Back to Square One

When Middle College High School opened in a cluster of bungalows on the campus of Los Angeles Southwest College back in 1989, it was an educational experiment in more ways than one. Cast in a new national model of public high schools operating at junior colleges, Middle College was a partnership between space-crunched Los Angeles Unified School District and Southwest, a small learning community that could fast-track students into college by virtue of its location. Initially a continuation/options school, Middle College quickly developed a reputation not only for turning around troubled students, most of them black and Latino, but for a solid academic program that helped send an impressive percentage of Middle College’s seniors on to higher education every year. Fully accredited six years ago, the high school offers AP courses and was planning to add more. But all of this will likely end next year. After years of reluctantly playing host, Southwest College, located at Western Avenue and Imperial Highway in the Athens area, is now flatly refusing to extend the high school’s lease, citing space problems of its own, limited parking and impending construction projects that require reconfiguring the entire campus and razing the bungalows. Middle College supporters and LAUSD officials dispute that, saying the real problem is that the high school simply doesn’t fit into the agenda of Southwest president Audre Levy, who they claim has been frankly opposed to Middle College since coming to Southwest four years ago. “Dr. Levy is committed to Southwest, and Middle College is just not part of that vision,” says Middle College principal Pamela Jackson. “I understand that. We are guests here, and always have been. But I don’t see the negative of us being here. We give them students. We don’t cost them any money. And there’s nothing like [Middle College] anywhere.” Levy counters that she is not opposed to the high school, and that problems existed long before she came on. “I’ve been painted as a villain, but actually, I’ve been a champion of Middle College,” she says. “Since I got here, I’ve been trying to get people together and work things out.” Southwest’s president says her decision to close the campus is based largely on the need to grow and improve the school, a traditionally underpopulated campus that she claims is experiencing rapid growth. And she says she needs to do this on a relatively small parcel of land, 75 acres, that was cut dramatically after a seismic report in 2002 found that half of it was unsuitable to build on. Levy does acknowledge that her priorities lie with the college, and that the high school has failed to “integrate” with Southwest. Levy also wants to keep to a strict timeline of using Proposition A and AA moneys or risk delays and more cost. As a compromise, she has proposed eliminating ninth grade and leasing available classroom space only in the afternoons; Jackson and others reject that as tantamount to killing Middle College, which needs to operate full time and with a full complement of grades to fulfill its college-prep mission. “The proposal is just not feasible,” says school-board member Marguerite Lamotte, whose South-Central district includes Middle College. Lamotte was principal for years at Washington Prep High School, a famously troubled campus down the road from Southwest and one of its feeder schools. Lamotte is clearly frustrated with what she sees as resistance to a program that provides a rare model of both high school and college success in a community that sorely needs both. “I don’t understand this,” says Lamotte. “Middle College was welcomed initially, but the new administration has brought new hostility.” Lamotte has tried to broker an 11th-hour agreement with Levy to allow Middle College to stay another year — with the intervention of elected officials, including Supervisor Yvonne Burke. The agreement is contingent upon LAUSD’s providing, at Levy’s insistence, 300 additional parking spaces. If the district can’t make that guarantee by this week, Middle College will be done by June. Middle College staff and supporters say these are all simply roadblocks, and unconscionable roadblocks at that. That Levy is African-American and a veteran of teaching K–12 education herself — she worked in the neighboring Inglewood Unified School District, among other places — makes a bitter pill that much harder to swallow. Indeed, Middle College’s recent stats read like an urban educator’s dream: 98 percent of its 350 students graduated last year (as compared with an LAUSD average of roughly half for black and Latino students); 42 graduated with both a diploma and an associate-of-arts degree in the last three years, and 15 more are on schedule to do the same by June; a whopping 75 percent go on to a four-year college or university; the school’s Academic Performance Index, a formula for school performance closely watched by the state, shot up 56 points between 2003 and 2004. Even on the controversial high school exit exam, which students of color fail in droves, Middle College students passed by 94 percent — the first time. Levy seems unmoved by those figures, and claims that Middle College students don’t utilize Southwest nearly as much as its administration says it does. More puzzling is Levy’s basic contention that Southwest needs space to accommodate more people. The president says 7,500 students enroll each semester and that more are coming, but a quick tour of Southwest on any given day or evening would seem to suggest otherwise. Principal Jackson says that Middle College has, in fact, helped to keep Southwest in business by supplying it with students, who generate sales at the bookstore — $12,000 worth this past year — and elsewhere on campus. The most likely outcome is that LAUSD will relocate Middle College next year to 98th Street and Aviation Boulevard near LAX, the former site of an elementary school. Many believe that moving it out of a college environment, and out of the community, will effectively kill what has made Middle College a unique entity. Natalie Battersbee, Middle College’s first principal, who led the school until 2001, says the tragedy goes beyond losing the school itself. “Unfortunately, we as black people don’t care how good something is for our kids, it’s about what’s good for me,” says Battersbee. “It’s really sad and ironic. These kids have done incredible things.” Her successor agrees. “I’ve been in the district 20 years, and I’ve never worked with better students,” says Jackson. “These are the best students and staff I’ve ever had.”

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