Hard Times at Fairfax High : Education: School was among state’s elite in 1960s, but now faces money and teacher shortages. Students and faculty see the new campus diversity as a valuable asset.
In the 1960s Fairfax High School was riding high on an academic pinnacle, a proud reflection of a community where students packed advanced placement classes, enriched their studies with drama and music productions and then surged on to college.
In January, 1993, the school remains a microcosm of the community--one that has dramatically changed and reflects the myriad disturbing issues confronting public education in Los Angeles.
In the wake of the accidental shooting that killed a well-liked football player and seriously injured another student, teachers and students at Fairfax say that the ailments at their urban campus are no different than those at other schools: Money is insufficient, teachers and counselors are overworked and some youths fall through the cracks because there are not enough resources to help them.
The first fatal classroom shooting in Los Angeles school district history has touched off a debate among lawmakers over whether metal detectors should be installed at schools. But Fairfax students and teachers say that although safety issues are important, they are only one part of the equation that defines their campus.
“The message here for all to come away with is that someone had to know--be it a friend he was bragging to, or classmates--someone had to know this child was carrying a gun,” Carolee Bogue, a top adviser at Fairfax High who works with troubled youths, said of the 15-year-old boy who stuffed in his backpack a .357 magnum that accidentally discharged in class.
“But children are almost not emotionally developed enough to know when a crisis is pending and are not taught how to involve adults in situations like this. There is a silence between them and adults.”
Although the school district was quick to send in crisis counseling teams to help Fairfax students cope with the violence this week, those professionals will soon be pulled out, leaving the school with five counselors--each of whom is as-signed to 480 students. Two years ago the school had nine counselors.
The last of its illustrious drama program--which produced such prominent graduates as actor Ricardo Montalban, choral director Roger Wagner, choreographer Gower Champion and producer-writer Larry Gelbart of “MASH” fame--was cut last year. Many educators at Fairfax struggle to maintain the solid educational programs that earned the school its reputation, but recognize that the old standards for judging success are not relevant to the youthful faces looking up at them from desks every day.
“People will say that the school has gone downhill and maybe academically we don’t produce in the same way,” said Daniel Victor, 48, an English teacher who graduated from Fairfax in 1962. “But we have a cultural base that is helping all kinds of kids to learn how to get along.”
Russian immigrants, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos--many with special education needs and emotional troubles--converge daily on the campus from a wide swath of diverse Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Situated on the southeast corner of Melrose and Fairfax avenues, at the western fringe of the trendy Melrose shopping district, the school has an enrollment of 1,837. Nearly 40% of students are Latino, 29% are white--including a substantial number of Armenian and Russian immigrants--15% are African-American and about 12% are Asian-American. More than 12 languages are spoken at Fairfax.
When more than a dozen students at Fairfax were asked Friday to name the best thing about their school, all of them answered ethnic and cultural diversity.
“I go to a school where I get to know people from all over the world,” said Claudia Beltran, 16, a senior. “I would rather come here than a place where I didn’t meet other types of people.”
But with the diversity, educators say, come often overwhelming challenges that the school district is ill-equipped to meet.
“Until we are able to help kids with emotional problems, economic problems, the kids are going to act out in such a way that we will have to pay attention, even if it’s negative attention,” Victor said.
Policy-makers and the public are quick to seize on plummeting test scores as proof that a school such as Fairfax is in decline.
In reading, Fairfax ranks in the bottom 12% of students statewide; in writing, the bottom 17%, and in math, the bottom 20%, according to 1989-90 California Assessment Program test scores, the last year state achievement tests for high schools were conducted. Compared to other Los Angeles high schools, Fairfax is about average.
Ten years ago the school ranked in the top 25% of schools statewide in the number of students who attended four-year colleges. Now it ranks in the bottom quadrant.
Despite the low overall scores, Fairfax offers a variety of advanced placement classes, courses that students take to earn college credits, and has a number of students who are accepted to prestigious universities.
“But the ruler used to gauge success cannot be the same anymore,” said Assistant Principal Carol Truscott. “We have children who are supporting families, who are learning English, who are struggling to live in a new culture.”
Sara Eisner, who has taught English and health science at Fairfax since 1963, remembers when her students were mainly middle-class youths from the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods that surround the school and wrote research papers that could stand up to the red pencil of a college professor.
Now she often measures success differently, taking pride, for instance, in the triumph of a group of students who raised their grade to a B by forming a weekend study group.
Students said that in the last two years it has been increasingly difficult to learn in crowded classrooms, where they are lucky if a teacher has time to answer one question a day from them.
“I want to be pushed more. I want to be motivated, but with all the kids in one classroom you more or less have to do things yourself,” said Tyra Sexton, 17.
Tomer Yachini, 17, who plays on the basketball team, recalled that he was doing poorly in a crowded algebra class until a teacher tried a new approach: small group learning where students of different ability levels helped each other out with the problems.
“We just need more teachers who care,” he said.
Several students said that school officials have underestimated the value of extracurricular activities--drama, chorus and some dances--that were eliminated to help close the district’s $400-million budget deficit.
“It’s boring now and it’s only going to get worse,” said Keynatta Winstan, 17. “We need smaller classes, patient and devoted teachers and more fun activities.”
Counselor Bogue agreed. She said the youths “are starving for contact with an adult who cares.” Cutting the special programs that foster those kinds of relationships further alienate students, she said.
Abi-Gale Bibby, 17, who immigrated from Trinidad two years ago, said the shooting has upset students who say it is harder to learn if they do not feel safe. It has driven home a hard reality that there is no guarantee of security, even at school.
“My life was spared,” Bibby said. “Now I want to focus on my education.”
Despite her wish list for a better education, Winstan, a senior, said that if she had to go to high school all over again she would enroll at Fairfax, citing as one reason her admiration for Truscott, the assistant principal.
“There are good things and bad things at every school,” Winstan said. “But I wouldn’t trade my school for anything.”
Times staff writer Matt Chazanov contributed to this story.
A School in Transition The ethnic makeup of the student body at Fairfax High School, as in most of the Los Angeles Unified School District, has undergone considerable change over the past 20 years. 1992
0.4%: Pacific Islander
0.1%: American Indian
0.3%: American Indian
0.3%: American Indian
Source: Los Angeles Unified