Twenty-two years ago the Los Angeles school board, bowing to pressure from parents in South Gate, refused to bus Mary Ellen Crawford from predominantly black Jordan High School in Watts to mostly white South Gate High.
Their refusal to integrate the two schools, located a mile apart, formed the basis for the Crawford case, a court fight that occupied the school board for years and led to mandatory busing in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
The school board began debate on a nearly identical issue on Monday, although this time it is the mostly Latino community in South Gate that does not want to send its children to Jordan.
South Gate High, with 3,000 students, is overcrowded. As a result, the school operates on a year-round schedule and several hundred students are sent to high schools in the San Fernando Valley. The school rolls are still growing, and district officials have proposed a solution that is geographically simple but politically complicated.
They want to alter the school boundaries by several blocks so that some students in South Gate will be assigned to Jordan.
“We are talking about relief from overcrowding. And if you have existing space--and we have 600 seats at Jordan--than we have to utilize that available space first,” said Larry Gonzalez, the lone Latino member of the school board, who is sponsoring the change.
The idea has not made him many friends in South Gate. Just as it was 22 years ago, Alameda Street is viewed as a sort of Mason-Dixon line between the black community in Watts on the west side of the street and a blue-collar Anglo and now predominantly Latino community on the east side.
In recent public hearings and school committee meetings, South Gate parents have complained that Jordan is unsafe and academically inferior. As an alternative, they have suggested that the district add more temporary bungalow classrooms next to South Gate High while the district awaits money to build a new high school nearby.
“The district didn’t offer a model school when it offered Jordan as the change,” said Willene Cooper, a school activist from South Gate who opposed the move at Monday’s board meeting. “It’s a shell of school,” she added, with test scores far lower than South Gate’s.
Moreover, “hundreds of students in the Jordan area leave every day to be bused away” because “parents have no confidence” in the school, she said.
Although Jordan students typically score lower on state and national tests, the school district’s crime figures show a higher rate of vandalism, assaults, drug arrests and robberies on the South Gate campus than at Jordan.
The school statistics also show that Jordan is no longer an all-black school. About 30% of its 1,100 students this year are Latino, further evidence of a general move of the Latino population west into formerly black neighborhoods in South-Central Los Angeles.
The controversy over the proposed boundary change has simmered for months, aggravating tensions between the two communities. This time, however, the school board appears ready to move to end the dispute.
School Supt. Harry Handler recommended to the board Monday that the boundary change take effect on July 1. Eighth-graders who live just east of Alameda in South Gate would start high school at Jordan in September and would be “transported at district expense for 1985-86,” according to the recommendation given to the board.
Older students already at South Gate would also have a one-time option of remaining there or enrolling at Jordan, the district plan said. In the first year, the district said, it does not think many older students would move voluntarily to Jordan and, in total, only about 250 students are expected to be affected by the proposed change.
The school board will vote on the Gonzalez’s motion on May 6, and most members have said they support it.
“The logic in favor (of the boundary change) is overwhelming,” said board President John Greenwood, whose district runs from the Harbor area into South Gate. “The community concern has been very strong, but we are running out of other options.”
Associate Supt. Jerry Halverson also said it would be “legally unwise” for the board to try to crowd more students into bungalows at South Gate High. Halverson, the district’s chief attorney, has been responding since February to a Department of Justice query over whether the district is providing inferior education facilities for Latino students.
“I don’t care how many kids and parents say they want this (the added bungalows), someone is going to look at and it and say we are segregating Hispanic kids in inadequate facilities,” Halverson said in an interview. “It would be inviting support for those charges from the Justice Department.”
As a legacy of the court order in the Crawford case, the school district does not require the busing of minority students to other minority schools. South Gate students who are sent to the Valley are seeking enrollment in integrated high schools.
Since joining the board in 1983, Gonzalez has maintained that the district should send minority children to the closest schools that have space for them.
He also said he hopes that his motion will not only change the school attendance boundaries but also end the notion of Alameda Street being a boundary between two communities.
“This is a boundary that needs to be wiped out. (The school board) should never have allowed this to develop in the first place,” he said.