College is a big dream for South LA teen

Andy Garcia on the basketball court | Jennifer Velez

Andy Garcia on the basketball court | Jennifer Velez

Entering higher education can become a symbolic accomplishment for second generation Americans whose parents left their native countries to give them better opportunities. But what happens when college is not an immediate option for them? Meet Andy Garcia, a Locke High School athlete, who is looking for alternative ways to make a family feat a reality after not being able to attend college straight after high school.

Click play on an audio story from Annenberg Radio News:

REVIEW: ‘Down for Life’ exposes realities of gang involvement

image“If you’re gonna fight for something, it should be for something better than this.” Those are the words of Rascal – the 15-year-old leader of a Latina gang clique – explaining why she’s leaving her life of violence. Alan Jacobs’ film, “Down for Life,” follows the story of Rascal (played by newcomer and Manual Arts High School alumna Jessica Romero) on the day she tries to wrench herself from gang life. It also shows why many never leave: The journey is deadly.

The film draws from the story of Lesly Castillo, a former gang affiliate whose essay for a ninth-grade class became the subject of a 2005 New York Times article, “Essays in Search of Happy Endings.” In “Down for Life,” Rascal chronicles her experience in an application essay for a writing program in Iowa, which she and her teacher Mr. Shannon (Danny Glover) hope will get her out. If only it were that easy. It’s hard to write while constantly on the run.

Romero and many of the young women Jacobs recruited for the film are South Central L.A. residents with no acting experience. What they lack in thespian training, they make up for in real-life gang knowledge. Like the grainy footage, the casting strikes an uneasy balance of reality and fiction. The perspective is fresh and hyper-local.

Early on, Rascal and her fellow bangers fight a rival girl-gang of black youngsters for turf near Locke High School. The close-ups of their hands and faces brutally illustrate that this is not some group of girls pulling each other’s hair and scratching each other’s arms. These are hardened fighters on a mission, battling for this small stretch of pavement.

Later, they initiate a new member in an auto repair shop run by the gang’s boss, a psychopathic creep named Flaco (Cesar Garcia). He rapes the new recruit as part of her initiation while the viewer sees close-ups of the mechanics disassembling a stolen Pontiac GTO, possibly to symbolize the machinery of the gangs and the idea of a life systematically being taken apart and reassembled.

All the institutions in the children’s lives – family, education, law enforcement and the gang’s sisterhood – fail them. Rascal flees her home because of her abusive father and seeks refuge with her friend Vanessa (Emily Rios) in Chatsworth. She teaches the valley girls a bit about how to talk and act like gangsters. It’s both scary and quaint to them. But not even Chatsworth can provide a home for Rascal.

The only person who seems to understand what’s really happening to Rascal is Mr. Shannon. He believes she has a gift for writing. More importantly, he believes she has a future, as long as she can extricate herself from the gang scene. Mr. Shannon has to fight to get the school’s principal to approve her nomination for the Iowa program.

“Come on, Lee. She’s representing our school,” the principal tells him.

“Accurately, I would say,” he replies.

Though she has her teacher behind her, Rascal ultimately has to choose to break out. The teacher is less of a savior than a coach. The film’s tension comes not from the question of whether she will get into the Iowa program, but whether she will live to enjoy it.

Iowa represents a fresh start, far removed from L.A.’s vortex of violence. “Down for Life” is less about changing the failing institutions and more about escaping them. The film makes for a harrowing adventure and a magnified look at these girls’ despair, but what is most disturbing is the implied message: If you’re searching for a happy ending, don’t look in South Central.

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.