East Los Angeles Youth Take Power

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Published on: December 3, 2002

Written by: Maria Brenes

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Thirty years ago, thousands of high school students in East Los Angeles gained the attention of the nation by walking out of their schools in protest of poor quality education, under-resourced school conditions and racist curriculum. In 1968, the student organizers built a student movement that shut down the Los Angeles Unified School District and led to some concrete improvements, such as the implementation of Chicano Studies and bilingual education. The students challenged the notion that young people could not impact policy and take an active role in changing education. But above the school reform gains, the 1968 ‘blowouts’ activated a legacy of struggle for educational justice by students in East Los Angeles public high schools that continues today.

In the spirit of the 1968 student movement, Youth Organizing Communities (YOC) continues the work of organizing high school students to build student power with the aim of radically transforming the quality of public education in East Los Angeles and in California. YOC operates on the belief that those most impacted by society’s neglect of public institutions must be at the forefront of changing under-resourced conditions. To that end, YOC exposes the contradictions of the educational system by revealing the current inequities existing in inner-city high schools in East Los Angeles.

YOC combines local organizing efforts in East Los Angeles with a state-wide youth-led network to demand educational justice. This two-fold approach aims to build a state-wide youth movement of well-trained and well-organized youth leaders, peer leadership, and demand a public education system that invests in the healthy development of young people in California.

Building Local Youth Power

At the local level, YOC coordinates campus-based groups at Garfield and Roosevelt high schools. These groups, named United Students, mobilize the student bodies around school change campaigns. Students in East Los Angeles face an under-resourced educational experience. Classes are over-crowded and school policies do not provide all students with opportunities to graduate and be eligible to enter the Cal State University or University of California University systems.

The combined student population at Roosevelt and Garfield High Schools adds up to approximately 11,000. Los Angeles public high schools are so extremely overcrowded that classes at many high schools are conducted all year long with ‘tracks’ of students attending at different times. Understaffing of student support services, particularly the low ratio between guidance counselors and students, exacerbates the poor quality of education. Counselors determine students’ class schedules and whether they are taking courses needed for college eligibility.

“They need to give us the knowledge to go to college, not to track us into low-wage labor or prison,” states Nancy Meza, a sophomore member of United Students at Garfield. Nancy and other student activists at Garfield and Roosevelt aim to improve education by re-defining student achievement based on graduation rates and University of California and Cal State University eligibility rates. This method challenges the existing reliance on test scores alone to measure achievement. United Students is holding the educational system accountable to ensure that all students graduate and attend college, based on the belief that access to quality public education is a human right.

Current statistics on student attrition at Garfield and Roosevelt are alarming. For example, at Roosevelt the 2001 graduating class (589 students) represented only 33% of the original freshman class. This means that in a span of four years, 67% of the freshman class “disappeared!” Between 1997 and 2001 Roosevelt High had an average 68% disappearance rate.

What happens to the disappeared students every academic school year? The answer is found in California’s shifting priorities from investing in education to funding the growing prison industry. Among all states, California is currently ranked 41st in education spending and 1st in prison spending. The majority of young people disappearing from Roosevelt are entering low wage labor, joining the military, or becoming part of the increasing incarcerated population. Roosevelt and Garfield High Schools are tragic examples of a trend in California public education where young people of color are systematically tracked into the lowest level of society’s socioeconomic hierarchy.

Education Not Incarceration

To combat this increasing trend, YOC’s United Students at Roosevelt High School is currently engaged in a school change campaign to promote college preparation for all students, challenge punitive disciplinary policies, and raise awareness of a need for culturally relevant curriculum. Salvador Sepulveda, a senior at Roosevelt and member of United Students states that, “the current education at Roosevelt does not help students. Compared to suburban schools, inner city schools don’t care about the students.” Salvador’s statement reflects a sentiment from students of color that they are being short-changed by society.

United Students has articulated their specific demands for changing Roosevelt under the ‘United Students Plan for Roosevelt High School’ which calls for the elimination of the tardy room, implementation of Ethnic Studies courses, ensuring that all students are college-eligible by their senior year, and increasing the number of guidance counselors. The tardy room is a school-wide policy that holds students for an entire class period or school day if they are late (even less than one minute) to class. United Students conducted a survey of 800 Roosevelt students and found that over 80% of students say that the tardy room does not encourage them to be more on time; in fact, over 50% of students indicated that they would ditch school to avoid the tardy room. This policy is failing to address the root cause of the problem, and instead is contributing to pushing students out of school.

To combat current policies that punish students instead of supporting their achievement, United Students is building a youth-led movement to challenge the idea that students are to blame for failing academically. The student-led mobilization is working to pressure educators and policy makers to implement policies that provide well-resourced opportunities for students to be eligible to enter the California public university systems.

As part of their campaign, United Students has organized meetings between school officials and Roosevelt students, including a student forum that provided an opportunity for students to present their concerns and solutions. By building up student power, United Students recently won significant parts of the student demands: the implementation of two Mexican American Studies classes, the addition of two more guidance counselors, and the elimination of the tardy room.

Erika Uribe, a junior and member of United Students at Roosevelt, describes her view of the wins: “When I got involved I thought that United Students could do something to change our school and it did.” When asked what the next steps should be, Erika responded, “more students need to become aware and involved, and I plan to help in that. Education is so unfair here but United Students can fight to better the lives of young people in our community.”

United Students’ work also entails combining organizing and media advocacy to win the school change campaigns. The Media Activism Component (MAC) trains YOC youth on the theory and practice of shaping public opinion through television, radio, Internet, and Guerilla Theater. Activists learn to track influential news outlets, gauge who’s covering them, and cultivate media contacts. MAC also provides youth the knowledge and skills to become media activists in the fields of radio, video, web design, graphic design, and print journalism. With these skills, youth can create an oppositional and independent media, a critical tool in promoting YOC’s vision of educational justice. Through the work of MAC, YOC members have established a relationship with the L.A. Times that resulted in the printing of an article on October 5, 2002 critiquing the tardy room and interviewing members of United Students.

YOC also provides programmatic support for the youth membership to achieve in school and be eligible to attend college through the Academic Services component. It is important for YOC that the young people engaged in the social change work be provided the necessary tools to role model high educational standards. YOC’s educational standards link academic achievement to social responsibility to the community.

Building Statewide Youth Power

Another project of YOC, the Schools Not Jails Network is leading a statewide fight for educational justice by demanding the implementation of Ethnic Studies and more resources for under-resourced high schools. In July of 2002, YOC organized a statewide Schools Not Jails Conference in Los Angeles that brought together over 300 youth to launch a struggle for Ethnic Studies in public high schools. YOC has coordinated the youth-led effort to demand that California invest in schools not jails, including youth-led campaigns to demand implementation of Ethnic Studies in school districts in San Diego, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

YOC recognizes Ethnic Studies as critical to transforming education in California public high schools. Ethnic Studies documents the historical and current experience of struggle and resistance of all oppressed people of color in the United States, and it empowers young people of color to see themselves as agents of change that struggle for justice in their communities. Ethnic Studies also empowers students of color to strive to enter and succeed in higher education.

Future work

Lester Garcia, site organizer for Roosevelt High School, describes his view of the type of organization United Students is working to become: “a voice for all students and the community to demand change from the educational system, where they can have their voice heard and be leaders in making our vision of educational justice a reality.” Lester articulates a vision that honors the rights of students forced to attend schools that track them into low-wage labor, the military, or the prison system. United Students plans to continue to be the vehicle of change at Roosevelt and Garfield and to expand to other East Los Angeles high schools, so that communities make public education accountable to future generations.


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