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Prop. 187 Debate Becomes Live-Action Civics Class : Education: Characterized as an awakening, passion over ballot measure introduces students to politics.


On the surface this week, student reaction to Proposition 187 erupted in noisy, sweaty school walkouts buzzed by television helicopters and blocked by police.

But away from the din a far different--and perhaps more meaningful--morality play was under way. At many other schools equally fervent but more organized students gathered in intensely peaceful, constructive ways to teach each other about the ballot measure that would deny a variety of state tax-supported benefits, including a free public education, to illegal immigrants.

A group of San Fernando High School kids held a seminar at a nearby middle school. Van Nuys High School students conducted an "open microphone day" in their campus auditorium. Several Chatsworth High youths held a pro-187 assembly attended by 200 classmates.

For these students, the debate over Proposition 187 has been a live-action civics lesson--the first heated political issue that has sparked their young lives with passion, and which stands to become the same kind of turning point that the anti-war and civil rights movements were for a previous generation, education experts said.

"For some, I think, it has taken them out of a form of youthful lethargy and gotten them to think about their lives and futures," said James Trent, a UCLA education professor who researches student activism. "It is democracy in action. They won't be the same anymore."

Latino students--who comprise 68% of the Los Angeles Unified School District--have largely been at the helm of the activities. For many it their first brush with the democratic system that their families came to this country to find.

While the highly publicized walkouts, complete with chanting students waving foreign flags, have provoked derision among many voters, especially those who support or are undecided about Proposition 187, the images of the more introspective debates and protests were more prosaic, but at times more moving.

* In Reseda, students of Cleveland High's Latino Club researched and staged an elaborate daylong forum in their gymnasium, where guest speakers spoke for and against the initiative, then answered questions from a respectful audience.

* Downtown, students at Belmont High fashioned plans to walk precincts and staff telephone banks through Election Day.

* In East Los Angeles, students at Roosevelt High were baited to leave campus by a crowd that had marched over from Shure High in Montebello, but they refused--deciding to remain in class and demonstrate after school instead.

* In Panorama City, half a dozen San Fernando High student government and Chicano club leaders walked proudly into the office of Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) to deliver petitions signed by students for and against Proposition 187. He promised to send them to Gov. Pete Wilson by overnight mail.

The conversation between San Fernando students and state legislator Katz revealed a glimpse of the pride and prejudice youths are grappling with.

Dressed in a purple T-shirt and jeans, Araceli Recendez leaned forward from a sofa in Katz's field office to tell him she was working against Proposition 187 "for my raza, my race."

Aaron Digarza, one of Araceli's compatriots in a campus chapter of the nationwide student group Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, echoed her sentiment--explaining that he had helped to persuade Pacoima Middle School students not to walk out of classes Thursday.

"The younger kids are confused and full of rage," said Aaron, 17. "They were afraid that they weren't being heard. It's up to us to put them on our shoulders."

Aaron and Araceli's concern appeared ignited by the perception of a threat to Latino families that goes beyond the specifics of Proposition 187. They expressed a fear that the initiative is an arrow aimed at their inclusion in America.

"We didn't realize that society would turn on us," said their classmate, Libertad M. Ayala, 15.

"The people who wrote this initiative never counted on so many of you young people getting involved in politics in this way," Katz told the group of students, most of whom were talking to a politician for the first time. "You are learning a lot more about civics and government than you ever will from a book."

The notion that the student-prompted activities are acting as a civics laboratory was celebrated as a hopeful sign by several education observers.

"At a time when we are so cynical about government, here we have thousands of young people who think their actions might make a difference," said Jeannie Oakes, assistant dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Services. "It signals to me a real buying-in to the democratic system."

A specialist in school curricula, Oakes said it was now up to high school teachers to emphasize in government classes "the importance of every person's voice in shaping public policy."

What did these voices of democracy sound like? At ground level, in classrooms and auditoriums across the city, they were loud but sometimes not so clear.

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