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Why Go to Fairfax High?

February 07, 1998|PENNY ATKINSON HORSTMAN | Penny Atkinson Horstman is a teacher in North Hollywood

As part of the 1998 Los Angeles dialogue on race relations, I'd like to deal with a question that my husband and I are often asked: "Why do you send your kids to Fairfax High?" My question back is: "Why won't you send your kids there?"

Is this a racial issue? After all, the American dream is about getting a good job, moving into a nice neighborhood and sending your kids to great schools--the kind of schools with strong test scores, winning sports teams, active parents and numerous clubs, activities and enrichment programs. Often, that means a white school. My husband and I are products of that American dream, growing up in suburbia with wonderful memories of school dances, pep rallies, night football games, a school newspaper and all the committees of kids who worked together to make these events happen.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream also. We were affected greatly by his message in our college years. Along with many of our generation, we dreamed of a world where race was no longer a divisive factor. We vowed to support public schools and never send our children to private--or equally elitist--suburban white schools. Fairfax High has given us the chance to keep that vow.

At one time, Fairfax High's student population was overwhelmingly Jewish and the school had an excellent academic standing in the city. Certainly, we knew our neighborhood was predominantly Jewish when we bought our house in 1974, and we enjoyed our status as the "different" family on the block.

By 1986, when our first child started Fairfax High, we found the school to be a natural urban mix of races and languages. Our son walked to school with several friends from his childhood, played on the baseball team and made new friends of all colors and nationalities.

Five years later, our second child started Fairfax. By this time, the neighbor kids had found other schools to attend. Magnet schools were a big factor in the sudden drop of neighborhood attendance. But what sent them on those long bus rides? I wanted to blame it on racism, but magnet schools, by definition, must be racially balanced--that can mean no less than 30% white. In a school district that is 12% white overall, a magnet school can look like white suburbia.

Fairfax lost large numbers of its white population and several of its top teachers to magnet schools.

By the time our third child started Fairfax, the school also had lost many of the activities we expect to see in a high school. There was no band or orchestra, no chorus, no drill team or half-time shows at football games, no newspaper, no musical productions. There was only one school dance all year. The football and baseball programs were weakened. The audiences at drama productions and sporting events were almost nonexistent. Test scores had hit an all-time low.

Why had all the activities suffered? Were the children attending Fairfax now somehow different, kids who didn't like sports, dances? Or were they too poor to stay after school? Or did the district and administration give up when the active, educated, middle-class parents took their children elsewhere?

We agonized over the right thing to do: Send our third child to Fairfax or to a nearby magnet school with more going for it? Our older children were polled and their answers were enthusiastic votes for Fairfax High. Both felt their academic preparation for college (UC Riverside and UC Davis) was excellent and their multiethnic experiences and friendships were infinitely richer than those of their college friends.

Today, Fairfax is 46% Latino, 21% black, 12% Asian, 2% Filipino and 19% other/white. The white population consists mainly of immigrants from Russia and Israel, and language can be more of a barrier than race. This third child of ours has found many new friends and groups to take part in. The current administration has reinstituted a small band and chorus and other improvements. Proposition BB is helping restore the buildings and landscaping. A new independent parent group has been formed and raises money for programs that cannot support themselves.

There is this wonderful, rich diversity socially and now this feeling of renewal in the school. So, neighbors, come and look at Fairfax High. Why don't you send your kids there?

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