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A success story for student and L.A. Unified

The subject line on the email was enough to pique my interest: Interesting and surprising positive story about what LAUSD can do for a child if it wants to...

The Los Angeles Unified School District typically makes headlines for its screw-ups: child abuse scandals, feuding leaders and technology blunders.

Sari Weiner figured that it was time to share a little good news: “People bash LAUSD a lot, but when they try to get it right, they do. When you hear ... what LAUSD has done for my daughter, you won’t even believe it.”

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What the district did was something that might seem routine: Spot the talent in a bright but neglected student and nurture that child so she can reach her potential.

The challenge in Weiner’s case was more dramatic than most — and so was the progress made by the 14-year-old she is in the process of adopting.

Eunice, now an eighth-grader at Hale Charter Academy in Woodland Hills, spent most of her life in foster care before moving in with Weiner two years ago. She had been shuffled around so much that she passed through 15 different schools by the time she was 12.

Her elementary school record was pockmarked with gaps, failures and emotional outbursts. So Eunice began Hale in a special education class for disabled students. She did well enough that last year she made the transition to general education classes. And this year, she’s enrolled in honors English, history and science classes.

Weiner credits the staff at Hale, an L.A. Unified charter. “They came in like SWAT,” she said, ticking off a list of teachers, counselors, administrators who have rallied around her child.

They have tutored, challenged, listened and encouraged Eunice, in class and out. They have learned to tolerate her moods and taught her to trust them. They know when to ease up on the pressure and when to give her a nudge.

“What they love,” said Weiner, “is that a kid who was in 15 schools and in special ed her whole life is now holding her own in honors English class.”

And what does Weiner love? “That they email me on the weekend, and I know they’re sitting at home and thinking about my daughter.”

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Eunice had a lot of ground to make up because of her life’s rough start. Her teachers have focused on her strengths, and that seems to be paying off.

Middle schoolers embarrass easily, and her teachers were mindful of her privacy when I interviewed them.

Eunice told me she that struggles in math and that her favorite subject is science. Her teachers described her as smart, funny, tenacious and a naturally gifted writer.

“I think she wouldn’t mind being called ‘brave’ and that’s a good word for Eunice,” said her special education teacher Jan Cushing.Being aligned with special ed can be embarrassing for some students. “But she’s allowed us to be there for her and I think everybody has grown tremendously through this process.”

Cushing doesn’t see anything particularly extraordinary about what Hale’s team has done. “I think this is what teachers are doing everywhere,” she said.

“This particular student had extraordinary needs and extraordinary potential. And she has consistently — no matter how difficult it’s gotten for her — she’s essentially taken a breath and then kept on going. That sort of grit gives everybody something to work with.”

The transition has, at times, been scary for Eunice and bewildering for her mother. For her teachers, it’s been the sort of thrill that doesn’t often come along:

“It’s very much like surfing a wave,” Cushing said. “The student is going to change every day, and you have to adjust.

“If you’re fortunate to be there when the student is ready to make that jump, it’s the most incredible thing you can imagine. I can’t tell you how good that feels.”

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Weiner remembers showing up at Hale two years ago with a team of experts, ready to battle on behalf of her daughter. “I’d never been a mom before. And here I was with a 12-year-old. I was nervous,” she said.

“My friends all said “L.A. Unified? They’re going to fight you on everything.’ But they became the coaches and I was like the staff. And together we made it happen.”

She’s still trying to get the hang of this mothering thing, she said. And Hale’s teachers and counselors have taught her at least as much as they have taught her daughter.

Weiner has the sort of intensity that might annoy some teachers. She calls incessantly, bombards them with emails and shows up on campus when she needs to talk something out. “I’m the squeaky wheel,” she said.

But that doesn’t make her a nuisance at Hale; that makes her a partner. “We should all have moms like that,” said honors English teacher Barbara Wexler, who was “the queen of meddling parents” when her own two children were young.

“How can you even complain about a parent who wants the best for her child?”

Weiner couldn’t have anticipated her daughter’s struggle — or imagined her success. She didn’t know enough to set limits on what Eunice could accomplish. That’s probably what helped clear a path for Eunice to progress.

“From Day 1, she made sure we knew Eunice — her background, her history, her personality, the struggles she’d had,” said Michelle McKenzie, Eunice’s counselor since sixth grade. “And she made sure we knew that she would be there every step of the way.”

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT


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