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Teen Film Students Caught in Freeze Frame

Attempts to revive a popular program at Jefferson High are hitting bureaucratic obstacles.

August 19, 2004|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Seventy-four students at a specialized film academy at Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles find themselves caught in a bureaucratic battle that has put their innovative program in jeopardy.

Their struggle illustrates a long-standing tension within the Los Angeles Unified School District between some teachers and administrators trying to offer inventive, academically rigorous programs and others who believe that programs for small groups of talented students come at the expense of their classmates.

For the students, however, such arguments -- as well as the complexities of school budgets and calendars -- count for little next to the reality that a program they were looking forward to may be about to disappear. "They say it's about the students, but they don't really care about what we want," said senior Dolores Lopez, who wants to keep the Academy of Film and Theater Arts at Jefferson.

The academy was created in 1996 by Steve Bachrach, a film teacher at Jefferson. Working out of a room equipped with old-fashioned klieg lights and a bank of iMacs, students, all of whom are minorities, have written, edited and produced films based on their lives. They also took regular classes.

The program won enough attention that students were invited to screen their documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival and participate in workshops at the Telluride festival. But Bachrach left Jefferson in 2001 to pursue a screenwriting career and run an after-school center in Mexico. In his absence, the film program largely deteriorated.

Last September, Norm Morrow, Jefferson's principal, asked Bachrach to return on a part-time basis. Bachrach started teaching after-school film classes, and with Morrow's cooperation began making plans to restart the academy at the year-round school.

Meanwhile, the district had embraced the concept of creating smaller learning communities within big high schools. Bachrach said he hoped that the academy would serve as a model. He began designing a program for the 2004-05 school year.

"I don't labor under the illusion that everyone's going to go into film," he said. "But the promise of small learning communities is that they turn kids on.... It makes learning more fun."

Bachrach's plan would have required tinkering with the school's multi-track calendar. Currently, the students are on the district's C-track, which has them in school much of the summer, with time off in October and April. Bachrach wanted them shifted to the A-track, which provides a traditional summer break and would better accommodate internships and class-related projects, he said.

In late June, Bachrach and Morrow met with local district Supt. Rowena Lagrosa, who gave them at least a tentative green light -- but later backtracked, all sides say. The details of that decision process are in dispute.

Lagrosa recalled: "Steve and Norm came to see me, and asked for my blessing about implementing the academy. I said, 'This looks good. But I don't have the time yet.' " Lagrosa said she was distracted by planning for a reorganization of the district's administrative system.

Morrow and Bachrach both said they left the meeting assured that the program had been approved. They told the students that the district would transfer them from C-track to A-track. But Morrow and Bachrach asked students to start school in July as a precaution.

Some students put summer jobs or classes on hold to keep their part of the deal.

"We were all excited," said Mireya Landa, 16. "But from then on, instead of getting better, things got worse. We thought they'd be happy, proud of us. But instead, it went the other way."

Lagrosa said that after she examined the program more thoroughly, she realized she had made a mistake. The school had been collecting state funding and making staffing decisions based on the students' participation in the C-track. Once the district started receiving that money, the students couldn't transfer tracks, she said.

Other teachers and district officials charge that Bachrach cherry-picked his students. The film academy has too many of the school's highest-achieving students, they say. They question whether the academy would create a privileged learning experience for a few.

"I'm not saying they did anything wrong," said Larry Tash, director of small school learning communities for Los Angeles Unified. But Tash said the school hasn't done enough to include other students who might benefit from the film program.

"If some families don't take the initiative, then maybe for the good of those kids, the school will have to step in," he said.

Laurie Fidler, the chairwoman of Jefferson's arts department and the representative for the school's teachers union, echoed that concern.

"When you create an atmosphere of haves and have-nots, it's really a detriment to the entire school," she said.

Bachrach contends that enrollment was open to all students and said his research has shown that it is possible to switch the students from one track to another, even now.

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