By Rick Orlov, Staff Writer | LA Daily NeWs
May 30, 2008 - Los Angeles County middle school students are the forgotten generation, according to a study released Thursday by United Way that found 400,000 students in seventh through ninth grades are among the most vulnerable in a system that is under-funded and lacks qualified teachers.
"It was surprising to us to find that 70 percent of middle schools are failing," said Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way, Los Angeles.
"Up until this study, most of the attention is paid (to) elementary schools and high schools. There has been little done in the way of middle schools."
Among key findings: 43percent of middle school students drop out by the 12thgrade and only 12percent go on to college.
Analysts also found that 70percent of middle school students - ages 11 to 14 - are from low-income minority households, half of the students do not feel safe at school, half of all classes are overcrowded and many have untrained teachers and lack counselors.
They also found that 71percent of students said they had no high-level or caring relationship with an adult in their schools.
"Here we are taking kids from classes of 20 to classes of 30 or 40, and they have no one they can relate to," Buik said. "They feel
overlooked going from an intimate environment to one where they are feeling lost in the shuffle."
Not all schools are doing badly, however.
Torch Middle School in the City of Industry, for example, is considered a success story with an engaged principal, staffers and parents who implemented a program that dramatically improved student performance.
Also, Buik said the Los Angeles Unified School District is doing better than many others as a result of its "a-g" program that requires college-preparatory instruction, including classes in history, social studies, math, science, English and foreign languages.
Ray Cortines, senior deputy superintendent at the LAUSD, said he was impressed with the report and planned to give copies to each of the district's 72 middle school principals.
"What I think we need to do is not look at the barriers but what we can do to make it so the kids are able to succeed," Cortines said. "These findings remind me of what we talked about more than a dozen years ago and still need to address.
"We traditionally have been dealing with teaching the basics in elementary schools and addressing behavior in high schools and ignoring this (middle school) group of students," Cortines said.
"What I tell people is no elementary student drops out, but they begin to think about it in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade. We have to get to them to succeed."
Cortines, who recently returned to the LAUSD after working for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on his effort to take control of some schools, said he also wants to examine changes in how the district approaches education.
"There is nothing magic about having a school from kindergarten through the fifth grade," Cortines said. "Maybe we should look at having more schools through the eighth grade - and then having high schools ninth-12th grade.
"We should put all that on the table to look at and try different things. What we have to do is find a way to make students successful in school."
Buik said United Way is providing the report to educators throughout Los Angeles to stress the importance of improving middle schools, making more resources available and recognizing the critical time it represents for young people.
"What we want to do is look at schools where things are working and see how it can be replicated across the county," Buik said.
Villaraigosa spokeswoman Janelle Erickson said the mayor was reviewing the report to help in developing programs in his effort to improve L.A. education.
"We know that passing ninth-grade algebra can be the single determinant whether a boy in South L.A. will drop out of school and enter a gang," Erickson said.
"That's why the mayor is linking elementary, middle and high schools. We must tear down the monolithic bureaucracy and build back the families of schools that improve together and support students from kindergarten to high school."
LAUSD parent activist Bill Ring comments in the LAUSDParents Newsgroup:
"We know that passing ninth-grade algebra can be the single
determinant whether a boy in South L.A. will drop out of school and
enter a gang," Erickson said.
How about a magnet school like LACES?
Last summer, before he left the District, Bob Collins shared information from LAUSD's Planning, Assessment and Research office which was stunning: a list of each of our high schools in LAUSD and marks earned by students in selected courses during Spring, 2007. As an example, of the 63 students enrolled in Algebra I at LACES during last Spring, 49% received an F and 13% received a D - that's a total of 62%!
REPEAT: HALF OF THE STUDENTS TAKING ALGEBRA 1 at LACES LAST SPRING FAILED IT.
LACES is a vaunted magnet school in LAUSD which is ranked by Newsweek magazine as being in the top 50 high schools in the U.S. - and it is a school in which (according to the LACES website) 50% of the students are identified as gifted/talented.
What are we doing for these students and others like them across our District and how do we know it's working or not?