In poorest schools, fear, despair rule
A survey of 6,008 South Los Angeles high school students shows that many are frightened by violence in school, deeply dissatisfied with their choices of college preparatory classes, and -- perhaps most striking -- exhibit symptoms of clinical depression.
“A lot of students are depressed because of the conditions in their school,” said Anna Exiga, a junior at Jordan High School who was one of the organizers of the survey. “They see that their school is failing them, their teachers are failing them, there’s racial tension and gang violence, and also many feel that their schools are not schools -- their schools look more like prisons.”
The survey, released late Thursday, was conducted in seven South L.A. public schools by a community youth organization, South Central Youth Empowered Thru Action (SCYEA), with technical guidance from the psychology department at Loyola Marymount University. It suggested that many students in some of the city’s poorest, most violent neighborhoods believe their schools set the bar for success too low -- and then shove students beneath it.
In fact, the student organizers said they don’t like to use the word “dropout” to describe their many peers who leave school. They prefer “pushout,” because they believe the school system is pushing students to fail.
“We’re ignored -- our schools are ignored,” said Susie Gonzalez, another Jordan 11th-grader who helped organize the survey. “They give us the short end of the stick. . . . They expect us not to amount to anything.”
Only about one-quarter of the students surveyed said they felt safe at school while 35% said they don’t. Just under half said their school is preparing them for college or a high-paying job, and 93% believe their school should offer more college-preparatory classes. Fewer than half could define the “A to G” curriculum that is the college prep standard in California. The youth organization, which advocates educational equality, fought for six years to push Los Angeles Unified School District to require such a curriculum for all students. The curriculum spells out the types of college prep classes and number of years they must be taken to qualify for UC and Cal State schools.
Two thirds of the students, nearly all of whom were African American or Latino, said they wanted their schools to offer more ethnic studies classes.
The schools surveyed are among the lowest performing in the Los Angeles Unified School District and are in an area where dissatisfaction with the traditional public school system is driving many students into charter schools.
The survey’s findings contrasted with a February school district report in which 90% of students questioned at selected schools districtwide said they were being pushed to do their best and 80% said their classes “give me useful preparation for what I plan to do in life.”
That same report was sharply critical of the district’s efforts to get all students into a college-prep curriculum by 2012. “With the current school climate and instructional quality,” it said, “a significant proportion of the students who enter the ninth grade in 2012 will not only fail to meet college eligibility, but will also fail to graduate from high school.”
Monica Garcia, president of the Los Angeles Board of Education, said she welcomed the survey and believed the district was responding to the students’ concerns. “This is energizing, this is encouraging,” she said. “We need the consumers of our services to be advocates of change.”
But Jordan High Principal Stephen Strachan took exception to some of the results, saying the survey was skewed to provoke negative responses. He said his school has made great strides in preparing students for college and has created a “safe haven” from a violent community.
He did not, however, dispute the findings about depression. “This morning at 10 o’clock at Simpson’s Mortuary, a 16-year-old was buried. That’s one of my students who was shot in the community,” he said. “I hear kids say, ‘Too many people are dying in our community.’ And that plays on the psyche. . . . It’s really hard to focus on Algebra 2 when your friends are getting shot in the community.”
Cheryl Grills, a professor of clinical psychology at Loyola Marymount, said that she was struck by how many students volunteered answers to one question about why they sometimes skip school. More than half hinted at depression, saying they were tired, had trouble sleeping, felt helpless or hopeless, were bored or felt lazy, among other responses.
She compared those responses to the symptoms of clinical depression from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “Much to my horror and shock, they almost completely matched up,” she said.
That led her to conduct a follow-up survey among 52 students. Of them, 67% reported that they had “felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more,” and had “stopped doing some of their usual activities” as a result.
“That’s clinical levels of depression,” she said.
Grills said that while the initial survey did not select students randomly, she believed it was scientifically valid because of the large sample size. She said there was significant uniformity of results among the seven schools: Jordan, Crenshaw, Dorsey, Fremont, Locke, Manual Arts and Washington Prep. Students from Gardena High also participated, although the survey was conducted outside school.
Alice Rubenstein, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Rochester, N.Y., who has written widely about adolescent psychology, agreed that the survey hinted at widespread levels of clinical depression. Given the environment in which the students live, that’s hardly surprising, she said.
Students in South L.A. “live in a depressive environment where they feel helpless or hopeless partly because their choices are so limited,” she said. “These kids are living in an environment where this is their state much of the time. It’s very much a sociological issue as well as a psychological issue.”
Rubenstein added that surveys of the general adolescent population tend to show that anywhere from 15% to 30% are depressed, well below the levels suggested by the survey. She added that the survey did not include the students most likely to be depressed -- those who were not in school.
At the announcement of the survey results, at the headquarters of the Community Coalition of South L.A., students played a home-made version of Monopoly that told much the same story as the survey.
Where the familiar squares of Baltic, Atlantic and Marvin Gardens might be, the options included Drugs, Dean’s Office and Drop Out. Jail was a place to go when you’re pulled over by the cops for no apparent reason. Restroom was where the player was likely to encounter gang members. Where Boardwalk should have been, the square read: “Dead.”
As the game began, one student landed on Liquor Store and was told that, on his way to school, “You wind up in front of a liquor store and you find one of your homies smoking a blunt.” When Juan Zamora of Jordan landed on Chance, he was told that “you’re one of the lucky students who actually know and see a college counselor.” His choices: Go to UCLA or “stay on the block and wind up selling drugs to support your family.”
And when Sam Anguiano of Locke landed on P.E. Field, he was told that shots had been fired while he was running during gym class -- should he hit the ground or run? When he answered that he’d run, he was told: “You run away and are safe, but later that evening you find out that your friend was the one who was shot.”
That was about as good a roll of the dice as anybody got. The one exception was Juan, a 17-year-old junior, who hit the ultimate Chance: “Your friends and family support you,” the card read. “You don’t die.”
Take a look at The Homeroom, The Times’ blog about education. We’re interested in your views about your schools, education policy and learning.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Many South L.A. high school students who responded to a survey expressed concerns about their safety and the quality of their education.
Q: I feel safe in my school.
Agree/Strongly agree: 29%
Disagree/Strongly disagree: 35%
Q: My school prepares me for college or a high-paying job after high school graduation.
Agree/Strongly agree: 46%
Disagree/Strongly disagree: 22%
Source: Survey of 6,008 students from eight South L.A. high schools between December and February by South Central Youth Empowered Thru Action
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.