Today I experienced something that felt like a car accident but instead of getting hurt in a vehicle I crashed into the center of a Venn diagram. I landed in the zone where public education, naivete and privilege all come together and form a very ugly picture. What makes it worse is that it is happened in a community whom I have great history and affection, West Hollywood, CA. A town that is known around the world for progressive ideals is on the edge of hitting a low normally seen in TrumpLand. My hope is that by shining a light on this precarious edge some people will be motivated to make sound decisions and pull back to get on the correct side of history.
Like all LA stories, mine began today while driving. After I dropped my son off at school in the mid-city are of Los Angeles, I then headed fifteen miles north east for Eagle Rock High School. As I was slogging through the morning traffic in Koreatown and Silverlake my mind drifted to a spring day in 2016 when I met my friend Mary for breakfast at her favorite tony restaurant in WeHO.
Once I snuggled into the plush booth and ordered my matcha tea latte, the busboy brought Mary her decaf coffee. I was surprised when Mary got up and hugged the busboy and then said, “Carlos, this is Tracy she knows all about public schools and she will help your son Carlos Jr.”
Without a beat, I asked, “What’s going on?” I learned that Carlos Jr. was in fifth grade and needed to land in a good middle school. I was still a bit confused why my help was needed but when Carlos left to take care of another customer my friend told me in a hushed voice that his wife, the son’s mother, was dying of cancer and the family was having a hard time keeping it together and figuring out middle school was too hard a task. I knew right then I would help. It took a couple months and I had to navigate a language bump, but we somehow made it work and his son ended up at a very nice middle school in Glassell Park. Before his wife died, Carlos told me she was so grateful that we found Carlos Jr. a good school. I was so glad to have been a part of that journey for Carlos and his family.
I have thought about Carlos Jr. over the years and was thinking about reaching out to his dad just to see how he was doing when out of the blue I got a text on Saturday.
It was from Carlos Jr. who was now in eighth grade. He and his dad kept my cell number all these years and he asked, “Can you help me get into Fairfax High?”
I asked how he was doing and he told me that he had all ‘A’s last year. I said, “Let me go to Fairfax on Tuesday and see what we need to do to get you in one of the schools on campus.” I added, “But don’t you also want to consider Eagle Rock High School?”
I suggested Eagle Rock because it is near Glassell Park and there would be some kids from his school going there as well. He texted me back, “That would be great.” So, there I was today driving to Eagle Rock and then to Fairfax all to help Carlos Jr. What I had not realized was that the Venn diagram awaited me because WeHO parents were on a mission about Fairfax High as well and the great bump between us was about to hit me.
In order to understand this part of the story you have to understand West Hollywood. West Hollywood is what the name suggests, it lies east of Beverly Hills and west of Hollywood. In the early 1890s when Moses Sherman laid out a train from downtown LA to Santa Monica, he needed a place to put the car barn where trains could be serviced. He picked the spot in the middle, named it “Sherman” and built some houses for the conductor and railroad workers. In the time since Moses blew into town the area went from Sherman, back to unincorporated County where it got a plethora of bars (free from LA laws and police), until the 1980s when it became the official city of West Hollywood. In the hundred and twenty years it also changed demographics from being blue collared workers in railroad and motion picture industry to a town with high end restaurants, fashion and decorator shops and a large gay community. It is some of the most expensive zip codes in California.
I know a lot about West Hollywood because in 2002 when my son was a toddler, West Hollywood Park became the center of our universe. It had an amazing toddler playground and we were fixtures in the park where we met other parents and formed a nice cadre of moms and dads finding their way through parenthood.
In 2007, when it was time to pick a school, we ended up forgoing our local elementary that had very high test scores but was large. We opted instead for West Hollywood Elementary that had lower test scores but was small. We got there after one of the parents from the park who had a son two years older than my son said, “We are repopulating West Hollywood Elementary. Come take a tour.” My husband and I visited the school and I could see a diamond in a rough. There was a lot of good already at the school, but it was missing some kung fu that comes with parents who have ties to the community. I told my husband, “Let’s take this year by year. We’ll donate and build up the community and if we hate the school, we’ll go to our home school.”
I reached out to some of my park friends to see if they were up for it and they said yes and so we arrived at West Hollywood Elementary in fall of 2007. We formed three kinder classes. Our three classes had an interesting demographic. We had all races and all socio- economic groups. There were some local parents in the grades above who were also big volunteers but in terms of volume, 2007 was the year when there was enough of us willing to roll up our sleeves and do work to make a big difference.
When we arrived West Hollywood Elementary was K-6, had a population of about 250 students, received Title I monies and fundraised $50,000 a year. By the time we left, the school was over 300 students, no Title I money and our fundraising was closer to $400,000 a year. Our parent volunteers were as I liked to say, “On it doggone it.” Passionate about public education and making West Hollywood a terrific school. We brought in ipads, ipods and mac books, we helped produce field trips and special guest speakers, the school was resplendent with so many bells and whistles that in June of 2012 my friend who had her son at private school came to visit me at WeHO and said, “If WeHO had been around when my son was in Kinder I would’ve been here instead of private school.”
We left WeHO in 2012 when my son was accepted to a magnet school, but I still helped out periodically including offering up a walking tour of ‘Old Sherman’ for the first graders. I am still friends with parents from my tenure at West Hollywood and many of them and the WeHO teachers have lamented to me, “It’s not the same since you guys were here.” I didn’t know what they meant because I still saw some hard- working parent volunteers but I figured there were nuances I was missing.
Six months ago, I got a wind of something that spoke to those nuances. I heard in April that our school board member, Nick Melvoin, was going before the City of West Hollywood in support of a measure to look into the viability of a middle school in West Hollywood. This struck me as misguided because we already had Bancroft Middle school which has been serving the area since 1929, and there is Laurel which was a K-8 span school. I went to the meeting and spoke at the end and asked the council instead to focus on supporting Bancroft. I said, “It just needs some parent love, like WeHO did ten years ago.” The council smiled at me but voted Yes on the measure.
One month later I saw through social media that there was a brouhaha at Laurel. Apparently, the administration from LAUSD District West showed up and told the Laurel teachers that the school was losing its elementary classes in 2020 and would be a middle school only which could then serve the families who want their own middle school in the area. This is when I learned that in 2018 Nick Melvoin had been meeting with parents at the schools Gardner, Wonderland, and West Hollywood, who felt Bancroft was not an option for them. I was horrified that they were moving so fast since the ‘study’ had just been approved only thirty days earlier. What kind of ‘study’ did the WeHO City Council sign on? Or was it a measure for appearance’s sake and a plan had already been hatched? I was saddened by the whole situation.
When the Laurel parents pushed back and went hard against LAUSD Board Member Melvoin in social media, the district offered a town hall. I attended it and I asked the district rep, “Why are you not doing more to promote Bancroft?’ I didn’t get much of an answer except that these parents don’t consider it a choice. It was also announced at that meeting that Laurel would be getting their Cinematic Arts and Creative Technologies Magnet, which was approved by the school board last June. Many in the Laurel community thought they were now safe from the group of interloper parents who wanted their campus. They were wrong.
In September and October, Mr. Melvoin and Valerie Braimah, Executive Director of City Charter Schools, along with some district reps went to Wonderland, West Hollywood, Gardner, Rosewood and Melrose elementary schools selling the parents again on the idea of their own middle school.
I knew about the meetings because flyers were entering in my inbox like 747s arriving at LAX. Every couple of days a new one showed up with someone asking me, “Did you know about this meeting?” I asked parents at Laurel if they knew about these meetings and they said no.
Now they were concerned that Laurel may be on the block again. I decided I would go to one of the meetings that was scheduled at Fairfax High on October 21. I arrived to see a couple friends and the whole district personal including Board Member Melvoin (who stayed about fifteen minutes) and his staff. There were also about twenty- five parents from the different schools.
Right from the start, parents were angry, yelling at the reps, “Why are we here? I thought Laurel was our school.” “Why are you now telling us Fairfax is our only option!?”
There was a level of hubris by these parents that was shocking. I did not want to stir up any trouble and tell them, “You are here because the Laurel parents are fighting interlopers.” But I thought it was curious that Mr. Melvoin had clearly not informed them that the Laurel community was fighting to save their school and I wondered who told them a public school with a thriving community was ‘theirs’?
My own take on the matter was that these families who want to build their own middle school have no idea of the work in front of them. I asked where was the money for this school? I asked about the fundraising that would be needed by these parents. I asked about the teachers. I informed the room that we are in a teacher drought and finding even five teachers is not going to be easy, especially for a high maintenance parent group. I explained our own school has been looking for a science teacher for three months. I told the room that volunteering in middle school is tough because your kid wants space so doing this kind of heavy lifting is going to be very difficult. Plus, by the time parents get to sixth grade they are exhausted.
One parent, who was near tears upon hearing Laurel was not an option said she was contemplating moving because they have ‘nowhere to go’. I went up to her and some other parents afterwards and said, “You guys, please check out Bancroft. There is a lot of good at Bancroft.” I told them I would help set up a special tour and I will give them all my kung fu from middle school and community building. I gave her my card and hoped she would reach out. No one contacted me.
One week later, Laurel was told that they were back on the table. This time Laurel parents hit hard in social media and went before the school board. Now they had the teachers in the fight. The Laurel teachers wrote a letter that they all signed condemning co-location and a hostile take- over. Last week there was another town hall at Laurel, and I heard from my friends that the parents fought hammer and tongs to save their school. They grilled Melvoin and the district over all their missteps and lack of transparency. They succeeded in saving Laurel, again. I then got word there was another meeting scheduled for Fairfax today.
I was not at the morning meeting but since I was heading to Fairfax to help Carlos Jr. I called my friends to ask about it. They said that the district reps told the parents that they will give them Fairfax Building 400 and Building 500 and they will just find classrooms for the two magnets.
The two magnets at Fairfax are LAPD Police Magnet and a Visual Arts Magnet. In the spring I met the Fairfax principal who was proud of both magnets and told me that Fairfax students go to Ivy League universities every year and that their arts magnet is especially productive for churning out college bound students. So, an art student that could be bound for Yale will now see their program removed from Fairfax?
And what about the LAPD magnet students? Where will they go?
The district said, “They will find them classes.” But that does not mean the classes are on the Fairfax campus. Do those parents who want their own middle school understand this very real possibility for these Fairfax students is to be pushed off campus? I believe this is their naivete part of the Venn Diagram.
But the one that drove me almost to tears was the students who are also in building 500. The special ed students (CTC).
I was there today when parents were picking up these teens. These were students who could not walk very well, students who had autism, students with cerebral palsy, students with all sorts of physical conditions. I looked at the faces of the parents, they looked fatigued. What pain have they been carrying for sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years knowing that their child would always need support? One dad in particular had such a far-away stare waiting for his son that I didn’t have the heart to tell him, “There are some parents who want to take your son’s school away.”
I stood near the nine school buses watching the teachers help the special education students climb the stairs and step between the curb and the bus door. These are the ‘short’ buses that have been the butt of jokes for decades. My heart ached. Where are all these nine buses of students going to go if this middle school pushes them out?
I asked a couple of CTC teachers if they knew there was talk about being pushed out of Fairfax and they said they did but were still figuring out what to do and my anger rose inside me. Without even a second thought, I said, “Fight them! Don’t let them get away with it!”
And that was my moment. I was in the Venn diagram. I love my West Hollywood community, but these parents are so wrong in this battle. Their privilege is showing, and they are about to tear apart a community. And the question is why?
I can tell you exactly why. Many of them have not even toured Bancroft Middle School. They judge it because of gossip and rumors from ten years ago. I know because I heard the same things way back then and I had judged it as well but this spring I went and visited Bancroft. I met Ms. Diaz the terrific principal. I saw their wonderful programs. Bancroft has an International Baccalaureate, SteAm Magnet, Performing Arts Magnet and GATE/SAS. One of the 8th grade teachers is taking the students to Washington DC and last year took them to Spain. This is what we want in a Middle School. Passionate teachers and leaders.
A Gardner parent and who I met at the West Hollywood City Council went with me to principal Diaz and we asked, “How can we help promote Bancroft?” We put a night together to introduce the school to neighborhood parents plus I went to the Hollywood Neighborhood Council where I introduced the principal and said, “Bancroft would love support from all of you.” Many of them work in the entertainment business and I said, “Francis Ford Coppola went to Bancroft for gawdsakes!”
When I look at the map of the Bancroft footprint, I see the same thing I saw in West Hollywood Elementary twelve years ago. A school that just needs a little love and tenderness from parents. Once a few of them get in, the word will get out. In addition, Fairfax is about to expand into its own International Baccalaureate, so there is a natural flow from Bancroft to Fairfax for the IB students. This is a boon for the community and I believe all those in the Bancroft boundaries could make it the middle school jewel in the LAUSD crown.
I will be honest: there are some who probably have toured Bancroft and it could be problematic for them because it is not ‘white’ enough. I was told by my friends in WeHO they felt that was indeed the biggest issue. Perhaps that is one of the nuances where they are defined not like us. Maybe. I don’t know what is in people’s hearts.
But what I do know is that if they pursue Fairfax and destroy that community they will not be described as ‘progressive.’ Other words will be used.
And then there is one factor that is hanging offshore like a bad hurricane. The issue of Nick Melvoin and his deep protection and constant lobbying on behalf of charter schools. There are several independent charters who have tried to land at Fairfax. But they have not succeeded. Probably because of the magnets and special ed population. So, the question is, could this be an end run to get a charter in? What if this new middle school comes in, disrupts the current ecosystem, pushing out the special ed students, the police and art magnets and then the school fails (God knows they don’t have the money figured out for it) — who will go into the vacuum? Is there any guarantee it won’t be a charter? The answer is No.
After I got home from Fairfax, I decided to write this piece. I knew I could not blow it off. I wanted to give these parents who are hell bent on creating their own middle school in WeHO a bigger picture of the unintended consequences if they land at Fairfax. I am hoping they will think long and hard before they pursue this school and make their plea for it in front of the LAUSD board next week. Maybe they will take a real look at Bancroft. Maybe they will think about the special ed students and police and art students.
Maybe they will think about Carlos Jr., who around five in the evening texted me that he applied to Fairfax School of Advanced Studies and the Visual Arts Magnet, and he thank me and said, “I’m excited.”
I can’t lie, his text made me misty.
I hope, by shining this light, parents in West Hollywood will get on the progressive side of history and think before they leap — others could get hurt while they jump over them.