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Daily Breeze Article

Hawthorne's Middle Schools Given Focused Educational Themes

By Rob Kuznia Staff Writer

Posted: 10/17/2011 07:17:25 PM PDT

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Sixth grader Averille Walton learns the piano at the same time as 30 other students at Prairie Vista Middle School, which is now a fine arts academy. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

It's nothing new for a public high school to build its curriculum around a singular focus - perhaps in the arts, the sciences or vocational ed.

But the Hawthorne School District is embarking on a pioneering version of such an approach by bringing it to all three of its middle schools.

This means Prairie Vista School is no longer just a regular middle school. Now it has a specialized theme, namely the fine arts. Ditto for Bud Carson Middle School, the district's new hub for classes in science, technology, engineering and math (often referred to as STEM). And Hawthorne Middle School, where the thrust is business.

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Tiffany Tran in a honors science class at Bud Carson Middle School, which is now a science and math academy. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

Rolled out this fall, the plan is partly an effort to staunch a steady outflow of Hawthorne's K-8 students to neighboring charter schools, a common occurrence in public schools serving a low-income clientele.

But Helen Morgan, superintendent of the K-8 Hawthorne School District, said the ultimate goal is to put more students on the path to college. She believes tapping into students' inner strengths earlier on will help accomplish that.

"This gives them the opportunity to king of find themselves - what sparks them, what interests them," she said. "To start to build those qualities they are going to take forward."

The new configuration plays into a larger trend in public education, spurred by the charter movement, in which school choice is increasingly replacing the old model of the neighborhood school. More and more now, individual schools - often within the same district - are competing against one another in what amounts to an open market.

For Hawthorne students and families, the new academies mean that the educational experience at each middle school is decidedly unique.

At Prairie Vista Middle at 13600 Prairie Ave., many classrooms are filled with students learning artistic pursuits: electric piano, string orchestra, art, band, theater.

At Bud Carson Middle School at 13838 S. Yukon Ave., students are using iPads to dissect virtual frogs and high-powered computers to build robots.

At Hawthorne Middle School at 4366 W. 129th St., they're learning the basics of economics by trading candy. Later this year, many students there will try to launch real small businesses that generate real money.

The downside of the new setup is that it precludes students at, say, Bud Carson Middle School, from taking a band elective, or students at Prairie Vista from taking robotics, unless they switch schools. But Morgan is hoping that families in Hawthorne begin to select their middle schools less by proximity to home and more by personal academic interests.

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Eighth grader Delaila Falcon learns to play the violin at the same time as 30 other students at Prairie Vista Middle School, which is now a fine arts academy. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

"I'm hoping we get to the point where students are selecting the middle school that is the right fit for them," she said.

Franca Dell'Olio, a professor of education at Loyola Marymount University, said Hawthorne's new program is a variant of the decade-old "school within a school" movement, which aims to make going to school a more focused, personalized experience.

"I applaud the Hawthorne School District - they are trying to be innovative and creative in their approach to capturing the students and moving them forward," she said. "They are teaching students at a young age that they have to go deeper."

The academies in Hawthorne were designed largely to dovetail with the "school within a school" model adopted by each of the three high schools in the Centinela Valley high school district, into which Hawthorne's middle-schoolers feed. Likewise, students matriculating through Bud Carson Middle School might feel better prepared to attend the one charter high school located within the Hawthorne district, the Hawthorne Math and Science Academy.

Already, Hawthorne's middle schools are high performers when taking demographics into consideration, especially given the rampant unemployment that has plagued the city in recent years.

True, when measured against their counterparts in the largely suburban South Bay, Hawthorne's K-8 schools fare below average on standardized test scores. But compared to districts across California with similar demographics - 70 percent of the students in Hawthorne are Latino, 20 percent are black and 90 percent are poor - all three middle schools are top notch, at least by the test scores. Prairie Vista and Bud Carson rank in the top 10 percent of similar schools statewide; Hawthorne Middle School performs in the top 20 percent.

So if it's working, why change?

"A test doesn't measure your ability to build a robot or play a musical instrument, or your knowledge of the business world they are going to have to apply someday in reality," Morgan said. "We just have to keep pushing ourselves, and saying how can we keep providing our kids with more and more opportunities to be successful."

Despite the scholastic success, in recent years the Hawthorne district's student enrollment has been steadily dropping, most recently by about 150 students a year. In half a decade, the rolls have shrunk from 9,394 to 8,855.

Multiple factors are certainly at play, but Morgan said the district has lost plenty of families to nearby charters, such as Crescendo schools, a cluster of six charter schools in the Los Angeles region that were ordered shut down last year in the wake of a cheating scandal.

But this fall, for the first time in at least five years, enrollment in Hawthorne is actually up, by about 50 students. Morgan said although she'd like to attribute the uptick to the new academies, the Crescendo debacle has undoubtedly accounted for at least some of the rebound.

In any event, for all their differences, the three middle schools share a common goal: to get kids excited about coming to school.

At each one, students take the specialized courses as electives on condition they maintain passing grades in their required classes.

Bud Carson's focus on technology certainly appeals to eighth-grader Jorddy Fuentes, who now spends several hours a day acting as a kind of IT specialist for the school. It's a position he and other students had to apply for, like a job.

"I just like computers, honestly," he said. "I got my first computer when I was like 6 years old."

On a recent day at Hawthorne Middle School, students were treated to a lively lesson about economics writ small, in which peanut butter cups served as the legal tender.

"How many want one?" the teacher asked the class. Thirty hands shot up. "Is the demand high or low?"

"High," the class said.

"Maybe I only have 15, so the supply is ..."


"And the price is going to be high or low?"

One again, they correctly answered "high."

But one student might have tempered the price a little: "I ate one of my goods," she said.

Although test scores in Hawthorne are satisfactory, the district has struggled with its finances.

In June, Hawthorne was included on a California Department of Education list of districts facing severe financial problems. In all, about 14 percent of all districts in the state were on it. The list split the districts into two categories, and Hawthorne was lumped among the vast majority of districts in the less-dire group.

The less-dire list was later rescinded after the state Legislature passed a bill postponing deeper cuts to education. This means Hawthorne is no longer on a watch list, known in education parlance as "qualified."

"For now we're not qualified, and I'm living in the now," Morgan said.

Private-sector donations have been helpful. Chevron, for instance, provided $115,000 for equipment at Bud Carson.

But the transition hasn't been free. It required, for instance, the hiring of four teachers, one part time, at a cost of about $210,000. The expense isn't a cost, Morgan said, so much as an investment.