LA students to City Council:  Fix our schools, neighborhoods

LOS ANGELES – A group of 25 high school students, dressed in their Sunday best, prepared to present the findings from a busy summer of research conducted across the city. Their message was simple to the assembled city leaders, parents and others who gathered recently Los Angeles City Hall: Pay attention to youth and their communities.

The presentations from students from several high schools across greater Los Angeles was the culmination of a weeks-long summer research program during which the students studied ways the economic crisis has affected their communities. In South Los Angeles, students reported on the impact of poverty.

From East Los Angeles, students discovered the economic crisis had helped boost the high school drop out rate. The high school students, presenting their findings to the Los Angeles City Council and other city officials, were sponsored by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

Ernest Morrell, associate director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, said the seminar aimed to promote conversations about educational reform and youth development.  “The presentation is a validation for them that what they do matters,” he said.

Activist youth with a message

Ricky Torres, a Crenshaw High School junior who participated in the summer research, was no stranger to speaking out against the recent budget cuts even before joining the seminar. Torres participated some of the walk outs when teachers at Crenshaw High School were given pink slips as LAUSD cut its budget to reflect the recession.

“We were helping out the teachers. We didn’t want the best teachers to leave,” said Torres.

At the presentations at City Hall earlier this month, each group of students prepared a PowerPoint presentation that included information about the different issues they studied, an overview of the community they studied, the research, their findings and recommendations for change. Each group also presented a video documentary.

The East Los Angeles group found that more than half of the students they surveyed have considered dropping out of school to get jobs because of the economy. More than 70 percent of the people had concerns about health care and losing their homes. And more than half said they believed students are no longer a priority to public officials.

The students who went into the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles said they didn’t expect to find many similarities, but were surprised to see how these communities were also affect by the economic crisis.

The South Los Angeles group gave a brief history of the social oppression that has plagued this community. They talked about the rise of drugs and violence in the 1980s, the riots, and the high poverty rate.

“When we wake up in the morning, we have a higher access to death than any other community,” said Torres, who lives South Los Angeles.” I feel fear every single day. In other communities you see people outside having fun . . . you don’t see that in South Central.”

Youth and their “rhetorical power”

The South Los Angeles group concluded that a lack of resources in this community is to blame for the low graduation rates at Manual Arts and Crenshaw high schools. They suggested that the Los Angeles Unified School district create a research team to serve students in this community.

“Don’t believe the lies,” Jimenez, a senior at Wilson High School, told the audience. “You have the power to change these oppressive conditions.”

After each group of students finished their presentation, there was a sense of relief and pride on their faces.

When asked whether he felt the last 10 summers of co-directing this seminar was helping change Los Angeles, UCLA’s Morrell paused and said: “We have impacted leaders who have a different kind of respect or fear of the kids around the city. Kids have a rhetorical power and honesty and legitimacy and a moral authority to do things that adults can’t. I do think these kids have a made a difference in their families, in their schools, to their teachers and a difference to the city’s school system.”

The UCLA institute is a network of UCLA scholars and students, professionals in schools and public agencies, advocates, community activists, and urban youth. IDEA’s mission is to make high quality public schooling and successful college participation routine occurrence in low income neighborhoods of color. More information about the institute and its work is available here.

Exploring a community’s needs,  students vow to “change this place”

LOS ANGELES – When Isaac Jimenez, a Wilson High School senior, finished the school year last May, he could have chosen to enjoy his summer break. But instead he opted to spend five weeks learning about and doing research in the communities of Greater Los Angeles.

Jimenez is one of 25 high school students from Los Angeles Unified School District hired to participate in a youth research seminar sponsored by the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, an institute that brings together scholars and community representatives to improve the number of students of color in colleges and universities. The seminar teaches students college-level research to motivate them to address social issues in their communities.

“Young people need to be major players in conversations about educational reform,” said Ernest Morrell, the institute’s associate director.

Morrell has been involved with the project since it was established in 1999 as a way to determine why there was such a high academic failure among students of color. Over the years the project has grown and explored several research topics.

This is Jimenez’s second year in the program. He was first recommended by his history teacher and said he was drawn to return to the program because of this year’s topic: the affect of the economic recession on a student’s ability to get an education.

Running out of paper

Jimenez said he felt the affect of the economic crisis when his school ran out of paper with only a few weeks left of the school year. “If you wanted to make copies or print something out you had to take your own paper and they still charged you for the ink,” he explained.

Jimenez, who lives in East Los Angeles, said he’s eager to learn how the economy has impacted other communities. “I wouldn’t know if the same affects take place . . . it [the research] will teach me if we have all had the same affect from the economic crisis.”

Jimenez is part of a group of five students who will conduct their research in South Los Angeles.

The students will spend one week becoming familiar with university-level work, learning theories they will talk about and putting together their research design. The last four weeks are spent conducting their research and analyzing their data.

Each group, consisting of five students from different schools, will explore a community in Los Angeles.  They will visit schools, organizations, and public spaces in their designated community and collect their data through surveys and interviews.

With the support of five teachers from Los Angeles city schools and UCLA graduate students, the students will look at the communities of South, East and West Los Angeles, Watts and the San Fernando Valley.            

“Every teacher has this dream of having 30 students in a space that’s not school,” said Morrell of the seminar location, “in a highly resourced space because most of us feel like the reason students aren’t learning has a lot to do with what schools are as institutions and a lack of resources. If you have the space and the resources, kids can do amazing things.”

Inspired to change “this place”

The seminar is funded by a collection of grants that help provide students with the materials for their data collection.

Aaron Armstrong, a senior at Manual Arts High School, participated in the seminar last summer and took what he learned to begin a program at his school to develop a better connection between students, teachers and administrators.

Armstrong said his experience made him more willing to listen and work with others to become active in their communities. “It showed me that there’s more out there than just me and my little bubble because at first I never liked going anywhere outside of this area [South Los Angeles],” he said.

Locke High School senior, Gregorio Arenas, said curiosity is what attracted him to join the seminar. “I didn’t know anything about my community. At first I didn’t care because I felt like my educators didn’t care for me so I stopped caring about my own community.” he said.  Arenas said he was angry with the fact that a lack of resources in his school caused him to get lower grades because he wasn’t able to buy materials for projects that the school should provide.

Now that he is in the program, Arenas said he has a different perspective.“Seeing the community around me and seeing how we’re treated, it makes me want to change this place.”

The seminar concluded on Aug.7 with a presentation of the student’s findings to parents, teachers and city officials at Los Angeles City Hall.