By Sandy Banks, LA Times columnist | http://lat.ms/jr8XDc
Raymond Guan pretends to be a Greek immigrant during an Ellis Island simulation at First Avenue Middle School in Arcadia. It’s the sort of hands-on learning that struggling schools stuck in teach-to-the-test mode might consider a luxury. (Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times / June 7, 2011)
June 7, 2011 - It's hard to feel sorry for First Avenue Middle School in Arcadia, even in the midst of the state's most punishing budget crisis in years.
The campus is a standout in a school district known for excellence; its high-achieving students, stable teacher corps and broad array of classes would make it the envy even of high schools in Los Angeles.
But that success now feels like a double-edged sword as school officials go hat in hand to a community that finds it hard to believe that the threat to their rock-solid campus is real.
Principal Jeffrey Wilson realized what officials were up against when he tried to enlist support on Facebook for a competition among charities. The groups that get the most votes online can win up to $500,000; the Arcadia Educational Foundation — a 30-year-old nonprofit that raises money for city schools — was among the contestants.
Wilson posted a message aimed at pushing "Save Arcadia Schools" to the top of the heap: "C'mon, vote — we're getting beaten out by 'Save the Wolves!' "
He thought it would prick community pride. Instead, it drew this Facebook response from someone he taught 20 years ago, in neighboring Pasadena:
"Arcadia kids want for nothing. Why should I funnel money to the Arcadia kids? I'm voting for the wolves."
Said Wilson, "They don't see us as a district in need."
How does Arcadia Unified compare to other California districts?
I can see where that notion comes from. Arcadia is educationally rich, and that has as much to do with culture as with money. The district's schools have always been good, but the influx of Chinese immigrants in recent years sent test scores into the stratosphere.
Some credit goes to the "Tiger Mother" outlook; the tendency of some Chinese parents to harness their children to academics.
"We get kids who are high-achieving and who thrive on being pushed," acknowledged music teacher Michael Danielson, whose instrumental program at First Avenue involves more than 500 students on a campus of 800. Many start their day an hour before school begins, in a "zero period" orchestra class.
But demographics alone don't dictate success.
At First Avenue, every sixth-grader takes music … and art and drama and wood shop and home economics. That's in addition to the basics: science, social studies, English, math, P.E. The school also offers dozens of electives.
The school is not without its challenges.
More than three-quarters of the student body is Asian American, the vast majority Chinese. But one-quarter of its middle-schoolers are still learning English, and one-fifth come from families whose incomes are low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
First Avenue officials are charged with finding ways to bridge the gap between struggling underachievers and the legions of hard-charging students who spend evenings being tutored at nearby enrichment academies.
And unlike most Los Angeles Unified schools, the Arcadia campus doesn't get federal funds earmarked for disadvantaged students. "We're starting from a lower base," with no extra money to tap, Wilson said. "When we face state cuts like these, we have to ask the community for help."
The effect of proposed state budget cuts translates much the same at schools up and down the state: fewer teachers, larger classes, reductions in programs like summer school, teacher training and student counseling.
First Avenue stands to lose at least four of its 34 teaching positions, in a district where 65 jobs — teachers, counselors and administrators — are on the chopping block for next year.
Already, the prospect has created an unfamiliar awkwardness. "We try not to talk about it with the teachers who are on the bubble," said Danielson. A 24-year veteran at First Avenue, Danielson expects to lose one of his music classes to fill in for a P.E. teacher who's received a layoff notice. "We don't want to be in their face about it."
And it has shifted the focus of the faculty. "Our meetings used to be all about the needs of the students," he said. "Now we spend half the time talking about fundraising, trying to come up with ways to make money."
They've come up with games like "Penny Wars," in which classrooms competing against one another so far have raised more than $3,000. And a community carnival last month drew 2,000 people and raised $16,000 with dunk-the-teacher booths and a silent auction.
It's no secret among students that cutbacks are looming, "but we don't spend class time talking about it," Danielson said. "We don't want to let the quality slip. We're not going to punish students to dramatize the issues. We'll just work a little harder and dig a little deeper."
I think that attitude says a lot about why First Avenue does so well. The school is a place where the forces align so that effective education can prevail.
I saw the evidence on a visit to the campus, where 300 costumed eighth-graders were involved in a daylong reenactment of the Ellis Island immigrant experience. They waited in long lines, were interrogated in unknown languages and rudely examined for medical ailments by teachers posing as doctors and gatekeepers.
It's the sort of hands-on learning that struggling schools stuck in teach-to-the-test mode might consider a luxury. It's also the sort of ambitious project that builds support for public schools in their communities.
This year, the Arcadia Educational Foundation has already raised more than $650,000 — enough to save the jobs of at least nine teachers.
The money has come in big checks from local businesses, and in wads of dollar bills from children. Students at Arcadia High raised $95,000 in three days — most from parents' pledges — after an emotional assembly celebrating the contributions of teachers who have been targeted for layoffs.
But it has been a hard sell in some quarters, PTA President Vicky Stiles told me.
District voters approved a $218-million school renovation bond in 2006. "Parents were shocked when we passed out fliers telling them about the layoffs," she said. " We have so many who are new to this country, they don't understand about school funding. They see all these building improvements and think we must have plenty of money."
"Plenty" is a relative concept, I guess. A campus like Arcadia High that can raise $95,000 in three days is certainly better able to recover from a funding drop than a campus in, say, South Los Angeles, where a good fundraiser might net a couple of thousand dollars.
When I walked the First Avenue campus last month, a phrase kept popping into my mind: an embarrassment of riches. The halls were quiet, the students eager and polite, the classrooms loaded with technology. The biggest headache for teachers, some said, is coming up with challenging lessons for students who've already mastered the material.
But California isn't paying for world-class instruction like this anymore. We're near the bottom in national per-student spending; public school budgets have been cut by $18 billion in the last three years.
That's a commentary on our collective lack of commitment to education. The budget cuts shortchange most those children least able to absorb them.
And so, Arcadia parents, thank your lucky stars that you live in a community that can afford to prepare its children for tomorrow.