A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 1: The School : The Cutting Edge Divides a Campus

Times Staff Writer

Northridge Middle School is flanked on the north by large, two-story shingled houses with wood and brick facades and big yards. These are the comfortable suburban houses where the Anglo students lived who went there a generation ago.

They were the children of aerospace workers and movie industry people.

Now, the students come from the square stucco apartment buildings that line up to the south and west of the campus like military barracks. The alleys behind the buildings are so dangerous that campus aide Kenny Jan says even the police don't like going in there. A former student shot himself in the head back there early in the school year, Jan said. It was especially bad because he thought he had persuaded the kid to stay away from the gangs.

The boy, whose name was David Espinosa, told Kenny that he was going out to celebrate that night because he had been out of the gang life for two years. "Fine, but you've got a long way to go," Kenny told the 16-year-old.

The school population was once overwhelmingly Anglo, but is now 82% minority, qualifying Northridge as a PHBAO school, which means Primarily Hispanic, Black, Asian and Other. Because of this, the school gets extra money to hire enough teachers to reduce the class size by three students.

The campus covers 27 acres and is bisected by a small road where the special education students catch their buses in the afternoon, and on which some of the other students used to hitch rides, clinging onto the rear bumpers, until the campus aides started escorting the buses off campus.

Walking behind the buses, walkie-talkies in hand, the security aides--who call themselves "noon goons"--look a little like Secret Service agents escorting the President's limousine.

South of the road is a wide, grassy area where the athletic fields are laid out, side by side, and on which the lunchtime leagues compete each afternoon. Gloveless boys dive after batted balls as other students sit watching, in the dented and listing three-tiered grandstands, or holding hands, their eyes bright and their palms sweaty with the thrill of first love.

Farthest away from Principal Beryl Ward's office in both distance and philosophy, the gymnasium is the domain of five teachers cut from classic phys ed terry cloth. On one side are the men, Tom Parker, Dan Witt and Don Betts, whose Army discharge certificate is taped to his office wall. They are unrepentant jocks who lament the passage of time that has taken from them the students who stood obediently in line to practice their jumping jacks and never cursed their teachers.

Now, they groan, they have to put up with a principal who thinks they are a bunch of Ben-Gay-soaked dinosaurs and sends them literature reminding them how out of touch they are with modern education.

"Competition is to self-esteem what sugar is to tooth decay," was the message in one.

On the other side are the women in visors and sweat suits, Marilyn Hayes and Becky Galdos, who are proud of the fact that theirs is the only department on campus whose performance exceeds the district average.

They demand a lot, they say, because life is hard and coddling the kids the way the principal would like will only set them up for a lifetime on welfare. Each Friday, their girls run the mile and the day that several of the runners collapsed and one threw up brought the teachers eyeball to eyeball with the principal, helping to touch off what came to be known around campus as "the Ovarian Wars."

On the north side of the road are the classrooms, several wings of low, earth-tone buildings divided into two sections by a central lawn with a small, raised stage. The harsh rattling of crows gathered in the ash trees to scavenge discarded bags of potato chips and popcorn after lunch accompanies the students as they run from one class to another, the boys holding onto their size-46 pants to keep them from falling down.

The classrooms east of the stage are reserved mostly for the eighth-graders, and it is on this side that the hard-core insurrectionists who oppose the principal's policies, which are aimed at making school more fun, pray daily for her removal.

The most rabid of these is Ronn Yablun in Room 133, a math teacher with a boyish, almost doll-like face and the soul of a palace plotter. Yablun wears a button that reads "Piss Me Off, Pay the Consequences." It doesn't take much, judging from the stack of grievances that he has filed against the principal. As soon as the new teachers' contract was signed, imposing a 10% pay cut on teachers in exchange for doing away with administrative privileges, Yablun immediately demanded a key to the gated parking lot where the administrators parked next to the cafeteria.

"Your immediate attention to this matter will be greatly appreciated," he wrote to Ward, and sent a copy to teachers union President Helen Bernstein.

Also on this side of the campus are the elective classes, where metal shop teacher Frank Eichorn had to remove the mirror in his class after the students etched gang slogans into it.

A man in a blue apron with a well-worn face that has folded in on itself like bread dough being kneaded, Eichorn is a Yugoslav immigrant who worked two jobs for 18 years until he could afford to build his dream house on four acres above Thousand Oaks. He has a 12-by-16 Jacuzzi at his house, big enough for a dozen people, but not big enough for all the factions on campus.

"Who are you going to invite? What group do you belong to? I don't belong to no group," he says in his accented English.

The sixth- and seventh-graders are grouped together on the west side of the campus, where Frank Randa teaches math in Room 220. As the United Teachers of Los Angeles union chapter chairman, he has a doubly thankless job: He defends the teachers before the principal and defends the principal's philosophy to the teachers.

A soft-spoken, handsome man who looks far younger than his 58 years, he tells ghost stories in his Preferred Activity Class, or PAC. The PAC is one of the special classes at Northridge that is designed to make school more enjoyable and keep kids from dropping out. Besides Randa's PAC on ghost stories, there are classes on baseball card collecting and model building.

Randa was worried when Back to School Night came around. "I was afraid somebody would say, 'You're a witch.' " Instead, he hit a rich vein of interest. "Have you read 'Life After Death'?" one father asked about a favorite volume of supernatural stories. "I have dreams that come true," one of the mothers chimed in.

A few steps north is the eating area, where Janice Swain and her team serve 700 breakfasts and 580 lunches every day, more than 70% of them either reduced in price or free to the poor kids. Students lining up for pizza bagels, chicken nuggets and chalupas can be rude and grabby, but some of Swain's employees prefer serving them over the faculty on the other end of the building. "A few look down their noses at the staff," Swain said.

At lunch, the students mark out their own territory. The A students are sitting together at a long metal table and one of the campus romeos hoists his girlfriend up on the drinking fountain, driving off a younger boy who wanted a drink. The boy steals a few passionate squeezes before a watchful administrator breaks them up with a warning, "No romance today, guys."

Ceasar Martinez and his pals Digger, Big Ears and Big Nose are making fun of each other, which the kids call bagging, near a bench by the brick wall. Ceasar wasn't impressed by the efforts to make school fun. "Teachers suck," he said, taking a break from playfully slapping Big Nose on the head. Big Nose said school is harder in Iran. "If you talk back to teachers there they hit you on the head 25 times," he said, ducking another blow.

Near the front of the campus is the library, where Marcia Protas is trying to figure out how to allocate her $4,600 budget between Spanish-language books and a new encyclopedia to replace the one that was stolen.

Posted high on the wall is the school mission statement, "The mission of Northridge Middle School is to provide a positive climate of mutual respect for students, staff, and community, to ensure and promote personal, educational and social growth through appropriate middle school practices, strategies and activities emphasizing our belief that all students can learn."

Originally, the word "educational" was not in the statement, teachers said. It was added when some of them complained.

Next door to the library is the Practitioner Center, an unused classroom with a huge poster of a grimacing Hulk Hogan on the wall where Ron Klemp and Susie Shapiro teach a steady stream of teachers, from inside and outside the district, about the new teaching methods in use at Northridge.

They are trying to reverse generations of instruction that they feel have pushed kids too hard and crushed their spirits. Klemp and Shapiro believe middle school should be a nurturing place where kids help decide what they learn,not a place of drudgery where teachers practice the old drill and skill, which Ward calls "drill and kill."

Facts are not that important, numbing memorization is out, and silence in the classroom is no longer a good thing. Students are allowed, indeed encouraged, to speak out in class in the belief that kids learn better by debating and sharing ideas.

"We teach to concepts instead of facts," said Mary Patrick, a teacher who is sold on the new approach. "I don't see why they should memorize the Presidents of the U. S. They need to understand the concept."

In the squat brick administration building, Beryl Ward sits behind a desk covered with jars of candy that she hands out to visitors who wander into her office, and suffers the slings and arrows of a disgruntled faculty. After seeing their pay cut, they threatened to strike and refused to do any extra work not required by the contract.

"Bah humbug," one teacher responded when asked if the English as a Second Language (ESL) department wanted to do a Christmas program.

But Ward, an often charming, tough-as-cactus Southwesterner, can sling a few arrows herself. She criticizes teachers for giving too many Ds and Fs and scolds those who boast of their high standards. "There's nothing standard about standards," she mocks. Standardized test scores are not the barometer of success at Northridge Middle School. "We go by the smile gauge," administrators say, quoting the principal. "We'll look at the test scores later."

Down the hall from Ward, Assistant Principal Pat Moskowitz holds the purse strings, managing a thick binder full of accounts that, page after page, reduces the school to numbers in the same way human beings can be broken down into their chemical constituents. This year, she will spend $68,000 on textbooks, at $40 a book, she says, shaking her head.

In one set of accounts, there was another $30,295 for instructional materials, including 100 boxes of large and medium paper clips, 30 quarter-pound boxes of rubber bands, 100,000 staples, a carton of 10 reams of paper for each teacher and 1 million pieces of copy paper to feed the Konica and two Gestetner machines that churn away, hour after hour, like the rumbling of a turbine in a great dam.

Across the hall in a tiny counseling office, Richard Dunner, the self-labeled "scrounger" of Northridge Middle School, keeps a file cabinet crammed full of freebies for the kids, passes to a roller skating arena and a miniature golf course. In an age when many companies have set up programs to help schools, Dunner, who strides the campus popping kernels of popcorn in his mouth, has set himself up to take maximum advantage of them.

"Any gimmick we can get to get kids motivated," Dunner explained.

Sometimes his judgment lagged behind his commitment. When the local miniature golf course gave him only half of the 300 passes he requested, he ran off extras on the copy machine. He handed them to Judi Levin, the bilingual coordinator, so she could take some of her poor kids out for an afternoon of fun.

"If you get in," Dunner confided to a visitor accompanying the group, "I arranged it. If you get busted, I had nothing to do with it."

In the northwest corner of the campus there is an abandoned greenhouse, where students once learned horticulture. But with the cutbacks in electives, the program was shut down, just like the plastic and electric shops.

Now the area around the greenhouse is overgrown with weeds. Nobody learns anything there anymore.

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