Left out, students want a voice in reform

Times Staff Writers

Even as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa promises to enlist teachers and parents in his reform plan for Los Angeles schools, he has largely overlooked another group with a stake in his new enterprise: students.

Villaraigosa might want to listen to 16-year-old Yamileth Capetillo, who goes to class on an empty stomach many days because her crowded high school, the Santee Education Complex near downtown, runs out of hot food for the second lunch shift.

The mayor might also consider seventh-grader Michael Santizo, who fears that his education at Gompers Middle School in Watts has suffered because of long-term substitute teachers in math and science.

And then there is Roosevelt High School senior Cristhian Barrera, who must take Advanced Placement calculus during his vacation because the class isn’t available on his track at the year-round school of 5,000 students in Boyle Heights.


Students at those three schools and four others were not given an opportunity to vote in elections last month in which teachers and parents decided whether the campuses would join Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

That, the students believe, was a mistake.

“We’re the ones whose education is at risk,” said Cristhian, a member of Roosevelt’s Student Council. “Why not let the students be heard?”

Deputy Mayor Ramon C. Cortines, who will lead the partnership’s new board of directors, agreed with the students.


He said he thinks it was wrong not to give them at least an advisory voice in the recent elections. And he insists now that they will be included in planning sessions that begin this month for the five schools that chose to join the mayor’s partnership, including Roosevelt and Gompers, as well as Markham, Stevenson and Hollenbeck middle schools. Santee is awaiting a final vote of its teachers this month.

“Young people need to be provided the opportunity to become contributing citizens,” Cortines said. “They have a lot to say.”

Cortines said he believes the new partnership can address some of the problems raised by students, including the lack of lunch food at Santee.

But details have yet to emerge.

And late last month, it became clear that students weren’t the only ones who felt left out. Michael O’Sullivan, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the administrators union, said he considered the elections invalid because there was no inclusion, as promised, of school administrators, about 35 to 40 people at the seven balloting schools.

“No attention was paid to the non-teaching staff or administrators,” he said.

So far, Villaraigosa has not identified exactly how he intends to improve achievement at schools that team with him, saying teachers, parents and administrators will play a direct role in decisions about budgeting and curriculum. The specifics will be worked out in the coming months as leaders at the schools hammer out plans to operate under the partnership’s auspices, starting in July.

One school courted by Villaraigosa -- Jordan High in Watts -- fell short of the required majority support from members of the teachers union when votes were cast last month. Instead, Jordan and more than two dozen other Los Angeles schools will fall under a separate reform plan put forward by Schools Supt. David L. Brewer.


Students at Jordan and other schools ticked off an array of problems they say hinder their education.

Yamileth from the Santee Education Complex, for example, cited scheduling snafus at her campus that gave her three English classes at the beginning of the fall term. The junior class president spent two weeks pestering counselors to correct her schedule. By then, however, the math analysis class she wanted was full, leaving her no option but to take it during the second half of the year.

Like Yamileth, Jordan High junior Ana Exiga complained about a lack of counselors and college advisors. Ana also said she’d like to see fewer military recruiters on campus and more history classes about African Americans and Latinos.

“We want to see more kids going to college,” said Ana, 16, the recording secretary for Jordan’s Student Council.

Ana belongs to a small but determined band of student activists, known as Jordan Youth Empowered Thru Action. Some of them turned up at an evening meeting Villaraigosa held last month for parents and community members.

Senior Xochil Frausto told the mayor that students need to be part of his reforms.

“Yes, you should have a voice,” Villaraigosa responded. “But with that voice comes responsibility.”

At such events, Villaraigosa typically fussed over students, pulling them from the crowd and putting his arm around them. Time and again, he praised them as examples to be emulated. Some appreciated the compliments and spotlight, but others found him patronizing and unresponsive.


Xochil left dissatisfied.

“I thought his answer wasn’t very good, because it didn’t directly answer my question,” she said. “He avoided my question.”

Student activists at Roosevelt High had a similar experience when the mayor visited.

For several years, students there have taken part in an organizing drive spearheaded by local groups, including InnerCity Struggle, which is closely allied with Villaraigosa. The students have participated in demonstrations calling for smaller schools and greater access to college prep classes.

Senior Vicky Gonzalez addressed Villaraigosa at a recent evening meeting, held almost entirely in Spanish and intended to explain his reform plan to parents and other community members.

Vicky was direct: “How will you make a difference with dropouts?” she asked the mayor in Spanish.

“I wasn’t a very good example,” Villaraigosa responded, also in Spanish, referring to his own experience as a dropout. He said there would be a better use of data to track students and more counselors. Parents would get phone calls if their children were not in school.

Another Roosevelt senior wanted to know if his diploma would have value.

Villaraigosa seized the opportunity to move the conversation in a different direction.

“Look at this young man,” he said to the audience of 750. “He’s in a suit. He’s ready. He’s intelligent. This is what we want in our school. . . . A diploma should signify that you’re prepared.”