L.A. Middle Schools Fall Below Education Standards

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L.A. County middle schools are leaving its students behind. That's the message behind a study released today by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: The study found that school alienates and bores many sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Adults are partly to blame, the research suggests. Almost three-fourths of the seventh graders polled said they didn't feel as if any adult on campus cared significantly about them. Blanca Dueñas said this is what her two oldest boys kept telling her.

[Blanca Dueñas speaking in Spanish]

Guzman-Lopez: Dueñas sobbed as she recalled how her sons dropped out of Roosevelt High School. She gets emotional, she said, because she'd imagined a better future for them. The United Way of Greater Los Angeles invited Dueñas, other parents, educators, and school activists to the downtown L.A. release of its middle school report.

Other findings in the 98 page study: half of L.A. County's middle schools are overcrowded, with 2,100 students on average. Almost half the students don't feel safe at school because of peer bullying. And more than one in ten seventh graders polled said they'd brought a weapon onto campus at least once. Bill Younglove taught for 35 years at Long Beach Unified. He said he can vouch for that finding.

Bill Younglove: I think I've seen it all. If you ask most parents what's the number– or guardians– what's the number one thing you want for your child, they'll say safety. And, I'm sorry, but I have taught in schools that are unsafe. It's a fact, and until we can make headway with that kind of thing, just minimally, you know, we really are treading water.

Guzman-Lopez: Most people who attended the United Way event said school districts need to focus the same energy on middle school reform as they have on elementary and high school improvements. One of the United Way researchers recommended doing away with middle schools. Kindergarten through eighth grade campuses, the researcher argued, would be better suited to handle young teens' emotional and physical changes.

Pasadena Unified's middle school reform is bold, but it doesn't go that far. Felicity Swerdlow supervises Pasadena's middle and high school campuses. She said that, come autumn, middle schoolers will attend four 90 minute classes a day, instead of six one hour periods. That will allow more time to concentrate on English and math. The school district, Swerdlow added, also wants to kick up student enthusiasm a notch or two.

Felicity Swerdlow: Teachers need to be involved; parents need to be involved. It needs to be a place that is nice, and welcoming, and warm, and friendly, and fun. I can't say enough how our middle schools need to be fun for our kids, as well.

Guzman-Lopez: The United Way recommends raising academic expectations, intervening early when students stumble, and creating smaller campuses to nurture kids during a challenging transition in their lives.

Those are great ideas, some in attendance said. The next challenge, they concluded: making sure the study doesn't gather dust on a library shelf.