In the slightly cramped rainbow-hued storefront on busy Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights, the student leaders of InnerCity Struggle talked about their victories:
How they won key changes in the tardy policy at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. How they successfully lobbied for ethnic studies classes and more college counselors at Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights.
And how, along with parents and other community groups on Los Angeles' predominantly Latino Eastside, they helped forge consensus on a location for a badly needed new high school.
"It's really satisfying when you work hard on something and you finally get the results," said Armando Sanchez, 18, a Wilson High School senior who recently helped conduct a survey of about 700 of his classmates at the El Sereno school.
The results will be used in discussions with school administrators about improving curriculum, discipline and other campus issues.
InnerCity Struggle is a nonprofit organization formed a decade ago by Eastside community activists to promote an end to gang violence. The group gradually widened its focus to include education in general and conditions in the schools in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles in particular.
But there is a bigger goal here, said Luis Sanchez, InnerCity Struggle's 30-year-old executive director.
"The most important thing is building community and building organizations to do that," Sanchez said. "Our families understand there is a clear-cut connection between opportunity and education."
The group's work in the schools has raised its profile at the Los Angeles Unified School District and drawn support from several elected officials, including Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), Los Angeles Councilman and mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) and school board President Jose Huizar. The organization also counts among its friends state Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who ran the Community Coalition in South Los Angeles, a group that has teamed with InnerCity Struggle on school issues.
Huizar called InnerCity Struggle "an important force in our district."
"The investment this organization makes to development leadership, activism and social consciousness in students and families … is powerful and effective."
Sanchez, who succeeded InnerCity Struggle founder Maria Teixeira as executive director about two years ago, guides a staff of seven others, including some who began as high school student organizers for the group. It has a six-member advisory board and a $400,000 annual budget, mostly from foundation grants that are augmented by occasional community fundraisers.
While a student at Loyola High School, southwest of downtown, Sanchez met Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has devoted his life to improving conditions in Los Angeles' barrios.
Sanchez begin volunteering for some of Boyle's projects at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights. After graduating from UC Berkeley, Sanchez returned to Los Angeles and formed a youth organizing project that stayed with him when he later joined InnerCity Struggle as associate director.
For the first five years after its 1994 founding, InnerCity Struggle focused on arranging gang truces and combating violence in housing projects and neighborhoods, "but as time went on, we began to look more at policy issues," Sanchez said.
"We realized it was not only about neighborhood violence. We had to get engaged around policy issues, the reasons behind the violence, and a lot of that had to do with lack of opportunities," Sanchez said.
The area's schools, many of them overcrowded and performing below state averages on such measures as test scores and college attendance rates, seemed a natural starting place.
At Garfield High, for example, nearly 60% of the class of 2002 had dropped out by graduation day; one in 16 students enters a four-year college, and the school is overcrowded, with its 4,800 students on staggered, shortened schedules. Some students complain that they cannot get the courses they need for admission to four-year colleges and say military recruiters come calling at the campus but not college representatives.
"If we mess up our education, we mess up our lives," said Robyn Ybarra, 17, a Garfield senior who is active in United Students, InnerCity Struggle's campus chapter. Ybarra explained how students met with administrators to change tardy policies and make other changes.
"We had a tardy room where even students who were just five or 10 minutes late had to go, and they would miss their whole class," Ybarra said. "We met with the administration and came up with a policy" that allowed students into class in most cases but provided other ways to hold them accountable for their tardiness.
Frances Vilaubi, an assistant principal at Garfield, called InnerCity Struggle "a very strong group that supports students, encourages them to get involved and empowers them to speak up, to be a part of something" that helps them better their futures.
Vilaubi said she also admires the group for its efforts to reach out to struggling or indifferent students and help them see the importance of education. " I have seen some kids really turn around" after joining the organization.
United Students members "have been willing to spend hours after school and in meetings to come up with some positive solutions" to the tardy policy and other concerns, Vilaubi said. "What they do is important work."
However, she said budget constraints make it difficult to accommodate some of the students' wishes, such as more course offerings.
School board member David Tokofsky, who met with InnerCity Struggle representatives to discuss the high school location and other issues, applauded the organization for encouraging students to be involved in campus and community issues. He said the group was "very, very helpful" in pushing the board and community leaders to reach consensus on a location for the new high school.
That deal ended a years-long, divisive fight that had raged as the Los Angeles Unified School District bought land and built schools in other crowded neighborhoods.
"The civic engagement part of what they are doing is really great," Tokofsky said, "but I wonder about whether they are [learning how to deal with] … the unavoidable complexities of civic and political life."
InnerCity Struggle also has conducted community organizing in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles on other issues. It runs Familias Unidas, a program that enlists parents and community members to work toward equal opportunities in the schools, and started Strike School Academy, a 12-week training program for low-income minority youths offering leadership workshops, instruction in research techniques and courses in politics and how to work for social change.