up, but he seemed, like the student, to be caught in an adrenal trance. I yelled at the young man to stop, to relax, but that seemed impossible. I leaned up to his ear and in an irrational but inspired moment, whispered to him:

“We love you, man. Everybody loves you.”

I hardly knew him, just from those ragged basketball practices. But those simple words from a virtual stranger meant something to him in that moment. He stopped fighting—and the officer stopped trying to kill him.

Battersbee had a zero-tolerance policy about fighting and so all six of those boys were kicked out of the school. One of them died of AIDS a few years later. Another went to jail a few weeks later. The day after that Roger Butcher and I drove to his grandmother’s house to retrieve the basketball uniform we’d issued him for our upcoming season. Someone fired a gun somewhere behind us as we stood on his porch. We didn’t think it was at us. We stood there together and smiled at each other stupidly while the grandmother looked through her linen closet.

The boy who was almost choked to death—I’ll call him Brian Thomas (not his real name)—was exiled to a continuation school but told he could come back at the end of the semester if he’d exhibited good behavior. There was no other safe high school for him. He’d severed his gang affiliation and now Crips and Bloods alike considered him an enemy.

I let him continue to practice with the basketball team, even though he no longer attended our school. It was the only thing that mattered to him. He had been the one who’d organized the team, who’d gotten all the other boys to agree to practice together and had then badgered Mr. Butcher to be their coach. After practice one day, Brian got in another fight and knocked a teammate down. I helped cover that up. I was so impressed with Brian’s courage—to me he was such a magnificent exemplar for having defected from the cycle of gang violence that in one way or another plagued virtually every student at our school. What did a few post-gang punches matter? He didn’t seem to know how else to respond to conflict. Someone had to teach him. I didn’t know how to do that. I just knew I wanted him to have the chance. And if, in the meantime, he killed someone, (he had been convicted of murder when he was eleven), then the blood would be on my hands.

For those of you waiting for me to get through all this history and tell the story of how we saved the school, I’m almost there—I think. But it is important to note that 2005 was not the first time MCHS was nearly closed. That first semester, in the fall of 1992, LA Southwest College informed us that they would be demolishing the old bungalows that housed our school. The rumor spread wildly throughout the school and students bolted from classrooms as if from a bomb scare. Kids were crying in the office. We tried to reassure them but no ne of had much faith in our future. Soon the turmoil of our students’ lives eclipsed the crisis of our school, which was all but forgotten. And then somehow the college forgot to demolish the bungalows—or just changed their minds and forgot to tell us.