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Reporter's notebook: Story about cross-class friendships among kids hits home

Dana Contreras and Lulu Mykytyn are 3rd graders at Aldama Elementary in Highland Park. They have been friends since kindergarten.
Dana Contreras and Lulu Mykytyn are 3rd graders at Aldama Elementary in Highland Park. They have been friends since kindergarten.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

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There is no doubt Courtney Mykytyn loves her Highland Park house. The character of the old building, the views, the extra space.

But this beautiful hillside home is also at the heart of a very big conflict for her.

Mykytyn, an anthropologist, and her husband, Roman, a film and TV editor, moved to Highland Park 16 years ago intentionally to live in a diverse neighborhood – and ultimately to give their children the kind of upbringing that would immerse them in a world populated with people of all kinds of backgrounds and financial means.

But when they moved from a smaller house in the neighborhood to this three-bedroom place six months ago, they struggled with something their middle-class peers in more homogenous neighborhoods did not.

"How do you not make [your kids] feel bad about what they do have, but then then keep it on the down-low without feeling guilty?" she asked me one recent afternoon on her couch.

This is how she ultimately explained it to her 8-year-old daughter, Lulu: “You should be grateful for the things you have in your life. Not everyone has the same stuff. So you can be happy without being braggy.”

I can relate to Mykytyn’s dilemma. My husband and I are middle class and have two young children. When we lived in Harlem in New York, we took for granted the kind of diverse community Mykytyn sought out.

Our close friends ranged from a single mother living in subsidized housing and recently arrived immigrants living with eight family members in a one-bedroom apartment, to friends who owned their own apartments and brownstones.

Coming to Los Angeles not quite two years ago, I learned how segregated Los Angeles can be. I, too, found myself seeking out culturally and economically diverse preschools and neighborhoods.

So when I sat in Mykytyn’s living room for the first time in the fall, this story struck me personally.

The Mykytyns are among countless white, middle-class families who have changed the face of Highland Park over more than a decade. Yoga studios and valet-parking restaurants are displacing party stores and bodegas.

And that’s created a struggle in Highland Park that I first heard about when I was working on a series of stories about bilingual education.

While some of the more affluent residents of Highland Park chose to send their kids to private schools or charters in other neighborhoods, others — like Mykytyn — wanted their kids to go to the local public school. But they also wanted their kids to get a good education, and Highland Park schools were low performing.

Mykytyn and a group parents joined together to convince the Los Angeles Unified School District to allow the local elementary school, Aldama, to start a dual language program. Mykytyn and other parents knew they needed as many supportive and active parents as possible if the school was to succeed. So they began organizing.

Today, Mykytyn’s daughter, Lulu, has a best friend, Dana Contreras, and both are in third grade at Aldama’s dual language program.

The Contreras-Mejia family moved to Highland Park around the same time as the Mykytyns did. But their lives are very different: Multiple generations in a small, two-bedroom apartment.

Dana shares a room with her parents, and her 16-year old brother shares the other bedroom with his grandmother.

The differences struck me as I spent time with Dana and Lulu on a play-date after school.

They were perched on a ledge outside Baskin-Robbins. The girls were eating ice cream, a treat from Dana’s mom and a nice break in both girls' regular straight-home-to-do-homework routine. As they giggled and plotted how to get Mejia to take them to the pet store so Dana could get a hamster, Mejia noticed that Lulu had a pretty, if a little chipped, professional manicure. As Mejia cooed over how pretty her nails were, Lulu and Dana both tried to change the subject.

It seemed to me these girls understood this was an uncomfortable thing, and they clearly didn’t really want to dwell on it. Later, I asked Mejia if she takes Dana to salons for manicures and Mejia said: absolutely not.  

“Some things don’t make sense to me," she said. "If I don’t even do it for myself that often, why I would do it for an 8-year-old?”

She said she’d talk to her daughter about it later – just like Mykytyn had done with her kids about striking the right tone with friends when they talked about things they have that others might not, like Lulu's gift from her grandmother of an expensive sketch book. 

There were all these parallel conversations going on after and before school and play dates to make these relationships work. Teachable moments, in education-speak.

But it struck me how much easier it would be for these families to not to try to breach the socio-economic gulf.

And yet, they were doing it. Every day.

When Mejia’s son, Danny, confided in me that – sure, he’d love to have his own room and not have to share with his grandmother – his mom interjected.

“I would just like to say, what does being wealthy mean? Having money doesn't mean being happy,” Mejia, a nurse assistant, said.

Then she told a story about getting a tax refund and going to the mall to spend the money. As she was shopping for a brand-label handbag, she realized that these material things don't make her happy.

From the look on the kids faces, it was obvious they’d heard this story before.  

UCLA professor and director of the school's civil rights project, Gary Orfield, lauds these families for having the hard conversations to explain class differences to their young kids.

“There’s some discomfort in crossing race and class lines, but you really do understand the reality of the world much more effectively if you do that,” he said. "Children need to develop understanding and empathy that go across these lines."

There are a lot of things I learned in this story that didn’t make it into the radio feature you’ll hear if you click the link above.

I learned from researchers across the country that classrooms with true socio-economic diversity generally mean all the kids do better academically. Middle-class kids are not doing worse by being in class with kids from a lower income families.

I learned that children glean wonderful lessons from having deep friendships with kids who either have distinctly more or distinctly less than them - and that these are life lessons that cannot be written into some lesson plan and taught in a classroom.

And maybe, most importantly, I learned that even when feelings get hurt, or third graders or their mothers feel misunderstood or judged, some families want to keep at it. They truly value what a family that's very different from their own adds to their lives.