Discrimination Charged : Parents at Wilmington School Decry 'Generation of Neglect'

Times Staff Writer

In an act of frustration after what some called a "generation of neglect," more than 200 parents here last week made an impassioned plea to Los Angeles School Board President John Greenwood for improvements at their neighborhood elementary school.

Parents from Wilmington Park Elementary School, in often emotional testimony, expressed both their requests for improvements at the school of 1,115 students and their discontent with a system that they feel has long deprived them of the barest necessities.

"We have requested a decent cafeteria for 10 years," said Maria Elena Hernandez, a Wilmington parent and president of the PTA. "The auditorium here is used as a reading lab, test room, dining room, meeting room, storage room, registration room, music room and special education room. Every cubbyhole is utilized. Even a bathroom is used for testing (the stalls still stand but the room has been renovated, and there are other bathrooms for the children). We have been patient long enough."

Said Hernandez, "We feel we have been neglected and discriminated against because we are in a very low-income area and our school is 94% minority. Perhaps it is our color, our culture or our background that is keeping us from receiving fair treatment."

Many Problem Schools

Their complaints, Greenwood said, reflect those of parents in many communities where the schools are old and overcrowded, and the financially strapped school district can do little to help. He maintained that Wilmington Park's problems are not symptoms of discrimination.

"That's not the problem," he said. "The problem is how to fix this school. The school district is 80% minority, and every school that we are considering for construction is a minority school. We're doing the best that we can."

Although parents contend that the school needs an array of improvements--everything from a paint job and window replacements to an auditorium that would seat all of the school's students--they say they are first seeking a school cafeteria. Children now eat year-round at unprotected picnic tables outdoors.

If weather is poor or pollution from nearby industries is excessive, the students eat in their classrooms, which means they lose 20 minutes of instruction time because there are not enough staff members to monitor the lunch period in each class and teach too.

Further Studies Needed

Greenwood told the mostly Latino group of parents that the Los Angeles Unified School District would have to further study their requests. His remarks were punctuated by parents' expressions of frustration.

"I have to find out how much it will cost to build a new cafeteria," Greenwood said. "I would like to come back to this group after we have studied some options, and what the staff estimates each will cost."

However, Greenwood, who said he would return April 17, admitted later during the meeting, "I don't think we'll have enough money to build an entirely new cafeteria."

It was not what the audience wanted to hear.

One parent told Greenwood that she felt the group had already waited too long. Through a Spanish interpreter, she told the school board president, "When it rains, I will keep my children at home . . . I think the other parents should do the same."

Her sentiments drew loud applause from the crowd of working-class parents, many of whom had left their jobs early to attend the meeting.

Tour of Campus

Greenwood said that he understands the concerns of the Wilmington parents, who invited him to tour the campus, which is more than 60 years old, for a first-hand view of its deficiencies.

"I know you need more space," Greenwood said. "I know you teach reading in what used to be bathrooms. . . . We're working on fixing these things."

Greenwood said that Wilmington Park is ranked 88th on a list of about 500 district elementary schools that need new facilities. He said, however, that many of the district's schools face a more severe problem with student overcrowding, and the top funding priority is to build new schools and classroom additions.

"It would be very easy to make promises as I stand up here, but I'm not going to make a promise unless I can back it up," he said.

Parents, who made their first request for a cafeteria 10 years ago, said that they now want promises that will be kept. Other schools, they maintained, received funds for improvements long ago.

After 10 Years

"We should be at the top of the list. How can you be number 88 after 10 years?" asked parent Irma Castillo. "They must have forgotten about us."

Sandra Salcedo, a mother of four children at Wilmington Park, maintained that "a lot of other schools have gotten money to paint or build. I think we deserve some help. When the children walk to their (lunch) tables with their food, the food blows off their trays if it's a windy day. A lot of the children get colds, and they are always sitting outside next to the pollution in the air and all the noise."

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