East Los Angeles Youth Movement for Educational Justice




O

ne
of many slogans chanted during the May 2005 campaign to ensure a
quality education for all students was, “Give me life prep
not a life sentence, let me choose my future.” High school
students, with support from parents, teachers, and other community
members, won two amazing victories in a row—one in June 2004
and another in June 2005. A movement that started with its focus
on one area has spread throughout the city. 


Los
Angeles is not the only city in California where youth are rising
up to demand a better education. In the San Francisco Bay Area,
a call for “Books Not Bars” has mobilized youth and many
supporters with the same spirit. A march last year lead by middle-school
students from Richmond to Sacramento (39 miles) took place with
the goal of pushing the governor to restore school funding. When
he refused to see them, other youth followed it with a 26-day fast
that won major concessions. 


On
May 17, 2004, hundreds of high school students in four Bay Area
cities did a well-coordinated walk-out called, “Take Back our
Schools Day.” They protested such issues as Governor Arnold
Schwar- negger’s repeated refusal to implement Proposition
98, providing full and equal school funding, lobbied to restore
local control of Oakland schools, and protested a prejudicial high
school exit test. 


Latino
students have been shaking up the state of California, once the
nation’s leader in education spending and now 45th in per pupil
spending among all states. Los Angeles leads the way in building
a mass movement and victories. A campaign launched by InnerCity
Struggle (ICS)—a community organization based in East LA, staffed
by young people who work to improve the schools they attended —compelled
the Los Angeles School Board to agree on June 22, 2004 to build
a new high school in East Los Angeles—the first in 80 years.
Massive protests led by Latino students won this first big victory. 


Then
ICS recognized that the value of any school depends on what happens
inside its walls. People had to change the fact that most students
from East LA high schools fail to graduate and even fewer go on
to four-year universities. ICS youth devised the best solution:
require every student be placed on a college prep track. From this
idea, another campaign was born. 



A
Legacy Of Struggle 



E

ast
Los Angeles is a predominantly Latino, working-class immigrant community.
Educational problems confronting young people there also face low-income
youth of color across the nation. They include overcrowded schools,
too many unqualified teachers, too few textbooks, not enough guidance
counselors, and the list goes on. What this has meant for youth
attending already neglected schools is that their chances of getting
a skilled job or attending college are slim or non-existent. 


Chicano
youth at the forefront of community change is a tradition dating
back more than 35 years. In 1968, over 10,000 mostly Chicano students
from Roosevelt, Garfield, Wilson, and Lincoln high schools (all
in East LA), walked out of their schools to protest poor quality
education, overcrowded schools, and racist curriculum. 


Those
young people built a student movement that shut down the Los Angeles
Unified School District and led to reforms, such as establishing
Chicano Studies and bilingual education. The students demonstrated
that they could play an active role in changing policy. Beyond the
reforms gained, the 1968 “blowouts” launched a legacy
of struggle for educational justice and sparked the Southwest-wide
Chicano youth movement. 


Conditions
today are not much better. Located just three miles from downtown
Los Angeles, “East Los” as it is known, is one of the
nation’s largest and oldest Chicano barrios. Comprised of approximately
90 percent Chicano and Latino residents, predominantly of Mexican
and Central American origin, East LA forms an area larger than New
York City’s Manhattan. 


East
Los Angeles’s poverty rate of 46 percent is more than twice
that of all Los Angeles. In addition, 51 percent of children under
the age of 18 live in poverty, compared with 31 percent in the city.
Over 50 percent of adults over 25 do not have a high school diploma.
Despite these realities, students are expected to perform at the
same level as students from more affluent families. If the picture
was not already bleak, two of the local high schools, Roosevelt
and Garfield, were built in the 1920s for 1,000 students. Today,
each school has more than 5,000 students enrolled. 


Lester
Garcia, a graduate of Roosevelt and Cal State Long Beach serves
as the political education coordinator for InnerCity Struggle. Garcia
describes East LA as a microcosm of issues facing inner-city communities
in this country. “The size of East LA magnifies the issues
of poverty and harsh conditions experienced daily by the people
who live here. We have every problem, which are intensified by our
size.” 



Organizing
Mounts 



I

nnerCity
Struggle was founded in 1994 by Maria Teixiera, a long- time community
organizer in Boyle Heights who worked to empower gang members and
their mothers to change the causes of violence in local housing
projects. In 1999 the work took on a more politicized stance as
Proposition 21 came on the ballot for the March 2000 election. Prop
21 was called the Juvenile Crime Initiative, but it could have been
better called the Youth Incarceration Initiative. 


Prop
21 shifted many youth from the juvenile system, with its emphasis
on rehabilitation, to the punishment-oriented adult-justice system.
It required teenagers as young as 14 to be tried in adult court
for crimes such as murder or serious sex offenses, gave prosecutors
expanded powers to try juvenile offenders as adults for a range
of less serious crimes, and sentenced anyone 16 or older convicted
in adult court to adult prison. 


Obviously
Prop 21 targeted youth of color who were already over-represented
in the juvenile justice system and under-represented in the university
system. To raise awareness in the community about the implications
of Prop 21, InnerCity Struggle organized teach- ins in East LA high
schools and mobilized youth to get involved in rallies, marches,
and school walkouts to call attention to its message of Schools
Not Jails. Despite the mass organizing, Prop 21 passed statewide.
In local communities where organizing efforts were focused it did
not. But the energy of InnerCity Struggle youth involved in the
anti-21 movement turned into a long-range commitment to build a
permanent student organization that would demand the return of public
resources, equity, and justice to communities of color and poor
people. 


The
vision that became United Students emerged. Its first goal was to
build the leadership skills and political analysis of young people
in East LA to lead the process for social change in their schools
and communities, get others involved, and train them too. The second
goal was to promote a youth-developed agenda for educational justice.
That agenda would expose the social and economic inequities impacting
public education. It would also demand equitable resources together
with culturally relevant curriculum that builds critical thinking
and promotes civic engagement. As Luis Sanchez, former youth organizer
and now executive director of InnerCity Struggle, noted, “The
goal is to build long-term student power for educational justice.” 


Implementing
the vision began at Roosevelt High School, where youth members of
InnerCity Struggle established the club called United Students (US)
in 2000. US launched a campaign to address the high number of students
dropping out and the low numbers going on to college. US made the
link between the increasing incarceration rate in California prisons
and the “disappearance rate” of students not completing
high school. They began their fight by surveying 800 students about
their experiences regarding discipline issues, culturally relevant
curriculum, and college access. A majority of students pointed to
the tardy room policy as a major problem because it kept students
out of class as punishment for being even less than a minute late.
In fact, 80 percent of students said that the tardy room did not
encourage them to be on time. Over 50 percent of students indicated
that they would ditch school to avoid the tardy room. The results
also showed that 71 percent of students surveyed said they had never
met with their guidance counselor to discuss college. 


Based
on what they had learned, US at Roosevelt developed the United Students
Plan for Improving Quality of Education. It demanded the elimination
of punitive disciplinary policies, implementation of ethnic studies
courses, and implementation of policies that ensure all students
are college-eligible by their senior year, which included increasing
the number of guidance counselors. 



Victory
At Roosevelt High 



A

fter
winning massive student support for the plan, US leaders organized
meetings between school officials and Roosevelt students, culminating
in a school-wide student forum. US members established a relationship
with the


Los Angeles
Times

that resulted in supportive coverage. By building student
power and utilizing media to put pressure on policy makers, United
Students at Roosevelt won significant parts of their demands in
early 2003. These included two Mexican American Studies classes,
the addition of three more guidance counselors, and elimination
of the tardy room. 


As
students from other East LA high schools got wind of the victories
of United Students at Roosevelt, interest and excitement grew for
establishing US clubs. Two years after the inception of US at Roosevelt,
students at Garfield High School established a club there and soon
launched a campaign with similar demands. They collected 2,000 petition
signatures and presented the demands to the administration, which
agreed to work with United Students to implement their demands. 


Although
Roosevelt and Garfield are long-time football rivals, they have
much in common in educational problems and the two clubs have strategically
joined forces. In the summer of 2004 they organized Educational
Justice Week events, conducting classroom workshops for over 1,500
students at both schools. Inspired by the achievements of students
at Roosevelt and Garfield, Wilson High School (also in East LA)
students established a US club in 2003. They soon conducted a survey,
collecting 600 responses, and have initiated a campaign to improve
bathroom conditions and increase college access for all students. 



Winning
New Schools 



S

evere
overcrowding had resulted in Garfield High students missing out
on 68 days of school—almost an entire semester. Maria Salcedo,
a senior at Garfield and member of United Students, said, “Our
school is so overcrowded that during my sophomore year I was forced
to sit on the edge of a science laboratory counter because there
were just not enough desks for all the 63 students in my physiology
class.” 


To
meet the space needs of Garfield, in 1999 the district unveiled
a plan to build a large comprehensive high school next to the local
Belvedere Park. But opposition to the site by a small group of residents,
claiming traffic congestion, decline in house values, and youth
crime, froze the plan and the district did very little to identify
an alternative site. United Students at Garfield gathered over 3,000
petition signatures from students, parents, educators, local Catholic
Church members, and leaders urging action by the school district. 


In
March 2004, InnerCity Struggle, led by both students and parents,
mobilized over 400 youth and community members to march and rally
in front of county and district offices. All the pressure resulted
in the Los Angeles Unified School District voting to build the first
new high school in East LA in 80 years. (It will open in fall 2010.)
The district also agreed to build a new elementary and an adult
school for community members to earn their high school diplomas. 


The
movement won other gains benefiting thousands, including increased
guidance counselor positions, school-wide assemblies informing all
students about college, and supportive disciplinary policies to
ensure students stay in school. These victories were won through
the leadership development of youth and community people who mobilized
thousands to become involved in demanding change around issues identified
by students. 



The
New Campaign 



I

nnerCity
Struggle students and parents decided that the next step for improving
the quality of education needed to be transforming the expectations
of students. This had to begin with making the idea of going to
college a real possibility for thousands of mostly brown and black
youth. 


Currently,
only 22 percent of the 9th graders in the Los Angeles school district
complete high school having satisfied the college course requirements.
Called the A-G requirements, they refer to the three additional
courses needed (in addition to current graduation requirements)
that include a foreign language and an extra year of math. Without
A-G, students are barred from attending a University of California
or California State University campus directly after high school
and thus also have diminished chances of finding a job that pays
a living wage. 


Through
a survey of over 2,500 students, InnerCity Struggle learned that
a majority of students want to attend a four year college and are
encouraged to do so by parents and teachers. Members of ICS also
learned that college access is not equal among all schools in the
Los Angeles school district and in LA County. Although 77 percent
of the students at Garfield High and Roosevelt High are interested
in attending 4-year colleges/universities and 53 percent of students
at Wilson High are planning to attend college, the resources do
not exist for all students to become eligible. Most Los Angeles
Unified schools do not offer a sufficient number of A-G classes.
As a result, 40 percent of white students finish high school having
completed the requirements while only 25 percent of African Americans
and 16 percent of Latinos do so. These results are within a district
that has over 80 percent of its student population comprised of
African American and Latino children and youth. 


In
fall 2004, InnerCity Struggle joined the leadership body of a city-wide
alliance that brought together students, parents, and community
leaders to demand equity for African American and Latino students
in East, Central, and South Los Angeles. The alliance, composed
of over 20 organizations and called Communities for Educational
Equity, launched a city-wide campaign to make the college course
requirements part of the high school graduation requirement. InnerCity
Struggle led the organizing work in East LA to build mass support
from youth, parent, and community members, and collected over 7,000
signatures in support of the “A-G campaign,” as it was
called. 


InnerCity
Struggle works closely with the Community Coalition, an organization
based in South LA that strives for social justice by building the
leadership of black and brown communities. Together, InnerCity Struggle
and Community Coalition mobilized over 2,000 youth, parents, and
community members from East LA and South LA to build a multi-racial
movement for educational justice. 


On
April 26, 2005, Communities for Educational Equity delivered over
14,000 petition signatures at district offices, which included InnerCity
Struggle’s petitions. Two school board members out of seven
publicly announced their support for the A-G resolution while others
were on the fence. The board members’ weak stance on the issue
further galvanized members of both InnerCity Struggle and the Community
Coalition to fight harder. Both organizations developed a plan consisting
of a series of direct actions aimed at exposing and pressuring the
school board members. On May 10, 100 youth and parent members rallied
in front of district offices during a school board meeting and delivered
additional petition signatures and demanded equity in schools located
in the poorest communities. 


On
May 24 the Los Angeles School Board was scheduled to vote on the
proposed resolution. Almost 1,000 students, parents, educators,
and community supporters gathered outside the school board offices
to demand passage of the resolution. They were ready for defeat;
as one InnerCity Struggle commentator said, “The LAUSD school
board has made an art form out of stalling the vote on the A-G Resolution.”
Indeed, they did not vote that day. 


They
finally did vote on June 14, with 500 people mobilized on their
doorstep. The resolution passed 6-1. This will mean major changes
in the lives of thousands of Los Angeles youth, as has already happened
in San Jose, where the A-G requirement was extended in 1998 and
graduation rates increased. More students will be able to enter
college and not be forced to enter the low-wage labor economy, enlist
in the military, or make a living in the underground economy—many
ending up in prison. It is big victory number two for Los Angeles
youth. 


The
next step right now it is working to end the “zero tolerance”
culture at schools with policies that push students out for any
minor infraction, with suspension often the very first consequence.
For InnerCity Struggle, the June 14 victory—like those before
it—is part of continuing the legacy for educational justice
sparked by the 1968 blowouts. Two of the original 1968 demands have
been won by InnerCity Struggle youth: a new high school and college
access for all. The work will continue to focus on building understanding
in the community about systems of oppression and promote a vision
of education that is based on justice.



 





Maria Brenes
is youth organizing director of InnerCity Struggle (www.InnerCityStruggle.org).