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.