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Embattled Public Schools Get a Friend : Education: Some Mar Vista parents are anxious about sending their children to the local schools. Pearl Barak is trying to change that.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adam Barak was in for an unpleasant surprise when he showed up for the first day of kindergarten at Mar Vista Elementary School last fall. Not one of his neighborhood buddies was there.

Following the path of many Westsiders, the parents of Adam’s four playmates had rejected the neighborhood public school in favor of private schools.

“He was disappointed,” Adam’s mother, Pearl Barak, told a group of mothers gathered on the patio of her Mar Vista home one recent sunny morning. “I was disappointed and shocked.”

Thus a campaign was born. Since Adam found himself friendless at kindergarten, Pearl Barak has befriended the school. Acting unofficially as a private citizen, she has been beating the drum for the school by reaching out to newcomers to the area, many of whom have trepidations about sending their children to public school.

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“I feel like I’m being a public-relations person for the schools,” Barak said. “These days, public schools have to sell themselves.”

For Barak, that has meant arranging small meetings at her home so that parents can discuss the school, their concerns and, perhaps most important, get to know other parents who are agonizing over the same decision.

Castle Heights, Kenter Canyon and Canyon elementary schools also have made outreach efforts in the neighborhood.

Consuelo Garcia, principal at Mar Vista, said that while the school administration has no official role in the effort, she supports parent involvement because it “translates into excellence. . . . The bottom line is support for public education. By just leaving the system, nothing is going to happen.”

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According to the latest calculations of the Los Angeles County school board, nearly 100,000 students who live in Los Angeles are attending private schools.

Barak, herself a veteran teacher in the Las Virgenes district, was convinced that the generally poor image of the Los Angeles Unified School District did not apply to her son’s school on Granville Avenue, near Barrington Avenue and National Boulevard.

She hopes to persuade other families to enroll their children there by rebutting back-fence horror stories about public schools.

“The few of us left going to public school need to support each other,” Barak said. “We’re not awful parents because we’re sending our children to the public school.”

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She told the other mothers that she investigated Mar Vista before buying a home in the area and found that the top first-grade group there was reading at the same level as her own students in affluent Westlake Village. She praised both the principal and the teachers.

“It’s a really good sign that you can’t get a job at Mar Vista Elementary because no one wants to leave there,” she said.

While local preschoolers played in Barak’s back yard, their mothers voiced their concerns about Mar Vista: Was the curriculum challenging enough? Would their children get sufficient individual attention? “I’m afraid he’ll be lost,” said Amy Conway, who also inquired about discipline methods and creative activities at the school.

Barak and several other mothers said that many people they knew had opted for private school and then bad-mouthed the public school they had never investigated. And, the mothers said, they are already hearing incredulous remarks from friends: “You’re sending your kid to public school?”

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About half the children attending Mar Vista live in the neighborhood; the others travel to the school from central city neighborhoods where there is no classroom space for them. Barak said the ethnic mix “represents reality to your children. . . . People who put their children in private school aren’t facing reality, they’re running from it.”

Randy Rutkin said the meetings Barak organized reassured her that there were other interested parents willing to be involved with the public school.

“If the parents are involved with it, then you can make the kind of changes you want,” she said.

Anne Marie Klahr is one of Barak’s success stories. She came to a meeting and later called her to say she had decided to send her daughter to Mar Vista rather than private school. In a telephone interview, Klahr said she was swayed by the level of parent involvement and by meeting others who had older children in the school and spoke well of it.

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One of those mothers, Beverly Saretsky, said at the morning meeting that she transferred her children from UCLA’s Corrine Seeds laboratory school to Mar Vista even though she had heard “awful things” about Los Angeles schools. “They weren’t true,” Saretsky said.

Another mother at the morning meeting was not convinced. She asked not to be quoted by name because her child’s name is on the waiting list for admission to a private school.


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