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Students give primer on system's woes

Teens research some of L.A.'s most troubled schools and report to the mayor's team.

August 11, 2007|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Educators and politicians who fret about Los Angeles' high school dropout crisis might want to heed the advice of 15-year-old Carla Hernandez: Hire more teachers who care. Slash overcrowded classrooms. Stop sending failing students to the next grade.

Hernandez and nearly two dozen other teenagers spent part of the summer studying several of the city's most troubled high schools with the guidance of a UCLA research program. On Friday, they delivered their findings to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's education advisors at City Hall.

Much of what the students found mirrors data reported by professional researchers -- namely, that half or more students at some schools drop out before graduation.

But Hernandez and her friends were able to articulate the crisis in the most personal terms, explaining, for example, how students lose interest in school because they don't get a chance to learn about their own heritage. Or how even the best students struggle to learn in unruly and overcrowded classrooms. Or how others give up and disappear when they fall behind in credits.

The young researchers painted a grim picture of the downward spiral that often haunts dropouts: They said 80% of California's prison population did not graduate from high school, a statistic that has appeared elsewhere in published reports. "You're all sitting here listening to the research, but if you don't do anything about it, then you're part of the problem," Hernandez, who researched Crenshaw High in South Los Angeles, told Deputy Mayor Ramon Cortines and other members of Villaraigosa's education team, which pledged to incorporate the students' ideas into plans for partnering with schools.

Hernandez and the other students from Los Angeles-area high schools conducted their research through UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

During the five-week program that included classes at UCLA, the teenage investigators conducted surveys and interviewed students, teachers and administrators at several Los Angeles schools, including Locke High near Watts and Wilson High in El Sereno. They also spoke to Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. David L. Brewer and school board President Monica Garcia.

Two of the groups explored Crenshaw High and Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights, two campuses now under consideration by Villaraigosa as he prepares to announce a partnership with the district later this month that will allow him to play a role in running some schools.

They presented their findings Friday in PowerPoint computer presentations and video documentaries.

"It's hard to concentrate at school when you're thinking about the rival gangs surrounding Jordan [High] and Locke," said Earl Moutra, 17. "It's taking a risk just to walk to school."

Moutra was part of a group that studied Locke High.

The four students on his team spoke about the influence of violence and broken families, called for greater collaboration between teachers and schools and urged instructors to listen more to students.

Notably absent from the City Hall meeting were L.A. Unified leaders, who had been invited.

A spokeswoman for Brewer said the superintendent was attending a meeting in San Diego. A spokesman for Garcia said she had a family commitment that could not be avoided.

Still, at least one school administrator said she welcomed the students' feedback. Roosevelt Principal Sofia Freire cited many of the same concerns raised by the students when ticking off the factors that lead to dropouts.

She said her campus of 5,200 students has been carved into 12 academies of 350 to 400 students so that teachers can get to know their students better.

"I believe that creating small learning communities is a way to personalize education for our students and make sure they don't fall through the cracks," Freire said.

Villaraigosa missed the five presentations, held on the top floor of City Hall. He showed up at the end for about 15 minutes and gave the students a pep talk, reminding them that he had dropped out of Roosevelt but returned, graduated on time and eventually made it to UCLA and law school.

"Who is better to ask about why kids drop out than young people," he said.

Seventeen-year-old Raquel Castellanos, who researched Roosevelt High, said she appreciated Villaraigosa's words but suggested that he spend more time in the schools to fully understand the depth of the crisis.

"He needs to go see for himself . . . from the students' perspective and the teachers' perspective," Castellanos said.

"He needs to get involved."

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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