Battle Lines Form on School Boundary Plan : Parents Angry Over Proposal to Shift Some South Gate High Students to Jordan in Watts
At high noon one recent Saturday, about 50 Latino parents were gathered under the shade of a tree in a South Gate park. The weather was hot, and so was the rhetoric.
The parents had come to talk about a Los Angeles Unified School District plan to send graduating eighth-graders living on the west side of South Gate to Jordan High School in Watts, about a mile away. According to district officials, the change would help to relieve severe overcrowding at year-round South Gate High, which has been busing overflow students as far away as Sylmar and Monroe high schools in the north end of the San Fernando Valley.
Unacceptable, Parents Say
But many South Gate parents say the Jordan proposal is unacceptable because they say Jordan doesn’t measure up to South Gate High academically and the surrounding area is unsafe. “It’s not fair,” said Thise Camarillo, who came to the park because she has a child at South Gate Junior High. “We live in South Gate, so we should go to South Gate schools.”
On paper, the proposal looks simple. It involves moving Jordan’s attendance line three-quarters of a mile east from Alameda Street, the traditional dividing line between unincorporated Watts and the city of South Gate, to Long Beach Boulevard. But the plan, which the Board of Education will consider on May 6, has raised a storm of controversy and rekindled racial tensions that surfaced 22 years ago when the battle began over desegregation of Los Angeles schools.
In 1963, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Jordan students that sought to bring racial balance to all-black Jordan and then-mostly white South Gate High. Today South Gate High, with an enrollment of 3,000, is 86% Latino, 2% black and 6% white.
Jordan, with an enrollment of 1,100, still has a majority of black students, but their numbers are declining rapidly as more Latinos move into the area. Black enrollment dropped 10% this fall to 69.5%, while the number of Latino students rose from 19% to 30%. White enrollment is .2% (two students) and Asian .3%. District projections say Jordan may be 50% Latino within five years.
Del Real, a South Gate real estate agent with business dealings on both sides of Alameda, predicts that, in as few as three years, “Watts will be like South Gate” and have a predominantly Latino population. “We’re not selling houses to black people; we’re selling mostly to Hispanics,” he said.
According to the 1980 Census, South Gate, with a population of 67,000, is 59% Hispanic, 2% black and 37% white; Watts, with a population of 34,000, is 83% black and 17% Hispanic. Census figures forecast a gradual increase in the Latino population in Watts, reaching 22% in 1989.
And yet, resistance to the boundary change runs deep among many South Gate residents. In their view, Jordan is on the wrong side of the tracks, literally and figuratively.
“No way are we going to send our kids over there,” said Olivia Lopez, whose daughter will graduate from the eighth grade Tuesday. “We’re not being prejudiced. But I’m afraid of that area. Send our kids to Gardena or Downey--anyplace but there.”
Others say that prejudice is the problem. Jordan parent and longtime Watts resident Alice Harris says that for too long Alameda Street has separated South Gate and Watts like “the Mason-Dixon line” of the Civil War years. “We’re supposed to feel lower because we’re over here and because you’re over there. But it don’t work that way,” she said. “South Gate is only three minutes away. If there is a problem here, you have it over there too.”
In the view of most South Gate parents, Jordan has two clear problems: low scores on state achievement tests and the crime rate in and around the campus.
In terms of its performance on state and national tests, Jordan historically has ranked near the bottom of the district’s 49 high schools. In the latest California Assessment Program tests given to all high school seniors, Jordan scored 7 to 10 points lower than South Gate across the board. On the Scholastic Aptitude Test, Jordan students last year attained an average score of 589, while South Gate scored 752. Both scores fall below the state average of 897.
In terms of crime, however, statistics indicate that the Jordan campus actually is safer than South Gate.
According to Los Angeles school district records of on-campus incidents reported to school security during the 1983-84 school year, South Gate administrators reported 100 more cases of assault, sex offenses, theft, vandalism, arson, narcotics possession and trespassing at South Gate than Jordan, which had 26. Jordan exceeded South Gate in the number of robberies (8 versus 2) and burglaries (9 to 8).
South Gate assistant principal Howard Lappin said his school’s high numbers were partly a result of overcrowding. “We have so many more bodies here, compared to Jordan,” he said. He also said that South Gate may follow more rigorous reporting standards than other schools.
Police statistics on crime in the community around Jordan tend to confirm South Gate parents’ fears, however.
According to figures from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southeast Division, there were 41 robberies, 4 murders, 5 rapes and 42 aggravated assaults in an eight-block area around Jordan during the last school year.
“That is totally unacceptable for such a small area,” said Lt. William Pruitt of the Southeast Division. He said 90% of the crimes occurred at or near the Jordan Downs housing project next to the high school. No figures were available for a comparable area in South Gate.
However, Pruitt said, “the average student going to Jordan probably wouldn’t be exposed to (those crimes), unless he leaves the campus and drives off on his own.”
District officials point out that South Gate students will not come into contact with the neighborhood around Jordan because the district plans to provide bus transportation between South Gate High and the Watts campus.
Because of overcrowding, 96 South Gate students already attend Jordan by bus. They are among a group of 450 students who are bused to other campuses with more room than South Gate High. The school, built in the 1930s to accommodate a maximum of 1,800 students on a traditional two-semester schedule, now has 3,000 students attending classes year-round. Three groups attend in staggered terms consisting of 16 weeks in class and eight weeks off. At any one time, 2,000 students are on campus.
This fall the district expects about 200 more ninth-graders in South Gate than enrolled last year. That is the number district officials want to shift to Jordan in September.
“We’re saying to the district we might not be able to take every ninth-grader from South Gate Junior High into South Gate High School,” assistant principal Lappin said. “That’s never happened before.”
Thus far, the overcrowding has not deprived any students of the full range of classes, Lappin said. But it does require careful juggling of resources.
Teachers move from classroom to classroom two or three times a day because there are not enough rooms to go around. The basement and teachers’ lounge have been converted to classrooms, and Lappin is considering doing the same with the foyer of the school auditorium. When a room is closed for repairs, classes are shifted into the library, which, the administrator said, limits its use by other students.
The school district has allocated money to construct 24 new classrooms there. But they may not be ready until the end of next year, and they will not be sufficient to take the school off a year-round schedule or to accommodate the new students expected next year. According to Lappin, the district would have to build 50 new rooms in order to return the campus to a traditional two-semester schedule.
Down the street at South Gate Junior High, overcrowding is just as severe. The school’s capacity is 2,700 students on a regular, two-semester year, but it has an enrollment of 3,500 year round. Seeing the conditions firsthand has made teacher Sterling Delone an ardent supporter of the boundary change.
‘Parents Don’t Understand’
“Parents don’t understand what overcrowding means,” said Delone, who teaches social studies. “It means larger classes, because there are only so many rooms. Curriculum offerings shrink. Custodial hours are not allocated on the basis of school population but on plant size, so a small school like South Gate gets few custodial hours. The result is the general environment is dirty, run-down and overused. To me that is not equal education. But parents don’t understand that.”
Board of Education member Larry Gonzalez, who proposed the boundary change, said that students in year-round schools don’t spend as many days in the classroom as students in traditional schools. “Year-round schools go 165 days, versus 180 days in a traditional school,” he said. “So young people in a year-round school are getting shortchanged. But I don’t hear anybody (in South Gate) complaining about that.”
South Gate parents who oppose the boundary change say they are willing to accept larger classes and temporary bungalows in an overcrowded system as alternatives to Jordan. If some South Gate students have to attend Jordan, they want students who are new residents of the area to enroll there, sparing their own children the move.
The district has resisted the parents’ proposal that it install temporary classrooms on or near the campus, Associate Supt. Jerry Halverson said.
One reason is that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating a complaint against the Los Angeles Unified School District that contends the district discriminates against Latino students by maintaining them in overcrowded schools. The allegation did not specifically cite Southeast-area schools, however.
The district also fears that providing bungalows could be construed as an act of segregation. “It could easily be contended that by building temporary structures at South Gate, when there is more than adequate space at Jordan, the district was continuing to isolate black students at Jordan High,” Halverson said.
Willene Cooper, a South Gate resident and longtime school activist, heads the Legislative Committee on School Overcrowding, a group of local officials and community leaders concerned about the crowding problem that faces all schools in the Southeast region of the district. Although her children finished high school years ago, Cooper is one of the most vocal critics of the boundary change.
“The district didn’t offer a model school when it offered Jordan as the change,” she said. “It offered a school where the test scores were 10 points and more below those at South Gate High School. Our parents are saying, ‘You cannot do this. You must offer at least an equal or better school.’ ”
Cooper wants the school district to raise Jordan’s academic standing, improve its facilities and reduce crimes in the area before asking South Gate parents to send their children there. “Otherwise, there will be no acceptance. There will be no movement of students, voluntary or mandatory, from South Gate to Jordan,” she said.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the Jordan campus, opened in 1925, leaves much to be desired. Paint peels from the walls, floors are dirty and some windows are boarded. Flanking its west side is Jordan Downs, and on the east are a scrap-metal yard and the train tracks along Alameda.
The main building of South Gate High is long and massive, the entrance gracefully arched. A wide expanse of lawn separates the campus from traffic on busy Firestone Boulevard. The floors need washing, but generally its buildings appear well-maintained.
Sometimes three students sit at a classroom table that comfortably accommodates two, and during class breaks the hallways look like Grand Central Station. That congestion does not exist at Jordan, partly because a third of the students are absent on any given day, school officials said. It is also because the school has room for 600 more students than the 1,100 who are enrolled.
Transfer Called Inevitable
School board member Gonzalez says sending South Gate students to Jordan is inevitable and long overdue. Spiraling birthrates in Southeast-area cities have made Region B--which includes South Gate, Huntington Park, Bell, Cudahy, Maywood, Vernon and a part of Watts--the largest and fastest growing of the district’s eight regions. But school building has not kept pace with the population. So the district has turned to regrouping of grade levels, year-round classes and, now, to redrawing school attendance lines.
“How can we argue for additional money for new schools if we are unwilling to utilize empty classroom space in or about a (crowded school) neighborhood?” said Gonzalez, who represents most of the Southeast area except for South Gate.
“When you have a school that is under-utilized and has capacity for an additional 600 students, it makes a whole lot of sense to utilize that space, especially when it is only 15 minutes away.
“I understand that South Gate parents want to send their kids to South Gate High School,” Gonzalez added. “But the reality is there isn’t any room. Because of the growing overcrowded conditions in the Southeast area, we have to learn to share school facilities.”
Amelia McBride’s reaction to that point of view is summed up in a bumper sticker she had made. It reads: “South Gate Schools for South Gate Kids.” A 25-year resident of the city, she lives in a small house across from Stanford Elementary School, in the middle of the boundary-change area.
Pictures of her five children dressed in graduation caps and gowns hang on the living room wall. The four oldest children attended South Gate High--and she is determined that the youngest, a son who is in the eighth grade, will too.
“We won’t put up with busing to Jordan,” she said. “The area is so bad. The crime rate is high. And the level of education is low. They have these empty seats at Jordan. They’re empty because it’s not a good school. Those parents aren’t sending their kids there. So why should we?”
Family Considering Move
If the boundary change goes into effect, she said, “we are going to have to move or find a private school for our son. I know of people who are moving out already. We are losing good families because of this.”
John Trujillo has lived in South Gate for 15 years and has a son in the 10th grade. The boundary proposal would not affect students living in the boundary-change area who already are enrolled at South Gate High. So, he says, his son is “safe.” But he has joined his neighbors in the fight because, he says, he has something at stake too.
In his view, if his neighbors’ children had to attend Jordan High, it would somehow blur the distinction--no matter how slight--that the parents have worked so hard to obtain.
“It’s a class thing. I’m not hiding that fact,” he said one afternoon in the back of the Huntington Park barber shop where he works.
“Families moving in here now are paying $500 to $700 a month in mortgages. They’re making sacrifices to be here. They say, ‘If I wanted my kids to go to Jordan, I’d rent over there. It’s cheaper.’ But they’re here because they wanted more. They wanted a better life.
“South Gate is not Beverly Hills--it doesn’t pretend to be,” he hastily added. “But to people moving in here, it’s better than what we came from. We have pride in our community. South Gate has been good to me.”
South Gate is a blue-collar community where the median household income is $15,000 a year, according to 1980 Census figures. Its neighborhoods are lined with neat two- and three-bedroom homes valued from $80,000 to $90,000.
Across the railroad tracks on Alameda, houses sell for $45,000 to $55,000. The median family income in Watts is $8,300.
Trujillo grew up in Watts and attended mostly black schools before moving to South Gate. So he feels qualified to compare the two communities. “Watts is a tough area. Set our kids free there and see if there wouldn’t be conflict, racial or gang violence. Our kids won’t be able to walk down to 103rd Street and go to the local hamburger stand without becoming hard-core and streetwise.”
Fears Crime Spillover
If the boundary change is enacted, Trujillo fears that gang conflicts will cause crime to spill over from Watts into his neighborhood and that property values will go down. He predicts that most of his neighbors will not give in and let their children attend Jordan. “Most of the parents will just hold their kids out of school,” he said. “Jordan will see no gain.”
Adeline Melendrez, whose daughter will graduate from South Gate Junior High on Tuesday, said she will send her child to live with a relative in Norwalk and enroll her in school there. “Anywhere but Jordan,” she said.
Inez Murillo’s daughter is in the sixth grade, but Murillo already has made up her mind not to comply if the boundary change is passed. “I’m against it completely,” said Murillo, who joined 50 other parents in a one-day strike, keeping their children out of the junior high recently. “My daughter will go to live with my sister in San Pedro if this thing goes through.”
Aside from the 96 South Gate students already being bused to Jordan, another 231 have attended classes there since September during the eight-week breaks in the year-round cycle.
“The reports I receive,” school board member Gonzalez said, “are that these young people are getting along perfectly well and are maintaining their school work and studies.”
Jordan teacher Anne Lamont said that the problem with Jordan’s low test scores is not the quality of instruction but the poor attendance rate. “It is hard to teach kids who are not here,” she said. “The school is desperately trying to improve attendance. But the fact remains that most kids have decent reasons for being away from here, though they may not be reasons I’d find acceptable for my child.” Students are often ill, and others experience family problems associated with poverty.
“Any of these kids would do better if they could stick with it,” Lamont said. “But that doesn’t mean South Gate kids will do poorly if they come here. If they come to school every day, and if they’re doing well at South Gate, they will do well here.”
Although Jordan parent Angelina Viramontes lives in the Crenshaw High School attendance area, she allowed her daughter, Ariadna, to attend Jordan the past three and a half years on a special permit from the district. Viramontes said she has had no problems with the school. She has talked to South Gate parents who are opposed to the boundary change and says their fears are exaggerated.
“They are drowning themselves in a glass of water. The problems don’t exist to the extent they think they do,” she said. “This area is like any other area. There is good and there is bad. A child can do as well at Jordan as at any other school, if he has the ability and is determined.”
Jordan students who were interviewed said the negative images of the school held by South Gate parents are untrue. “I’m proud of Jordan. It’s a good school,” said senior Juan Delcid, who lives in South Gate. “It’s not unsafe. There are no gang problems. It’s safe out there too (on the street)--unless you look like the kind of person who wants trouble. But nothing bad has ever happened to me.”
Edward Palacios, 14, an eighth-grader at South Gate Junior High, said he thought Jordan was too far away. “I live here, and so I should go to school in the same place I live.”
Alice Harris, the community activist, has heard all the arguments against Jordan and Watts, her home for the past 23 years. And she is hurt by the rejection.
The mother of 14 children, several of whom have attended Jordan High, she spends time every day working with the area’s black and Latino youths through Parents of Watts, a nonprofit community service program she founded. She believes in the ability of Jordan to provide a quality education.
“If you are hungry and someone has food at their table and invites you to sit down, then you better eat,” she said. “You don’t say, ‘I don’t want to eat your food.’ But that’s what they’ve done. We offered what we had, and they don’t like it.
“When people sit and tell me what they don’t want and what they don’t like, the first thing I want to know is, ‘Did you try it?’ It’s impossible to know what you don’t like until you have tried it.
“I just hope it won’t be too late when they want us, and we’ll say we don’t have no room.”