Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Nine Year Old Survivor of Heart Surgery Organizes Toy Drive

A Big, and now Healthy, Heart

When 9-year-old Jordan Flaum of Redondo Beach spent a week recovering from heart surgery earlier this year at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, she suffered from a bout of boredom.

“There was nothing to play with,” she explained.

And now, thanks to her, the hospital is in store for a windfall of toys. With an eye toward helping her fellow young patients – some of them terminal – Jordan organized a toy drive last week at her school, Beryl Heights Elementary, and the effort was a smashing success.

 Nine-year-old Jordan Brust of Redondo Beach is doing great after her heart surgery last March, but many of the friends she met at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital aren't as fortunate. To help them, Jordan has organized a toy drive at Beryl Heights Elementary School.   Stephen Carr/ Staff Photographer
Nine-year-old Jordan Brust of Redondo Beach is doing great after her heart surgery last March, but many of the friends she met at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital aren't as fortunate. To help them, Jordan has organized a toy drive at Beryl Heights Elementary School. Stephen Carr/ Staff Photographer

Students brought in so many toys that the spread covered the entire surface area of a half-dozen tables in the cafeteria.

“I think all of this stuff will really help them,” Jordan said, surveying the plethora of board games, Barbie Dolls, Transformers, Legos, puzzles, DVDs and coloring books – all of them brand new. “They’ll finally have something to play with and have fun.”

Talking to Jordan, it’s easy to forget she’s still at an age in which toys are important.

A spunky spirit with long wavy tresses, eyeglasses and a penchant for sparkly clothing, Jordan is one of those kids who speaks with the fluency of an adult. When finalizing the week-and-a-half-long drive last week, Jordan scurried purposefully about the campus clutching a sheet of paper – the inventory – coordinating an effort to relocate the gifts from the classrooms to the cafeteria.

“I’m kind of like a manager right now, so I’m kind of like running back and forth,” she said, politely explaining a brief absence. “Now I see why it’s hard being a boss.”

A racing heart

Until this past spring, Jordan would experience sudden episodes of a racing heart, with her pulse surging to as many as 300 beats per minute. The short spasms would last for less than a minute before calming down to the normal range for kids – 60 to 100 beats per minute.

The condition is known as supraventricular tachycardia, and is thought to be an electrical problem.

“It felt like someone was pounding on my chest,” Jordan said. “I was sitting in class and all of a sudden I would feel it. It was anywhere from after I was jogging to sitting in class to lying down in my bed, and I would have them. It was just random.”

Initially, Jordan’s parents – her father, Dana, is a public defender and mother Tracy is a preschool teacher – half suspected that Jordan’s complaints about her runaway heartbeat were exaggerated. But one day their daughter complained of a pain in her heart, and they took turns putting a hand over it.

“We were like `Oh my gosh,”‘ Tracy Flaum said. The episode was all the more alarming because Jordan had just been sitting.

In March, Jordan’s parents took their only child to the hospital, where doctors performed a procedure in which the faulty “wiring” was literally snipped. It involved the use of a catheter, which was inserted through several entry points on her body, including the neck. Doctors told the family that to the best of their knowledge, the problem is solved.

Tracy Flaum – a spitting image of her daughter, minus the glasses and plus 25 years – said it was a routine procedure.

“For the doctor, it was like a walk in the park,” she said. “For us – it’s our baby.”

Tracy and Dana Flaum were initially in deep distress over the impending surgery. But spending a little time in the hospital quickly put things into perspective. They saw rooms adorned with signs bearing a name – an indication that a child was more or less taking up permanent residence – and tiny kids bald from chemotherapy wandering about pushing portable IVs.

Among the children benefiting from the toys will be Jordan’s own cousin, Nadia Gold, also a fourth-grader at Beryl Heights. She will undergo surgery over the winter break.

Jordan – who turns 10 on Wednesday – initiated the toy drive without any parental prodding. In fact, it began without her mother’s knowledge, when Jordan took to the stage during one of the school’s weekly Wednesday “town meeting” talks, in which the principal typically shares news and information with the students. This time, Jordan delivered a speech imploring her classmates to donate toys.

Beryl Heights Principal Karen Mohr said Jordan is a one-of-a-kind kid.

“She’s very dynamic; she’s got a great sense or humor,” she said. “She is one of the most responsible kids I know.”

Mohr added that Jordan’s plight hit close to home.

“My husband has congenital heart disease,” she said. “American Heart Association, Jump Rope for Heart, all those things are very near and dear to me.”

Inspired by Justin Bieber

Jordan, who performs other volunteer work, said she draws much of her inspiration from teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber, her favorite singer, himself a connoisseur of charitable causes.

Tracy Flaum said when Bieber uses Twitter to harness the power of his fan base for the betterment of a favorite charity – such as one called Pencils of Promise for building schools in the developing world – Jordan is quick to oblige.

“Whatever Bieber says is what we have to do,” Tracy Flaum said, with an affectionate roll of the eyes. But she understands such infatuation. After all, Jordan was named after a member of her favorite childhood band: New Kids on the Block.

Jordan, meanwhile, has so much spunk that she even swung and kicked at the doctors while out cold during surgery. They brought in her mother.

“Any time they touched her, she swung,” Tracy remembers. “And then I came in and said `Jordan, it’s Mom.’ And I touched her arm, and she immediately calmed down. … It’s like she knew.”

Colorful Characters Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

‘Waltons’ actress now fills role as Inglewood middle school principal

‘Waltons’ Actress Now Fills Role as Middle School Principal

ECMS Principal Kami Cotler was a child actor as "Elizabeth" on The Waltons in the early 1970's. Magazine shows her and John-Boy Walton. The Environmental Charter Middle School is in Inglewood. Photo by Brad Graverson
ECMS Principal Kami Cotler was a child actor as “Elizabeth” on The Waltons in the early 1970’s. Magazine shows her and John-Boy Walton. The Environmental Charter Middle School is in Inglewood. Photo by Brad Graverson

Some childhood actors turn to drugs. Others stay in show business. Kami Cotler became a middle school principal in Inglewood.

Unbeknown to most of her students, Cotler, principal of Environmental Charter Middle School, was a celebrity at their age.

Cotler had a major role as Elizabeth Walton, the youngest member of the family in both the made-for-TV movie “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” and the long-running spinoff TV drama “The Waltons.”

Last week she was on the East Coast, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1970s-era show with the rest of the cast. In addition to making a Friday appearance on the “Today” show, the group got together for a screening and a party.

For those too young to remember, “The Waltons” was set in the mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression. It centered on a large family that survived by living off their own land.

It was a wholesome drama whose episodes delved into all manner of family themes: triumph and heartache at school, the dilemma over whether to spank a child, a daughter who refuses to abide by country traditions, caring for ailing grandparents.

“The Waltons” predates other shows in the same vein, such as “Little House on the Prairie.” Indeed, its successful nine-year run may have helped pave the way for such family-oriented shows, Cotler speculated.

Last week’s reunion was far from the Waltons’ first. Bucking the stereotype of Hollywood prima donnas whose on-camera affection is matched only by their off-camera animosity, the Walton family long ago came to feel more fact than fiction. To this day, the members regularly meet the week before Christmas. They attend one another’s weddings, live theater performances and book signings.

A 1975 photo of the cast of the television series "The Waltons", including Richard Thomas (top row, center) and Michael Learned (top row, right). (AP Photo)
A 1975 photo of the cast of the television series “The Waltons”, including Richard Thomas (top row, center) and Michael Learned (top row, right). (AP Photo)

“We were together for 10 years and saw more of each other than we did of our own families,” Cotler said, speaking by phone from New York City last week.

With her vermilion red hair and a sprinkling of freckles, Cotler is the rare person who truly resembles the adult version of her childhood self. So it is not uncommon for people to still recognize her. A few years ago, while lunching with two other Walton sisters, a fan approached the table and asked Cotler about the show. The fan recognized Cotler, but not the others.

Of course, Cotler’s students are too young to know the face. And while the ones who watch the show with their parents may tell Cotler that they find her child character to be cute, they seldom are star struck.

“I used to say, if Madonna became a teacher, or now Katy Perry, they’d be like, `Ah, Miss Perry gave me homework,”‘ Cotler said. “Think about it. As a kid you didn’t think about your teachers as having actual lives. No, they were your teachers.”

Or principal, as the case may be.

Cotler is the antithesis of the child who was pushed into show business by overbearing parents. Her acting career began by accident. Her mother had taken her to a photography studio in Los Angeles from their home in Long Beach to get a Christmas portrait. The photographer, struck by the girl’s red hair, freckles and extroversion, suggested she give commercial work a go.

“I harassed her about wanting to be on television,” Cotler remembers. Her mom, then a marketer for IBM, relented.

Cotler tried for a spot on the popular, long-running TV show “Gunsmoke,” but it didn’t pan out.

“I had to cough but didn’t know how to do it,” she said, adding, “I was only 6.”

It turns out the casting director for “The Waltons” was looking for a pint-size redhead. (The show was based on a novel by Earl Hamner Jr. – who also created the TV series – about a family of redheads.)

The show’s steady success yielded a healthy paycheck. But in the days before gadgets and video games, preteens didn’t have a lot of options for lavish spending.

“It’s not like you’re going to buy endless chocolate bars,” she joked.

Cotler’s parents socked the money away. Years later, her education at the University of California, Berkeley, was fully funded. Once there, she didn’t even consider studying drama. Instead, Cotler studied education. Coincidentally, she landed her first job teaching at-risk youth in Virginia, the same state in which the show was set.

This was not by design. In fact, when weighing the pros and cons of taking the job at that location, the show was a strike against it. The biggest argument in favor was a desire to experience life in a more rural setting. An American studies major, Cotler had only lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Perhaps her desire to experience the heartland was informed on some level by the history of the show, which would make for a good chapter in a college textbook on popular culture.

The way Cotler tells it, the creators fully expected “The Waltons” to flop. The idea for the TV show came somewhat grudgingly, after Hollywood had taken a scolding from Congress for the lack of family-oriented themes in mainstream television. The pilot was wedged between two hit shows that were decidedly more hip: “The Mod Squad” and “The Flip Wilson Show.”

But to Hollywood’s surprise, “The Waltons” was a sleeper hit, finishing season two at No. 2 in the Nielsen ratings, between “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son.”

The phenomenon spotlighted a cultural divide in America: the creators of entertainment were coastal city dwellers, unfamiliar with what might appeal to viewers in the country’s midsection.

“There was a whole big world of people in between who nobody thought about,” she said.

To this day, “The Waltons” airs regularly on the Hallmark Channel as well as some religious networks.

Cotler, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children, was drawn to the charter movement when it became apparent that her eldest child was having a tough time in a traditional public school.

He was strong in academics, but wasn’t happy.

“He would call home with stomachaches just before recess,” she said. “The school was very focused on how many words per minute could he read. I kept asking, `Have you played with anybody at recess?’ … That’s where he needed support.”

She helped found a charter school on the Westside. He enrolled, and flourished.

About a decade ago, she applied to Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale to work as a technology specialist. She ended up landing a job as a history teacher. It was the kind of flexibility often lacking in the traditional system. Three years ago, she was tapped to help write the charter for a middle school in Inglewood. The school opened in the fall of 2010 with her at the helm.

Environmental Charter Middle School currently serves about 200 students. Plans are in place to move the campus next year to Gardena, home to much of its clientele. (The school hasn’t decided whether to also keep the campus at 3600 W. Imperial Ave. in Inglewood.)

She isn’t a blind supporter of the charter movement.

“I always tell families, every charter school is different,” she said. “If you hear someone say `charter schools are good,’ that doesn’t mean anything. You have to go look at it and ask, `Is this school a match for my child?”‘

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Tiny School Caters to Students with Asperger’s

Bright but difficult students go at their own pace

Joe Newman of Hermosa Beach was in kindergarten when it became painfully clear that attending a traditional school just wasn’t going to work.

His problem was not academic; he’s always been a math whiz. Rather, it was behavioral. The stimuli in the classroom filled him with so much anxiety he’d act out by knocking over furniture, hiding under tables or fleeing the room.

(Staff Photo by Sean Hiller)- Joe Newman, who has autism, high fives Lisa Mantis who works one-on-one with him at the Center for Learning Unlimited, which specializes in helping students on the higher end of the autism spectrum.
(Staff Photo by Sean Hiller)- Joe Newman, who has autism, high fives Lisa Mantis who works one-on-one with him at the Center for Learning Unlimited, which specializes in helping students on the higher end of the autism spectrum.

Joe missed about a year of school while his parents agonized over what to do. He has since found a place at the Center for Learning Unlimited, a tiny school in Torrance that caters to bright students on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Many of the center’s students have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism characterized by difficulties in social communication.

Tucked away in a nondescript strip mall at 2785 Pacific Coast Highway, the center is technically a nonprofit private school, with tuition costs running about $34,000 a year. The tab is usually picked up by local school districts, sometimes as a result of litigation between the families and the districts.

The center has a niche in part because it serves a population struggling to cope with a form of autism that is especially mysterious.

“As a society we have more understanding of people who are obviously more needy than of people who have more discreet kinds of needs,” said Caron Mellblom-Nishioka, a professor of special education at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

“If we see somebody who’s a math whiz, we are not as sensitive to the social kinds of issues. We think, `Why is this person being such a nerd? If they are that smart, why can’t this person figure that out?”‘

But she added: “You don’t want to shut those people down. … Look at the pictures of Einstein — does he look like a normal person?”

Ginny Mathews, founder and director of the center, said public schools understandably often have trouble with the higher-functioning kids – “the Joes of the world.”

“Joe is tying up all kinds of resources when he’s climbing on the desk,” she said. “(Educators) are trying to respectfully manage this child’s challenges, but that’s shifting their attention from other children.”

Many of the center’s students – there are currently 23, who range in age from 4 to 21 – are quite talented. One was an expert in 15th century literature. Another has been working on a novel. Others have demonstrated an aptitude for painting, photography or poetry.

Those who haven’t been diagnosed with Asperger’s wear other labels: ADHD, bipolar disorder, emotionally disturbed or some complex combination thereof. Still others exhibit symptoms from disorders that are almost singularly rare.

Take Joe Newman. The boy has a chromosomal abnormality whose official diagnosis is so long and technical his mother, Corey Newman, can’t even recite the official name of it without the aid of a document. He’s one of only a few known people on the planet with the condition, which manifests itself in not only social deficits but also seizures.

Many of the symptoms resemble Asperger’s syndrome, but there are key deviations. Whereas people with Asperger’s often are unaware of social cues – perhaps they can’t perceive that a person is sad – Joe understands the cues, but doesn’t know what to do with them.

“Joe will say, `You look so sad, let’s play right now,”‘ his mother said. “He will hug the mailman. … He moves in too close or is sitting too far away when trying to talk to somebody.”

Joe has a difficult time knowing how to process sensory information: The distant sound of a barking dog across the street might seem every bit as immediate as the sound of the teacher talking.

For Joe, academics are fun. So much so that his parents and teachers use them as a reward for good behavior. When the family goes to a restaurant, they bring a backpack filled with math workbooks to keep him occupied.

At Hermosa View Elementary School, things deteriorated to the point where his mother, Corey, never left the parking lot after dropping Joe off in the morning. She knew a phone call from the office requesting that she take him home was inevitable.

Like many parents, she discovered the center on the Internet, during a desperate search for an appropriate school. The Hermosa Beach City School District paid his tuition to the center without challenge.

Mathews said the center distinguishes itself from the public school system in one major way.

While public schools tend to be focused on correcting behaviors, the center attempts to delve into – and then address – the causes for the behaviors. For example, public schools need all students to sit in their chairs, and will do whatever it takes to prevent students from, say, wandering aimlessly.

“We look at why the kid can’t sit down in the chair,” she said.

This means that, in addition to paraprofessionals and special-education teachers, the center’s staff includes a psychologist, neuropsychologist, speech-and-language pathologist and occupational therapist. Working together, the team tries to assess how a child can best be served.

Since its 2002 inception, the center has served about 150 students. The ultimate goal is to reintegrate them into the traditional classroom setting, or send them off to some form of higher education. Mathews said they are usually successful, but not always.

“We’ve lost a couple along the way,” she acknowledged. “We’ve got one who’s in prison.”

One satisfied graduate of the program is Gil Benezer. Now a sophomore at the University of California, Davis, Benezer – who said he has been diagnosed with “borderline Asperger’s” – believes he would have dropped out of school had it not been for the center.

And yet, he was at the top of his class at Manhattan Beach Middle School.

“I’d been bullied and was really stressed out and really depressed,” he said, adding that he’d twice attempted suicide.

Why was he bullied? “Because I was fat, because I was weird, because I had few friends,” he said.

The center, he said, was a welcoming place that taught him everything from time-management skills to coping with his depression.

“I liked that I could go at my own pace,” said Benezer, whose parents are both medical doctors. “They didn’t pressure me into anything. It is a very warm atmosphere. They cared.”

At UC Davis, he’s getting straight A’s and plans to major in biochemical engineering.

Corey Newman, meanwhile, is pleased with Joe’s progress.

“He works in groups now – he never used to work in groups,” she said. “He says hello to every person in the school, and acknowledges the staff. … It sounds so small, but these things are so huge to us.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Hawthorne student turns down full scholarship in academic gamble

Hawthorne Student Turns Down Full Scholarship in Academic Gamble

Motivated Nigeria native turns down full-ride award for a chance at the Ivy League

For 15-year-old Hawthorne resident Thelma Godslaw, fear of failure was instilled at an early age, when teachers in her native Nigeria rewarded wrong answers with whacks from a cane.

But the bigger motivator for her was the elementary school’s hard-hearted ranking system. Instead of grades, every child was publicly assigned a number, from one to 35, based on his or her standing in the class.

Thelma Godslaw, 15, moved with her family from Nigeria to Hawthorne to receive a better education than what she could get in Africa. Now, she is set to graduate early from Leuzinger High School and is a finalist Thelma is a finalist for a Questbridge National College Match Scholarship. The scholarship would cover 100 percent of tuition and living expenses at one of the participating universities, which include Yale, MIT, Stanford and Notre Dame. 20111121 Photo by Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer
Thelma Godslaw, 15, moved with her family from Nigeria to Hawthorne to receive a better education than what she could get in Africa. Now, she is set to graduate early from Leuzinger High School and is a finalist Thelma is a finalist for a Questbridge National College Match Scholarship. The scholarship would cover 100 percent of tuition and living expenses at one of the participating universities, which include Yale, MIT, Stanford and Notre Dame. 20111121 Photo by Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer

“I was always second best, or third,” she said. “I always wanted to be No. 1.”

Now, at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, she is.

Though just 15, Thelma is already a senior. She’s enrolled in six Advanced Placement courses. Her end-of-the-semester report card has never been blemished with a B. She’s the only student in the school to have earned a perfect score on the AP calculus test, and by night takes an advanced calculus class at El Camino College.

In October, Thelma was offered a full-ride scholarship to attend the prestigious Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, an award worth $120,000. She turned it down. Why? She has her sights on the Ivy League and is days away from learning whether she’ll get there.

Thelma’s academic success illustrates the inner drive that propels many immigrants out of their social strata, which in her case is a step above poverty. But it also demonstrates how, for high-achieving low-income students, playing the scholarship game can be a high-stakes gamble.

Thelma lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and three siblings, one older and two younger. Though a bit cramped, their living conditions are an upgrade from the one-bedroom unit in which they’d stayed for a couple of years after their 2004 arrival.

Thelma’s decision to say “no thanks” to the Bucknell offer wasn’t easy.

“It’s like turning down a million dollars,” she acknowledged.

On the other hand, saying yes to the award – officially known as the Posse Scholarship – would have meant forfeiting her dream of attending an Ivy League school, namely Yale. That’s because she was given just three days to make a decision that was binding. She decided to hold out.

Now, the rest of November promises to be a nail-biter. Dec. 1 is the day she’ll learn whether she’ll be the recipient of the prestigious Questbridge National College Match Scholarship, which would cover 100 percent of tuition and housing to attend one of several participating universities. These include MIT, Stanford, Princeton and her dream school, Yale.

Thelma didn’t gamble without cause. In October, about a month after she applied for the Questbridge award, word came back that she was a finalist. Winning would be no small feat: Last year, just 310 students across the nation received the honor.

Petite and soft-spoken, Thelma plans to major in biochemistry, with an eye toward becoming a general surgeon. To attain this goal, she spends five hours a night studying at a TV tray in a living room recliner.

“She studies until 2 in the morning,” marveled her mother, Jully Godslaw (pronounced Julie), who speaks in a thick Nigerian accent. “She’s too much.” That, she explained, is Nigerian slang for “she’s excellent.”

Migrating for the children

The family journeyed to the United States in 2004 for the express purpose of providing educational opportunities for the children, Jully said. This required giving up their five-bedroom house and everything else they had in Lagos, Nigeria. Jully sacrificed her college degree in business administration from the University of Lagos; it became void the moment she set foot in the United States.

Upon her arrival, Jully went from working as a public relations officer at an oil company in Nigeria to working as a security guard at an elementary school in Compton.

Now, Jully attends Los Angeles Southwest College, where she studies nursing. She also works full-time as a licensed vocational nurse in the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

Their hardships aren’t confined to the financial. The parents have divorced.

For Thelma, the antidote to life’s trials seems to be to study, study, study.

Her academic counselor at Leuzinger, Judy Grood, said she’s never seen a student so driven in her 20 years on the job.

“She will not leave her class, short of being dragged out,” she said with a laugh. “She feels every minute in class is important, for fear that she would miss a gem or a drop of knowledge.”

Despite her low-income status, Thelma can compete with students of privilege. She scored a 1950 on her SAT, putting her in the 90th percentile nationwide. The average score in California and nationwide is just above 1500.

Helping Leuzinger turn around

Thelma’s academic success also is a boon to her school. Leuzinger High has long battled a sullied reputation, sown from decades of dismal academic performance. But the school, which serves a low-income population, appears to be in the midst of a turnaround, with test scores on a steep upward trajectory.

“I think that she represents what we are trying to accomplish at Leuzinger High School,” said Principal Ryan Smith, who informed the Daily Breeze of Thelma’s prowess. “She is a role model for all of our students, in particular those who are African-American.”

Indeed, Thelma is among 3,100 students across the nation – out of 160,000 applicants – to be named an Outstanding Participant in the National Achievement Scholarship Program, which recognizes outstanding achievement among African-American students.

Jully said other parents initially urged her to send her children to another school. But Leuzinger was within walking distance of their apartment. Besides, she had faith in the school.

“My belief is this: Any child that is smart is smart – it doesn’t matter the school,” Jully said, noting that her son Peter also is thriving there.

Thelma, meanwhile, praised her teachers.

“They take the extra time to help us out after school and during lunch,” she said. “They are always pushing us to do better.”

And all without the use of canes.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Group Tries to Narrow College Gender Gap

CSUDH group looks to counter lagging male higher education success rate

At colleges across the nation, women are leaving men behind, especially Latino and black men, and California State University, Dominguez Hills, is no exception.

But this year, a growing effort is under way on the Carson campus to narrow the gap.

Called the Male Success Alliance, the organization aims to combat some of the cultural forces working against men of color, such as a lack of male role models in their lives and the notion that studying isn’t masculine.

At California State University Dominguez Hills, a group is ramping up its efforts to improve the academic performance of African American and Latino men. Called the Male Success Alliance, it aims to combat some of the cultural forces working against men of color. Two students are primarily responsible for this year's efforts: CSUDH student body president Mardell Baldwin, right, and David Lopez, president of the Male Success Alliance.   Daily Breeze Photo: Robert Casillas
At California State University Dominguez Hills, a group is ramping up its efforts to improve the academic performance of African American and Latino men. Called the Male Success Alliance, it aims to combat some of the cultural forces working against men of color. Two students are primarily responsible for this year's efforts: CSUDH student body president Mardell Baldwin, right, and David Lopez, president of the Male Success Alliance. Daily Breeze Photo: Robert Casillas

“I think women are a little more focused than us, I hate to say it,” said Mardel Baldwin, student body president at Dominguez Hills, and himself an African American. “Maybe it’s because they had their mothers, and kind of had that positive role model in their lives.”

Whatever the reason, the disparity is striking. Nationwide, women earned 57 percent of all bachelor degrees in the decade that ended in 2010, according to the American Council on Education, a research organization.

At CSU-Dominguez Hills, there are literally two girls for every boy, but the lopsided enrollment in itself isn’t a surprise: two signature majors at the school are education and nursing – professions dominated by women. More worrisome is the gender gap in their respective rates of success. At Dominguez Hills, 38 percent of female freshmen graduate within six years, while the corresponding figure for men is just 27 percent.

The organization at Dominguez Hills was launched in fall 2010 by the administration. But it wasn’t until Baldwin took an interest in it that the group has begun to really come to life.

Baldwin was concerned about the issue of lagging male success even before he knew about the Male Success Alliance, so much so that, shortly after his election to the post, he penned a letter to the administration expressing his dissatisfaction with the lack of minority men graduating from college.

“I really wanted to bring that to people’s attention: We’re coming but we’re not leaving with that degree,” he said.

Baldwin was immediately put in touch with the administrator in charge of the group, and helped expand the organization into something that was more student driven.

Now, the roughly 30 members of the group’s new student-club component hold regular meetings, gather to study together in the library, schedule workshops and reach out to other organizations on campus, such as fraternities. The members even dress spiffy every other Monday: burgundy ties, white dress shirts, black sport coats.

(The group just launched a tie drive on campus for men who don’t own one.)

In an effort to preach what they are trying to practice, the group also plans to put on an ambitious summit this spring for high school males from across the region. To eliminate the transportation excuse, they plan to send school buses to the high schools to pick up the young men.

The broad idea is to create for each other what many of their families have failed to provide for them: a support network.

David Lopez, the president of the new student club, knows about this firsthand. The senior was raised without a father figure in a hardscrabble Watts neighborhood.

“I used to wake up for school and my dad was already gone,” he said. “By the time my dad came back, I was asleep. The only time I saw him was every other Sunday. It got to the point where he moved on to live with some other lady.”

Lopez nonetheless persevered in high school. But when he got to college, the hand of fate tried several times to knock him off his path.

Once, his financial aid failed to kick in, and he was nearly forced to drop all of his classes. Another time, his home life intervened.

It was the day of finals two years ago, and Lopez was earning B’s or better in his classes. Then came a family emergency: His brother – who, unlike Lopez was an illegal immigrant – had been arrested and was in danger of being deported. He needed Lopez to testify for him in court. Lopez skipped his finals to do so and flunked most of his classes.

“I just felt like my family really needed my assistance,” he said.

His brother was ultimately deported, but Lopez bounced back, and is now a senior majoring in marketing. He has an internship with an investment company under his belt. The future is looking brighter.

Baldwin, meanwhile, was lucky enough to grow up in a stable family, with a father who’d gone to college and works as an engineer. Many of his friends in his native Long Beach weren’t so lucky. While some of them got caught up with drugs and gangs, he never felt the pull.

“My father and mother were really on me,” he said. “Plus I’m not the kind of guy who just follows people because it’s cool.”

Still, Baldwin admits his academic discipline in high school was lacking. He went to Long Beach City College, where he remained somewhat uninspired but still managed to obtain an associate’s degree in business management. The jolt of reality came when he started looking for jobs. He didn’t even apply to very many, so unqualified was he.

“I couldn’t even put my name in the drawing because I didn’t have the qualifications,” he said. “That was an eye-opener for me.”

He took a job at UPS and pondered his future, ultimately opting to transfer to Dominguez Hills.

While evidence for the gender gap is plentiful, research on the reasons behind it is lacking.

But William Franklin, associate vice president for student success at Dominguez Hills, has a few theories.

“We can go all the way back to K-12 education,” he said. “Right now over 80 percent of the teachers are female.”

(Indeed, males also lag in K-12 education. In California, girls outperform boys in English, though the genders have long been neck-and-neck in math.)

Media messages also are to blame, added Franklin, who launched the Male Success Alliance last school year at the behest of Dominguez Hills President Mildred Garcia.

“How many times have you seen a TV program where African American and Latino males are sitting at a desk and studying together?” he said.

For his part, Lopez has a hypothesis that involves an unintended consequence of positive social change.

“When women gained equal rights, men lost their role,” he said. “When they got that sense of empowerment, males felt like they didn’t need to be as responsible as they used to.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Inglewood School District teeters on verge of state takeover

At Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood, it isn’t unusual to see sixth-graders sweeping up their classroom after recess.

That’s partly because budget cuts have taken a bite out of the custodial staff, which now cleans the room just twice a week. But it’s also because classrooms packed with 40 students tend to get dirty in a hurry.

Dr. Carl Cohn, a state board of education trustee, toured classrooms at Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood Thursday to see the over-crowding of the classrooms. Dr. Cohn visits a sixth grade classroom that the students have to sweep the floors themselves, as cut-backs have led to only having janitorial services twice a week. The classroom is also overcrowded, having 40 students when the maximum is to be 33.
Dr. Carl Cohn, a state board of education trustee, toured classrooms at Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood Thursday to see the over-crowding of the classrooms. Dr. Cohn visits a sixth grade classroom that the students have to sweep the floors themselves, as cut-backs have led to only having janitorial services twice a week. The classroom is also overcrowded, having 40 students when the maximum is to be 33.

With K-8 class sizes as high as 40 and some high school class sizes hitting 50, the Inglewood Unified School District is a picture of impending financial devastation.

The beleaguered K-12 district is on the verge of becoming the ninth public school system in California to lose local control to the state since a law authorizing such takeovers took effect 20 years ago. And the Inglewood teachers union is begging the state to do it.

On Wednesday, Inglewood Unified will try to seek a waiver from the state Board of Education to avoid penalties for its large class sizes, which in many cases greatly exceed negotiated maximums. Teachers say it will have the effect of making class sizes even larger, bumping the average size of fourth-through-sixth-grade classrooms to 38.

“All in order to save money so the district can buy a little bit more time, and save a few more months of their jobs,” said Shannon Gibson, a second-grade teacher at Bennett-Kew, while giving one of the state board members – Carl Cohn – a walking tour of the school Thursday.

“(The district) is going to go under. We are sorry for that. We’ve done everything we can. They don’t have a plan in place to recover. It’s time to just let go” and let the state take over.

Although public school districts across the state are limping along financially, none in California appear to be as bad off as Inglewood Unified – so far.

“They are the only ones right now who have declared a fiscal emergency, essentially saying, `We are out of cash,”‘ said Anthony Bridges, deputy CEO at Fiscal Crisis and Management Team, the state’s premier school finance consulting firm. “At this juncture in the budget cycle, no one is parallel with Inglewood.”

But Inglewood could be a canary in a coal mine.

If the state’s tax rolls fall too short of projections – and right now it isn’t looking good – then school districts across the state will be forced to make dreaded midyear budget cuts. This could push more of them closer over the edge.

Inching ever closer to the brink is the state’s second largest public school system, San Diego Unified, which is facing widespread school closures and the threat of insolvency. Here, talk of a potential state takeover has just begun.

Inglewood Unified is also considering school closures. On Thursday,
Dr. Carl Cohn visits a sixth-grade classroom whose floors the students have to sweep themselves, as cutbacks have led to only having janitorial services twice a week. The classroom is also overcrowded, having 40 students when the maximum is 33. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)
Superintendent Gary McHenry sent out a memo revealing a plan to combine Daniel Freeman and Warren Lane elementary schools, each of which enroll just 200 or fewer students.

Going into state receivership is a dubious distinction. On the one hand the state would bail out the district financially. But it also would render McHenry jobless and the elected school board toothless. A state administrator would be assigned by California schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson to effectively serve as a one-person board and superintendent.

In late October, the Los Angeles County of Education sent the district a letter stating, in effect, that it is on track to run out of cash by April.

Inglewood Unified has tried to get a handle on the situation by making Draconian cuts – in one year, the district has lost nearly a third of its teachers, reducing the roster from 650 to 450 – but there seems to be no way to stop the hemorrhaging.

Thus far, no evidence has emerged of fraud or embezzlement, Bridges said. But there have been cases of negligent spending. For instance, an attorney who was fired by the district continued to collect health benefits for a year afterward, said Chris Graeber, president of the classified union representing employees such as custodians, clerical workers and bus drivers.

“It didn’t go over well, let’s put it that way,” he said. “If one of our people gets fired, they cut off the benefits the very next day.”

And in 2009, board members publicly accused administrators of wasting $3 million in taxpayer money without authorization, according to the Wave newspaper. The expenses allegedly included using $4,300 from district accounts to purchase a trip to Sea World and an “unauthorized $800,000 demolition” of an elementary school.

The district also appears to have been caught off guard by a rapid plunge in enrollment, with many students leaving for charter schools. In a decade, the rolls have fallen from 18,000 to just above 12,000. And the exodus is showing no signs of abating: The district this year lost another 1,000 students.

As for the cash flow issue, it is no small matter. The county projects the district to be $1.7 million in the hole by April. The shortfall is expected to grow exponentially, hitting $23 million by June. This, with a district that works with a general fund budget of about $102 million.

Meanwhile, the Inglewood teachers union has decided that at this point, a state takeover seems the best way to avoid further destruction. This fall, the union’s governing board voted unanimously to voice its approval of the state loan.

“Our goal is to enrich the students’ day, and close the achievement gap,” said union President Pete Somberg. “We don’t see how the current leadership is able to do that when all they are looking for is financial daylight so they can maintain local control. If local control means ransoming a generation of kids, we are not for it.”

Inglewood school leaders – including McHenry, school board President Johnny Young and head business official Glenston Thompson – have not returned phone calls requesting comment.

Though Inglewood still has time to pull itself out of the quicksand, the lengthy process for enacting a state takeover is already under way. Back in the spring, the Inglewood school board, acting on advice from a county-appointed fiscal adviser, officially requested a state loan. This essentially sets the gears in motion for state receivership. The request then must travel through both houses of the Legislature and finally to the governor’s desk. The process typically takes four to six months.

On Thursday, Cohn didn’t tip his hand on whether he favors granting the district a waiver for large class sizes. He said he worries that Inglewood could be a bellwether for more ominous times.

“The list of school districts in fiscal distress has gone up dramatically in the last year,” he said. “Ten, 12, 15 years ago, the state actually had money to bail them out.

“Now the big question will be is Inglewood the beginning of a process of a significant increase in the need for bailouts from a state that has no money.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

12-year-old Manhattan Beach boy creates anti-Justin Bieber app

Thomas Suarez loves to hate Justin Bieber, and hopes you do, too.

Earlier this year, the 12-year-old Manhattan Beach resident created an iPhone app called Bustin Jieber, in which the player tries to slap down — with two thumbs — the carefully coiffed head of the teenage heartthrob as it pops up, a la the game Whac-A-Mole.

Impressive (and amusing) as it is, the game represents just a fraction of Suarez’s prodigious technological know-how, which greatly exceeds that of his parents.

On Saturday, Thomas will address the startling gap of tech knowledge separating many young people from their elders as a speaker at an education conference in Manhattan Beach.

Thomas Suarez is a 12-year-old Manhattan Beach kid who wrote an iPhone application called "Bustin Jieber" which is a game like whack-a-mole with a Justin Bieber face on it. Photo by Brad Graverson 10-20-11

Modeled after the popular and cerebral TED Talks, the event, officially called TEDx Manhattan Beach, will feature 20 speakers from across California and beyond, all focused on the future of education. To borrow a phrase from Apple, the event promises to be a celebration of ideas that come from people who “think different.”

For instance, Internet entrepreneur Jon Bischke will discuss a concept he refers to as a “reputation graph,” in which the trail any given person leaves online will be of increasing importance, perhaps giving way to the decreasing importance of the traditional resume.

Stanford assistant professor Paulo Blikstein will hold court on how to make wood shop relevant to not only the 21st century, but the 22nd.

Filmmaker Barry Ptolemy, who worked closely with Steven Spielberg on “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and is widely referred to as a futurist, will discuss what schools may look like 20 and 30 years out. Ptolemy also worked on a movie about the thinker Ray Kurzweil, who has hypothesized that by 2029 computers will be so advanced that their thinking will be indistinguishable from that of humans.

“The overall theme is how do we make education better, how do we deliver better education to the next generation?” said the event’s organizer, John Marston. “If your grandparents went to a school today, they’d know exactly what it was: It would look similar to a school 100 years ago. Then, at the same time, they might not know about cellphones, iPads and Facebook. The world is not the same.”

The implication here is that schools as a whole are still in the 20th century, coughing in the dust of the digital revolution.

As for Thomas, he has his own idea on how schools can catch up: Allow young tech experts more opportunities to share their knowledge with peers and adults alike. If the concept of a small kid standing at the head of a class filled with adults sounds a little fantastical, it’s actually not so different from what Thomas is already doing.

This year, Thomas – who has two younger brothers, but no older siblings – launched an app club at his middle school, where he often stands in front of a class of 15 or 20 of his peers over the lunch hour and gives lessons on some of the ins and outs of creating an app. (His parents asked that the name of his school not be divulged, out of concern for his privacy.)

Thomas said he enjoys teaching.

“It’s just fun to see people who don’t get something at first, and then you explain it to them and they say, `Ohhhh, I get it now,”‘ he said.

The students aren’t just trying to make funny apps – and a little money – for themselves. They’re also working together on an application for their own school, which this year started using iPads in its classrooms.

At times, Thomas’ acumen has seemed almost preternatural.

His father, Ralph Suarez, remembers when the family purchased a Mac Mini for Thomas when he was 8.

The adults couldn’t figure out how to activate the Wi-Fi, and figured the computer must not have been equipped with the right router. Ralph walked past Thomas sitting at the computer and was surprised to see him on the Internet – he’d activated the Wi-Fi himself.

“I said, `How did you know how to do it?”‘ said Suarez, 53, a management analyst at Los Angeles International Airport. “He said, `I heard the guy (at the Apple store) talking about it.”‘

In fact, much of Thomas’ education happened at the Apple store. The boy was a frequent student of the company’s training service, widely known as “one to one,” in which employees teach users how to better navigate the hardware and software.

With the help of a manual, Thomas created his first app before he even owned an iPod. (He still doesn’t own an iPhone.) Called Earth Fortune, the free app is a kind of virtual fortuneteller in which the user pushes the planet, causing it to change colors – blue might mean the user had a tranquil day – and deliver a short message.

Since releasing the Bustin Jieber app, Thomas has created a small company called CarrotCorp. (Because he is not 18, his father is listed as the company’s owner.)

A branding theme seems to be emerging with his games. Others include Bustin Howie and Bustin Piers, dedicated to whapping down the floating faces of Howie Mandel and Piers Morgan, the rivaling hosts on “America’s Got Talent.”

Thomas released the 99-cent Bustin Jieber app just before last year’s holiday season.

A few days after Christmas, he was pleasantly surprised to see that he’d made 700 sales. Since then, he has made about 600 more, at a total profit of about $1,000. Thomas has purchased an Xbox with his earnings, but Ralph said in many ways he’s glad that the venture hasn’t brought home serious money.

“I like that he’s doing it more to have fun and to learn, and share with his friends,” he said. “In anything, it’s probably best if you do it for the love of the thing.”


TEDx Manhattan Beach will be from 9:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Manhattan Beach Middle School, 1501 Redondo Ave. Tickets are $100 but are nearly sold out. The event will be streamed live on its website at

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Dream Act could affect hundreds of undocumented students at South Bay colleges

Dream Act could affect hundreds of students at South Bay colleges



Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent signing of the Dream Act allowing illegal immigrants to receive state grants for college could affect hundreds of students in the South Bay – a sizable chunk of all the undocumented college students across California.

Officials estimate there are 200 undocumented students at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and another 600 at El Camino College near Torrance. (Harbor College couldn’t provide an estimate Thursday.) They are among the roughly 10,200 across California who, beginning in January 2013, can apply for Cal Grants or other forms of aid.

Among them is Maria Garcia, a communications major at CSU Dominguez Hills who remembers sleeping on the ground in the desert with her father and sister on the way over the border at age 12.

“My dad had to stay up to take care of me and my sister because there were snakes,” said Garcia, who went on to become a top student – and a graduation speaker – at Camino Nuevo High in Los Angeles. “We didn’t have sleeping bags.”

The legislation comes at a time when the topic of illegal immigration is particularly heated. In the absence of a comprehensive federal immigration policy, states have been filling the void, passing a bevy of policies ranging from the hard-line approach taken in Alabama and Arizona to the relatively more progressive policies in Texas and California.

Signed Saturday by Brown, Assembly Bill 131 has triggered a firestorm of protest and praise across the nation, so much so that the author of the bill, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said the intensity of the buzz has taken him by surprise.

“I’ve been working on these issues for a long time, and I’m not unfamiliar with the attention that comes with it,” he told the Daily Breeze on Thursday. “But we went five days in a row, getting calls from the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor. It was like `bam, bam, bam.’ It has been nonstop since Saturday.”

The new law’s fiercest critic is Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-San Bernardino, who is spearheading an effort to overturn it. Donnelly argues that the bill is unfair because it grants tax dollars to families that have broken the law when many U.S. citizens are struggling to make ends meet.

“We have just created a massive new entitlement that specifically goes to people who are going to break our laws by coming here,” he told the Breeze.

He added that the argument stating that the students in question were whisked over the border at a young age is “specious.”

“Take a person who stole somebody’s identity or forged a check,” he said. “Then they get arrested. What about their 1-year-old? There you go – exact same argument. It doesn’t play. It is not the purpose of the government to save children from the consequences of a parent’s choice.”

AB 131 is the second half of the Dream Act, the first of which was signed by Brown in July. The first portion, AB 130, allows undocumented students to compete for financial aid from private sources.

The Dream Act isn’t the first piece of California legislation making it easier for undocumented students to attain a college degree. Back in 2001, AB 540 allowed such students to pay in-state tuition at California’s public colleges so long as they met the criteria, which includes having attended a California high school for at least three years and possession of a high school diploma or GED.

Officials estimate that AB 131 will cost $14.5 million a year. This amounts to about 1 percent of the annual Cal Grant outlay.

Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, estimates that about 5,500 undocumented students will be eligible for a Cal Grant. That’s a little more than half of the roughly 10,200 enrolled in California’s community colleges and state universities. (The bulk of them – 9,000 – attend community colleges.)

Fuentes-Michel said the average recipient of a Cal Grant has maintained a grade point average of 3.2 or better.

“These are good students who are getting the grants,” she said.

Fuentes-Michel said it has been widely reported – incorrectly – that illegal immigrants will receive grants only if there is money left over after all legal citizens have received them. She said that stipulation applies only to the competitive grants that typically go to older students who are returning to school after leaving the work force.

But the bulk of the Cal Grants program doles out money to younger students right out of high school. Undocumented students who meet the qualifications for these “entitlement grants” will be eligible for funds, she said.

Earlier this summer, AB 131 passed along party lines in both the state Senate and the Assembly.

State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, said he supported both halves of the Dream Act because he believes children should not be punished for the actions of their parents.

“The Bible says the son will not bear the punishment for the sins of the father,” he said. “That’s also a founding principle in America. We don’t punish people based on what their parents may have done. This country judges each individual based on their own accomplishments.”

At Cal State Dominguez Hills, a campus club called Espiritu de Nuestro Futuro serves as a support group for undocumented students, who are often referred to as “AB 540” students after the 2001 law.

But it includes only 20 members, or about 10 percent of the campus’ estimated undocumented population.

The group’s president, Celina Ixta, attributes the discrepancy to students’ fears of calling attention to their immigration status. Ixta, who was taken over the border by her parents as a 1-year-old, said she understands this fear, adding that she drives to the Carson campus from her home in Wilmington at her own risk. (California doesn’t issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.)

“Always I try to be careful, so I don’t get stopped by a policeman,” she said. “I try not to put my scared face on while driving.”

An environmental science major at Dominguez Hills, Ixta said she first learned of the Dream Act’s passage by smartphone when shopping at a hardware store with her parents.

“I literally got goose bumps on my arms,” she said.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

State’s Dream Act doesn’t help students near graduation

State’s Dream Act doesn’t help students near graduation

By Rob Kuznia Staff Writer
Posted: 10/13/2011 07:43:33 PM PDT
Updated: 10/13/2011 07:55:08 PM PDT

From coast to coast, the passage of the California Dream Act has prompted loud cheers from supporters and bitter outrage from critics.

But for Vilma Nerio, a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson – and an undocumented student – last weekend’s signing by Gov. Jerry Brown felt almost inconsequential.

Nerio’s problems pertain more to the near future: though she is within striking distance of earning her teaching degree, she will have no way to land a job once she graduates.

“There are no undocumented teachers out there,” she said.

For Nerio, the more important Dream Act is the federal version, which would provide permanent residency to qualified undocumented students. In December, it came before the U.S. Senate, and fell five votes short of being considered for final passage.

Nerio is far from alone. In August, a study by the American Sociological Review found that undocumented students with college degrees often must settle for the same low-wage jobs that their parents perform. In fact, of the 31 graduates of four-year universities interviewed, none was working in their chosen professions.

“I know many who have been out three, four, five, six years and there is really nothing for them,” said Roberto Gonzales, author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

“They speak English much more fluently than their parents and have an education level that far surpasses their parents’, but find themselves stuck in the same narrowly circumscribed set of options.”

He added that the phenomenon is relatively new, because the first generation of college-educated undocumented students is only beginning to graduate en masse.

Titled “Learning to be Illegal,” the study found that attending college has been a way for many undocumented students to delay the stress of living in a manner that feels impermissible.

Nerio, a Gardena resident, didn’t know she was an illegal immigrant until she was 17.

Her friends were getting their driver’s licenses and she told her mother she’d like to do the same. That’s when her mom dropped the bomb: Nerio was shuttled over the border from her native El Salvador when she was 1.

“It was a big shock to me,” she said. “I thought I was just like everyone else. I was a typical teenager, hanging with friends, going to school, going to football games.”

Nerio said the news had a profound effect on some of her friendships.

“About half of them were fine, but the other half took it as `You broke the law, go back,”‘ she said. “We’d had sleepovers together.”

Now 25, Nerio said she may have to return to El Salvador for up to a year to qualify to obtain her visa.

“The problem with me is I don’t have any family back there,” she said. “I’ve been in California for 24 years, I consider this my home. Going back to a place I’ve never been to is quite scary.”

Nerio, who has maintained a 3.2 GPA at CSU Dominguez Hills, said doesn’t blame her mother for bringing her over, or for waiting so long to tell her.

“Her main reason to bring me here was to give me a better life,” she said. “She only went to fifth grade and then stopped. After fifth grade you had to pay for your school. Our family is not wealthy, so they said, `Well, this is it for you.’ She didn’t want that for me.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Single-Sex Classes Gain Favor, Despite Study

Classes separated by gender gain favor in South Bay schools

Emmaly Johnson, left, and Alexis Johnson watch the flight of a gummy bear shot from their catapult design in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson
Emmaly Johnson, left, and Alexis Johnson watch the flight of a gummy bear shot from their catapult design in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson

In one classroom, 30 middle school girls work in pairs to design and build catapults made of Popsicle sticks and a plastic spoon that will launch gummy bears. In a separate room down the hall, 30 boys work on the same project.

It might sound like a day in the life of a Catholic school, but the setting is Manhattan Beach Middle School.

Once the primary province of private schools, single-sex classrooms have become increasingly common in the public sphere, including the math- and science- based elective splitting the genders at Manhattan Beach Middle and an algebra class that does the same at Adams Middle School in Redondo Beach.

But a new report has concluded that single-sex education does more harm than good, arguing that it fails to improve academic outcomes, reinforces gender stereotypes and legitimizes institutional sexism.

Published Friday in Science, a leading academic journal, the article — titled “The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling” — made a nationwide media splash last week. Aside from challenging the popular notion that boys and girls learn differently, it questions the wisdom of a 2006 law making it easier to separate genders in public schools.

Largely as a result, the number of public schools offering at least some single-sex instruction has skyrocketed in a decade, from just a handful to about 500, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Instruction.

Diane Halpern, the paper’s lead author and a psychology chair at Claremont McKenna College, said that despite some anecdotal success, broad research shows the practice is misguided.

“Any time you divide people into groups, they develop stereotypes and prejudice,” she told the Daily Breeze. “They come to like their own group better and avoid interacting with the members of the other group.”

Halpern added that the findings apply to all forms of single-sex education, from entire schools to the optional classes that are found in the beach cities.

But local educators say their programs have been successful.

Girls have fun in class with a calculator in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson
Girls have fun in class with a calculator in their gender-separated science class at Manhattan Beach Middle School. Photo by Brad Graverson

The girls-only class at Manhattan Beach Middle School, made possible by a $250,000 grant from Chevron to last three years, was launched in the fall of 2010 to generate female interest in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math, often collectively referred to as STEM.

Last year, the girls-only class took third place in a national contest put on by NASA, in which students were instructed to design a game for astronauts in orbit demonstrating Newton’s laws of motion. As a reward, the Manhattan Beach girls will soon watch a video of real astronauts in the International Space Station playing their game, which involves tossing Q-tips through floating paper rings.

This year, Manhattan Beach administrators came back to Chevron with a successful request for $100,000 to start an equivalent class for boys, which began this fall.

Carolyn Seaton, spokeswoman for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, said the elective class is not meant to boost the school’s already stratospheric test scores. Rather, the idea was initially to promote interest and excitement in the STEM fields to an under-represented group – girls – and later to extend the same opportunity to the boys. But she said she is open to learning from any new research.

“I’m not convinced the research shows us we need to stop doing what we are doing, but I do think it is something we should take a look at,” she said.

On the other side of the coin, Seaton cited a 2005 study finding that middle-school girls – and in particular gifted girls – are often afraid to speak up in class, because of how they might be perceived by peers.

“They didn’t want the boys to perceive them as being a brainiac, and therefore not being cute or pretty,” she said. “They would either not comment at all or pretend to not know things they actually knew. It’s just another reason to offer this opportunity (at Manhattan Beach Middle), where there isn’t that awkwardness that can come sometimes with that age group.”

In Redondo Beach, Adams Middle School is three years into a program for algebra in which girls and boys have the option of taking a class that is either coed or gender-separated. All three courses are equally popular, enrolling 26 to 28 students.

According to the latest available data provided by the district, the differences in performance have been minimal, with the girls-only class edging out the mixed class on the 2010 California Standards Test in algebra, and the boys finishing a close third. (The three groups stacked up in the same order for overall performance in the class.)

More noteworthy, though, were the results of a two-part survey distributed first in the fall and then in June. In general, girls seemed to respond better to the gender separation than boys. For instance, the proportion of students in the girls-only class who believed they could better concentrate in a single-gender class rose from 65 percent in the fall to 90 percent in late spring of 2010. Meanwhile, the corresponding figure from the boys-only class actually went down – from 50 percent to 41 percent.

Also remarkable was the large jump in the percentage of girls who reported that the gender split “caused (them) to enjoy math more” – from 20 percent in October to 58 percent in June. Conversely, the separation seemed to have no significant effect on boys’ enjoyment levels, which went from 15 percent in the fall to 16 percent in late spring.

Redondo Beach educators generally were unavailable for comment this week, in part because the school’s principal when the class was started at Adams – Nicole Wesley – has since taken the top job at Redondo Union High School. She referred questions to the teacher of the class, Michelle Fader, who in turn deferred to the principal, Anthony Taranto, who is new this year.

“I support the idea,” he said. “I think we owe it to all of our students to give them the experience, or multiple options to be successful in the classroom.”

As for the report in Science, it argues that separating the genders tends to reinforce gender stereotypes, such as that boys respond better to aggressive teachers and girls prefer a softer approach.

The differences found in many classrooms, though not necessarily the ones locally, range from the setting of the thermostat – boys-only rooms tend to be colder – to the style of instruction, Halpern said. For instance, girls tend to spend more time in small discussion groups while boys will sometimes pass a ball around the room to signal that they have the floor.

“I think plenty of girls would love to throw balls to each other when it’s their turn to talk, and plenty of boys would certainly benefit from having more small class discussion,” she said.

Perhaps more to the point in Manhattan Beach, Halpern said there are other ways to foster female interest in the STEM fields, such as exposing girls to women who have succeeded in math and science.

Still, teachers of the class in Manhattan Beach say separating the genders can prevent certain stereotypes from manifesting themselves.

For instance, “It prevents the girl (in a group) from always doing the write-up because her handwriting is neater,” said James Locke, teacher of the boys STEM elective.

On a recent day at Manhattan Beach Middle School, the girls and boys groups both reached a point about halfway through the period when it was time to test their products. As both genders came together outside to measure the length of their gummy-bear launches, a spirit of friendly competition was palpable. (The longest fling on that day was 90 feet, achieved by a pair of boys, Bennett Yee and Nico Brunstein.)

While working with her partner, seventh-grader Alexa Underwood said separating the genders has its benefits.

“It’s easier to pair girls to girls because sometimes guys want their idea and they influence everyone to have the idea, instead of going with the girl’s idea,” she said.

Student Lucas Neao said he has noticed some gender differences in styles of learning.

“Guys usually just go head on and do” the project at hand, he said. “Girls do more planning.”