Nick Melvoin fielded sometimes angry questions Thursday morning from parents of students at Laurel School who are worried about the impact of plans to open a new middle school in Los Angeles Unified School District 4. Melvoin represents District 4, which includes West Hollywood, on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education.
Parents challenged Melvoin to explain why Laurel School’s parents have not been involved in a discussion with parents of six other elementary schools in the district about plans for the new West Hollywood-Fairfax Academy. Melvoin also was asked what impact that new middle school would have on Laurel, which is a “span” school that offers classes for children from kindergarten through eighth grade.
The meeting took place on the Laurel School campus, which is at 925 N. Hayworth Ave., just outside of the West Hollywood city limits. The parents attending the meeting reflected the diversity of Laurel’s student population, with some speaking only Spanish and a few from Russian-speaking communities.
Local District officials still haven’t decided where to recommend that the West Hollywood-Fairfax Academy be located. Two locations that have been under consideration are the Fairfax High School campus on Melrose Avenue and the West Hollywood Community Day School at 1049 N. Fairfax Ave. However, Laurel parents have learned that another option under consideration is locating it on the campus of the Laurel School.
Melvoin opened the meeting by acknowledging that the Laurel community should have been more involved in discussions about the WHFA project. “Were we to do it over again, we would have been much more focused on engaging this community earlier,” he said.
Melvoin said the focus had been on six other District 4 elementary schools — Cheremoya, Gardner, Melrose, Rosewood, Wonderland, and West Hollywood – because they had expressed a desire for a middle school in their area. The only other public middle school relatively near them is Bancroft Middle School on Las Palmas Avenue, just east of Highland Avenue and outside of West Hollywood’s city limits. The Laurel community hadn’t been engaged, Melvoin said, because Laurel already has the sixth- through eighth-grade classes (serving students ages 11 to 14) that constitute a middle school. Melvoin also noted that Laurel had been focused on its application to be designated as a magnet school with a focus on “cinematic arts and creative technologies, which was approved in June.
Parents attending the meeting questioned whether opening another middle school would result in a diversion of resources from Laurel and whether it might have an impact on Laurel’s enrollment. Public School Review, a website that offers statistics on public schools, reports that Laurel’s student population of 319 students has declined by 15% over five school years. Laurel’s count of 14 teachers represents a 36% decline over five years, Public School Review reports.
Melvoin acknowledged the decline in middle school enrollment. Only 15% of children ages 11 to 14 in West Hollywood go to public schools in District 4, he said. The rest attend charter schools and private schools. Melvoin said that a goal of designating Laurel as a magnet school with a focus on cinematic arts and creative technologies was to attract more students. “We are trying to get folks who are leaving for charter schools and private schools to come back,” he said.
Melvoin also expressed concern that Laurel has only one class per grade, which he said is rare. He acknowledged that the district has looked at the possibility of phasing out the elementary school classes but now understands that the community opposes that.
Melvoin, who was elected to the School Board in 2017, said Laurel’s middle school options hadn’t been properly promoted. He said he had learned that a search function on the LAUSD’s website didn’t identify Laurel as having classes for sixth- through eighth-graders. He also agreed with a parent who called out the lack of signage on the Laurel school site, which is largely surrounded and hidden by a fence.
Several parents criticized what they saw as economic and ethnic discrimination in the focus on creating the West Hollywood-Fairfax Academy, which has gotten support from many parents at West Hollywood Elementary School. “The rich are now trying to force us out because they don’t want to integrate, they want to segregate,” said one parent.
Another parent, describing Laurel as “family,” said that in advocating for their own middle school, parents of children in the other area elementary schools wanted “to build their own family. They are going to break our own family.”
Melvoin said the City of West Hollywood has expressed interest in the idea of a new middle school, but to date has not offered any land or financial support for locating such a school in West Hollywood. He also noted that “the City of West Hollywood is quite white,” and thus a school located there might not offer the diversity that parents of Laurel students saw as an asset. A ranking of the most diverse public schools in California puts Laurel in the top 20%. Two-thirds of the students attending West Hollywood Elementary are white, while 73% of Laurel’s students are from racial or ethnic minorities, who typically have lower incomes. Some of those students live as far away as South Central Los Angeles. Parents in those areas are likely to enroll their children at Laurel if they commute to the area for work.
Melvoin assured the parents that their children currently enrolled at Laurel will be able to continue at the school when it converts to a magnet in 2020/2021 school year. However, Laurel Principal Brian Wisniewski said that parents who wanted their children to remain at Laurel would have to go online and make an application by the Nov. 15 deadline. The fact that their children are currently enrolled at Laurel guarantees that their application will be accepted, he said.
Local District West will submit the middle school plan to the Board of Education on Nov. 15 so that it can be placed on the Board’s Dec. 3 agenda. The current plan is for WHFP to begin operating in the fall of 2020 with 125 sixth-grade students, five teachers, and an administrator. It will expand by 2022 to serve 360 students with two administrators and 16 teachers spanning sixth through eighth grades.