Enriched Studies School Gets A’s for No-Nonsense Ways


As a fourth-grader, Melissa Kaplan was studying Spanish with high school students. Now, in 10th grade, Kaplan has finished four years of that language and is working on her fourth year of French.

But this is not the story of a prodigious youth. At one public school in the San Fernando Valley, such academic achievements are commonplace.

The Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, or SOCES, one of 87 “magnet” programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District, prides itself on a no-nonsense approach to education. Providing classes in grades 4 through 12, SOCES has one of the lowest dropout rates in the city, higher-than-average test scores and virtually no gang or drug problems. There is a list of 2,000 students waiting to enroll there.


Teaching Values

But the peaceful atmosphere at SOCES is not just a result of academic discipline: Teachers, administrators, parents and students alike attribute it to the values curriculum consisting of 25 morality units developed by the staff. These are incorporated into each grade’s curriculum in homeroom and social studies classes. Units cover such topics as honesty, integrity and responsibility for cleanliness on the school grounds.

Magnet schools were created to enhance racial integration, and the student population of each campus must be 60% or more Hispanic, black or Asian. Most students at magnet schools are bused from other parts of the city.

To attract youths from distant neighborhoods, the magnet schools offer specialized programs. Each campus focuses on a particular area of study, such as science, mathematics or the arts, or emphasizes a particular educational philosophy.

“Parents choose this school for various reasons,” said SOCES Principal Eli Brent, 62. Some parents, he said, are unhappy with their neighborhood school. “Some parents want an integrative education.”

Founded in 1978

The center was founded in 1978. In 1980, it moved to Reseda but retained “Sherman Oaks” in its name. The center’s 1,625 students are bused in from 330 schools. Students enter SOCES by way of a complex “lottery” based on a variety of factors: Did the student graduate from an elementary magnet program? Does he or she come from an overcrowded or predominantly minority neighborhood school? Has the student been on the waiting list a year or longer?

The center differs from most public schools in several ways. As in Kaplan’s case, students are placed in mixed-age groups based on their ability. Some classes include fourth- through sixth-grade students; others have seventh- through ninth-graders.

Another innovation is double periods. On Monday, students attend a standard schedule of six 52-minute classes. The remainder of the week, however, is divided into Tuesday-Thursday and Wednesday-Friday classes that meet for an hour and 45 minutes each.

The advantage of such a schedule, Brent said, is that it gives the teacher more time to spend with each student.

Special Seating

To increase student participation, seating in most classrooms is divided into halves, each half facing the center of the room. A class in study skills and one in art and music appreciation are required for every student. And, SOCES maintains a norm of 29.5 students per class instead of a norm of 34 or 35 found at other schools, Brent said.

Extracurricular activities, most of which are held at lunchtime, are a major focus at the school. Brent said: “Every student can be a big frog in a small pond. In a normal school, you’re competing for all these spots. You’re not, here. If our chorus is too large, we assign another teacher. If our tennis team is too large, we break it off and make another one.”

Although SOCES offers a range of the usual after-school activities, late bus service is not convenient for everyone.

“Unless they change the late bus route, I told my son he won’t be able to participate in sports this year,” said Beatrice Paniagua, a self-employed housekeeper whose 16-year-old son is bused to SOCES from Echo Park.

“We have a very difficult time keeping students after school for football games and social events,” said Paul Kaplan, SOCES’ advisory council chairman and the father of three high-school-age daughters.

Working at Academics

The school tries to make up for its lack of athletics and activities by working harder at academics, said Stephanie Gross, 15, a cheerleader in her 7th year at SOCES. The teachers, she said, spend extra time with students who are having difficulties.

“People here pay more attention to you; they work with you more,” Gross said. “They give up their lunchtimes.”

Said Nicole Perry, 15, the student body vice president, “It’s family-oriented.”

Away from school, SOCES students bear a heavy load of homework. Those who need tutoring are helped by older students during lunch.

All of this appears to be producing results:

* Last year, SOCES’ seventh-graders scored in the 62nd percentile on the math section of the California Test of Basic Skills. The district average fell in the 45th percentile. Twelfth-grade reading scores at SOCES were in the 62nd percentile, compared to the district’s 37th percentile average. Graduates of the Reseda school have gone on to Vassar, Radcliffe, Johns Hopkins and other top schools.

* “Center Source,” SOCES’s school newspaper, has for the last two years won a National Scholastic Press award and was rated first class by the Columbia Scholastic Press in 1987. Diane Honda, journalism instructor and yearbook adviser, said the newspaper class won a spot news writing competition at a state championship.

* SOCES’ dropout rate, according to the school district, was less than 3% for the ninth- through 12th-grade population of 340 students. This compares to neighboring Taft High School’s rate of 8.49% with 2,379 students, and Birmingham High School’s rate of 6.79% with 2,371 students. The districtwide average is 14.46%.

Equal doses of discipline are mixed with the spirit of learning. Strict rules are a priority with Brent, who took over at SOCES in 1979 after working at an inner-city school.

“The nice thing about having fourth- through 12th-graders,” Brent said, “is that if a 12th-grader wants to smoke in the bathroom, a fourth-grader’s going to tell on him. We joke about that here.”

Simple Rule

The rule concerning drugs on campus is simple: If a student is caught, he will be turned over to the police, Brent said. And the principal recently decided that the wearing of hats was counterproductive to learning.

“So we outlawed hats, and we thought we’d get a hue and cry,” he said. “Not a word. Everybody accepted it.”

According to Sandy Hendricks, juvenile coordinator for the Los Angeles Police Department’s West Valley detectives, gangs and violence are less a problem at SOCES than at other schools.

Again, school officials say, it all comes down to working harder at teaching.

“The school creates an environment where there is a tremendous amount of pride in student achievement,” said Kathryn Lee, a superintendent in the school district.

“You’re not a number at SOCES,” said Gross, the student. “You don’t fall through the cracks.”