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A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 1: The School : The Cutting Edge Divides a Campus

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

Northridge Middle School is flanked on the north by large, two-story shingled houses with wood and brick facades and big yards. These are the comfortable suburban houses where the Anglo students lived who went there a generation ago.

They were the children of aerospace workers and movie industry people.

Now, the students come from the square stucco apartment buildings that line up to the south and west of the campus like military barracks. The alleys behind the buildings are so dangerous that campus aide Kenny Jan says even the police don't like going in there. A former student shot himself in the head back there early in the school year, Jan said. It was especially bad because he thought he had persuaded the kid to stay away from the gangs.

The boy, whose name was David Espinosa, told Kenny that he was going out to celebrate that night because he had been out of the gang life for two years. "Fine, but you've got a long way to go," Kenny told the 16-year-old.

The school population was once overwhelmingly Anglo, but is now 82% minority, qualifying Northridge as a PHBAO school, which means Primarily Hispanic, Black, Asian and Other. Because of this, the school gets extra money to hire enough teachers to reduce the class size by three students.

The campus covers 27 acres and is bisected by a small road where the special education students catch their buses in the afternoon, and on which some of the other students used to hitch rides, clinging onto the rear bumpers, until the campus aides started escorting the buses off campus.

Walking behind the buses, walkie-talkies in hand, the security aides--who call themselves "noon goons"--look a little like Secret Service agents escorting the President's limousine.

South of the road is a wide, grassy area where the athletic fields are laid out, side by side, and on which the lunchtime leagues compete each afternoon. Gloveless boys dive after batted balls as other students sit watching, in the dented and listing three-tiered grandstands, or holding hands, their eyes bright and their palms sweaty with the thrill of first love.

Farthest away from Principal Beryl Ward's office in both distance and philosophy, the gymnasium is the domain of five teachers cut from classic phys ed terry cloth. On one side are the men, Tom Parker, Dan Witt and Don Betts, whose Army discharge certificate is taped to his office wall. They are unrepentant jocks who lament the passage of time that has taken from them the students who stood obediently in line to practice their jumping jacks and never cursed their teachers.

Now, they groan, they have to put up with a principal who thinks they are a bunch of Ben-Gay-soaked dinosaurs and sends them literature reminding them how out of touch they are with modern education.

"Competition is to self-esteem what sugar is to tooth decay," was the message in one.

On the other side are the women in visors and sweat suits, Marilyn Hayes and Becky Galdos, who are proud of the fact that theirs is the only department on campus whose performance exceeds the district average.

They demand a lot, they say, because life is hard and coddling the kids the way the principal would like will only set them up for a lifetime on welfare. Each Friday, their girls run the mile and the day that several of the runners collapsed and one threw up brought the teachers eyeball to eyeball with the principal, helping to touch off what came to be known around campus as "the Ovarian Wars."

On the north side of the road are the classrooms, several wings of low, earth-tone buildings divided into two sections by a central lawn with a small, raised stage. The harsh rattling of crows gathered in the ash trees to scavenge discarded bags of potato chips and popcorn after lunch accompanies the students as they run from one class to another, the boys holding onto their size-46 pants to keep them from falling down.

The classrooms east of the stage are reserved mostly for the eighth-graders, and it is on this side that the hard-core insurrectionists who oppose the principal's policies, which are aimed at making school more fun, pray daily for her removal.

The most rabid of these is Ronn Yablun in Room 133, a math teacher with a boyish, almost doll-like face and the soul of a palace plotter. Yablun wears a button that reads "Piss Me Off, Pay the Consequences." It doesn't take much, judging from the stack of grievances that he has filed against the principal. As soon as the new teachers' contract was signed, imposing a 10% pay cut on teachers in exchange for doing away with administrative privileges, Yablun immediately demanded a key to the gated parking lot where the administrators parked next to the cafeteria.

"Your immediate attention to this matter will be greatly appreciated," he wrote to Ward, and sent a copy to teachers union President Helen Bernstein.

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