Parents support a new LAUSD science and tech program in Westchester — unless local kids get shut out

By Gary Walker

Google’s Jennifer Vaden Barth, who teaches coding classes at Playa Vista Elementary, said expanding the school’s STEM curriculum would help students prepare for the jobs of the future Photo by Shilah Montiel

Google’s Jennifer Vaden Barth, who teaches coding classes at Playa Vista Elementary, said expanding the school’s STEM curriculum would help students prepare for the jobs of the future
Photo by Shilah Montiel

Westchester parents are applauding LAUSD’s plan for a new middle school based on the curriculum of Playa Vista Elementary School, but many are questioning an admissions process that could leave some of their children out of the running.

The school district hopes to create an academic pipeline from Playa Vista to a program on the campus of Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets (formerly Westchester High) that would continue the elementary school’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) program into the sixth, seventh and eventually eighth grade.

Families wishing to enroll their children next year would have to take their chances in a public lottery — that is, except those matriculating from Playa Vista Elementary.

The enrollment process would break potential students into five groups. Those coming from Playa Vista Elementary get in automatically. Students who live in Playa Vista, Playa del Rey and Westchester or attend elementary schools there make up Group 2. Group 3 includes other students in a Westside/South L.A. sub-district. All other LAUSD students would be in Group 4, with Group 5 comprised of students from outside the district. Students in Groups 2 through 5 would be chosen through a lottery within each group as space permits.

School District officials hope to have sixth and seven grade classrooms in Westchester operational in the coming academic year, with 100 to 150 students at each grade level. Eighth grade would come online for 2018-19 academic year.

The LAUSD Board of Education is expected to vote on the middle school programs fate on Tuesday, Dec. 13.

Westchester resident Amy Blakeland, whose children go to Open Magnet Charter School, said during a community meeting last week that she fears a dearth of available seats for Playa del Rey and Westchester families as time goes on due to Playa Vista Elementary’s high enrollment numbers at the lower grade levels.

“I’m worried that in three or four years it will be mostly Playa Vista kids. What I’m seeing here is 100 or 150 Playa Vista kids, and then the rest of us may or may not get in,” Blakeland said.

Jeff Bentzler, who has a second grader at Paseo Del Rey Elementary School in Playa del Rey, expressed similar concerns and questioned the use of a lottery system for admitting students from outside Playa Vista Elementary.

“As Playa Vista saturates more and more of this middle school plan, what happens to the kids in feeder schools? And about the lottery; if you don’t win the lottery, are you a loser? What are your plans moving forward three or four years out? How do you address students coming from Playa Vista to the point where they saturate the school and there will be no opportunities for other kids from the feeder schools?” Bentzler asked.

Playa Vista Elementary School Principal Rebecca Johnson told the audience that while she expects many of her current students to attend the new middle school program, she also knows parents who plan to consider other options after fifth grade.

“Not every single student from Playa Vista will go to this school,” she said.

Playa Vista parents, meanwhile, are looking forward to having a middle school that will build on what their children are already learning.

“I’m thrilled to hear that this is happening. This is what’s going to keep our family in LAUSD,” said Playa Vista resident Sunita Sinor, whose daughter is a fourth grader at the elementary school.

Jennifer Vaden Barth, a program manager for Google’s education initiatives who currently teaches after-school coding and computer science classes at Playa Vista Elementary, said extending the STEM curriculum will help prepare students for jobs in science and technology. She encourages LASUD officials to move forward with the new program in Westchester.

“It’s really important that we have this opportunity at every school in order to get kids ready for the future,” she said.

Manny Aceves, an associate dean of the Loyola Marymount University School of Education, said the focus on STEM curriculum is essential because the world has changed and students need a new type of preparation.

“We’re no longer the economy that we were 15 to 20 years ago. So how do we respond to this changing world? We think it’s STEM curriculum, because in order to be successful you must be STEM literate,” Aceves explained.

LMU has been assisting the Playa Vista Elementary School with professional and curriculum development, and university officials have pledged to continue their work at the new middle school.

Some who attended last week’s meeting took issue with LAUSD creating a new middle school program when there are already two local middle schools — Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey and Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester, specifically — that aren’t receiving the same level of attention.

Marina Del Rey Middle School parent Michele Levine said that if LAUSD paid as much attention to her school and Orville Wright as they’re giving the new program in Westchester, Westside parents would know that good academic programs exist there too — instead of siphoning off students in a system where resources are determined by enrollment.

“This school will take away resources and funding from other schools,” Levine said. “I’m petrified that the district is allowing this to happen.”

If the LAUSD board approves the new middle school program in Westchester, parents can submit enrollment applications between Jan. 27 and Feb. 17. Enrollment lotteries would be held Feb. 28, and letters of acceptance would go out March 6.