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Making Social Justice Part of the Curriculum

A new charter middle school aims to prepare 'the next Cesar Chavez or the next Martin Luther King,' says its executive director.


As an attorney, Roger Lowenstein defended some notorious characters, including a mobster, a group of political radicals accused of inciting riots, a Russian spy and, most notably, a widely despised New Jersey cop-killer.

Last month, however, Lowenstein took on a new, rambunctious batch of clients: nearly 120 Los Angeles middle-school students.

Under his charge, a charter school with a focus on social justice opened in Koreatown. Lowenstein and a crew of activist-minded teachers have pledged to turn students at the Los Angeles Leadership Academy into critical thinkers and potential political leaders.

"If you want to be the next Cesar Chavez or the next Martin Luther King, there is no place to go," said Lowenstein, 59, who is executive director of the school. "One of the real motivations for me to start this school was to change that."

Already, the campus has set itself apart.

While many schools commemorated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by listening to patriotic songs or making memorial banners, students at the Leadership Academy instead learned about the oppression of Afghan women under the Taliban and about Muslim Americans whose civil liberties have been violated in the United States over the last year.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 10, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 13 inches; 478 words Type of Material: Correction
Church name--The "In the Classroom" article in Wednesday's California section misspelled the name of the church that leases building space to a newly created charter school in Koreatown. The correct name is Immanuel Presbyterian Church.

As Columbus Day approaches, plans are underway to teach about historical injustices against Native Americans.

And when a student got in trouble for stealing a visitor's purse recently, a reformed ex-gang member was brought in to counsel the student and to coax out a confession. Instead of expelling the youngster, Lowenstein and the boy's family worked out a plan to improve his behavior. The staff used the incident to discuss right and wrong with students.

The New Jersey-born attorney and father of two graduated from Harvard Law School. He was on the defense team of the Chicago Seven, political radicals accused of conspiring to incite the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

He is best known for working more than 20 years without pay on one case--handling the parole appeals of Thomas Trantino, who was convicted of first-degree murder four decades ago for killing two Lodi, N.J., police officers. The jury convicted Trantino and sentenced him to the electric chair, but he later received a life sentence.

Lowenstein left other law cases in 1990 and became a screenwriter for television shows, including "L.A. Law," "Equal Justice" and "Silk Stalkings." He remained on the Trantino case, becoming detested in police circles. Lowenstein argued that Trantino had been made insane by pills and alcohol and that an accomplice, who was later killed by police, had fired the fatal shots. In January 2001, the state Supreme Court ruled that there was no legal basis to hold Trantino any longer.

In February, Trantino was set free. Lowenstein, who calls Trantino a "close friend," said the ex-convict is involved with a program that helps re-integrate released criminals into society.

"I love to work with kids who, without intervention, might become the next Thomas Trantino," Lowenstein said.

The school spends most of its time focusing on reading and writing and aligns its curriculum with state standards. Teachers also search for ways to bring in alternate perspectives about the world. Some of those perspectives might make conservatives shudder, but Lowenstein insists he is not pushing any particular political agenda.

Charter schools, although funded with public money, are freed from most state and local regulations. Charters have a range of philosophies, and Lowenstein's school may be one of the first to focus on social justice, said Lance Izumi, director for the Center for School Reform at the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based organization that supports charter schools.

Some people may disagree with Lowenstein's political views, but parents are legally entitled to have their children attend a school that teaches such ideas along with the basics.

"In the long term, it will be important to see if the kids can actually read, write and do math," Izumi said. The question about the Leadership Academy is "whether this will be a school that educates, or a propaganda camp."

The Leadership Academy's charter was approved by the Los Angeles Unified School District. School Board President Caprice Young said Lowenstein has "a real vision and a passion for education."

"The whole idea behind the Leadership Academy is that, if kids take power in their lives and communities, it makes them much more attached to their education."

In addition, she said, the new school is needed in a Koreatown area that buses out 4,000 students each day. Leasing space in a Wilshire Boulevard building owned by Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, the school started with a sixth grade this fall and plans to add seventh and eighth grades over the next two years. High school classes may follow.

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