Fifty years ago, nine courageous students in Little Rock fought taunts, violence and police intimidation so that the doors of opportunity would open to African-Americans across the country.
Here, today, in Los Angeles those doors to a brighter future are slammed shut over and over for the tens of thousands of African-American and Latino students who drop out of school every year, never to return.
Like Little Rock in 1957, we today in Los Angeles face a dilemma in our public schools that speaks fundamentally to our vision for our community’s future—and to what we are prepared to do now to realize the dream.
Like so many of the kids in South and East LA, I know the challenges of growing up with a single, working mother, when your primary male role models are in the classroom or on the street corner.
I know that it’s often easier to see the connection between dropping out of school and entering a gang than it is to understand the link between geometry, a well-paying job and revitalizing an entire neighborhood, family by family.
But if we want to rebuild our communities, the first bricks we lay must create the mental bridge between a high school diploma, our City’s future and our collective responsibility to ensuring our children’s success.
Studies show that the overwhelming majority of boys who do not pass ninth-grade algebra will drop out of high school, but that students who graduate and go on to college earn on average $800,000 to $1 million more over their lifetimes than those who drop out. With every college graduate, that’s another $1 million invested in and raising up our community.
We cannot ignore that African-American students face distinct challenges, inside and outside the classroom. I admit that I don’t have all the answers for fixing schools in South LA, but I do know that whatever action we take, it will require more than a curriculum change—it’s going to take a coalition of engagement that includes parents, community members, churches, and groups like the Urban League, Community Coalition, the Watts Gang Task Force and Watts Labor Community Action Committee.
My office has worked tirelessly with these partners to provide the opportunity after-school to give children the support they need to keep them in the classroom.
In the last year we launched free PSAT and SAT classes for high school students in libraries across the City; we created a network of free online tutoring for kids who need help with their homework; and we started “Read to Me LA” programs to teach parents how to read to their children.
Libraries are our best shields for young students during the hours between when school lets out and when parents return home from work. So last year I pushed to extend hours at branch libraries to 8 p.m. throughout the City, and to provide safe passages between schools and libraries in places like Exposition Park and South LA.
Changing the culture of education in our community also means rethinking how our schools operate and returning control of the classrooms to our teachers, principals and parents who know our children’s needs best. It means trusting our teachers and giving our schools the freedom and resources they need so that every class has enough textbooks, supplies and library books, and every child has access to a computer.
It means seriously addressing a lack of funding at schools by recruiting partners in the business and philanthropic sectors that also have a stake in seeing our City’s workforce grow strong. I have done this for my Partnership for LA Schools—raising more than $50 million in less than one year—because I know that even the best-intentioned reforms will remain a plan on paper without the funds to make them happen.
Accountability and autonomy, more resources for books and computers, and community and parent engagement—these are the endgame changes we seek in my Partnership for LA Schools, and I believe now is the time that we engage the entire community to start thinking broadly.
In 2008 we stand at an unprecedented moment for change in our education system, with a team of reformers at City Hall and in the school district ready to act, and community members primed to hold the system accountable.
We already see promising inroads at individual schools, whether it’s the 85 percent of parents at Santee and Roosevelt High Schools who voted to join our Partnership for LA Schools, or the community’s direct involvement to create new zones of opportunity at Crenshaw and Dorsey.
Of course, large-scale reform will not come easy, and change will take time, collective strength and a leap of faith for some. After years of rhetoric and faint reforms from leaders come and gone, I understand those who remain skeptical. It’s hard to risk what you’ve got when you’ve never had what you deserve.
If we are serious about rebuilding our neighborhoods from the ground up—if we are serious about cultivating the next generation of Tom Bradleys and Ralph Bunches—community inaction is no longer an option.