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Friday, June 26, 2009

A Highland Park haven for troubled youth says goodbye to the class of 2009

In 1906 the Strickland family of Highland Park welcomed an orphaned nephew on to their small farm where they raised chickens and sold dairy products in the northern fringe of the city. Soon after, the couple took in juvenile wards of the court and their farm was transformed into the Strickland Home for Boys. More than a century later, the former Strickland Home For Boys, which now operates as the coeducational Optimist Youth Home & Family Services, remains a refuge for troubled youth. This week, the LA Times profiled Optimist High School, which operates on the group's compound on North Figueroa Street, and some of this year's graduates:

"On Friday, Alfred Stern was dressed immaculately in shirt and tie and suit jacket, on his way to an interview for a spot in a transitional housing program. Stern, who was reading far below his age level two years ago, is now testing at the 12th-grade level. He did well enough at Optimist to be dually enrolled at Eagle Rock High School, from which he also graduated. Stern, too, spent time in Juvenile Hall. He won't say why. "I'm trying to let the past be the past."

Away from his Oakland home, he said, he began to concentrate on studies. "I stopped acting like a little kid. I had to grow up. I started pushing myself to not be at the level I was at."

He's looking for a job. "The profession I really want to go into is magic."

Read more about the Optimist High class of 2009.

Photo from the Optimist High web site.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Supporters rally to keep an Echo Park child care center on a firm financial foundation

Playgroup started off nearly 40 years ago as a progressive concept in community-based day care called the Echo Park-Silver Lake People's Childcare Center. It was started by Ruth Beaglehole, who also founded the Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting, to provide affordable child care to a working class neighborhood. While Playgroup still adheres to its progressive principals, the child care center located on Lakeshore Avenue in Echo Park is facing growing financial pressure in the wake of budget cuts. So, parents and supporters are holding a fundraiser and arts event Saturday night in a downtown loft as part of an effort to build a stronger financial base for the school.

"Playgroup ... is in an interesting position right now as a good portion of it's funding comes from state and city sources - which are drying up right now," said said Echo Park resident Ariadne Shaffer. "We are doing everything we can to help the school with its funds. This includes an extensive lobbying campaign with the city and a number of fundraisers."

The event, which includes a silent art auction featuring the work of Echo Park artists and a video installation, will also screen a 1970s documentary on the Playgroup. The school's philosophy and a mix of children from from a variety of racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds has attracted parents like Jenna Gulager, a soon-to-be Silver Lake resident who enrolled her 2-1/2 year-old son in the center last December.

"I think it's a really wonderful mix that reflects what our city is," Gulager said. "I think that's really important."

A green event to raise some green for a Silver Lake school

The preschool at the Silver Lake Independent Jewish Community Center is holding a fundraiser Saturday, June 20 featuring an organic farming workshop, recycled art project for kids and a sale of recycled (ok, used) clothing. The big draw, however, appears to be a designer sample sale. Click on the flyer for more details.

Some of the best public high schools in America are on the Eastside

That's what Newsweek magazine determined in this year' ranking of the nation's top 1,500 public high schools. An official with LAUSD praised Eagle Rock High for making the list at No. 383. But the 30 Los Angeles schools that were cited also included several other area campuses, some of which have been better known for their academic weaknesses than strengths.

The other schools on the list include Marshall, No. 852, Wilson, No. 1213, and Garfield, No. 1372.

The top ranked Eastside school was the High School for the Arts in El Sereno, which came in at No. 310. Two magnet schools also made the list, Bravo Medical in Boyle Heights, No, 465, and Downtown Business Magnet, near Angeleno Heights, at 469.

How are the rankings determined? The magazine explains: "The number of Advanced Placement, Intl. Baccalaureate and/or Cambridge tests taken by all students at a school in 2008 divided by the number of graduating seniors."

Photo from John Marshall Senior High School website

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Echo Park stroller set rolls into trouble *

They seem to be every where these days, jammed between incredibly tiny cafe tables, maneuvering around the dog poop in Elysian Park and riding up and down the sidewalks of Echo Park Avenue. The baby strollers carrying the offspring of Echo Park's new middle class mommies and daddies have made their presence known. The Echo Park stroller set has even been spotted in a place that many middle class and working class parents have long avoided: the neighborhood public school. But a recent leadership change at Elysian Heights Elementary School and a dose of school district bureaucracy and seeming indifference have some parents thinking twice about sending their kids to school down the block.

"We really liked the idea of walking the kids to school," said Laura Owens, a 38-year-old artist and mother of two who took a recent tour of Elysian Heights Elementary. "They have a great thing going there. It could stay the same or it could get worse."

Owens is a member of the newly formed group called Echo Park Parents that arranged its first tour of neighborhood schools starting with Elysian Heights. Elysian Heights is in many ways one of those neighborhood schools many parents dream about. It's small, with less than 5oo students, above average and improving test scores and a charming campus, once famous for its legendary feline mascot, Room 8 Cat.

The tour, however, not only introduced Owens and other parents to the campus and staff. It also made them aware of some unsettling news. Longtime principal Sally Olguin was retiring at the end of the semester and the school district had refused an effort by the staff to allow employees and residents to help select her replacement. Instead, the district told staff that it was too late for them to get involved and named an administrator from nearby Rosemont Elementary School to fill the slot, according to an Elysian Heights worker. Employees were also surprised to discover that the district had decided to remove several school bungalows that house everything from arts classes to counseling offices to a makeshift ballet studio.

The district's hiring decision upset some teachers and residents who thought that they could help find an innovative principal who would be comfortable with greater neighborhood involvement. "We need someone who is flexible and willing to work with the community and who might be willing to come in on a Saturday," said kindergarten teacher and Elysian Heights alum Lupe Fernandez. She said the entire staff had signed a letter asking to be involved in the hiring decision.

Echo Park resident and parent Bettina Jeszenszky, who helped create a garden at the school, fears that the district's has hurt morale at the school and may have undermined neighborhood efforts to improve its academic performance. Parents like Jeszensky, who is the mother of a one-year-old and three-year-old, have dreamed of emulating the success of the parents and staff who have transformed Ivanhoe Elementary School in Silver Lake into what many regard as a model public school. Jeszensky and Owens say they both are still interested in sending their kids to Elysian Heights but remain uneasy about future dealings with the school district (The Eastsider has contacted the LAUSD for comment*).

"Many thought this is was a chance to get a real firecracker principal at the school and really make a difference," said Jeszensky. "It's very discouraging. It's another example of LAUSD acting unit laterally. We want to be included in these kinds of decisions. You don't get the best by leaving everyone out in the cold."

* Update: LAUSD has still not responded to a request for comment. However, Elaine Kinoshita, director of support services for Local District 4, did respond to several Echo Park parents. Here is part of her response:

e understand that staff, parents and community members may have wished to participate in the selection process but due to a number of factors this was not feasible at this time. We look forward to your continued support of the school and its staff."

Related stories:
* School district announces Echo Park principal changes.
Echo Elysian Forum

Top image from Elysian Heights Elementary school web site; bottom photo from Mileena via Flickr

Friday, June 12, 2009

Celebrate Flag Day with 962 other patriots

If you like flags and have time Monday morning, join the 962 students at Betty Plasencia Elementary School in Echo Park for a Flag Day Ceremony that begins 8:30 a.m. Each of the students will get a small flag courtesy of the Lions Club, and Congressman Xavier Becerra was able to deliver on a last-minute request to get the school a full-sized flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol building. More details.

Photo by Matt McGee via Flickr

Monday, June 8, 2009

A camp out against budget cuts

A group opposed to state budget cuts to education will hold a potluck dinner and overnight camp out in front of Lincoln High School on Monday night. More details. LA Eastside

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Coming to Echo Park this summer: kids, lots of them

A school district building boom and a drop in enrollment means that many formerly overcrowded Echo Park area campuses, such as Belmont High School and Logan Elementary, have or are about to drop their year-around schedule and return to a traditional semester calendar. That means that all those students will now be taking their summer break all at once instead of in shifts - a big adjustment for their parents and other folks who work with kids.

In recent summers, only about 20 students who were out on break spent the day at Central City Action Committee, a nonprofit that provides activities for kids and young people. This summer, however, Central City, which operates out of a former firehouse in Angeleno Heights, will have to find day-time activities to keep as many as 60 kids busy, said executive director Maryanne Hayashi. "We will have to be creative in addressing their needs," she said.

Central City has secured additional funds to pay kids to work on some projects but Hayashi wonders how they will be able to transport and supervise the bigger groups of kids on field trips and overnight camp outs. With the Los Angeles school district eliminating Summer School for elementary and middle schools and the city's Recreation and Parks Department facing budget cuts, all those extra kids out of class this summer will need something to do, she said.

"You are just going to have to accommodate all these kids who are going to be streets on the summer."

Photo by PBGoS via Flickr