What do you think of the North Hollywood Highly Gifted Magnet?

By Robyn Licht, 17, North Hollywood HS
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Robyn believes everyone deserves a good education.

The Highly Gifted Magnet (HGM) program I am a part of at North Hollywood High School is different from any other magnet program in the Los Angeles Unified School District. It is the only program that requires an IQ test for admittance. The magnet has become a primarily white and Asian program, while North Hollywood High School remains mostly Hispanic, mirroring the surrounding neighborhood.

This racial disparity attracted filmmakers producing a documentary on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education. Unfortunately, rather than trying to explain why this racial disparity exists, the filmmakers edited our discussion comments to make the magnet students appear elitist, even though we are not.

Brown v. Board of Education was a monumental court case in 1954 that was the first federally mandated attempt to end racism in school systems by declaring that "separate but equal" was unconstitutional. The Brown ruling meant that the segregation in public schools everywhere in America was now illegal. However, the Supreme Court’s decision did not reflect the feelings of much of the country, and integrating schools has been a slow process.

The filmmakers from Firelight Media, working with KCET, contacted my history teacher last spring, asking if a film crew could come to our class and talk to us about how Brown v. Board had affected schools during the past 50 years.

We were all excited to have an opportunity to talk about the Brown case. Our teacher kept joking that it was our big chance to be "movie stars."

We all agreed the Brown case hasn’t been perfect

The discussion we had was very productive. First they filmed us talking with Luis Rodriguez, author of Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. He shared some of his experiences with racism as he grew up in a segregated environment. He recalled how on his first day at a new school the teacher didn’t know what to do with him, so she put him in a corner with some blocks to play with. He remained there for most of the school year while the teacher taught the white children.

Then the filmmakers pointed out that the vast majority of students at North Hollywood are Latino, and only a tiny percentage of them are in the magnet. We told the filmmakers that the racial make-up of the magnet was not a difference of intelligence, but just a difference of opportunities among races. But the filmmakers were prodding us to say different things. They kept presenting the idea that "maybe it was because white students are smarter than Hispanics, maybe Hispanics are just dumber." Although they were playing "devil’s advocate," as they kept saying, our response that it was a difference of opportunities remained the same.

When the camera crew left, my classmates and I had a good feeling about the experience. It was exciting to discuss all of those issues with someone who had a different perspective on racism than a teacher, and show ourselves that we did learn a lot when we studied the civil rights movement. We were all excited to see what parts of the discussion would be used.

The special made up appear elitist

In early May the documentary, Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise, aired on PBS stations all over the country. Most of us watched the show at home, and saw how they butchered our filming session into sound bytes that fit their predetermined objective. As I watched the documentary I failed to see how it examined the success of Brown—instead it attempted to point out all that Brown has not achieved, using our magnet to illustrate a huge injustice in school systems today.

The filmmakers aired only two comments from our hour-long discussion, both of which were taken out of context, making our magnet appear elitist and racist. They quoted one student saying "some people aren’t suited to be the next president." The filmmakers excluded any mention of my classmates acknowledging the racial inequalities that exist at our school.

Right after the segment on North Hollywood they included a comment from Jeannie Oakes, a professor at UCLA who is known for her studies of inequities in education. Oakes is shown stating, "Other children whose parents understand how the school system works, they take their child to a psychologist outside of school and get a privately administered [IQ] test."

Oakes’s comment made it sound like magnet students are admitted because their families know how to manipulate the system, rather than because of their intelligence. But the reality is that students must score a 145 on an IQ test that can be administered only by an LAUSD psychologist to be eligible for the Highly Gifted Magnet.

In every class the next day, my classmates and I discussed how the documentary misrepresented us. We were all hurt by what the filmmakers left out that would have explained a lot of the "injustices" and "racism" they found. The documentary didn’t explain that the majority of the students in the magnet are bussed in from all over LAUSD. The filmmakers made it seem like the school chooses white and Asian students from the North Hollywood area to be in the magnet. This also explains why the magnet students are different ethnically compared to students in the regular program, who are from the neighborhood surrounding the high school.

On the KCET Web page describing the documentary, there is a paragraph explaining North Hollywood’s involvement. It also sums up the inequity of how the magnet was depicted:

"At Los Angeles’ North Hollywood High School, a program places students in groups that offers only two paths – one for the college bound and one for vocational studies. BEYOND BROWN examines how this program has resulted in "schools within a school" offering very different resources and opportunities. Asian and white students typically follow the "talented and gifted" college track, while Latinos and African-Americans disproportionately populate a vocational curriculum that emphasizes "hands-on" skills such as home economics and wood shop."

There are in no way "only two paths" offered at our school. There are many AP classes offered to all the students on campus. Also, the Highly Gifted Magnet program is not the only specialized program. Students can take different paths through the Zoo Magnet, a Naturalist Academy, a Social Justice Academy, and other small learning communities. Second, as far as the "hands-on" curriculum the synopsis mentions, home economics is not offered at my school, and woodshop was just recreated as an elective this year. There is an auto-mechanics class, which students choose to take because it guarantees them a job with Ford or Toyota after graduation.

We wanted to set the record straight

My teacher had us all write letters to the producers of the documentary and the general manager of KCET. I sent my letter in late May, and although I did not receive a response, while writing this article I contacted the producer, John Valadez, and Jeannie Oakes.

When I asked Oakes why she commented on the North Hollywood IQ testing system, her response was surprising. Even though her comment aired right after the part about North Hollywood’s magnet program, she explained she wasn’t referring to my school.

"I was not referring specifically to the school, but rather to a prevailing pattern across the nation," Oakes said in an e-mail.

While contacting Oakes clarified a major discrepancy in the documentary, it was my conversation with Valadez that was the most rewarding. When I talked with him recently, I asked him why he portrayed the magnet the way he did. He said that he had only a certain amount of time to devote to North Hollywood, and his objective was to give a glimpse of a much larger problem of racism that affects many schools across the nation. I countered that North Hollywood was a faulty analogy for what he was trying to show.

Our hour-long discussion wasn’t just trading accusations, though. Instead, it was extremely constructive. I explained to him that if he wanted to provide a "glimpse" of the overall problem of racism in schools, why not start in elementary school? That’s where children are tested, so clearly if there is a racial disparity in the system, it must start there. We both agreed on this concept of institutionalized racism, meaning the racism has evolved in the school system by no fault of any specific group of people.

Valadez gave me some statistics on the ethnic makeup of North Hollywood, compared to all of LAUSD. The most shocking was that in 2000-2001 (the most recent statistics Valadez had) 45 percent of the students in the Highly Gifted Magnet were Asian, while Asian students comprised only 7 percent of North Hollywood’s student body, and only 3.7 percent of LAUSD. When he told me these percentages, I asked him why he didn’t use those in his documentary. He said again that there wasn’t enough time. When our phone call was over I was relieved. I had been nervous that the conversation would turn into him refuting all of my points.

My discussion with Valadez led me to acknowledge the educational inequities that have surrounded me since childhood. I had never really stopped and thought about what it meant to be getting a better education than other public school students. He made me realize how often our teachers told us how "special" and "talented" we are. I then wondered, what are kids who aren’t in the magnet told? That they will never succeed?

I know that ever since elementary school when I had my IQ tested, and was placed in a "special" program, I have been getting the best of a public school education. However, I will not apologize for that; I don’t regret being challenged my entire life. And I also do not think I am better than anyone who has not received an education like mine. Blaming students in magnet programs is not the answer. Magnet programs are not the problem, they are the solution. John Valadez repeatedly told me he found no fault with the HGM, what he saw wrong was that it was not a larger program, and I agree.