Larry Strauss is a LAUSD English teacher who's spent his entire career at a place I doubt most people in the city, even school-savvy people, have ever heard of: Middle College High School. It's a tiny school of about 300 students housed in handful of trailers on the campus of L.A. Southwest College at Western and Imperial Avenue in what's technically county territory but popularly thought of as South Central. MCHS is modeled after a school in Queens, N.Y. that literally tries to bridge the divide between high school and college--especially for underachieving black and brown students who tend to fall between the public-school cracks and then vanish from the mainstream altogether--by steering kids into postsecondary classes and culture before they even graduate.
The west-coast MCHS started up in 1989 as a continuation school and later applied for full accreditation as its student body outgrew that status, academically and otherwise. Today it boasts a pretty impressive record of the stats that matter most to public school observers--college admission rates, standardized test scores. That makes it an especially hopeful sign in these recession-wracked times that have seen public school budgets get axed and parents scrambling for reasonable alternatives to costly, far-flung private schools or charters and magnets that have limited space and cumulative point systems for admission that could make a Las Vegas bookie's head swim. Things aren't quite that crazy at Middle College--yet. But things are indeed looking up. The barrack-like trailers are temporary; the school is scheduled to move into its spanking new quarters on the campus of Southwest early next year (the district is footing the bill for that, of course, but in a bit of good timing, the college has also undergone a major face-lift itself in recent years).
Strauss is very glad about the move, though not effusive. There are a couple of reasons why. Teaching twenty-plus years in this neighborhood just east of Inglewood and south of South Central proper has made him guardedly optimistic about pretty much everything to do with education, fraught as it is with students' family issues, economic issues, social equity and justice issues that have hardly been put to rest. That doesn't mean Strauss isn't proud of his kids or what MCHS regularly accomplishes with them. But effusiveness simply isn't his style; a white New York native who grew up close to Harlem, he has an air of street-smartness and unflappability that fits right in at MCHS. It helps that he looks like a tough guy--tall and brawny, with a shaved head and piercing eyes. (Besides teaching AP and Honors English, Strauss also teaches P.E. and coaches basketball).
But Strauss, a classic jazz aficionado and writer, has the soul of a poet. He's a hard-nose doer but also a literary idealist. One of the things he teaches regularly is the James Baldwin story "Sonny's Blues." So determined was he that his students divine the music that frames the story, he hunted for a jazz recording that might illuminate the power and sorrow of that tale in a way that words, even Baldwin's, could only do in part (he brought a Roy Brown record to class and played it while reading aloud the culminating scene --let's just say it did the trick).
Things aren't always that inspiring at Middle College. Strauss says he sees too many promising kids, especially black boys, permanently stranded in the margins and the context of their own lives. But he genuinely enjoys the challenge of trying to break that cycle; he insists that in his teaching career, he's never had two consecutive bad days. "People who can't deal with the battle shouldn't be in the classroom," he says with a shrug. Though the most discouraging classroom dynamic thing for Strauss is not a battle, but the opposite. "The worst thing for me is when a kid puts his head down," he says. "They give up."