Two Students, Two Schools–20 Miles and a World Apart

Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2009

{snip}

In the 20 or so miles that separate Jefferson High School from La Cañada High, in the miles between inner city and suburb, there exists a social chasm so deep as to seem unbridgeable. It is possible that, growing up in the same metropolitan area, you have never been in the same place at the same time.

{snip}

La Cañada High is about as good as public education gets in California. It is the reason why many people live in La Cañada Flintridge, where tasteful, multimillion-dollar homes sprawl at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. College is a given for almost everyone. The dropout rate is close to zero. Students don’t qualify for free lunches, but they can buy sushi. Built in the 1960s and oddly evocative of the television show “The Jetsons,” the campus recalls a time when California schools didn’t so much anticipate the future as embody it.

Jefferson, in hard-core South L.A. gang territory, is an improving school that nevertheless exemplifies all the challenges of urban education. It has an inspiring history, but its recent past has been troubled. Today it is a landing pad for the children of immigrants. Nearly half the students learn English as a second language. Free lunch is available to anyone willing to stand in line. About 800 freshmen arrive each year, most ill-prepared for high school. Four years later, about 200 pick up diplomas.

{snip}

On a warm October morning, Henry [Ramirez, a student at Jefferson] begins school with Life Skills, a required class. When it ends, he waits by the door for his friend Jessica Martinez, who greets him with a hug and then lays her head on his shoulder. Two other girls come to join her, and Henry leaves to go to French 3.

Class is conducted in a mix of English and elementary French, with almost all of the French coming from the teacher, Richard Jessel. The students go over an assignment in which they wrote two- and three-word sentences, such as “She walks” and “You are working.” {snip}

Where would they be in a standard French curriculum? “I’d place them in the middle of my second semester of French 1,” he said. “There’s not a lot of willingness to study at home, not a lot of motivation.” The students are also shy, he said, fearful of sounding stupid. And there is almost no chance that any have traveled to French-speaking countries.

Henry spends lunch working with another student on a project for their English class. Afterward, he has Introduction to Sociology, a project-based class that seems impressively stimulating, and Geometry, which he is repeating. Since Jefferson is on a block schedule, his other classes are on alternate days: Honors U.S. History, Honors American Literature, Chemistry and Algebra 2. Henry takes no Advanced Placement classes, a disadvantage when he applies to college. But it’s hardly a slacker’s schedule.

***

Let’s confront a hard truth. Any visitor to [the] two schools can’t help but notice that the La Cañada students, while hardly perfect, seem more focused, more driven to succeed than the average student at Jefferson. {snip}

Flecha [Juan Flecha, the Jefferson principal] makes no excuses. Although he has presided over a sharp increase in test scores, he volunteered that only 27% of his students graduate in four years and only 16% take a college prep curriculum. “That’s terrible,” he said. But he speaks compassionately about the challenges they face: failing elementary and middle schools. Collapsing families. Entrenched poverty. Epidemic violence. On the first day of class this year, at 10:30 a.m., a man with an AK-47 was spotted firing shots a half-block from campus.

At La Cañada, violence is scarcely a concern. Elementary schools and the one middle school are excellent. Students are highly motivated, highly competitive. “I don’t have dress code violators. I don’t have fights,” said Principal Damon Dragos. “The kids all come very well prepared. The question is not whether they’re going to college; it’s whether it’s the college of their choice.”

***

Another October morning. Kyle [Gosselin, a student at La Cañada] starts his day in Advanced Placement English, where the topic is the Chaucer poem “Troilus and Criseyde.” Then, it’s SSR–basically, homeroom, where students are given 15 minutes for “sustained silent reading.”

German 3 is next. It begins with the young teacher, Melanie Sos, saying: “So, guten morgan. Wie geht’s?” (“Good morning. How’s it going?”) Like Henry’s French class, much of this class involves the teacher speaking the foreign language and the students responding, sometimes in German, sometimes in English. But the level is markedly higher. Kyle and a classmate pore over a story, taking turns reading the German and translating. Kyle reads with some ease. The day’s homework is to write 15 sentences summarizing what they’ve read.

By now, Sos said, maybe half the students have traveled to Germany.

The rest of Kyle’s day consists of Pre-Calculus, Honors Physics, Advanced Placement U.S. History and baseball.

Like most kids his age in La Cañada, Kyle has given a lot of thought to college. Asked at the beginning of the year if he’d thought about specific schools, he gave a detailed answer: “I’ve been thinking, like, Claremont-McKenna, USC, UCLA,” he said. “Dartmouth is a great school. Then I’ve been looking at liberal arts schools: Amherst, Haverford, Georgetown, maybe Johns Hopkins. . . . Maybe I’d apply to UCSD because they have a good pre-med program.”

By spring, he had taken an East Coast college tour with his parents, hitting eight schools in six days, and had met for 80 minutes with La Cañada’s college counselor.

{snip}

He took the PSAT sophomore year, and the SAT and ACT this year. He didn’t have to go far for his SAT prep classes, which were held in his living room by his mom, Janna, and a friend; they started a small SAT prep business after seeing what else was available.

Henry began his junior year without a clue where he might want to go to college. After talking to the school nurse, a UC Santa Barbara graduate, he decided it sounded like a good place, because he likes the beach.

On the day that Henry was scheduled to take the PSAT, Flecha led a visitor to the classroom where students were working on the test. Flecha didn’t spot Henry. The teacher looked around. No Henry. Flecha returned to his office, crestfallen.

Reached at home, Henry explained that his family had out-of-town relatives. Flecha slumped into his chair. “Isn’t that something?” he asked. “All in a day’s work around here.”

Later in the fall, UCLA sent mentors to Jefferson to help students prepare their college application essays. Henry, whose grades have mostly been A’s and Bs, with some lapses, called his “The Rollercoaster,” writing about family tensions and his frequent moves. “The major problem was, I could never get used to something. I would always think it would get snatched away.”

Not long after, Henry’s parents told him they were returning to Texas–in less than a week. On Jan. 27, the family piled into a car attached to a rental trailer. They made the 1,500-mile drive in two days. About half an hour outside Houston, Henry began to cry. “It really got to me,” he said.

{snip}

 Students by Ethnicity 

  Jefferson High School 

 California School Average 

% American Indian

n/a

n/a

% Asian

n/a

12%

% Hispanic

91%

42%

% Black

8%

8%

% White

n/a

33%

% Unknown

1%

5%

 Students by Ethnicity 

  La Cañada 

 California School Average 

% American Indian

n/a

n/a

% Asian

26%

12%

% Hispanic

3%

42%

% Black

n/a

8%

% White

58%

33%

% Unknown

13%

5%

 

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