Reformers cite middle school needs

Times Staff Writer

Iris Sanchez is stumbling toward high school.

With two weeks left before winter break started, the quiet eighth-grader was flunking math, science and history. She was studying little at home and missing classes.

She has, in short, the makings of a dropout.

But on a recent Tuesday morning, Iris was pulled out of her third-period class at Sepulveda Middle School and called to the counseling office. She slipped meekly into a closet-sized room and found herself face to face with Lauren Weiss.

Part tough-love sergeant and part mother figure, Weiss led Iris through a crash course on the pitfalls awaiting her next year.

"You've got to own your education, Iris. You've got to own it. In high school, when you see your grades going down, it is really important that ... bells go off in your head," she said. "You go and you ask for help. Good students get help. All right?"

Iris is hardly alone. Every year, thousands of low-performing, unprepared students in the Los Angeles Unified School District move from middle to high school. There, with more rigorous high-stakes academics and intense social pressures, they can find it easy to fall behind, grow frustrated and give up.

It is a story line that school district officials say must be rewritten. After having focused for years on elementary and high school reforms, L.A. Unified leaders say they are turning their attention to middle schools in hopes of better preparing students for high school and thus stemming the district's alarming dropout rate.

"Middle schools have been overlooked," said Robert Collins, the district's chief instructional officer for secondary education. "We can't win the high school issues unless we do a better job in middle schools."

The problem is not limited to Los Angeles. Across the country, educators have struggled with how to teach adolescents in the awkward middle years. Briefly the subject of national debate in the late 1980s, middle school reform efforts have since slipped largely into the shadows.

In coming months, Los Angeles Unified officials are expected to ask the Board of Education for the go-ahead on aggressive reforms for middle schools. Even if approved, however, such reforms, which could include a longer school day, would take years to fully implement.

Until then, Weiss and the cadre of other counselors hired this year to work in some of the district's neediest middle schools are doing triage to identify and intervene with at-risk students.

"The idea of dropping out begins as a quiet secret in the minds of middle-schoolers," Weiss said. "If there isn't someone there who reaches them to bust that idea, it will grow and grow."

For a series of articles earlier this year, The Times spent eight months examining the dropout problem at a typical district high school. In interviews, hundreds of dropouts and struggling students echoed Weiss, saying middle school had done little to ready them for high school.

A failing grade in middle school, for example, rarely meets with any serious repercussions, but in high school, poor-performing students get caught in a downward spiral. They must pass classes to earn credits needed to graduate. With every class they fail and repeat, struggling students slip further behind.

The social and emotional transition from middle to high school can be rough. Often for the first time, high school students encounter a host of outside pressures -- gangs, work and sex -- that can push them to drop out.

Los Angeles school district officials announced a set of initiatives in February aimed at tackling the dropout crisis. As part of the effort, Weiss and other "diploma project advisors" were placed in low-performing middle schools. Another group was sent into troubled high schools.

Including Sepulveda in the northeast San Fernando Valley community of North Hills, 33 of the district's 74 traditional middle schools have the new counselors. They are expected to work with the students at greatest risk -- in general, those who are failing at least three classes or who have serious discipline and attendance problems.

Sessions can last 10 minutes or two hours and can be businesslike discussions of study habits and grades or deeply emotional forays into a troubled student's family life.

Counselors connect students to whatever tutoring, psychological or social services they need. They press these students to take extra classes on weekends or vacations and attempt to open their eyes to the realities awaiting them in high school. They call parents and try -- often futilely -- to get them to become more involved in their children's education.

At Gage Middle School in Huntington Park, the job is daunting. More than 3,300 students from the poor, Latino immigrant community overfill the school. The seven traditional counselors on staff scramble to manage caseloads of about 500 students each, more than 40% of whom struggle to speak English.

After Gage, most students enter nearby Huntington Park High School. There, according to current state figures, slightly more than one in four will drop out.

There were so many students at Gage this year with at least three failing grades -- 560 -- that Diane Chavez-Palmer had to scale back when she arrived a few months ago. To make the workload manageable, she sees only the 150 students flunking four or more classes.

"If you're a doctor, you want to be in the emergency room, where it's nonstop and a little crazy," she said. "That's kind of what it's like here."

Most frustrating, Chavez-Palmer said, is the difficulty in getting students and parents to follow through on her recommendations for tutoring and other services. At a recent meeting, only 20 parents showed up.

There is little Chavez-Palmer and the other counselors can do to compel middle school students to work harder. A district policy requiring principals to hold back eighth-grade students who fail to meet minimal standards in English and math is largely ignored, said Collins, the chief instructional officer.

The small piece of leverage counselors do have over failing students -- threatening to ban them from informal graduation ceremonies schools hold for eighth-graders -- often does little to sway students.

"As long as I go on to the ninth grade," a 14-year-old boy shrugged when Diane-Chavez raised the prospect.

"You didn't pass the majority of your classes in seventh grade and went on to eighth. The same will happen this year," the blunt-talking counselor replied. "But what's going to happen next year? How many times do you think Huntington Park High School is going to allow you to do this?"

Weiss, who wrote a guidebook to high school for Sepulveda eighth-graders, often relies on sheer repetition to drum the realities of high school into the heads of the 83 eighth-graders on her rolls.

"Say that back to me: What happens if you fail a class in high school?" she said to 13-year-old Christina Duran as the two read a page from the guidebook.

"You repeat it," Duran said, her voice almost a whisper.

"What happens if you fail a class in high school?"

"You repeat it."

Weiss let the message sink in. Silence filled the tiny room as the two stared at each other.

Christina dropped her eyes to the floor. "I didn't know that," she said with a nervous laugh.

District officials heap praise on the counselors but are quick to acknowledge that deep and broad changes are needed to salvage L.A. Unified's middle schools. More than half of the roughly 158,000 middle school students tested either "below basic" or "far below basic" on state math tests last year, and 40% foundered at those levels on English tests. Moreover, 68 of the 74 middle schools are on a federal watch list for falling short of testing benchmarks, and 47 of those schools have been on the list for four or more years.

"We're not going to change things by trying harder at what we have been doing," Collins said. "This cannot be reform around the edges."

In response to the dramatic number of students failing math, the district this year scrapped its policy of requiring all eighth-graders to take algebra and created "algebra readiness" classes for struggling students.

Many unprepared students, however, are still being placed in algebra. This year at Gage, for example, one math teacher estimated that at least half of the 35 students in one of her algebra classes were failing.

A task force is compiling ideas that will be presented to the school board. It is likely to have the support of recently appointed Supt. David L. Brewer, who has repeatedly pointed to middle schools as one of the district's greatest challenges.

The task force, Collins said, has been looking for reform ideas at charter schools, primarily the high-achieving Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, schools, and the few well-regarded district programs.

Requiring students to repeat failed classes, overhauling the often subpar instruction the more-than 54,000 "English-learner" students receive and restructuring schools to allow teams of teachers to work with small groups of students are some of the ideas on the table.

The task force also is expected to recommend an increase to the length of the middle school day by one or two periods to help struggling students, a dramatic and expensive move that would require the approval of the teachers union.

"For too long, we have not been saying to middle school students and parents, 'These are our standards and this is our set of expectations.... It is expected that you're going to pass every class,' " Collins said.

"We cannot just keep pushing students along."

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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