Ironically, when it comes to public school reform, just about everybody has had their say — policymakers, pundits, even athletes — except for the students themselves. But a change is coming: There is a growing local movement to enlist students as expert witnesses and leaders in the fight for their own academic and political survival. Among the best of these efforts is the Youth Organizing Communities, based in East L.A. and run by Maria Brenes, an alum of UC Berkeley and Harvard’s graduate education school.
For several years, educators and civic leaders have struggled to come up with a plan to build a new high school in East Los Angeles to take some of the enrollment burden from overcrowded Garfield High. A previous plan died amid political squabbles, public relations blunders and a dispute over location.
But on Friday, community leaders and Los Angeles Unified School District officials stood on the steps outside Garfield and announced they had agreed on an innovative solution to the complex problem of building a 2,300-student high school in unincorporated East Los Angeles.
A sus escasos 16 años, María Salcedo tiene muy claro que desea estudiar ciencias políticas y que, para lograrlo, el principal obstáculo que debe superar es ser alumna de la Secundaria Garfield.
“Es triste admitirlo, pero la educación que nos dan en esta escuela no sirve para ir a la universidad; simplemente es para sobrevivir en un trabajo de salario mínimo. Por eso la mayoría se desanima y deja los estudios antes de graduarse”, dice Salcedo con una mezcla de ira e impotencia.
Nearly 200 parents, students and East L.A. community residents hit the streets of downtown Tuesday to present their formal demands to two influential local elected officials, L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina and LAUSD Board Member, David Tokofsky.
Calling on both officials to work together to speed up the process for the selection of a site for a new high school in East L.A., marchers were met with a pleasant surprise from LAUSD Board President Jose Huizar, whose district includes Roosevelt High School.
Tired of the alarming student drop-out rate in South and East Los Angeles, a coalition demands that all high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District offer its students a rigorous study plan under the “A-G” requirements: necessary to be eligible to enter a four-year university, but something many students do not even know about.
The “A-G” requirements are 15 courses required of students who wish to continue their education at a university level. Among the required courses students must take to achieve admission to a university are classes in English, mathematics, science, foreign language, art, and other classes that prepare them for higher education.
The plan to build a new high school on a 3.3-acre county-owned site at the corner of Cesar Chavez Avenue and Mednick Street, where students could use the adjacent Belvedere Park for recreation, is all but dead in the water. In a letter dated March 8, L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina said: “the county is vehemently opposed to any joint use of Belvedere Park (for a new high school) and I remain steadfast on this position.”
Molina’s opposition to a high school with joint-use privileges of park space severely diminishes any likelihood that it will happen, given the already strong historical resistance by some local homeowner groups to the plan. In 2000, the Save Belvedere Park Committee organized and helped shoot down the joint-use proposal.
Being late for class can be a drag. And for years it was also a bore. At schools like Roosevelt and Garfield High schools, students who walked in after the bell, whether one or 15 minutes late, were sent to the dreaded tardy room, a place where they just sat, and sat, and sat for the rest of the period.
But at Roosevelt High School last year, thanks to the initiative of United Students, a collective backed by Inner City Struggle (a non-profit community organization in East L.A.), students successfully worked with school administrators to change the tardy room policy.
Because Maria’s last name starts with an “s” – Salcedo – last year she had to experience the entire breadth of her sophomore physiology course at Garfield High School sitting on the edge of a science laboratory counter.
Why? Because her classroom couldn’t fit all 63 desks needed to seat the course’s 63 enrolled students, explained Salcedo, now a junior. So the teacher, having few options left, opted to grant desk-privileges alphabetically. After all the desks had been occupied, the dozen or so students left standing were asked to sit on the room’s periphery laboratory stations for the remainder of the course.
The storefront headquarters on this main drag in East Los Angeles, one of the oldest barrios in the nation, wears its name proudly in graffiti-like lettering: InnerCity Struggle.
Inside, armed with spray bottles and paper towels, two teenagers polish the conference table to a high gloss. At computers nearby, other young people scan that day’s press reports on local school funding, which again has fallen under California’s budget ax.
Roosevelt High School's newly appointed principal, Cecilia Quemada, had barely been on the job for a month when a group of student activists approached her with a list of requests last October.
The teenagers, who are members of an organization called Youth Organizing Communities, spoke passionately about improving education for the 5,100 students who attend the severely overcrowded campus on Los Angeles' Eastside. The school is notorious for low test scores, and in 2001 it was one of 13 schools in California, and 10 in Los Angeles Unified, targeted for reform by the state.