A lesson in diversity

Times Staff Writer

Before she arrived at middle school, Itanza Lawrence admits, she cleaved to certain racial stereotypes. Asians were quiet and smart. African Americans, her group, were “ghetto” and “not academically competitive.”

She doesn’t see it that way anymore.

One of the first things she learned at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, one of the city’s first magnet schools and, by some standards, its most successful, was that Asian Americans could be loud and rowdy. And they weren’t all brainiacs. African Americans? A lot of them turned out to be like her: driven to succeed academically and determined to go to a good college.

Along with getting a top-notch education, Itanza and many of her classmates say, they have learned to appreciate diversity and become comfortable with people of all races and nationalities. That makes LACES, as the Mid-City school is more commonly known, a model for what the Los Angeles Unified School District said it was trying to preserve when it fought a legal battle to retain the ability to assign students to magnet schools by race.


The district won that battle this week when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge rejected a lawsuit by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which claimed that the use of race in magnet assignments violated California’s Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative passed by voters in 1996.

Some at LACES, though, wonder how much the district really cares about what its teachers, students and administrators have been able to accomplish at their small, academically charged campus, which spans middle and high school.

Longtime teachers and administrators say they can’t remember when an L.A. Unified school superintendent visited the campus, formerly Louis Pasteur Junior High, near Fairfax Avenue and the 10 Freeway. Unless, that is, you count the time when, according to Assistant Principal Marion Wong, former Supt. Roy Romer walked onto the campus “by mistake” while trying to find a then-adjacent elementary school.

Art teacher Honami Uchiyama, who has taught at LACES since 1978, the year after it opened, said she sometimes wonders: “If we’re one of the top schools in the nation, which we are, why is our ceiling falling down and why is our plumbing so bad?”

In the next breath, most LACES teachers and administrators will acknowledge that the district has understandably placed its priority on fixing problem schools, rather than coddling schools that work.

“We probably should be saluted a little more for what we accomplish,” said teacher and counselor Randy Rutschman. “But I think we feel appreciated by our kids, and I think we feel appreciated by our parents.”

Certainly, it is hard to argue with LACES’ success. Founded in 1977 as part of L.A. Unified’s effort to replace mandatory busing with a voluntary integration plan, the school has long been one of the district’s academic stars. It has ranked near the top of Newsweek’s list of the best American high schools and recently was ranked as the 61st best public school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, the highest ranking for a Los Angeles Unified school.

Its Academic Performance Index score of 824 puts it well above the state and district averages of 679 and 622, respectively. And Principal Margaret Kim proudly noted that every member of the 2007 graduating class went to college this fall. A map hanging in the school’s college counseling office shows where those students went, a list that includes Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Stanford and Howard universities, Morehouse College and MIT, with a healthy sprinkling of University of California campuses.

Moreover, LACES -- like most other magnets -- has no academic entrance requirements. Its 1,600 students are chosen by a weighted lottery that ensures that 30% of the school will be white and 70% will be nonwhite. “We get the full gamut of students,” Kim said during a stroll around the campus Wednesday, “from far below basic to advanced.”

So why does it do so well? One answer is that the students, or at least their parents, are motivated to be there. As with any magnet school, families who want their children to attend LACES must fill out an application and mail it in to the district; it’s not a huge hurdle, by any means, but enough to stop the least motivated. Unless they live near the school, they also must be willing to let their children commute by school bus, which students do from as far away as the San Fernando Valley, San Pedro and South Gate.

As the school’s reputation has grown, so has the difficulty of getting in. Last year, Kim said, LACES had 2,800 applications for 172 openings, giving it a lower admission rate than UCLA.

Administrators, teachers and students say that, from the start, the school pushes students and inculcates a presumption that they all are college-bound. Middle schoolers see high school students taking school seriously, and most of them fall into line. “There’s a culture of success,” said Wong. “Kids don’t get laughed at if they’re looking at a book.”

The school offers a vast array of Advanced Placement classes and encourages students to take them. It also attracts good teachers, who tend to stay. And it requires students to take seven classes a semester, rather than the more typical six.

The school is successful among all races and ethnic groups, although there remains a significant gap between Asian and white students and their African American and Latino counterparts. White students, for example, had an API score of 893 this year while Latinos lagged at 774 and African Americans at 733, still well ahead of district and statewide averages.

Still, staff and students say LACES provides diversity that is hard to find in education, even at the college level. The school is almost evenly divided among the major racial groups.

“This is a great place for young people to learn what the real world is like,” said Rutschman, “that we’re all human at our core.” Referring to the lawsuit challenging the magnet system, he said, “If we’d lost that, it would have been really tragic. . . . It works, and I guess the question is, why destroy something that works?”

Another question, though, is whether LACES could attract a diverse student body without a race-based formula. “It’s possible,” said Maggie Scott, a parent with two children at the school, “that if we just threw everyone into a hat we’d wind up with about the same balance.”

Among a group of students from the school’s leadership class, there was both an appreciation of the school’s diversity and some eye-rolling about the process through which it is achieved. “It’s an outdated system,” said Aaron Gluck, a 17-year-old senior who described himself as half white and half Chinese. He said his parents filled in the “white” bubble on the entrance lottery, figuring that there would be less competition for the white slots.

But all the students, mostly seniors, agreed that it had been a wonderful experience to attend such a diverse school.

“I think it allows us to get past the stereotypes,” said Michelle Nii, 18. “Because we don’t see the stereotypes, we just see people.”


Times data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.