The School That Wasn't
The new board president, Genethia Hayes, has announced that "it's never going to be business as usual ever again," and the board has set a heady pace for change. In addition to identifying new school sites, in April it unanimously approved a dramatic restructuring program that would cut nearly half of the district's 2,000 administrative jobs and set up eleven autonomous, decentralized mini-districts. It expects to hire a new superintendent by June. It recently engaged in contract negotiations with a wary United Teachers of Los Angeles over the issue of tying teacher compensation to student performance, and is implementing a new reading curriculum throughout the district.
The board's rush for change is seen by many as a long-overdue response to a district in chaos, symbolized by Belmont. For many Latino leaders, however, no matter how many public meetings board and top staff attend, this board's cards may be on the table, but they're being dealt from underneath. Some Latino leaders continue to demand that the board pay for a study of the Belmont site by the State Department of Toxic Substances and Control, a study Miller halted after the board ended the Belmont project.
The frustration is justified. Latino students fare worse than others; in addition to overcrowded campuses they have higher dropout rates and lower test scores, higher teen-pregnancy rates and greater incidence of poverty. MALDEF's Antonia Hernandez speaks of "the feeling of isolation" from the city's power structure among Latinos. The demand to continue construction on Belmont is not just about overcrowding; it's about the Latino community asking for the same degree of public investment that other parts of the city enjoy. At the same time, however, low-income Latino neighborhoods are chronically undermobilized and lack the basic civic infrastructure found in other poor communities. As knowledge of the serious environmental risks in the Belmont area grew, some Latino leaders argued that "Belmont can be made safe for our children" because many homes, businesses, and schools in the area stand on the same abandoned oilfields. But no one surveyed the area and investigated the kind of long-term health effects Fernando Contreras believes his family has suffered. No one organized the residents to protect themselves.
For a long time, the Board of Education was the last place expected to be the source of change. Its buildings on Grand Avenue downtown offer a view of Los Angeles at its most staid. To the east, against a backdrop of corporate skyscrapers, cranes are busy on the lavish reconstruction of a cathedral damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. To the north, the grille of lights around Rupert Murdoch's refurbished Dodger stadium reflects the sunlight. Big money and old leadership surround the mismatched sixties-era buildings housing the board and central staff. But the board's defiance of the city's power players belies the appearances here.
Opponents say they feel the new board is not as "responsive" as the previous one. But the old board's close relationships with powerful members of the community masked an environment in which greed and incompetence flourished despite what current board president Hayes calls "the damage done to children." LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the country, with a budget of $7.7 billion, bigger than that of the City of Los Angeles. It includes 711,000 students, 67,169 regular, full-time employees, and 650 campuses. Underlying the overcrowding crisis is dismal achievement. More than two-thirds of LA schools ranked at 3 or below, out of a possible 10, on this year's statewide Academic Performance Index. The API confirmed the suspicions of the new board; even showcase schools that educators believed were beginning to close the gap between inner-city and privileged students are failing. In the words of district COO Miller, speaking from his modest office at board headquarters, "People who say they are most concerned about kids have done them enormous harm by [being] patronizing to them. They didn't want to hurt them, cause them pain. And they were not giving the kids a chance to succeed. There is this huge feeling that you can't make urban education work."
The new board must balance demands for openness and community input with a commitment to both equity and excellence in the school system. According to the recent Times poll, 83 percent of all residents in the district "believe change is possible, offering district officials a potential reservoir of goodwill as they try to implement reform." LA's educators are studying the considerable achievements in the neighboring Inglewood school district, made up overwhelmingly of low-income Latino and African-American students. There, test scores equal or rival those of privileged students. If the current LA board succeeds in shifting priorities from serving the greed of bureaucrats to the needs of children, they may help show, as an Inglewood principal put it, "You don't have to be white and rich to learn."
In the meantime, what he calls the board's "tough" stands have surprised Fernando Contreras. He says that Belmont was known as "a Taj Mahal. People called it a cash cow. I call it the Trojan horse because people thought it was a gift but it was the death of my neighborhood. What about the houses around here? They don't have any mitigation." Contreras feels that the objections he and others raised weren't heard because the people who represent the area are bent on keeping the project alive. Contreras stands on the street watching kids play nearby. His brother John leans on a car fender. Contreras gestures up the hill to the ramshackle houses. "Nobody," he says, "is listening to us."