A Look Into L.A. Unified: Millikan Middle School
The Los Angeles Unified School District overflows with bad news. The second largest school district in the country has a graduation rate of a mere 72 percent, 8 percent lower than the state average. Thirty-two of the city’s worst performing schools were essentially auctioned off to rebuild as charters. The school board and teachers’ union voted to shorten the school year, cutting five days from this year.
A team of Neon Tommy reporters visited campuses across Los Angeles to see how well the reports match what happens in classrooms on any given day.
Teacher Sheila McGuckin sat on a stool with a workbook in hand at the front of her sixth grade English class at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks. Elevated above her students, her eyes scanned the class as she spoke.
The Monday morning light streamed through the translucent banners of athletic team logos drawn in permanent marker that covered the classroom’s windows. Class projects on Ancient China, uniformly presented in clear plastic covers, monopolized one of the room’s many bulletin boards. The white board bore the definitions of metaphor, personification and symbolism.
“It’s all in black,” she told the class. “We’re going to come back to the print.”
The class was preparing for the Reading Comprehension section of the California Standards Test. The article in question discussed the origins of the piano. After one student read it aloud, McGuckin began to take her students through the multiple choice questions found in their workbook.
What does the Italian word piano mean?
“I think it’s A,” said sixth grade student Jack. “Because at the end of paragraph five, it says, ‘Therefore the instrument is called the piano e forte, Italian words meaning ‘soft and loud.’ The name was later shortened to piano.”
“Excellent!” McGuckin exclaimed. “You started off by saying ‘I think,’ but then you redeemed yourself by saying, ‘It’s in there.’ It’s not like guessing in the dark; it’s right in there.”
Turning her attention to another raised hand, McGuckin said, “Yes, baby?”
“The reason I know it’s soft is because forte means loud—well, just from learning it—so then piano would mean soft. I mean, I’m just using context clues,” another student chimed in.
“Excellent, excellent, excellent,” McGuckin echoed. “Soft and loud. It’s right in there.”
At one point during the lesson, McGuckin interrupted her student to remind the class to get a lot of sleep in the upcoming weekend and to remember to eat breakfast. The California Standards Test was the following Monday.
“We’re going to come in [to the test] like warriors,” McGuckin said.
And while the warrior is not the mascot of Millikan Middle School—it is, in fact, the far less intimidating turtle—the student population sure does test like one.
The school has an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 846. Eight hundred is the target API score. L.A. Unified’s average is 681.
Forty-one percent of the student population is characterized as “gifted and talented,” according the L.A. Unified’s School Report Card.
Principal John Plevack credits in part the school’s four School of Advanced Studies academies for these high scores. About 1,100 students attend one of the academies.
The school boasts a successful performing arts academy and magnet school. Students from across the city audition for the program and, in Plevack’s opinion, bring with them academic drive unmatched in the regular school track.
“It’s the caliber of students we get in,” Plevack said. “The performing arts students are very good academically.”
And the academic potential of the school’s students does not go untapped.
“The administration and the faculty focus on accepting more rigorous standards,” said Plevack. “There is focus on the performing arts and the vision of challenging the middle school kid to do a high school level curriculum.”
To which he added, “Because that’s what we do in a sense. In some way, the rigor of what we do is at a high school level. If you look at the performing arts, it’s almost at a community college level.”
On that same Monday morning, Leo Krusback was taking his drama students through several of the numbers in their upcoming musical, “Once Upon a Mattress.”
Unlike the neat, orderly rows of desks in McGuckin’s classroom, Krusback’s risers were littered with music stands and sheet music. The classroom was blue, padded to increase the acoustics and decrease the amount of music that crept beyond its four walls. On the whiteboard, next to some quickly drawn notes on a treble clef, a poster read “Anyone Can Sing.”
And sing they did. With each new song, new soloists stepped up the piano. First, a tenor and a 1st soprano sang a comical duet. Then, a baritone found his key. When the leading alto stepped up to sing, Krusback reminded her to “get out of singing and into acting mode.”
While toes tapped and understudies lip-synched during these songs, the entire cast did not come alive until the opening number.
Sitting on the piano bench, Krusback encouraged the students to stand up.
“This is supposed to be fun day. No one works on Monday,” he sang in a deep baritone.
The cast erupted as the jumpy, up-tempo music began. The leading tenor led the way, and the ensemble followed with flawless harmonies. Heads bobbed, knees bent, and hips swung. Krusback was right. They appeared to be having fun.
“They are very talented,” Krusback said later. “Many of them [have prior experience] and that’s why they are here.”
The performing arts academy and magnet school have several facilities, including a theater, three full dance studios, and several band and chorus rooms.
Students take class in drama, dance and vocal training. The school puts on two full-length musical productions a year.
And the Millikan Middle’s talent does not stop there.
The school’s science academy, the oldest and most academically rigorous academy, challenges seventh grade students to take Advanced Placement biology.
“I just always felt there was a potential there that wasn’t getting tapped. I mean kids are different right,” said science academy teacher Carlos Lauchu.
Lauchu was right. Several of his biology students received a score of five—the highest possible—on the exam last year. One student went on to score a 790 on the SAT subject matter test, making him one of the highest scorers in the country.
Former principal Norman Isaacs noted that Lauchu now has students attending his class from Grant High School.
“If kids have passion, they are likely to do well. They are likely to have pride [in their work]. That was the goal of setting up all these various academies,” Isaacs said.
The school also features a civics and math academy. All the academies are in high demand. In fact, a line extended beyond the attendance office and down the hall of parents, eager to place their children in one of the programs.
“They are limited in number,” said Plevack. “We do have some wait lists because we have to cut it off at some point.”
Parental involvement is great at Millikan Middle, ranging from the Parent-Teacher Association to the Booster Club. Plevack said parents get involved in “a hundred different ways.” But sometimes, that involvement is detrimental to their child’s academic success.
The biggest challenge Plevack faces at Millikan Middle is proper placement.
“There’s a concern that what the parent may desire and what the student may desire may be different,” he said. “We need to be careful that the students are getting their needs met.”
Millikan Middle has become a destination, both to aspiring students and overzealous parents. Of the school’s 2,000 students, 800 come from outside the attendance area.
But Isaacs said that when he came to the school in 1985, only 300 students from the attendance area attended Millikan Middle. He attributed the mass exodus from the school to two murders—one occurring outside the school, another during a student’s walk home from school.
“Everybody left,” Isaacs said. “It was up to us to start building up the program.”
And so they did, literally from the ground up.
Strolling around the campus, Isaacs pointed to the school’s many gardens.
“I planted every cactus. We took all the asphalt out and put in plants,” Isaacs said.
Students tiled the bathrooms, installed benches and painted murals.
“If you can come in here and create art, it makes such a different,” Isaacs said, adding, “Every campus should be this beautiful.”
For Isaacs and for many parents and students, Millikan Middle is an oasis amid the concrete jungle of L.A. Unified. In fact, L.A. Unified School Board Member Tamar Galatzan called it the “gem in the San Fernando Valley” at the school’s 50th anniversary celebration.
“These kids are really excelling, and that’s creating a culture where kids want to be here. Kids transfer from the private schools to come here,” said Isaacs.
But Millikan Middle is not a private school, and so L.A. Unified’s budget difficulties are its own.
Plevack said an influential cut the administration had to make for the upcoming year was laying off 25 percent of its clerical staff.
“Paperwork is paperwork at the end of the day, and it needs to get done, and now we have a lot less people doing it,” Plevack said.
Three teachers were also pink slipped by the district.
“We’re watching our nickels and dimes,” said Plevack. “It’s wait and see.”
Because only 41 percent of the school’s student population is categorized as Title 1, or economically disadvantaged, Millikan Middle has a smaller budget than many of the schools in the L.A. Unified. Plevack said the school he left to come to Millikan Middle last year had an annual budget of $1.8 million. Millikan Middle’s is $600,000.
“We have just enough to really get by,” said Plevack. “The frills are not there.”
One of those frills is new technology. The school has four or five computer labs, said Plevack, but many of the computers date back to 2000.
“We’re still using them, but we know that at some point the equipment is going to die out. And there isn’t consistent funding to keep these things going,” he added.
Ten teachers share classroom technology, such as document readers and Smartboards.
Plevack said, however, that parent fundraising has been influential in keeping the school afloat—especially the academies, which he called “self-sufficient.”
“The parents who come here but don’t live in our area are coming here for a reason. That breeds a stronger support of the school at the end of the day,” Plevack said.
And in turn, the school breeds stronger students.
Back in McGuckin’s class, the class had moved on to the next question, regarding the appropriateness of an assertion about the piano. A student stretched out her arm in the middle of the discussion.
“Excuse me, Miss Hamilton,” McGuckin cried out. “Are you stretching cause you’re ready for a big game? Cause this is the game of your life, honey. That’s a good stretch.”
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