High School's Media Campaign : Students Fight Image Problem

Times Staff Writer

As press conferences go, this one was fairly slick. Toward the rear of the school library about 70 community leaders, school district personnel and business people sat attentively watching the proceedings.

Immediately before them, huddled over their notebooks, sat a handful of press representatives.

And in front of it all, facing the crowd from a row of folding chairs with the aplomb of seasoned professionals, sat the 10 members of the Dominguez High School communications class who were running this show.

Their message: Despite what you may have heard, their school is a pretty good place to be.

"After years of unbalanced treatment from the press and the community, we decided that it is up to us to demonstrate that we care about our school," said Christina Verdin, 16, a member of the Comptonschool's speech team who plans to attend USC's film school after graduation. "We want everyone to hear about the flip side of Dominguez High School--our many academic, athletic and social programs, our teachers, and most important, our students."

Says 'Minor Incidents Magnified'

Added Eliel Aguilera, 17: "A few minor incidents that have occurred at Dominguez have been magnified through local press reports. We believe that more emphasis should be placed on the good things that happen here."

Although their school's bad image is a longstanding problem, the students said, the incidents referred to by Aguilera had greatly exacerbated it. On the first day of school in 1983, five students were wounded by gunfire when gang members burst onto the campus during lunch hour and began shooting. And, last September, a fight among spectators at a Friday night football game resulted in some schools boycotting Dominguez High home games.

According to Principal Fred Easter, the first incident--perpetrated by non-students--was the unpreventable work of "sick minds" that could have happened anywhere. And the second was a minor fracas that would have gone unreported had it happened on any other campus.

Mostly Minority Enrollment

"You can't isolate Dominguez from the city of Compton," Easter said. "It has to do with people's attitude about a largely minority community."

Dominguez, with an enrollment of nearly 1,700, has a mostly black and Latin student body.

The students did not begin pushing for a better image, however, until a Brentwood public relations firm gave them a little shove. "It's good internal public relations for us," said Randi Thompson, senior vice president-general manager of Needham Porter Novelli, which "adopted" Dominguez High School in the fall.

The school was suggested by the district, she said, after the firm expressed interest in "showing our concern by helping kids who ordinarily don't get a chance to deal with professionals. We felt we could do a lot more for Dominguez than for a high school in Beverly Hills."

Volunteering about 1,000 hours of assistance and about $2,500 worth of materials, representatives of the firm began working with faculty members to develop and teach the curriculum for the communications class, which covers journalism, advertising and public relations.

'Feeling Good' About Role

For the professionals, said Thompson, the benefits included "feeling good about what they were doing" and about working for a company that allowed them to do it. For the students, she said, the course developed skills and provided valuable lessons in dealing with the real world.

"It's helped give them self-esteem and self-confidence," said Kathleen Luke, the faculty member who teaches the course.

Among class projects: a monthly newsletter sent to all Dominguez students to keep them informed about the positive aspects of their school, and field trips to the Los Angeles Times, KTLA-TV and the headquarters of Needham Porter Novelli.

The idea for the press conference, Thompson said, grew out of the students' belief that the press had treated them unfairly. "It became a very good case study from a public relations standpoint of whether they were giving the press other information," she said.

The students said that an average of 34.3% of the school's graduating seniors from 1980 to 1983 went on to enter institutions of higher learning. The percentage for 1983, the last year for which statistics were available, was 42.7%, the students' press release said.

Outlets for Gifted

"Many of our students have qualified to take and pass advanced placement exams in history, Spanish and math," said Aguilera. "Gifted and talented students are provided outlets for their abilities by being counseled into advanced classes."

In addition, he praised the school's basketball team, which he said had placed first in the San Gabriel Valley League and second in the CIF state finals; the speech team, which he said had won many honors; various campus academic clubs and programs, and the Upward Bound program, which, he said, prepares students for college life by allowing them to take special classes at UCLA.

Yet, said Aguilera, surveys by the communications class of area ninth-graders indicated that many plan to attend schools other than Dominguez--in some cases by lying about their addresses--because of rumors about gang-related incidents on the campus.

"Let me say," said Aguilera, "that there are no gangs on our campus."

Principal Easter said during an interview later that enrollment has remained fairly constant over the past 10 years.

Information Packets

Nevertheless, the communications class is planning to put together a special packet to be sent to ninth-graders and their parents. Class members said they plan to visit area ninth-grade classes to promote a more positive image of Dominguez High School among its future students.

"The community has a bad name," said Barbara Roque, who attended the press conference. "Bad things happen in Beverly Hills, but things here are in the spotlight. I resent it and the students resent it."

Said Mary Vasquez of her daughter, Verdin, who spoke at the press conference: "I've seen her blossom here. I am very, very proud."

Even students who didn't attend the conference and in some cases weren't aware of it, seemed to share in the general sentiment.

"It's nice here," said Edward Doxie, 15, as fellow students lolled in a sunny, grass-filled area, eating their lunches within sight of a golf course adjacent to the campus. He transferred to Dominguez from another high school earlier in the year, Doxie said, because he feared gang violence on the other campus. "Here I feel safe," he said.

Compton Police Chief Gilbert Sandoval confirmed the students' depiction of their campus as peaceful. "Nothing has come through my office that would indicate that Dominguez is any more of a problem than any other campus," he said.

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