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LAUSD Tried To Make A New Middle School For WeHo. They Made A Mess Instead

Teachers, students and parents gather in front of Fairfax High School on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, for a protest against an L.A. Unified School District proposal to 'co-locate' a new middle school aimed at enrolling students from West Hollywood. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

It's a well-known phenomenon: many parents perfectly happy to send their kids to a Los Angeles Unified elementary school are often hesitant to enroll them in an LAUSD middle school.

Take for example West Hollywood, where in 2018, nearly 20 percent of the area's elementary students left LAUSD for a charter or private middle school — a "leak" in the student pipeline that adds to a chronic enrollment drain and costs the district money.

In hopes of plugging this leak, LAUSD had been pushing to open a new middle school dedicated to West Hollywood kids that might lure some to remain in the district. Officials were hoping to win approval for their plan at the Dec. 3 school board meeting and open the new middle school next fall.

That was the idea, anyway. Instead, LAUSD's effort has turned into such a debacle that on Monday, district officials announced they would delay the school board vote until sometime "in the new year."

Late in the day on Dec. 20, just as LAUSD was about to close up for its winter break, the district superintendent for the area sent an email to principals and some West Hollywood community members saying the plan to open the school would be tabled pending further feedback.

"Based on the feedback received, we have decided to postpone a request for Board action to approve opening a new middle school for the 2020-21 school year," wrote Cheryl Hildreth, superintendent of LAUSD Local District West. "Over the next few months, we will be engaging all stakeholders in the discussion about strong middle school options, including existing schools and the potential location of a new program."

WHY OPPOSITION HAS BEEN SO FIERCE

At the heart of the blowback the district's proposal has caused — at least outside of West Hollywood — is opponents' belief that LAUSD is catering to a privileged few from the tiny municipality, to the potential detriment of students from surrounding neighborhoods.

The proposed new middle school would draw from six WeHo and Hollywood elementaries, where 52 percent of students are white. District officials' plans call for opening the middle school — not a charter school, they say, but an LAUSD-run school with a unionized teaching force — on the campus of Fairfax High School, where more than 70 percent of students are black or Latino.

Retired teacher Alan Warhaftig likened the proposed "West Hollywood-Fairfax Academy Middle School" to "gentrification."

"They're looking here to create a little enclave," said Warhaftig, who's also an alumnus of Fairfax High. "It's certainly not good for the children here at Fairfax."

Opponents say the middle school could take up classroom space that might've accommodated students from a new International Baccalaureate program that Fairfax teachers had hoped would reverse a dip in the school's enrollment.

'ALL THESE SCHOOLS THEY'VE INVITED ARE MOSTLY WHITE'

The new middle school would likely force Fairfax's fledgling Police Academy Magnet to move into less-desirable classrooms. It would also displace the Career and Transition Center West — a district-run special education program — from the high school's campus.

District officials acknowledged they hadn't yet found a new home for this special ed program. Cheryl Hildreth, an LAUSD regional administrator, said in an email to parents that a delay in the final school board vote would allow time to "ensure that we are able to provide an equal or better location and facility to best serve these students."

Adding to some opponents' frustration: most of the existing middle schools that serve West Hollywood — all majority non-white — have plenty of open seats.

"All these schools they've invited [to the proposed new middle school] are mostly white," said Aris Biegler, who chairs Fairfax High School's teachers union chapter. "We have middle schools in this neighborhood that are not full. There's space in those schools. If all of them went to middle school, we have space for them."

More than 100 teachers, students and parents gather in front of Fairfax High School on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, to protest an L.A. Unified School District proposal to 'co-locate' a new middle school aimed at enrolling students from West Hollywood. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

WHY THE DISTRICT WANTS AN ALL-NEW MIDDLE SCHOOL FOR WEHO

Nick Melvoin, the LAUSD board member who represents the area and a top supporter of the project, declined an interview request — but a district memo explains the thinking behind creating an entirely-new middle school: "to add an innovative and distinctly different school model to the middle school options that are currently offered."

Using a grant from the organization Great Public Schools Now, LAUSD hired Valerie Braimah, the leader of a local charter school, to help the district draw up a "unique approach" for the new middle school, promising "an intentionally diverse, equitable, and inclusive school" with "experiential collaborative learning" at its heart.

In emailed responses to opponents who criticized the project, Melvoin said he believed creating a new middle school was necessary to help "recapture" some of the students who were leaving the neighborhood for middle school, or leaving LAUSD altogether.

Doing so, Melvoin's email said, "would not jeopardize enrollment of the existing middle schools in the area."

'WE HAVEN'T BEEN ASKED'

West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tempore Lindsey Horvath said parents have been agitating for their own middle school since her first election in 2009. In 2010, the district did convert Laurel Elementary — just across the street from the WeHo city limits — into a "span school," serving kindergarten through eighth grades.

But even within West Hollywood, poor communication from the district about its plans for a dedicated middle school have left some stakeholders feeling shut out or angry.

Before settling on Fairfax as the chosen site, LAUSD officials floated Laurel Span School as the location for the new full-fledged middle school. But this news took parents at the school by surprise, Horvath said, because LAUSD had initially told Laurel parents they'd ruled their school out as a potential site.

In an interview with KPCC/LAist, Horvath did not take a position on the proposal to locate the school at Fairfax, but also said the district hasn't communicated with city leaders about what problems LAUSD is trying to solve with its proposed middle school.

"There have been rumors," Horvath said, "about whether the city could provide property or [that] the city hasn't been helpful. It's not that we haven't been helpful, we haven't been asked."

DOES THE MARKET FOR A NEW MIDDLE SCHOOL EXIST?

Opponents also question whether the proposal is a solution to the problem of "leakage" — students leaving LAUSD after elementary school for private or charter options. Jessie Nagel, the parent of a Fairfax ninth grader, wonders whether a new middle school would actually lure families back.

"We don't know what these families are saying," said Nagel. "Are they really interested? How many families are there?"

And while only a handful of students in West Hollywood schools choose to attend nearby LAUSD middle schools, the vast majority — more than three-quarters at the six affected elementaries — do continue in an LAUSD middle school elsewhere in the district, according to the district's own numbers.

"It doesn't really matter whether the fifth graders attend a middle school into which their elementary school feeds," wrote Warhaftig in an email, "as long as they find an LAUSD middle school program that meets their needs."

UPDATE, Dec. 20, 4:30 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect the announcement by a district official that the plan to ask the LAUSD board to consider opening a middle school at Fairfax High was dropped pending further feedback.