Time Magazine April 30, 1990
Blackboard Jungle A TIME correspondent revisits his troubled alma mater BY RICARDO CHAVIRA
In its 94-year history, Los Angeles’ San Fernando High School has turned out enough distinguished graduates to fill a classroom. They include Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, former National League Rookie of the Year Gary Matthews, University of Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum and rock-‘n’- roll legend Ritchie Valens. San Fernando also produced Xavier Velazquez, an honor student and school vice president who was one of a group of students who met with President George Bush last year to discuss education. But Velazquez, a senior who hopes to attend M.I.T. in the fall, is one of the fortunate few: roughly half of those who began tenth grade with him have dropped out, lured by the drugs and gangs that infest the surrounding neighborhoods.
San Fernando, my alma mater, is fairly typical of the sprawling L.A. Unified School District, the nation’s second largest. And typically, it is in deep trouble. Despite vigorous efforts by a strongly committed core of teachers and administrators, the school’s vital indicators are startlingly bleak. The yearly 20% dropout rate is more than double the California average, and a quarter of the student body is absent on any given day. In reading and math, San Fernando seniors rank in the bottom 5% statewide.
When I graduated in 1968, dope and gangs were already invading our campus, which is tucked into the far northeastern corner of the San Fernando Valley. Black and Latino students were in ferment over civil rights, and there were ugly clashes with white students and teachers. Black pupils rioted for several days to protest the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Only a full-scale police occupation of the campus restored order. Today nine security guards, two of whom carry pistols, keep violent confrontations and drug use on the premises to a minimum.
The racial balance has changed dramatically. During my time, Latinos represented about 40% of the school population and 15% district-wide. Now Hispanics, many of them newly arrived and poor, account for 92% of San Fernando’s student body; in the district they form 59% of the total, up from just a fifth in 1978. Of the school’s 3,000 pupils, nearly half are enrolled in bilingual or English-as-a-second-language classes. “This is very much a port-of-entry school,” says Bilingual-ESL Program coordinator Pat Reynosa. That means, says Reynosa, that in addition to having limited or nonexistent English, many of the students must cope with the pressures of grinding poverty (a median family income of $17,000; 18% on welfare) and the anomie common to refugees. And since Hispanics are America’s fastest-growing ethnic group, San Fernando’s problems will be increasingly echoed throughout U.S. public education.
“I’ve never had so many kids with so many needs,” says school nurse Susan Mitchell. In a typical week she and other officials assigned to the school’s crisis-intervention team may counsel students who abuse drugs and alcohol (or whose parents do so), aid rape victims, deal with youths contemplating suicide or Central American refugees suffering war-related stress. Student pregnancy is so common that there is a minicampus for expectant mothers and a nursery for students’ children. “If these kids came from nurturing families, we could all go home,” says Mitchell. “But these are families who have to work in sweatshops twelve hours a
day. The children have nowhere else to turn.” In contrast to two decades ago, today San Fernando’s teachers and administrators are addressing home and community problems that affect students. “I had a student who wasn’t getting her work done,” recalls Bud Schindler, who runs a campus counseling program and teaches English composition. “Well, it turned out she had seen a person shot dead in front of her home. She had to see a psychologist before she could focus on her classwork.” Says principal Bart Kricorian: “We are an island in this community. We can’t keep problems from coming in.”
Critics of the mess blame everyone: parents for not stressing the importance of education and responsible behavior, teachers for succumbing to burnout, the system for failing to adapt to the changing needs of L.A.’s inner-city schools. All are valid observations. Yet even if those challenges did not exist, San Fernando and L.A.’s other troubled schools would be facing a daunting financial crisis. The school district this year must trim an estimated $200 million from a $4 billion budget, and some 3,000 jobs will be eliminated. Assistant school superintendent Amelia McKenna calculates that even without the cuts, the system is short 1,500 critically needed bilingual teachers. Thirty years ago, California was nearly unsurpassed in its expenditure per student; today it ranks 40th nationwide. “We are the richest country on earth, but look how little we are doing for these students,” says community activist Lupe Ramirez.
L.A. school-board member Leticia Quezada, a Carnation executive, says that unless government invests sufficiently in the rehabilitation of schools like San Fernando, the U.S. will continue to slip as an economic power. “We have success stories, but overall there’s a sink-or-swim attitude, and increasing numbers of kids are sinking,” she says. “Are we willing to pay the price for not investing in education?”
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