Iris, who hopes to stay at Waverly through high school, appreciates the well-tended private campus and the fact that she is doing better academically than she did at her local public elementary school. "I'm very happy," the fifth-grader said. "It's a nice school for me."
Laurie Owyang, a friend of Helle, also concluded that the local public middle school would not do for her daughter after a neighbor visited the campus and declared: "I'd rather have you poke a stake through my eye than send my kids there."
The school that Helle and Owyang rejected is Thomas Starr King Middle School, which, like many other urban counterparts, has a long list of challenges--from overcrowding to graffiti to the vexing tendency of a few students to clog sinks and toilets each day with paper towels and soda bottles.
Years ago, the school's irrigation system broke, and most vegetation died. Although neighborhood gardening groups have replanted some areas, a large dust bowl remains in the center of campus.
Built for 900 students, the facility is now desperately taxed with 2,200. At lunchtime, they converge on the common outdoor areas, most lining up for federally subsidized meals. A beefy Los Angeles Unified police officer stands guard throughout the day.
The school ranked a lackluster 3 (out of 10) in California's first Academic Performance Index, not surprising given that half the students are not yet fluent in English and that the scores of hundreds of special education students are included.
Parents put off by the school's appearance might be reassured if they ventured into classrooms. Computer labs are stocked with shiny new iMacs; 85% of King's computers have Internet access. The school offers advanced studies programs for high achievers. Principal Thelma Yoshii has also applied to start a computer science magnet at the school.
Yoshii and parent activist Mary Rodriguez, who has waged a lonely campaign to improve the school's appearance, eagerly await the summer, when the school is slated to be painted inside and out. Meanwhile, custodians battle daily against graffiti, although Yoshii maintains that gang activity is not a problem on campus.
This double-barreled push to improve cosmetics and academics, Yoshii and Rodriguez hope, will lure middle-income parents from Los Feliz and Silver Lake who otherwise would look elsewhere.
As is the case throughout Los Angeles Unified, about 70% of King's students are Latinos. The 15% who are white are mostly of Armenian descent. The rest are Asian, Filipino and African American. All told, they represent 40 countries and 30 languages--a microcosm of the Los Angeles in which many of these students will have to function as adults.
"I think it's really important for kids to be able to work with a variety of cultures and socioeconomic levels," Yoshii said. "That [opportunity] is free here."
Michael Bancroft, a sixth-grader in King's advanced studies program, gives the school a thumbs-up on multiculturalism and other counts.
"I like the teachers, and I like most of the kids," he said. "It's fun and challenging."
Former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), a passionate backer of public education, also values the diversity of the region's schools. Still, he expects to send his namesake son to a private or parochial campus.
"We moved to Mount Washington precisely because it was a great neighborhood with a great public school," said Villaraigosa.
But Antonio Jr. is now a fifth-grader at that school, Mount Washington Elementary, and nearby Irving and Nightingale middle schools do not pass his father's muster. The schools earned low statewide API rankings of 2 and 1, respectively.
Reform Program Launched in '80s
Gordon Wohlers, assistant superintendent for policy research and development at Los Angeles Unified, acknowledged that most middle schools in the district do not measure up when judged strictly by academics. In the API, based on Stanford 9 test scores, 58 of 72 Los Angeles middle schools had scores deemed "unacceptably low."
But in communities as varied as Glendale, Inglewood, Pasadena and Long Beach, as well as Los Angeles, academic performance tumbles sharply in the middle grades.
Educators have struggled for years to solve the problem of mediocrity in urban middle schools.
California launched a broad reform program in the late 1980s. The catalyst was "Caught in the Middle," a task force report indicating that many of the state's schools were guilty of boring students with poor textbooks and unchallenging instruction. Many institutions also failed to provide appropriate counseling to address the physical and emotional needs of young adolescents.
The report advocated abandoning "junior high schools" with grades seven and eight or seven, eight and nine in favor of "middle schools" encompassing grades six, seven and eight.