One of many slogans chanted during the May 2005 campaign to ensure a quality education for all students was, “Give me life prep not a life sentence, let me choose my future.” High school students, with support from parents, teachers, and other community members, won two amazing victories in a row—one in June 2004 and another in June 2005. A movement that started with its focus on one area has spread throughout the city.
Los Angeles is not the only city in California where youth are rising up to demand a better education. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a call for “Books Not Bars” has mobilized youth and many supporters with the same spirit. A march last year lead by middle-school students from Richmond to Sacramento (39 miles) took place with the goal of pushing the governor to restore school funding. When he refused to see them, other youth followed it with a 26-day fast that won major concessions.
On May 17, 2004, hundreds of high school students in four Bay Area cities did a well-coordinated walk-out called, “Take Back our Schools Day.” They protested such issues as Governor Arnold Schwar- negger’s repeated refusal to implement Proposition 98, providing full and equal school funding, lobbied to restore local control of Oakland schools, and protested a prejudicial high school exit test.
Latino students have been shaking up the state of California, once the nation’s leader in education spending and now 45th in per pupil spending among all states. Los Angeles leads the way in building a mass movement and victories. A campaign launched by InnerCity Struggle (ICS)—a community organization based in East LA, staffed by young people who work to improve the schools they attended —compelled the Los Angeles School Board to agree on June 22, 2004 to build a new high school in East Los Angeles—the first in 80 years. Massive protests led by Latino students won this first big victory.
Then ICS recognized that the value of any school depends on what happens inside its walls. People had to change the fact that most students from East LA high schools fail to graduate and even fewer go on to four-year universities. ICS youth devised the best solution: require every student be placed on a college prep track. From this idea, another campaign was born.
A Legacy Of Struggle
East Los Angeles is a predominantly Latino, working-class immigrant community. Educational problems confronting young people there also face low-income youth of color across the nation. They include overcrowded schools, too many unqualified teachers, too few textbooks, not enough guidance counselors, and the list goes on. What this has meant for youth attending already neglected schools is that their chances of getting a skilled job or attending college are slim or non-existent.
Chicano youth at the forefront of community change is a tradition dating back more than 35 years. In 1968, over 10,000 mostly Chicano students from Roosevelt, Garfield, Wilson, and Lincoln high schools (all in East LA), walked out of their schools to protest poor quality education, overcrowded schools, and racist curriculum.
Those young people built a student movement that shut down the Los Angeles Unified School District and led to reforms, such as establishing Chicano Studies and bilingual education. The students demonstrated that they could play an active role in changing policy. Beyond the reforms gained, the 1968 “blowouts” launched a legacy of struggle for educational justice and sparked the Southwest-wide Chicano youth movement.
Conditions today are not much better. Located just three miles from downtown Los Angeles, “East Los” as it is known, is one of the nation’s largest and oldest Chicano barrios. Comprised of approximately 90 percent Chicano and Latino residents, predominantly of Mexican and Central American origin, East LA forms an area larger than New York City’s Manhattan.
East Los Angeles’s poverty rate of 46 percent is more than twice that of all Los Angeles. In addition, 51 percent of children under the age of 18 live in poverty, compared with 31 percent in the city. Over 50 percent of adults over 25 do not have a high school diploma. Despite these realities, students are expected to perform at the same level as students from more affluent families. If the picture was not already bleak, two of the local high schools, Roosevelt and Garfield, were built in the 1920s for 1,000 students. Today, each school has more than 5,000 students enrolled.
Lester Garcia, a graduate of Roosevelt and Cal State Long Beach serves as the political education coordinator for InnerCity Struggle. Garcia describes East LA as a microcosm of issues facing inner-city communities in this country. “The size of East LA magnifies the issues of poverty and harsh conditions experienced daily by the people who live here. We have every problem, which are intensified by our size.”
InnerCity Struggle was founded in 1994 by Maria Teixiera, a long- time community organizer in Boyle Heights who worked to empower gang members and their mothers to change the causes of violence in local housing projects. In 1999 the work took on a more politicized stance as Proposition 21 came on the ballot for the March 2000 election. Prop 21 was called the Juvenile Crime Initiative, but it could have been better called the Youth Incarceration Initiative.
Prop 21 shifted many youth from the juvenile system, with its emphasis on rehabilitation, to the punishment-oriented adult-justice system. It required teenagers as young as 14 to be tried in adult court for crimes such as murder or serious sex offenses, gave prosecutors expanded powers to try juvenile offenders as adults for a range of less serious crimes, and sentenced anyone 16 or older convicted in adult court to adult prison.
Obviously Prop 21 targeted youth of color who were already over-represented in the juvenile justice system and under-represented in the university system. To raise awareness in the community about the implications of Prop 21, InnerCity Struggle organized teach- ins in East LA high schools and mobilized youth to get involved in rallies, marches, and school walkouts to call attention to its message of Schools Not Jails. Despite the mass organizing, Prop 21 passed statewide. In local communities where organizing efforts were focused it did not. But the energy of InnerCity Struggle youth involved in the anti-21 movement turned into a long-range commitment to build a permanent student organization that would demand the return of public resources, equity, and justice to communities of color and poor people.
The vision that became United Students emerged. Its first goal was to build the leadership skills and political analysis of young people in East LA to lead the process for social change in their schools and communities, get others involved, and train them too. The second goal was to promote a youth-developed agenda for educational justice. That agenda would expose the social and economic inequities impacting public education. It would also demand equitable resources together with culturally relevant curriculum that builds critical thinking and promotes civic engagement. As Luis Sanchez, former youth organizer and now executive director of InnerCity Struggle, noted, “The goal is to build long-term student power for educational justice.”
Implementing the vision began at Roosevelt High School, where youth members of InnerCity Struggle established the club called United Students (US) in 2000. US launched a campaign to address the high number of students dropping out and the low numbers going on to college. US made the link between the increasing incarceration rate in California prisons and the “disappearance rate” of students not completing high school. They began their fight by surveying 800 students about their experiences regarding discipline issues, culturally relevant curriculum, and college access. A majority of students pointed to the tardy room policy as a major problem because it kept students out of class as punishment for being even less than a minute late. In fact, 80 percent of students said that the tardy room did not encourage them to be on time. Over 50 percent of students indicated that they would ditch school to avoid the tardy room. The results also showed that 71 percent of students surveyed said they had never met with their guidance counselor to discuss college.
Based on what they had learned, US at Roosevelt developed the United Students Plan for Improving Quality of Education. It demanded the elimination of punitive disciplinary policies, implementation of ethnic studies courses, and implementation of policies that ensure all students are college-eligible by their senior year, which included increasing the number of guidance counselors.
Victory At Roosevelt High
After winning massive student support for the plan, US leaders organized meetings between school officials and Roosevelt students, culminating in a school-wide student forum. US members established a relationship with the Los Angeles Times that resulted in supportive coverage. By building student power and utilizing media to put pressure on policy makers, United Students at Roosevelt won significant parts of their demands in early 2003. These included two Mexican American Studies classes, the addition of three more guidance counselors, and elimination of the tardy room.
As students from other East LA high schools got wind of the victories of United Students at Roosevelt, interest and excitement grew for establishing US clubs. Two years after the inception of US at Roosevelt, students at Garfield High School established a club there and soon launched a campaign with similar demands. They collected 2,000 petition signatures and presented the demands to the administration, which agreed to work with United Students to implement their demands.
Although Roosevelt and Garfield are long-time football rivals, they have much in common in educational problems and the two clubs have strategically joined forces. In the summer of 2004 they organized Educational Justice Week events, conducting classroom workshops for over 1,500 students at both schools. Inspired by the achievements of students at Roosevelt and Garfield, Wilson High School (also in East LA) students established a US club in 2003. They soon conducted a survey, collecting 600 responses, and have initiated a campaign to improve bathroom conditions and increase college access for all students.
Winning New Schools
Severe overcrowding had resulted in Garfield High students missing out on 68 days of school—almost an entire semester. Maria Salcedo, a senior at Garfield and member of United Students, said, “Our school is so overcrowded that during my sophomore year I was forced to sit on the edge of a science laboratory counter because there were just not enough desks for all the 63 students in my physiology class.”
To meet the space needs of Garfield, in 1999 the district unveiled a plan to build a large comprehensive high school next to the local Belvedere Park. But opposition to the site by a small group of residents, claiming traffic congestion, decline in house values, and youth crime, froze the plan and the district did very little to identify an alternative site. United Students at Garfield gathered over 3,000 petition signatures from students, parents, educators, local Catholic Church members, and leaders urging action by the school district.
In March 2004, InnerCity Struggle, led by both students and parents, mobilized over 400 youth and community members to march and rally in front of county and district offices. All the pressure resulted in the Los Angeles Unified School District voting to build the first new high school in East LA in 80 years. (It will open in fall 2010.) The district also agreed to build a new elementary and an adult school for community members to earn their high school diplomas.
The movement won other gains benefiting thousands, including increased guidance counselor positions, school-wide assemblies informing all students about college, and supportive disciplinary policies to ensure students stay in school. These victories were won through the leadership development of youth and community people who mobilized thousands to become involved in demanding change around issues identified by students.
The New Campaign
InnerCity Struggle students and parents decided that the next step for improving the quality of education needed to be transforming the expectations of students. This had to begin with making the idea of going to college a real possibility for thousands of mostly brown and black youth.
Currently, only 22 percent of the 9th graders in the Los Angeles school district complete high school having satisfied the college course requirements. Called the A-G requirements, they refer to the three additional courses needed (in addition to current graduation requirements) that include a foreign language and an extra year of math. Without A-G, students are barred from attending a University of California or California State University campus directly after high school and thus also have diminished chances of finding a job that pays a living wage.
Through a survey of over 2,500 students, InnerCity Struggle learned that a majority of students want to attend a four year college and are encouraged to do so by parents and teachers. Members of ICS also learned that college access is not equal among all schools in the Los Angeles school district and in LA County. Although 77 percent of the students at Garfield High and Roosevelt High are interested in attending 4-year colleges/universities and 53 percent of students at Wilson High are planning to attend college, the resources do not exist for all students to become eligible. Most Los Angeles Unified schools do not offer a sufficient number of A-G classes. As a result, 40 percent of white students finish high school having completed the requirements while only 25 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Latinos do so. These results are within a district that has over 80 percent of its student population comprised of African American and Latino children and youth.
In fall 2004, InnerCity Struggle joined the leadership body of a city-wide alliance that brought together students, parents, and community leaders to demand equity for African American and Latino students in East, Central, and South Los Angeles. The alliance, composed of over 20 organizations and called Communities for Educational Equity, launched a city-wide campaign to make the college course requirements part of the high school graduation requirement. InnerCity Struggle led the organizing work in East LA to build mass support from youth, parent, and community members, and collected over 7,000 signatures in support of the “A-G campaign,” as it was called.
InnerCity Struggle works closely with the Community Coalition, an organization based in South LA that strives for social justice by building the leadership of black and brown communities. Together, InnerCity Struggle and Community Coalition mobilized over 2,000 youth, parents, and community members from East LA and South LA to build a multi-racial movement for educational justice.
On April 26, 2005, Communities for Educational Equity delivered over 14,000 petition signatures at district offices, which included InnerCity Struggle’s petitions. Two school board members out of seven publicly announced their support for the A-G resolution while others were on the fence. The board members’ weak stance on the issue further galvanized members of both InnerCity Struggle and the Community Coalition to fight harder. Both organizations developed a plan consisting of a series of direct actions aimed at exposing and pressuring the school board members. On May 10, 100 youth and parent members rallied in front of district offices during a school board meeting and delivered additional petition signatures and demanded equity in schools located in the poorest communities.
On May 24 the Los Angeles School Board was scheduled to vote on the proposed resolution. Almost 1,000 students, parents, educators, and community supporters gathered outside the school board offices to demand passage of the resolution. They were ready for defeat; as one InnerCity Struggle commentator said, “The LAUSD school board has made an art form out of stalling the vote on the A-G Resolution.” Indeed, they did not vote that day.
They finally did vote on June 14, with 500 people mobilized on their doorstep. The resolution passed 6-1. This will mean major changes in the lives of thousands of Los Angeles youth, as has already happened in San Jose, where the A-G requirement was extended in 1998 and graduation rates increased. More students will be able to enter college and not be forced to enter the low-wage labor economy, enlist in the military, or make a living in the underground economy—many ending up in prison. It is big victory number two for Los Angeles youth.
The next step right now it is working to end the “zero tolerance” culture at schools with policies that push students out for any minor infraction, with suspension often the very first consequence. For InnerCity Struggle, the June 14 victory—like those before it—is part of continuing the legacy for educational justice sparked by the 1968 blowouts. Two of the original 1968 demands have been won by InnerCity Struggle youth: a new high school and college access for all. The work will continue to focus on building understanding in the community about systems of oppression and promote a vision of education that is based on justice.