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We're grading you: Los Angeles parents, students and education advocates demanded school reform and won.

AS COMMUNITIES OF COLOR IN CALIFORNIA grew over the past 40 years, the state's schools became increasingly racially segregated. Today, two-thirds of California's K-12 students in public schools are children of color. These students are more likely than whites to attend schools with overcrowded classes, underqualified teachers and less challenging curriculum requirements. California now ranks below all but Mississippi in terms of the number of high school seniors who go on to attend four-year colleges.


In 1988, the University of California (UC) took a stab at reforming K-12 education by creating what has become known as its A-G policy. Each letter represents a category of classes that students must pass with a C or better to be eligible to attend a state four-year university in California. The policy was intended to be a partnership between UC and low-performing high schools, encouraging those schools to improve their classes.

The A-G policy was supposed to help students attending schools in places like Los Angeles, which has the second largest school district in the nation. Only 25 percent of Black students and 14 percent of Latino students in the district's 2003 graduating class were eligible to attend college. Forty-four percent of Black students and 56 percent of Latino students in that class dropped out.

If it's hard to grasp how large the problem is, then consider this: the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) has an annual budget of more than $7 billion. That's a larger budget than the one for the city of Los Angeles. It is also currently undergoing a $19.3 billion school construction project--the largest public-works program in the nation.

Faced with an educational system in shambles, parents, students and activists in Los Angeles took matters into their own hands. Beginning in 2004, three community groups--Alliance for a Better Community, Community Coalition and Inner City Struggle--formed the foundation of Communities for Educational Equity. They planned to mobilize Los Angeles students and parents to demand district-wide reform so that more kids could go to college. Eventually, nearly 30 different organizations including parents groups, student groups, educational advocates and legislative advocates joined the coalition.

Needing a roadmap for systematic reform, the coalition looked to San Jose for answers. The San Jose Unified School District adopted an "A-G for all" policy in 1997. As a result of the policy, students had to take all of the A-G required classes in order to graduate from high school. To accommodate this, San Jose changed the high schools' master schedule so that it offered more A-G certified classes. The school day, week and year in San Jose were also extended. School officials employed a detracking system where students of mixed abilities were combined in one class. They desegregated classes in grades 10-12 and added algebra and English tutoring and support classes along with a number of other programs to keep students from falling behind.

The results have been dramatic.

The percentage of Latinos graduating with complete A-G requirements rose from 18.5 percent in 2001 to 45.3 percent in 2003. The gap in the Academic Performance Index between white and Latino students fell by 24 percent. Overall, the percentage of high school graduates who had completed the A-G requirements skyrocketed from about 35 percent to more than 65 percent within five years of passing the policy. Black students showed similar success. In that same time period, the percentage of Black students who dropped out fell from 12 percent to 6 percent, while the number of Black students who graduated college-eligible rose from 27 percent to 56 percent.

Inspired by San Jose's success, the L.A. coalition took action to implement an A-G policy of its own. The first step was to expose just how desperately the district in Los Angeles needed change. Research done by the University of California All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity and other groups found that at schools with a majority Black or Latino population, only 65 percent of all classes were A-G certified. By contrast, majority-white schools had as many as 88 percent of their classes certified. The College Opportunity Ratio report showed that even within the same school, fewer Latino, Black and American Indian students are graduating with full college eligibility than their white and Asian counterparts. The Education Trust-West, a research group, found that 69 percent of all Latinos who graduate from a LAUSD high school would not have access to either a UC or California State University.

Advocates also conducted research to disprove the argument from conservative politicians and school officials that students didn't want higher education. Inner City Struggle surveyed more than 1,000 students in predominantly Latino high schools about whether they wanted to attend college. They found that 77 percent of the kids said yes, and 74 percent said their parents wanted them to go as well.

Using the research as a rallying cry, organizers gave presentations to students during lunch periods about the A-G requirements and asked students to sign petitions asking the school board to implement an "A-G for All" policy.

"We had parents and students meet with individual [school] board members," said Maria Brenes, executive director of Inner City Struggle. "We met four times with [school board member] David Tokofsky, and we had at least 50 people in his office each time. One time, we had 400 in his office." The campaign made a strategic decision to engage Los Angeles' ethnic media along with major media outlets, said Lester Garcia, who works with school board member Monica Garcia. The intention was to gain momentum and educate the communities most affected. Ethnic press editorials consistently demanded that the school district enact the A-G policy.

Organizers also framed the debate so that it completely avoided asking if the district should provide college preparatory classes to all students. Instead, they pointed out that white and some Asian students in the district were receiving the proper resources. The district, however, is 72 percent Latino and 11 percent Black. According to Garcia, they then asked the school board and the district: "Why is it that the Black and brown kids aren't getting these very same resources?"

"The coalition said that denying A-G was a form of institutional racism and we pointed out that Black and brown kids weren't going to college at the same rates as others," said Veronica Melvin, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Community.

Organizers gathered 20,000 petitions. On voting day last June, there were more than 500 students in and around the board chambers. In the end, six of the seven members voted in favor of the A-G policy.

The Los Angeles policy mandated that last year all students had to be guaranteed access to any A-G course they request. If the school does not offer it, the school and the district must accommodate the student. At the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year, the district is required to allow any A-G certified course that a student requests. By the start of the 2008 school year, A-G is to be the default curriculum, which students can opt out of with parental consent. In 2012, students will have to complete all A-G courses in order to graduate from high school. However, students can opt out of the A-G track with parental consent. Those who choose to opt out will be required to complete a vocational education track.

Several months into the current school year, however, it's difficult to gauge the success of the program and if the district will be ready for the fall of 2008. There are no hard numbers on how many students have requested A-G classes and if they were accommodated. Organizers say that the largest hindrance has been informing students and parents about the new policy.

"Counselors haven't met with their students about the new policy, and there is a lack of counselors and resources overall," said Paola Ruvalcaba, a community organizer for East L.A. Community Corporation.

The pace of implementation is going slowly, according to organizers, parents and people working within the schools. "There's not enough collaboration within the district," said one official who works closely with the district and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of backlash. "This is a comprehensive K-12 reform, and the duties haven't been shared. They've also had difficulty communicating with the stakeholders, and the process of informing community partners is bad." Brenes remains optimistic, however: "What's significantly different about this reform is that there is community support and pressure to implement it properly."

Other school districts and parents are anxiously watching the implementation of "A-G for All" in Los Angeles. It has already inspired other groups to use the A-G policy as leverage for broader district change. Public education advocates in other parts of California have begun to fight for a universal A-G policy. Montebello School District has enacted an "A-G for All" policy, and campaigns for similar policies are underway in Long Beach.

Jarad Sanchez is a field research associate in Los Angeles for the Applied Research Center.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Sanchez, Jarad
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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