Take a casual look at the latest Newsweek and you may be surprised to see that California's No. 1 ranked high school is not in the shadow of Stanford or UC Berkeley, but a little down the road from Valley College.
North Hollywood High School is, by one measure, the state's premier school for academics, beating Palo Alto's Gunn, and No. 11 in the nation. So says an index created by veteran education writer Jay Mathews that heavily weighs student performance on Advanced Placement tests. Last year, in fact, NoHo's highly gifted magnet program produced four of the country's top 10 AP students. Meanwhile, two other Los Angeles Unified School District schools also made the AP top 100--the midtown L.A. Center for Enriched Studies (47th) and Van Nuys High (70th).
All of this is more good news for a school district better known for failure than success. El Camino Real High of Woodland Hills didn't make Mathews' list, but last week it won its third straight California Academic Decathlon. Perhaps more heartening still was the strong showing by Garfield High and Belmont High, schools from much poorer neighborhoods.
Add 'em up and maybe that makes six doses of good news.
Now here's to the hope these aren't just the public relations equivalent of Prozac.
David Tokofsky, member of the dysfunctional board that runs the dysfunctional school district, likes to describe the district's troubles in psychological terms.
"There are places that succeed, places that revive the spirit," he says, referring to the recent academic success stories. "But the school system, as an institution, can't get any lower. The system is in a state of deep depression."
Tokofsky, of all board members, seems the best-qualified to comment on these bright flares of hope amid the gloom and doom of the nation's second-largest school district. He first made news in 1987 as the Marshall High teacher who coached a team of 12 students to the national title in the Academic Decathlon, the first LAUSD school to take the honor. In 1990, he coached another Marshall squad to the national mock trial championship.
These laurels helped Tokofsky win election to the board in 1995, representing an area that stretches from Sylmar and San Fernando to East L.A. and Monterey Park, while taking a pay cut to $24,000 a year. Being on the Board of Education has been, it seems, an education.
Early on, he learned something of the board's bunker mentality. Tokofsky says that when he was quoted in newspaper articles criticizing LAUSD practices, then-board president Mark Slavkin would send a copy of the story with word "district" in his quote circled, and an arrow pointing to a telling note: "David-- We are the district."
Tokofsky seems to prefer the role of maverick, agitating for change within the bureaucracy and via the press. He is criticized for not being able to build coalitions on the board. Then again, Tokofsky says his three years in office have taught him that, as critics have long claimed, the bureaucrats actually wield more power than the board. And this, he suggests, may be one of the many sources of the district's depression.
"A psychologist will tell you a lot of depression is anger turned inward," Tokofsky says. "And the people whose mission it is to change the system are angry too."
And so Tokofsky figures that Los Angeles is left to contemplate four metaphorical options: "Prozac," "suicide," "electroshock treatment" and "a 12-step program."
The hyping of North Hollywood and El Camino Real and other academic achievements, he suggests, works a little like Prozac. What is a wonderful achievement for the students and teachers responsible for the success may, unfortunately, promote an irrational mood of "Don't worry; be happy."
Busting up the massive LAUSD into smaller districts, Tokofsky, says, is a form of suicide that would not solve classroom problems. Breakup advocates, he adds, overlook the fact that, in a single generation, California as a whole, not just Los Angeles, has dropped from the nation's top tier in terms of student funding and performance to the lowest tier. Sacramento would still control the purse strings whether there is one district or five. Such a division would be complex, contentious and painful--and may not "get to the core problems," Tokofsky says.
Electroshock treatment, in Tokofsky's construct, has been provided by Mayor Richard Riordan with his declarations of "revolution." Riordan's bold rhetoric may shake up the board and the bureaucrats. The problem is, Tokofsky says, the mayor has yet to describe just what he means by revolution. As John Lennon put it: We'd all love to see the plan.