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Unsocial Studies 

The real lessons of Hamilton High

Wednesday, May 12 1999
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Photo by Jenafer GillinghamTHE HAMILTON HIGH SCHOOL STORY IS not what you think it is. It is not what I thought it was. It is melodrama that can only be described in epic terms, so here goes:

This is a Greek tragedy playing out in the furthest reaches of the Western world -- at a modest but comely red-brick high school in the hinterlands of West Los Angeles, just off the Santa Monica Freeway. This is a story riddled with ironies, some of which are infuriating but most of which are profoundly saddening, because they illustrate how real issues can be obfuscated by people who wrap themselves in the mantle of reform but who actually advance very small, and often poisonously small-minded, agendas. This is about no leaders. This is about the utter failure of collective reason in an age of fevered individualism. This is about the powder keg of racial frustration that keeps blowing up at odd and seemingly inappropriate moments because, 35 years after it relinquished its last legal claims as enforcer of a social and economic apartheid that was birthed in slavery, white America is content to live in a state of perilous ignorance about the persistent inequities of black and white. This is about the Faustian price black America often pays for being heard, about the ill-conceived celebrity of a justifiable rage. This is not about us, and all about Us. This is about a white friend living on the Westside who immediately and fearfully inquired upon hearing the rudiments of this story, "Is there going to be a riot?" This is about a flashpoint of brilliant possibility colliding with banal disbelief.

This is L.A.

 

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I. The Big Issue

 

Three weeks ago, I got a call from a coalition of black parents who were eager to meet with me to discuss some distressing incidents of racism at Hamilton High School, which also houses two magnet schools, humanities and music. I didn't know anything about the story beyond what I'd read in the April 17 L.A.Times: Some students and parents had staged a protest on campus against some magnet teachers they felt were racist and were exacerbating a separate and unequal educational situation. At a school that was once upon a time largely white and was now largely minority -- chiefly black and Latino -- minority students were doing markedly worse academically

than their white counterparts. This has become an all too common story that has prompted alarmingly little concern. The parents were particularly irate about the fact that the magnets, which had more white students, had more resources and more access, and consistently outperformed the main school on standardized tests -- no accident, they said. Money and success follow white children; low expectations and dismal academic performance dog minority children (of course, minority students in the magnets performed markedly better than their main-school counterparts, too, but I put that fact aside for the moment). This sounded reasonable to me, and I was glad that black people were publicly advancing a cause that never got enough headlines or generated enough moral outrage. It was time. I vaguely recalled my younger sister, a Hamilton magnet alumna, tangling with her teachers back in the '80s, complaining that she and her friends were singled out, and getting suspended once -- was racism playing itself out even then?

Probably. I would bring this story to light.

I met with the parents in the Crenshaw district, in an office building on a tree-shaded block of Leimert Park Village. Wil Wade, chairman of the African American Parent Coalition for Education Equity (AAPCEE), led the discussion around a long conference table with five other parents and two students. He wore a business suit, and clasped his hands together on top of the table; he didn't lean back in his chair once. The parents began by saying they had called me because they didn't want the real issue here -- the systemic inequities of public education, the concerted miseducation of black and Latino children -- to get lost in the furor over the teachers. They pointed out not only that the magnets (40 percent white) were glaringly better than the main school (90 percent minority), but that minority students in the main school were not being tracked in college-prep courses -- Advanced Placement and Honors classes seemed to have predetermined white populations. In a post-affirmative-action world, this was unacceptable.

"The issue isn't race, it's equity," explained Wade. "The white parents are afraid that we want to take money away from the magnets, but that's emotional. That's not true. My daughter's in the [music] magnet school. But I'm not interested in only doing for myself, getting mine and being done with it. We need to make sure these issues are addressed for the benefit of all the kids, all the generations coming behind."

So far, so good. This AAPCEE was actually a sister chapter to the first one, which was started at Westchester High by black parents who had similar concerns about a school that shares Hamilton's demographics and white-flight patterns. The parents stressed that the majority of teachers at Hamilton were good and dedicated, but that there were an influential few who were poisoning the well with their racist and cavalier attitudes. These teachers were aiding and abetting institutional racism, and eliminating them was a crucial first step toward the coalition's ultimate goal of bringing some balance to the system. The chief offenders were two humanities magnet teachers, Gregg Beytin and Alan Kaplan.

Beytin, who taught journalism and government, had allegedly thrown a chair and cursed at two black students, who voiced complaints; he was subsequently reassigned to a nearby administrative "cluster office." The Beytin incident is what sparked the April protest, according to the Times story. I asked for details. "We don't know exactly what happened," Wade said, almost casually. He deferred to a student, Kwabene Haffar, who said that according to what he knew, Beytin did not throw a chair; he wasn't entirely sure if Beytin's outburst was aimed specifically at the black students. It was here that I felt the first stirrings of doubt -- if Beytin acted in this instance like a hothead but not a racist, orchestrating an anti-racism protest around the incident seemed rather manipulative. I was down with the general cause, the big issue, but realized I had no fix on the teacher issue yet.

The discussion moved swiftly on to Alan Kaplan, the teacher for whom the parents reserved most of their animus. In his social-science and American history classes, Kaplan addressed racially inflammatory topics. Haffar said he transferred out after only one day because Kaplan put the question: "Why is it no one sympathizes with the slavemasters?" The most egregious of his lessons, the one that set AAPCEE in motion against him last June, centered on the school's gospel choir. The parents said they had to do battle with the Student Improvement Committee to secure funding for the choir, which was led by a non-credentialed teacher named Fred Martin. The funding was granted, and the next day Kaplan held a discussion in his classes on the dynamics of interest-group politics, using the gospel choir as a model. This lesson, the parents asserted, was one of many ways in which Kaplan degraded black kids. He also co-opted the affections of his pet students -- the "talented tenth," Wade said derisively -- and cowed the others, then set the two groups against each other. Kaplan was not only racist, he was facilitating nothing less than intraracial warfare on campus. He had to go.

The coalition had been pressuring the school district for his transfer, and that of several other magnet teachers, since last summer. But the district was not cooperating, and the "good ol' boy network," as Wade put it, was still in place. The parents wouldn't rest until it had been broken up. They had called me because I am black and write extensively about black issues, and they had confidence in my ability to do this story justice.

I shifted slightly in my seat. I rubbed my eyes. I suggested for the sake of argument that Kaplan and company had many students and parents supportive of them who were black, perhaps as many as were sitting around this table. What could I assume about that?

Wade nodded knowingly. "He brainwashes people," he said. "They're afraid to speak up. There are people who don't want to be on the front line. They may look like us, talk like us. But they're not us."

 

II. Fear and Loathing

 

Magnet schools were created in the late '70s as a response to a federal court order to desegregate public schools across the nation. By law, they can be no more than 40 percent white; students must apply for admission and are chosen by a combination lottery and point system. In L.A., as elsewhere, after mandatory busing proved a political and practical disaster, magnets were ushered in as the most viable alternative to forced integration, though they were not without their critics.

The dissension over Alan Kaplan and his role as guiding light of Hamilton's humanities magnet has a long and turbulent history. Since he joined the magnet in 1982, black parents, faculty and administrators have grumbled sporadically about his confrontational teaching style, his push for college-level work from high school students and, most of all, his insistence on dissecting the roots of racism as a way of fully understanding American history and the American gestalt. Gregg Beytin, who's also been at the magnet for much of its 18-year life, has a similar philosophy and teaching methodologies; he and Kaplan were chief architects of the magnet's "whole life" approach and its integrated course work. But it was Kaplan who first raised hackles, in 1987, when he shared a lesson with other Hamilton teachers about the impact of racism on the test scores of minority students; one of the readings for the lesson was an article on black test scores written by Salim Muwakkil, who cited a group of education experts â who were exclusively African-American.

Three black teachers in the room promptly began complaining that Kaplan had no right to be teaching anything about racism because he was white, and as far as they knew he might have some nefarious plan to destroy the minds of black children. Beytin eventually came to Kaplan's defense; the other teachers later petitioned the principal for Kaplan and Beytin's removal, but ultimately failed. Still, both teachers were investigated exhaustively before school officials declared there was no evidence of racism. And the die was cast: Kaplan and Beytin, and by extension the entire humanities magnet, had been branded a hotbed of racist and professionally elitist activity. That Hamilton's magnets were fast acquiring national reputations as public schooling that worked only seemed to stoke the fires of discontent; faculty divisions widened. Beytin says there are black teachers on campus with whom he has yet to have conversations.

The anti-Kaplan camp found an unofficial leader in Evelyn Mahmud, a black assistant principal who started out as a teacher in the humanities magnet and over the years became increasingly identified with black dissatisfaction. (She did not return repeated phone calls or respond to faxed questions for this story. Neither would anyone in the coalition agree to be photographed.) According to colleagues and parents, Mahmud was philosophically against magnet schools, which she regarded as havens for white students, and came to regard Kaplan as a standard-bearer of what was wrong with them. She remarked to more than one teacher that she thought Kaplan was racist, and that she didn't approve of his dating black women. Eventually she became allied with the parents who would form AAPCEE, and last May sided with them over the the issue of renewing funding for the school's gospel choir. The choir was funded annually by the Student Improvement Committee, a democratic body consisting of parents, teachers and students that divvied up money for everything from security guards to music-magnet aides. A straw poll indicated that the choir might lose some or all of its $13,000. When the parents got wind of the poll, they stood up at the committee meeting and loudly decried anyone who opposed the gospel choir, an entirely black group and a symbol of main school ethnic pride, as racist; if moneys were not approved, they said, they would call out the NAACP. One black student on the committee said she felt so physically threatened by the choir faction that she abstained from voting altogether. Funding for the choir passed by a landslide.

The following day, as Kaplan was teaching his political-action lesson based on the choir-funding vote, Mahmud walked unannounced into his classroom to observe; not 45 minutes later she walked out. The subsequent complaints she made to principal David Winter about the lesson precipitated the formation of AAPCEE and a full frontal attack on Hamilton's inequities. The coalition sent out a three-page letter detailing its grievances, which consisted mainly of charges against Kaplan and a short paragraph about low minority-student achievement and college-prep tracking. The charges against Kaplan ranged from the general to the gossipy to the frankly loony: he "demeans children"; he "tells students and faculty that he can't teach non-magnet students"; he often "talks about his private life in class and his preference for dating black women"; he "refers to himself with gang names such as 'Mule-Dawg' . . . All African-American and Latino students are not in gangs. Is this what he should be teaching in school?" The letter was sent to school-district and elected officials and every black activist group in the city -- including the NAACP, the Brotherhood Crusade and the Urban League -- though not to Kaplan himself. (Interestingly, AAPCEE's contention that Kaplan denigrated the gospel choir by calling it a "social impact group" is self-referencing: On the last funding request form that Mahmud submitted, she wrote that the chief beneficiaries of the choir are "students at risk.") The letter prompted two separate investigations of the charges, which went on for months and were ultimately dismissed as groundless.

Undaunted, the coalition mailed out another letter last November, this time to the entire Hamilton faculty. It praised the mostly responsible teachers, but warned against the few who "seek to use race and religious intolerance to isolate teachers from students and parents of color . . . These misguided teachers give good teachers a bad name." The letter concluded by urging teachers to join AAPCEE's cause of educational and racial equality.

The day after the April protest, before a scheduled gospel choir performance on campus, director Fred Martin alluded to it by exulting in the fact that Beytin was being punished and that the humanities magnet was finally getting its due. Those in the audience later complained to â school officials about what they perceived as blatantly partisan and wildly inappropriate remarks; they demanded disciplinary action against Martin, as action had been taken against Beytin, but nothing happened. Meanwhile, AAPCEE continues to agitate for Kaplan's ouster.

"It's pure McCarthyism, a witch hunt," says one black source close to the investigations who asked not to be named. "The parents probably have very viable concerns here, but their real agenda is so polluted, [the concerns] get lost. They represent the misdirection of black-power energy that strips the real issues of all credibility."

 

III. The Learning Curve

 

Kaplan and Beytin's supporters, not surprisingly, agree. But one irony among many is that they also agree with AAPCEE about the urgent need to address educational inequality at Hamilton and elsewhere -- and they credit the embattled teachers with ensuring they learned that. Nor does anyone believe that Beytin should not have been disciplined for losing his temper in class, but they say that labeling the incident racist, and proof that the school is racist, was either sloppy thinking or pure opportunism. As it turns out, Beytin never threw a chair, he blew up at a white Jewish student, and principal David Winter, after discussing the incident with Beytin and others, determined that race was not a factor. Beytin was in fact instrumental in helping to restructure the main school in recent years, establishing distinct courses of study -- Communications Arts, Global Studies -- as a way of giving it a magnetlike identity and setting a tenor of reform.

"I don't condone his temper, but his temper has absolutely no color line," says Winter Johnson, a senior in Beytin's government class. "I'm very outraged. I don't have a teacher, my magnet is crumbling. I totally disagree with all the allegations of racism. [Kaplan's and Beytin's] attitudes aren't always the best, but they're such great teachers. I've learned so much. They've totally revolutionized the way I think about everything. This whole thing is dumb."

Even those inclined to assign Beytin and Kaplan the greatest culpability stop short of calling them racist. "These guys can be insensitive," says Stu Bernstein, director of the district's Office of Intergroup Relations. "They could do with heavy-duty human-relations training. Race is something that we all live and breathe -- that's our legacy. But I honestly don't think they're racist."

A large problem not discussed by the coalition is the students' self-segregation: On the quad, magnet kids tend to hang out with magnet, main school with main school. Among black students, such cliquing is more loaded, and no doubt contributes to the parents' general sense of campus inequality, though the blame for this particular inequality can hardly be laid at the feet of teachers. One recent graduate of the humanities magnet recalls her and her friends' overt derision of their main-school counterparts: "We looked down on these students as ghetto, uncultured and unintelligent," says the alum, who asked not to be named. "The term 'original Hamilton,' which referred to the main school, was code for 'black.'"

After promising to do so, the coalition never put me in touch with dissident black students other than the two present at the Leimert Park meeting. In contrast, at a school management meeting the Monday following the protest, the outpouring of support for Beytin and Kaplan was oceanic; one ex-student testifying to their influence openly wept. Kaplan's supporters in particular are astonishing in their number, ethnic variety and consistency of comments. When he was being threatened with removal after the gospel-choir incident last year, students circulated a "Save Kaplan" petition that garnered well over 100 signatures in one class period, and more than 100 letters of support arrived from parents, students, alumni. To a person, they cited his uncompromising academic standards and intellectual rigor. He could be overly impatient, they said, withering at times and overbearing, yet it was all in the interest of getting students to challenge their lazy assumptions about the world and think for themselves.

"He's so strict, you have no choice but to learn," says Nefertiti Takla, an 18-year-old humanities magnet senior. "He catches your attention by talking about the real world -- racial problems, social problems. He does it all. Once in a lesson, he totally destroyed stereotypes of people, especially those of African-Americans. A lot of people take him the wrong way, if you're oversensitive or immature. If you call him a racist, you have to point to the fact that he's Jewish and he makes fun of Jews."

Kaplan got letters in Spanish, from whole families, from black and Latino students in the magnet and the main school, who claimed they had learned more about black and minority history from him than from anywhere or anyone else. They said that Kaplan is great because he doesn't just teach history or social science, he teaches the interconnectedness of everything. He examines concepts, attitudes, ideas that tether history to psychology and literature and pop culture; parents say that they began looking forward to their kids bringing lessons home so they could learn something, too. Sample lines from the letters tell a formidable story: "From this painfully honest man, I have learned to search for the reasons policies are the way they are" . . . "As one of his students, I have been exposed to new ways of seeing society and its composition, without a biased mentality. Mr. Kaplan teaches in a â way incomparable to any other by allowing the student to uncover thematic similarity through historic information" . . . "While I was on an interview for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I told the interviewer that Mr. Kaplan is the best teacher I ever had. I am a black student, a male student who knows from my experiences that Mr. Kaplan is not in the least bit racist" . . . "As an African-American male, my desire to succeed and dispel the distorted societal view of African-Americans is now considerably stronger because of Mr. Kaplan's commendable lesson plan and teaching ability." If this guy is brainwashing people, it would behoove us all to find out how he's doing it.

Many black parents and students say AAPCEE is doing some serious mau-mauing, beating everyone over the head with accusations of white oppression and creating such a charged atmosphere that no one who takes issue with them -- black or white -- will do so publicly. That includes such mammoth "white" entities as the teachers union and the entire school district; the only school-board member to address the Hamilton situation thus far is not Valerie Fields, who represents the Westside, but Barbara Boudreaux, who doesn't. At a recent board meeting, Boudreaux, a self-styled champion of black causes, loudly sympathized with the coalition and declared that the district must look into the possibility that black children "might be experiencing retribution from those teachers currently under investigation." Clearly, Boudreaux knew nothing save what AAPCEE had told her. With the exception of student-body president Dominique West, an African-American, the students who showed up at the board meeting to speak in support of Kaplan and Beytin were not allowed to take the podium.

The groundswell of quiet opposition to the coalition is getting less quiet, and more organized. An Internet dialogue among Hamilton alumni recently produced a Web site (www.bol.ucla.edu/~eklee) where people can log comments and join a contact list of Hamilton supporters. Lenn Kano, a 26-year-old magnet alum who informed me of the site and has been tracking the situation since last year, says Beytin and Kaplan were so formative in his own life, he has no choice but to play the intellectual activist now -- questioning the status quo, discerning real motives, exposing hypocrisy. "[District folks] figure if they just keep quiet, let a few heads roll, this whole thing will go away and that's worth it," says Kano, who is Japanese-American. "I hope the central issue in all this doesn't get lost, which is that there is ongoing segregation in terms of the magnet and main school. The funny thing is, Mr. Kaplan understands more about the problem than anybody in the administration."

There is a two-week-old counter parent group spearheaded by Alice Wallace, who is black. Wallace has twin daughters in the magnets and says she and others are flat-out tired of being psychologically bullied by a small group that claims to represent the sentiments of most black parents at Hamilton. They are tired of the inference that because they don't wholly embrace AAPCEE, they are sellouts, whitewashes or, worst of all, infected with the disaffection of the black bourgeoisie. Wallace says what's so distressing about AAPCEE is that it rightfully claims representation on the one hand -- speaking to systemic problems of blacks and Latinos -- and completely exploits it on the other. Still, Wallace knows all the ramifications of publicly breaking ranks with a black group -- over the issue of white teachers, no less.

"I had to do some soul-searching before I jumped in," she says. "But black parents were saying to me, 'These people [AAPCEE] are crazy!' I figured it was time for this stuff to stop. When my daughters had Kaplan, they would come home from school actually excited by what they were learning. They don't say that about too many teachers. He's cutting-edge, provocative -- as a parent, I hear the things he says and sometimes think, 'Well, I might have said it differently' -- but you have to respect him." Wallace says she has confronted assistant principal Evelyn Mahmud about what she sees purely as a vendetta, asked her why Fred Martin has not been disciplined for his stumping at the gospel concert. She also questions why the coalition is expending all of its energy on Kaplan and the magnets if its real fight is with institutional problems and the main school. "For them, Kaplan is the battle," says Wallace.

She has settled on a name for the counter parent group, which has roughly 100 parents and students on its roster: Reasonable Adults and Children for Education. RACE, for short. "We have to act fast," says Wallace. "The school year's almost over."

 

IV. The Slavemasters

 

Gregg Beytin says that after all the racism battles in and out of the classroom for the better part of 12 years, it's come down to this bizarre Waterloo. "I'm actually kind of glad that it broke like this, because tensions had been brewing for so long," he says. "If I cut and run now, it would be admitting defeat."

Beytin is an excitable guy, glib and prone at moments to hyberbole and sweeping political allegory ("This is a little bit like fundamentalists against the Enlightenment"). Ursine and slightly rumpled, he has a clear passion for his work that is being sorely tested by all this. He wants to be back in the classroom. He says that if Alan Kaplan leaves, he will likely leave too, as will at least a dozen other teachers who are poised to put in for transfers pending the final district decision about Beytin's place at Hamilton. If he is axed, Beytin â believes, the humanities magnet will fall, and status-quo education -- handouts, crossword puzzles, safe, antiseptic discussions about antiseptic readings -- will prevail. Beytin says that such a void of challenges is racism at its most insidious, but that is exactly what the coalition seems to want. "I'm trying to stay afloat, trying to save my school, but this will be with me the rest of my life," he says. "Being called a racist is very, very serious, and we've been soldiers in this war a long time. If they want better education for minority kids, I'm in complete agreement. If they want to say, 'That person did it,' then I say no. What infuriates me is that we are not part of the problem, but we could be part of the solution very easily. We do a better job of raising minority achievement than anyone."

Kaplan is the last one to talk here. Initially he didn't want to talk at all; he'd had his fill of allegations and misrepresentation and his words being taken out of context, plus he figured that Beytin had talked enough for the both of them. But it was odd, being the eye of this whole storm yet never once being a voice in the Times stories. So he talked.

He's more low-key than Beytin, more deliberate but no less intense. Once he overcomes a certain wariness, he is actually eager to talk and to throw ideas up for debate; it seems to be his second nature. He paces at points, slowly, and tugs at his goatee a lot. His voice is a little ragged -- from teaching for 18 years, from the last year of stress, from both. He grew up in the Valley but sounds a lot like Brooklyn. "I'm not perfect," he says, shrugging. "I've made mistakes. The kids get all of me, which means they get my bad moments. Having high expectations may even be construed as racist, but social promotion -- passing kids from one grade to another without demanding much of them -- is more racist."

Kaplan is mad as hell, partly because his career is on the line but mostly because students might be shortchanged in the future. "Those who don't hold you accountable don't care about you," he fairly snaps. "Yes, I'm speaking to mainly black and Latino students when I say, 'It's shameful that you read four years below grade level.' But I don't single out black kids -- I talk about everybody. I talk about Westside white girls who use language like, 'You know, like . . .' We are elite as a magnet, but that doesn't mean we're better human beings, of course."

He recalls with some bewilderment an incident that occurred last year. Kwabene Haffar, the AAPCEE acolyte and his student nemesis, had put up posters announcing lunchtime meetings of his new black student group; the posters denounced racist teachers at Hamilton, thinly veiled allusions to Kaplan and others. Principal Winter objected to the posters, saying they were inflammatory, but Kaplan taught a lesson on the issue and concluded that Haffar had a First Amendment right to display them. Not long afterward, during an evening open house, Haffar's mother stormed into Kaplan's classroom, where he had a poster displayed. She tore it from the wall and upbraided Kaplan for stealing her son's "property" before storming out. This sort of blind resistance wounds him the most.

Reflecting on the troubles of the last year, he admits, "I contemplate leaving every day. But I owe it to the people who defend me to stay. I love my job. I don't think the [AAPCEE] parents are cynical opportunists, but I think their analyses are flawed. We're on the same path until it comes to what should be done about the problems."

Kaplan has never spoken to the coalition, which refuses to meet with him and will not agree to mediation. (Wade's explanation is a heatedly rhetorical, "Do you negotiate with a Bull Connor? Do you negotiate with an Orval Faubus?") He doesn't have much hope it will ever happen. He does hope that Hamilton will survive. "Hamilton's got it all," he says. "Race, class, underperforming black kids, reform movements, integration, white flight. We're ground zero. It happens here, or it doesn't. We're a model for the city, the nation."

 

V. Coda

 

This story did not prove to be as reductive as I'd hoped. All the paths -- expansive and narrow, splintered and righteous, clearly marked or elided by intent -- did not merge into one path, or two. I wound up with more What is this story about?s than I started out with. I lost sleep. I struggled with my own loyalties and preconceptions and sense of absolute fairness. I wondered more than once if there is such a thing, and decided that, like its parent notion of democracy, fairness is something we must make real for ourselves when the occasion demands it. I wondered if the coalition would make good on its promise to move on to other schools where low black and Latino achievement is entrenched -- Jefferson, Locke, Jordan, Fremont, Manual Arts -- and where there are no white-populated magnets to put these failings in front of television cameras and on editorial pages for a couple of weeks. I wondered if they would hold black and minority teachers and administrators as accountable for racial inequity and psychological damage as they have held these white teachers. I wondered if they would picket and circulate letters and refuse to mediate and make lists of demands. I wondered if they would invoke "our children" so vociferously and with such high purpose.

Alice Wallace doesn't think so. "The real story here," she says matter-of-factly, "is very uninteresting."

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