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.
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 both—devise 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 all—teachers, students, administrators, support staff, instructional materials and equipment—throughout 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 school—an 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 are—the 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.
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.