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LAUSD kicks off new effort to help ‘hormones with arms and legs’

Mike Szymanski | January 15, 2016



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Deborah Wiltz, of the Middle School Principals’ Organization

With middle school principals’ sharing their best practices and dire needs, an LA Unified board committee yesterday set off on a new initiative to improve the academic and social skills of students one principal described as “hormones with arms and legs.”

The discussion in the Curriculum, Instruction and Educational Equity Committee came two days after the LA Unified board unanimously approved what is being called a “landmark resolution” to steer the nearly 200,000 district middle graders onto a path to graduation.

Many of the dozen principals and teachers thanked the committee chairman Scott Schmerelson and the resolution writer, Ref Rodriguez, for a measure that creates a team to be formed by the end of this month. Schmerelson is a former teacher, counselor principal at a middle school; Rodriguez taught at a middle school and co-founded a middle school charter school.

The principals said they are not just facing academic issues but also social issues. Some mentioned “cutters,” students who are secretly cutting themselves, usually on their thighs or arms.

“It is appalling about the incidents of cutting, the act of physical self-mutilation, and principals see it at every level of middle school,” said Sandra Cruz from Patrick Henry Middle School in Granada Hills. “Every middle school needs a school psychologist.”

Deborah Wiltz, president of the Middle School Principals’ Organization, and principal at Byrd Middle School of Sun Valley called for more middle school counselors and smaller class sizes. The principals called for at least one instruction coach for each middle school, including support for English development, and increased tech personnel. They also want more technology to deal with additional testing that is now done on computer devices.

And they expressed a need for help with students who don’t meet the district graduation requirements but are promoted to high school, anyway.

At least two of those working with middle school students broke down in tears when telling stories. One of them was Lori Vollandt, the health coordinator of the district, who referred to many middle graders as “hormones with arms and legs.”

Recognizing the district’s efforts to innovate through grants, she cried when saying, “I really have confidence in LAUSD, and we have to go out there and ask how can we serve you and what should we do?”

Vollandt’s department has a number of educational units that work in middle schools to address such issues as HIV/AIDS, drug and substance abuse, teen pregnancy and nutrition. The district also has programs for safe school plans, gun violence intervention, GBLT youth counseling and safe environments for transgender youth.

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Rory Pullens, director of arts education

As for arts, Rory Pullens, the executive Director of Arts Education, told the committee the district has made strong progress in hiring new arts teachers for middle schools so that every middle school now has a full-time arts teacher, and music program.

“There were 20 middle schools that had no art instruction at all, and that has been remedied,” he said. “In 2016 we are expanding arts integration to reach 2,000 non-arts teachers to show how they can integrate arts—theater, dance, media, film—into any subject matter. We have to have out-of-the-box delivery to relate to middle school students.”

The committee meeting was the  starting point for reimagining the middle grades, to continue with the panel led by Rodriguez.

“I know that the middle grades are the most difficult and yet a critical passage for many students,” Schmerelson said. “If we are really serious about 100 percent graduation, we have to make sure that our students are showing up for high school prepared for a successful transition and equipped with the academic skills that they need to succeed.”

The overall effort has won the support of several national organizations dedicated to helping middle grades, including the Association for Middle Level Education and the California League of Middle Schools. “It is a tough age for kids and schools need to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem,” said California League executive director Scott Steel.

The district is starting to consult with their own experts, including several who joined the committee meeting, Randy Romero, principal of Hollenbeck Middle School, and Gustavo Lopez, an 8th grade history and social science teacher in Luther Burbank Middle School.

“It’s the greatest changes in their lives, the most exacerbating developmental years, with puberty,” said Wiltz. “That’s why it so important to share what is going well with teaching.”

 

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