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A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Hard Lessons : A Year of Conflict and Hope at a Middle School Struggling With Reform

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

Grandfatherly Chic Greenberg got more than he bargained for when he took the stage at Northridge Middle School to whip up a little school spirit for a campus candy sale. "Let's hear some applause for your teachers!" said Greenberg, a Van Nuys fund-raising expert. The auditorium erupted in boos and hisses. Teachers patrolling the aisles glanced at each other nervously, like animal trainers with lions that no longer fear the whip. "If you came to school and there were no teachers, you wouldn't appreciate that, would you?"

"Yes!" they screamed.

"He's lost the audience," muttered counselor Richard Dunner. "You can't lecture to these kids."

Dunner strode back and forth, his walkie-talkie bouncing on the belt of his baggy jeans like a weapon, and ran a hand through his thinning brown har. The students were getting so hostile they booed the prizes being awarded for selling the most candy.

Finally, Dunner leaped on stage, grabbed the mike from Greenberg and called a group of boys up for an impromptu bare legs contest. The girls whistled wildly.

Next, he brought up two cheerleaders, who did a bump-and-grind to a cheer that included the line "Come and get some."

"Good old Rich," said a relieved teacher.

Outside, Greenberg was not disappointed that his message had fallen on deaf ears. "They were above average," he said of the students. In some schools, he said, "they throw things at you from the audience."

Public school 1993.

It's a far cry from when students sat quietly at their desks and listened to their teachers lecture.

To learn how a modern-day public school works--and whether it works--amid the pressures of gangs, crumbling families and fiscal crises, a Times reporter-photographer team spent several months of the 1992-1993 school year on the campus of Northridge Middle School.

It was a pivotal year at Northridge.

When The Times proposed the story to the district, officials selected Northridge, considered to be a model school. "A pilot ship," is how one administrator characterized it.

The school was scrapping the old "sage on a stage" model, where teachers stood at the chalkboard and lectured, in favor of a nurturing, child-centered approach to education, stressing team-learning concepts in which students worked on lessons together.

But the district had no way of knowing how tumultuous the year would be as some Northridge teachers stiffened their resistance to reforms that brought classes in baseball card collecting and movie watching into the curriculum. Or how angry teachers would become as they tried to cope with a 10% pay cut.

On top of this, the influx of children with learning problems continued unabated. Almost half the students were classified as limited English-speaking.

And yet, despite the problems,the school continued to function.

There were small heroisms daily. The teachers who spent their own money on Christmas presents for the kids. The women of the Parent Teacher Student Assn. who no longer have children in school but continued to volunteer their time because they were needed.

Many on campus get irritated when outsiders talk about schools failing. Schools, they say, are a reflection of society. In fact, they may be the best reflection there is.

Everyone passes through a school, from the children of poor migrant families to the sons and daughters of business leaders. There, they mix and roil and throw off sparks like society as a whole.

If schools are defraying, they say at Northridge, look in the mirror and take stock.

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