Public Forum

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From the editor

This page is dedicated to the Public Forum, where we publish opinions on public and social issues that affect the Malibu community and our readers at large.

The subject of criticism of Malibu High School expressed last week by Stephen S. Wolfson in a letter to the editor provoked an impassioned response from several people, so we decided to publish their opinions in this forum, since we felt it was too important an issue to respond in 350 words.

MHS gets ‘A’ marks

Mr. Wolfson’s letter (1/20/05) seems more a reflection of his pessimism than a window on an outstanding school.

Has he apparently forgotten that the entire state is experiencing a funding deficit? California spends less on education per student than only two other states, Arkansas and Mississippi. For years, the PTSA raised nearly $200,000 annually for the school. Last year The Shark Fund raised $700,000. Now TSF has raised $350,000, which pays for basics like toilet paper and textbooks, besides more elegant needs like tutoring.

That students may feel “overstressed” may be more a function of the need to meet the entry criteria of top-flight universities. That is an expression of our society, since the “overstressed” student story has been covered in both Time and Newsweek. Wonderfully, more MHS seniors were admitted to more Ivy League and other prestigious universities when compared with several local public and private secondary schools.

“Closed campus” means that students need permission to leave campus. Adults sign a visitor’s log and wear a decal, which takes a minute. That doesn’t stop volunteers helping the school daily. The school encourages visitation for classroom observation and a plethora of volunteer opportunities. Teachers don’t appreciate a parent who chats with a student during class, either on a cell phone (district rule violation) or in person. Yet when my kids were in middle school, teachers didn’t mind if I quietly brought in a forgotten lunch or an appointment note.

That MHS employs 26 Special Education faculty/staff, three times greater than any faculty/staff in any other department, belies his contention that “special needs kids are neglected, ignored.” MHS does more for its Special-Ed students than nearly any other district public school. With school Superintendent John Deasy’s announcement to hire a Special Ed administrator, our district will be seeing likely more Special Ed enhancements. MHS strives hard to meet the needs of all its students, in this dearth of state education budgets and more, locally Mr. Deasy’s announcement of a spending freeze.

“MHS caters to an elite group.” Is he referring to the rigorous academic program that MHS offers? A good reason exists. Under the direction of its Site Governance Council, MHS faculty/staff worked hard to achieve the award, California Distinguished School (CDS), given in 2003. The CDS greatly augmented MHS’ standing in college admissions offices across the nation. The award also increased Malibu property values. CDS criteria required offering a certain number and type of honors/AP courses. Though nominally for high-achieving students, all honors/AP classes by state law are open to all students. Parents may request a waiver, and in fact this is done. In the meantime, special Ed resources were not neglected. In fact, there are more Special Ed faculty/staff per Special Ed student than there are honors/AP faculty/staff per honors/AP student.

“Parents are discouraged to be involved.” My experience differs. Teachers are stretched thinly among their academic pressures, volunteering (every school club must have a teacher-sponsor), in-school tutoring, let alone having a personal life. Years ago I volunteered to help my daughter’s 6th grade class go on a field trip. The teacher was thrilled. The 30 students mushroomed to over 200 students for all the classes for two teachers. Now that my kids are freshmen, I volunteer more than I did when my kids were in elementary school.

“Attendance at PTSA and Governance Board meetings is low.” Any organization, from your local homeowners association to the U.S. House of Representatives, has a larger attendance than normal when hot button issues are manifest. Apathy is prevalent even when it comes to voting for our President. Paltry attendance at monthly meetings does not mirror the hours and hours worked by so many volunteers in the PTSA – The Shark Fund, Athletic Booster Club, Arts Angels, Parent Eyes, Copy Committee, Mailing Committee, etc. A great many volunteers who wholeheartedly give time freely are less enthused over sitting through a meeting.

Our faculty/staff and volunteers work hard in countless ways to make MHS a place where kids want to get educated, where parents/guardians are glad to send their kids. Making MHS a charter school does not solve Mr. Wolfson’s concerns. Our local community is truly blessed to have a school of Malibu High’s caliber. We can ever strive to be better, but look how far we’ve come (in the 10 years of the high school’s existence) through the efforts of the faculty/staff, students, parents/guardians, and all supporters of Malibu High. Pitch in. Help where you can.

Sonia Ottusch

School has it all

My kid is having a great experience at Malibu High School. The school isn’t perfect, but neither was the high school I attended. My high school was a place where I struggled with academic and social issues and, as a result, I grew as a person. Between the struggles of homework and projects, I had a lot of fun going to sporting events, dances, theater productions, playing music and messing around with my friends in the neighborhood. Despite California’s budget issues, all of that is available at MHS along with many parent volunteer opportunities.

MHS’ excellent test scores and Distinguished School designation prove that the school isn’t a miserable academic failure that Stephen S. Wolfson claimed in his letter last week. Academic excellence is there if your student is willing to do the work. And Malibu High doesn’t sell drugs or alcohol. The kids who are drinking or using drugs are doing it off campus during the hours, [when] their parents are responsible for them. The sooner we hold ourselves accountable for that, the better.

Kim Scott

Personal endorsement

Approximately four years ago, I became the guardian of three teenage boys. The youngest two became students at Malibu High School. They had been very poor students prior to coming to live with me, and I knew they would be challenged to succeed at MHS.

From day one, Mike Matthews, the faculty and staff at MHS welcomed us to the school and worked diligently to craft an educational program which would position the boys to graduate and potentially go on to college. In our case this was not easy. It was determined that my youngest needed to be in the Special Education Program. The evaluation process was handled quickly, efficiently and professionally. Moreover, once he was in the program, we had a support team in place that actively assisted him in his non-Special Education classes. As a result, a student who had failed every class between first and ninth grade earned over a 3.0 GPA during the last six week grading period, predominantly in general education classes.

The older of the two boys had never even read a book before attending MHS and had essentially dropped out of school at age 12. When he graduated from Malibu High last June, he was the first member of his family, which included five older siblings, to graduate high school. I felt that almost every single teacher and the staff and administration were pulling for him to succeed. Most of his teachers e-mailed me almost weekly to help me monitor his progress. His football coaches took a personal interest in his welfare and provided strong moral guidance. He was accepted to 11 colleges upon graduation!

Has every one of their classroom experiences at MHS been positive? Of course not. However, neither was every class I took in high school, college or the ivy-league grad school I attended.

One of the earliest surprises I got as a new parent was how much Malibu High School was accomplishing with so little. I frankly had no idea that, when adjusted for cost of living, California ranked 50th in the nation in per pupil spending on education. I naively assumed that Malibu High School must be taking in more than the state average of $4,900 per pupil. I was wrong in that assumption. Unlike certain other municipalities, the City of Malibu was not providing meaningful additional support.

My next na├»ve assumption was that, given the wealth of this community, private donations were funding the shortfall. All of my colleagues at the office were active as donors or Trustees at St. Matthew’s and Harvard Westlake, so why should Malibu High be any different? That first year, I was shocked to usually be the only father at the poorly attended PTSA meetings. I was even more shocked when, in the spring, the PTSA had to cut their budget because they had not successfully even raised $150,000!

Yet, despite this appalling level of government and private funding, MHS had reached out to us as a family and was providing a terrific educational experience. Moreover, the school was awarded California Distinguished School and ranked one of the hardest schools in the nation by Newsweek magazine. The drama and music departments were superb. The 23 sports programs offered athletes a chance to have the “full high school experience.” I then realized that it must be the dedication and commitment of the teachers, faculty and staff that has resulted in these accomplishments.

This shock at the poor funding and awe at the performance in spite of the funding level led to the formation of The Shark Fund, which has dramatically increased private funding. As a 100 percent volunteer not-for-profit organization, The Shark Fund has raised $1.2 million in 18 months to directly fund improvements at MHS.

Needless to say, given my personal history at MHS, I read the recent letters to the editor on the topic of Malibu High with some disbelief. I believe we are blessed to have such an outstanding educational institution as MHS in our community. I challenge all parents, and particularly disgruntled parents, to become involved in a positive way to make it even better. Join a support organization such as the PTSA, Parent Eyes, Parent to Parent, The Boys and Girls Club, Athletic Booster Club, Arts Angels, the Special Education Foundation, or The Shark Fund. And please donate money to The Shark Fund. No amount is too small to help reach a 100 percent parent participation rate. And all donations may be targeted to an area of interest to the donor. Donor forms may be downloaded from the Web site: TheSharkFund.ORG.

Wes Walraven

How wrong can he be

I am writing in response to Stephen Wolfson’s letter regarding Malibu High School. I would like to address his statements and hopefully add balance to the bleak situation he describes.

“Budget deficit.” It is well known that California is at the bottom in state spending per pupil. Private donations at our school do much to help provide programs, books and equipment that typically are paid for by state budgets in other states. Please note that there is no record of a donation to MHS in the name of Wolfson this calendar year or last.

“Drugs and alcohol.” I don’t think anyone would deny that some MHS students experiment with drugs and/or alcohol. SMMUSD has clearly defined policies regarding action taken against students caught with or under the influence of illegal substances on campus or at school sponsored events. Neither MHS nor any school, public or private, can control what kids do on their own time. Although healthy lifestyles are promoted at MHS in many different ways, Malibu is not immune to the pitfalls of any affluent society.

“Overstressed, overworked, not able to get into good colleges.” I welcome anyone to investigate the amount of effort it takes to get into a “good” college these days. No high school student in the country aiming for a competitive university has a lot of free time. If it were easy, all of our kids would get in everywhere they apply.

“Campus is closed to parents.” You must be joking. On any day of the week you will find parents volunteering on campus-acting as a positive presence on our “Parent Eyes” committee, photocopying, assembling our monthly mailer, assisting teachers with special projects, chaperoning field trips, keeping score at games, and engaging in myriad other helpful activities.

“Communication is forbidden between parents and students at school.” True, parents may not call the school and expect to be connected with their child in class. Parents are also not allowed to go knocking on classroom doors looking for students. There is a drop-off table in the attendance office where parents may bring items forgotten at home by students, and certainly in the case of an emergency a student and parents may communicate. Students also may communicate with parents by pay phone or cell phone during breaks.

“Special needs students are ignored.” My children have not been in any of the special education programs, but from my experience as a PTSA volunteer, MHS is fortunate to have a group of involved parents in this program and certainly any interested parent is welcome to participate in the Santa Monica-Malibu Special Education District Advisory Committee. It is my understanding that MHS is in compliance with state and federal mandates for special needs students.

“MHS caters to an elite group.” I disagree. All students are encouraged to achieve their potential. Particularly, the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, which targets B, C and D students who want to go to college and are not achieving their potential. Aside from this official program, my children’s teachers have always made themselves available for help, either before or after school or at lunchtime. Some even give out their home phone numbers. Appointments with a teacher or administrator may be scheduled by e-mail, voice mail or with a note placed in his or her in-box in the MHS administrative office.

“Many parents are discouraged to be involved.” By whom? Lack of involvement is an individual choice. Parents are encouraged to attend PTSA, Bilingual Parents Group, Athletic Booster Club, Arts Angels, Grad Night Committee and other meetings. In addition, Site Governance Council meetings are, by law, open to the public. With a few days’ advance notice, any parent may request that an item be put on the agenda. Parents are given every opportunity to understand and participate in the issues at MHS.

Forming a charter school is no guarantee that any particular issue will be improved. The charter is only as strong as the group running it.

In addition, I would like to add that parents have every opportunity to communicate with each other. PTSA publishes a directory each year listing all parents’ numbers who consent to have them published. There is also a MHS e-network on Yahoo.com.

I realize not every school is a good fit for every family and everyone has the right to express his or her opinion, but I find Mr. Wolfson’s complaints to be biased and unfair. I also wonder what volunteer activities Mr. Wolfson has been involved in at MHS. As he has found so many problems, surely he would like to be part of the solution.

Karen Farrer