Before Kyle Hunsberger passes out a letter to be signed by his students’ parents, he asks his class what language do their parents speak. “How many speak Spanish?” he asks, as several seventh-grade hands go up. “How many of your parents speak English?” he insists, and more hands go up as a couple more for when he asks, “And how many of you need both?”
This is how Hunsberger, an Algebra teacher, and the rest of the staff at Johnnie Cochran Middle School disseminate information to their multilingual student population. The school is close to 80% Hispanic, 19% African America and 1% Asian.
Hunsberger, who is originally from New York and a graduate of Wheaton College, said even though he has taken the highest levels of math classes throughout his career, there is always one course he regrets not taking – Spanish.
Hunsberger teaches 5 Algebra courses and out of the 24 students in his Advanced class, there is only one black student and one Asian student; the rest are Hispanic. 27% of the student body are identified as English learners. He says he experiences his greatest difficulty when trying to talk to parents and explain their child’s classroom performance when he simply knows basic Spanish phrases.
Here’s Hunsberger’s beginning Algebra class racing to turn their homework in: Homework Race
In the Assistant Principal, CeCe Grant’s office, a sixth grade student comes in crying after he was heard cussing in his P.E. class by a teacher and sent to the office. Grant tells the boy to stop the tears because he’s in big trouble now.
“Now, you know we don’t use profanity here, Carlos,” Grant said. “Why’d you do it?”
“Because they were making fun of my last name and calling me other bad names in Spanish,” the boy said.
After learning what the bad names were, Grant said, “They called you a what? and then looked at me and said, “Sometimes I don’t even know what they kids are saying.”
Grant has been at Cochran Middle since she attended it as a student herself. She noted that the school was primarily African American when she went and that only within the last decade has there been a surge of Hispanic student enrollment. The once majority black campus has less than 255 black students out of the 1,309 students total at Cochran.
“And we beg black parents to come,” Grant said. “We just don’t get them in here to check on their kids. It’s not like when I was growing up.” When Grant was there and when Johnnie Cochran, the famous Los Angeles celebrity lawyer the school is now named after, attended, it was called Mt. Vernon Junior High. It originally opened in 1926, with a student population in the middle class. Now, a Title 1 school with 91% of its students listed as economically disadvantaged and a little more than 20% scoring “Proficient & Advanced” on the California Standardized Tests, much has changed.
The band director, Mr. Zagami, since the 1970s, said when he first came to the school it was 90% Jewish.
“Within the next 10 years, it’ll probably be all Asian students,” he said. “It’s been changing every decade, said Zagami, who has been teaching three generations at Cochran Middle.
“I have students that I’ll tell, I taught your grandpa,” he said.
He averages about 34 students, but recalls when he had more than 80 at one time.
“We’ve had declining enrollment over the years,” Zagami said. “More students can’t take my class because they don’t have an elective, and they can’t get electives, if they have a low test score and need to take an extra reading or math class.”
Every single instrument, and even the reeds for the saxophones and clarinets, is provided for students. Principal Scott Schmerelson said he had to fight to get the instruments supplied free of charge for the students, who would otherwise not be able to afford them. And with extreme budget cuts in the Los Angeles Unfied School District, music programs have suffered immensely. Zagami said students come to his band class with no prior music education.
“They’ve never even played a basic recorder before,” he said. “I have to start from scratch, which is fun, but also limiting because we can’t afford to have an orchestra program as well.”
The even bigger news is that this time next year, Cochran Middle School could change totally and become a Charter school under the Public School Choice motion.
Take a listen to Principal Schmerelson describe the school’s fate as I ask him some questions about the progress and future of Johnnie Cochran Middle School: