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Diversity Challenges Schools to Preserve Racial Harmony

Education: L.A. district's efforts at times seem swamped by the tensions, which mirror those in the community.

February 14, 1999|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Crenshaw to the San Fernando Valley, administrative offices to classrooms, the often-bitter emotions of racial strife plague the Los Angeles Unified School District.

District officials have worked to defuse racial and ethnic tensions with everything from squads of mediators who can travel to troubled campuses to appointments of administrators with an eye toward racial balance--a Latino vice principal, for example, to complement a black principal.

But as countless new ethnic and cultural groups transform urban neighborhoods, they challenge the ability of the schools to promote and preserve racial harmony. Many of the tensions in the schools mirror those in the community at large--battles for jobs, political power and turf among the region's growing Latino community and other groups, including blacks and Jews, who fear their influence is waning.

"We're only a microcosm of the city, even the nation," said L.A. Unified Supt. Ruben Zacarias.

The most recent example unfolded at a San Fernando Valley elementary school where a white principal who had been targeted for ouster by Latino parents reported that he was assaulted. Principal Norman Bernstein had earlier contacted the Anti-Defamation League for help with what he saw as discrimination aimed at him. Anger over the attack intensified when Los Angeles school board President Victoria Castro said she sympathized with parents who have been trying to have the principal replaced by a Spanish-speaking Latino.

But Burton Street Elementary School is far from an isolated case.

Ulysses S. Grant High School, Hollywood High School, Berendo Middle School, South Gate Middle School, Sixty-sixth Street Elementary School and Marvin Avenue Elementary School are only a few of the campuses that have struggled with racial and cultural issues in recent years.

"We're probably doing more in terms of conflict resolution--public and private--than anyone else in the city," Zacarias said. "That's a fact and we're proud of it."

But those efforts sometimes seem swamped by the challenge.

"There is a potential for more of these kinds of incidents to be a part of our racial landscape unless there is an attempt by the leaders of this city to stand up and say it's not tolerable," said Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, referring to Burton Street.

Castro said that over the past week she has been severely criticized by dozens of angry callers of every ethnic stripe. Even Mayor Richard Riordan suggested that she wash her mouth out with soap.

"I've had hate calls, racist calls," she said during an interview in her office. "One guy yelled, 'Why don't you go back to Mexico?' I told him that I was born here. I wouldn't know where to go in Mexico.

"Look, I've been discriminated against all my life," she said. "I only want to bring that experience and sensitivity to my job."

Although many Latino leaders perceive a district in which Latino students and teachers still face discrimination, many blacks and whites voice fears that their needs and concerns are now going to take a back seat in a district where 69% of the students, and many top administrators, are Latino.

"Whites feel uncomfortable talking about it, but we wouldn't encourage our kids to become teachers in this district, because they wouldn't be given a fair shot," said Los Angeles middle school teacher Pam Nelson. "You're not really welcome. You're not wanted here."

Zacarias on Wednesday sought to reassure his diverse constituency.

"Is there an agenda? Is there some kind of quota we're trying to fill? Absolutely not," he said. "We're for all the children, regardless of ethnicity or culture."

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who has two children attending Los Angeles public schools, sounds a similar note. "Obviously, we want leaders who understand the issues and priorities of a given community, but to say that the only people who can dothat are from your own group is wrong," he said.

But some Latino leaders privately insist that Latino children are best served by teachers and principals of their own heritage and by heavy doses of ethnic studies.

Roosevelt High School teacher John Fernandez, a spokesman for the Coalition for Chicano and Chicana Studies, is among the few who publicly calls for a teaching force that reflects the student body. "Educating for diversity is a crock," Fernandez said.

"Under the guise of diversity comes a disempowerment of the Latino community," he said. "I don't see how people unfamiliar with our language and culture and customs can deal with our problems."

Fernandez, who until a year ago headed the district's now-defunct Mexican-American Education Commission, has many silent cheerleaders.

"John Fernandez is right!" declared one influential Latino official, asking to remain anonymous.

"Parents have a right to be served. Why is it that when Latinos say that, it's regarded as racist?" the official asked. "If the district is 70% Latino, it should have 70% Latino principals and teachers.

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