Pershing Square erupts in protest

imageWhen Rene Casanova first started classes at South Chaffey Community College in Rancho Cucamonga, he had no trouble getting into the courses he needed to graduate.

Even if he wanted to add a course he hadn’t registered for prior to the start of the semester, Casanova said he was “pretty much guaranteed” to get into the class.

Four years later, the philosophy and religion double major still has a two semesters to go before he has enough credits to transfer to a four-year university to complete his bachelor’s degree.

Chaffey has cut the number of sections it offers per course in order to stay afloat despite dramatic state budget cuts.

“I’ll get two or three [classes] and then I’ll try to add but that’s pretty much a jungle because you have 30 or 40 people trying to get a class and there’s only three or four spaces left,” Casanova said. “The budget’s all messed up. The priority of the government is wrong … the greatest goal should be education.”

Casanova joined thousands of parents, students, and educators in Los Angeles in Pershing Square on Thursday to rally against potential teacher lay offs and a proposed $2.4 billion cut to K-12 schools and $97.5 million cut to community colleges.

Cuts to the University of California system have caused tuition to rise 61 percent in five years. That percentage is 68 percent for the California State University system.

The March 4 Day of Action originated from an October education conference held at UC Berkeley and morphed into a statewide movement.

Thursday’s event precedes a 48-day march from Bakersfield to Sacramento, which kicks off March 5 and concludes with a rally on the steps of the state capitol April 21 to lobby legislators to support education

On Thursday, chants of “keep public education free, no cuts, no fees,” and “hey, hey, ho ho, budget cuts have got to go” punctuated the march as demonstrators walked shoulder-to-shoulder from Pershing Square to a cluster of government buildings located on Spring Street.

Walking alongside several of his students, Central Los Angeles High School #9 history teacher Kyle Laughlin said his arts-centered campus will “really feel the cuts.”

‘I’m here to support arts programs across the state and my students,” he said. “They deserve better.”

Parent Alana Estrada, who has a kindergartener at Wilton Place School, held a sign that read, “I thought mom said ‘education is the only thing no one can take away from you.’”

“We’re here to …send a message to Sacramento that this is unacceptable,” she said. “Everyone has the right to an education.”

Photo credit: Ariel Edwards Levy

A CRISIS OF PRIORITIES – March 4 Day of Action, Downtown Los Angeles – 2010

Student Recovery Day recruits dropouts to go back to school

As a pupil services and attendance counselor, Francisco Vasquez has spent the past five years working with some of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s most at-risk students.

Throughout his tenure mentoring drop outs at the middle and high school levels, the Fremont High School counselor has proudly racked up number of battle scars in the on-going war to keep inner-city kids in class.

Vasquez prepared to earn more of those scars Monday when he joined around 160 administrators and counselors who fanned the city tracking down dropouts from Fremont, Fairfax, Polytechnic and Wilson high schools during the district’s inaugural Student Recovery Day.

Back on campus, clerks and secretaries manned the phone in a concerted effort to get a hold of AWOL students and their families.

The tactic met with some success early on.

Within the first hour, Fremont officials had already gotten one student to return to class.

“We’re here to help,” Vasquez said. “We want to see (students) be successful, to graduate.”

Low graduation rates and high numbers of drop outs have plagued LAUSD for decades.

However, in recent years, the district has begun making some headway in keeping its kids in at their desks and off the streets during school hours.

According to the California Department of Education, LAUSD’s dropout rate decreased 17 percent in 2007-08. Meanwhile, the district’s graduation rates jumped from 64.6 percent in 2006-07 to 72.4 percent.

The rates were calculated using a new statewide database implemented three years ago that makes tracking students easier. Previously, students who had died or simply transferred without informing their former school would be inaccurately counted as dropouts.

District officials attributed the improvement largely to the efforts of individual schools in implementing dropout prevention and recovery plans. Counselors at LAUSD’s roughly 660 schools regularly make phone calls and home visits to find out the reason behind a student’s truancy and offer any services necessary to get him or her to resume his or her education.

Those reasons can range from frustration over not understanding the curriculum, to psychiatric ailments to a sense of not fitting in.

Some 200 Fremont students last year finished the required coursework, but couldn’t get their diplomas because they did not pass the California High School Exit Exam.

But most of the time, students drop out of school because they don’t believe in themselves, says Marquis Jones, an advisor at Fremont.

“It’s a lack of motivation with students,” Jones said. “They don’t think they can be anything.”

On Monday, the district hoped to make a collective dent in getting students to return to the classroom.

The brainchild of school board member Steve Zimmer, Student Recovery Day symbolized the support of administrators at the district’s Beaudry Avenue headquarters for students. Board members and district brass, including Superintendent Ramon Cortines, accompanied counselors on the day’s rounds.

“We need to look at the individual needs of the kids rather than saying they’re just a number,” Cortines said , adding that the day “Is not about how many we get back. It’s about letting this city, this community, know that we care about students.”

Inglewood celebrates the arts

Those who say a sense of community is dead in L.A. weren’t in Inglewood this weekend.

The 12th annual Market Street Festival and Car Show brought around 2,500 Inglewood residents together on October 3 to celebrate the city’s rich tradition in the arts.

For six hours, Market St. from Florence Ave to Manchester Blvd. shut down while people danced, enjoyed a free concert, and devoured hot dogs and fried fish.

What started out as a small street fair on a corner of a city block has morphed into a beloved Inglewood tradition.

And to many residents, the festival means more than just a jovial cultural fete, it represents a chance to dispel common myths and stereotypes about their South Bay city.

With its 40 percent African American population and a poverty rate twice the national average, Inglewood often gets an unfair rap in the media.

“This is a safe city,” said Loretta Morris, who grew up in Inglewood and owns an accounting firm in the area. “I don’t see a whole lot of crime. If it were that dangerous, I wouldn’t be bringing my children here. I wouldn’t own a business here.”

Morris had to struggle to make her voice heard over the shrieks of children’s laughter coming from the bounce houses and the deep, soothing tones of a saxophone of a jazz band on the stage behind her.

Originally conceived as both a solute to the local art culture and a means for businesses to introduce themselves to the community, the Market Street Festival grew steadily each year.

An ever-expanding roster of vendors clamored to sign on board, while attendance skyrocketed as word of the festival and it’s offerings spread amongst Inglewood residents. This year, 58 vendors hocked goods ranging from jewelry to African art to a record crowd.

Nautica De la Cruz of local radio station KJLH emceed the festivities on stage, where an array of musicians played jazz, hip hop, American oldies-but-goodies, and salsa in a reflection of Inglewood’s own diversity.

At the foot of the stage, strangers young and old danced together in random groups.

Out of nowhere, a man dressed in ceremonial African garb and standing eight-feet-tall on stilts, began making his way through the throng as his wife, also wearing traditional clothing, walked in front of him to clear the path.

Peter Abilogu, a professor of African dance and music at El Camino College, hails from Nigeria and is a member of the Urhobo tribe. In Nigeria, Abilogu presided over important tribal ceremonies as an Ikeneke, a spiritual leader who wears stilts to symbolize his duty as a liaison between the Urhobo people and heaven.

Abilogu quickly became offended when an African American man in the crowd yelled out that the professor looked “like witchcraft.”

“You are, what, 50-years-old, and you don’t know your culture?” Abilogu shot back, starting a heated exchange as the man insisted that Abilogu was just a type of hokey witch doctor.

Even when the man eventually disappeared into crowd, Abilogu continued to vent. “We are here to educate the people,” he fumed. “The people don’t want to learn but rather assimilate. They want to be black, not African American.”

Showing off a gold bracelet to the people congregated around him, Abilogu expounded on the beauty and value of the abundance of gold found in West Africa, which he says many African American people eschew for more “precious” metals such as platinum or have plated into white gold.

“We are never proud of what we have,” he said. “We are proud of what other people have.”

On the other side of the stage, several Inglewood-based painters and artists displayed their work as part of a mobile gallery set up by the Inglewood Arts Commission.

Calling Inglewood “The best kept secret in the L.A. art world,” the Commission says many Los Angeles artists have studios in Inglewood, but you would never know it because they choose to show their work on the West side of town or in other parts of the California and the U.S.

However, photographer Edward Ewell embraces showing digital prints in the city he works in. That way “people can see the differences we have as artists,” he said.

Diane Dennis brought her 6-year-old neighbor, Nylah Briggs to the festival, where the two enjoyed the ever-popular folk art of face painting. Dennis, who celebrates her birthday next week, had the zodiac sign for Libra painted on her cheek, while Nylah, blueberry snow cone in hand, sported a colorful rainbow and clouds.

“This is really awesome,” Dennis said. “I just like seeing … people out getting along. I love the city of Inglewood for doing this.”

For her part, Nylah didn’t hesitate when asked what she liked best about the festival. “Dancing,” she said, her typically pristine smile by now blue from the snow cone.

Though most people came for the food or the arts, others, such as 16-year-old Luis Gomez, came for the cars.

The 35th annual Inglewood Classic Car Show, which organizers timed to coincide with the festival, exhibited about 30 cars, mostly Chevy Impalas.

“I was impressed,” Gomez said, adding that he fell in love with a yellow cadillac. “It was very nice.”