Many parents giving up on Black public schools


This story originally ran in 1982 as part of the “Black L.A.: Looking at diversity” series. We have preserved the original text in order to provide an accurate account of the work in print.

Dolores Charles was fed up. There were too many fights at the Los Angeles public junior high school her daughter was attending the youngster seemed to be taking on some of the rowdy characteristics of her classmates.

Charles (not her real name) did not think her daughter was working up to her capabilities and the teachers did not seem to be pushing the girl, who was once eager to learn.


So, the 31-year-old clerk took matters into her own hands. She borrowed the deed to her ex-husband’s house in an affluent section of Los Angeles, took a utility bill with his name and address on it, marched into a public junior high in her ex-husband’s neighborhood and illegally enrolled her daughter.

“I feel guilty about it,” she admitted, “But it would have been a shame to keep my daughter in that other school. It’s a zoo over there.”

For years, blacks in Los Angeles have waited for desegregation to produce significant improvement in the public schools in their neighborhoods. But desegregation never came to most black schools.

Now many black parents like Charles have become disillusioned.

Disgusted by what they view as staunch, racist resistance to school desegregation and dissatisfied with the education their children are receiving, many are abandoning public schools in black Los Angeles.

Some, like Charles, are manipulating the public school system to their children’s advantage. Others are busing their children to schools in white neighborhoods, placing in special programs or leaving the public school altogether.

(According to the Los Angeles Unified School District, the number of black students in the system has fallen 37,860 from its peak in 1971 to 121,315 today although the black birth rate has held steady and black population has increased during that period.)

In the summer of 1982, The Times published a series on Southern California’s Black community called “Black L.A.: Looking at Diversity.”

Most black parents, who on the average earn far less than their white counterparts, cannot afford private schools. Consequently, they are turning to less costly ways to secure what they believe will be a better education for their children.

One is the district’s Permit With Transportation plan (PWT). Under PWT, students are voluntarily bused to schools outside their neighborhood. PWT was started in 1964 by a group of black parents who spent their own money to finance a program called “Transport-a-Child.” This program sent a handful of elementary students from predominantly black South-Central Los Angeles to Bellagio Road Elementary School in Bel-Air.

The Los Angeles Board of Education, after refusing to do so for several years, finally took over funding of the program in 1972. It has grown steadily since then.

In 1972, there were 3,130 students, the majority black. By last years, the number had risen to 19,600, 85% of them black.
Another option black parents are taking is magnet schools operated by the Los Angeles school system. Last year, there were 17,500 students in 84 magnet schools, where children from different areas are brought together for special studies. Nearly 36% were black, though blacks make up only 22% of the total enrollment.

Finally, some black parents are using phony addresses to enroll their children in schools outside their neighborhoods. As parents are unable to find room for their children in magnet schools or PWT, this age-old tactic is becoming more pervasive, black parents say.

“Many black parents feel they are caught in a squeeze play,” said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles urban League “Most don’t feel there has been a significant improvement in the schools in South Central Los Angeles.

“Yet, they want their children to secure the best possible education. Parents must make a decision as to the best school for their children. If that means leaving the black community, so be it.”

School officials, though they admit they make only a cursory investigation into proof of residence, say illegal enrollment is not a major problem.

Many black parents say otherwise. On one block in Ladera Heights neighborhood, for example, five of seven families are said to use phony addresses to enroll their children on the school of their choice.

“When it comes down between following the law and getting my daughter the best education possible,” one parent said, “my daughter comes first.”

While most remain in the system, other black parents pursue parochial schools including predominantly black private academies.

There are no schools in our area where I want my kid to go.

Parochial schools have traditionally been a refuge for black parents unhappy with their neighborhood public schools. The California Private School Directory estimates that in 1971 there were about 8,000 black students in parochial schools in Los Angeles County. By 1981, that number had grown to about 15,000, with about three-quarters of those in Catholic schools.

“We have long waiting lists at all the elementary and high schools in South-Central Los Angeles,” said a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Enrollment has also grown in private schools. In 1971, black enrollment in Los Angeles County in private schools was less than 1%, various school officials estimate. By last year, it had increased to 6%, or 2,463 of the 41,055 students enrolled.

Finally, there is a new breed of private black schools, most located in South-Central, which have succeeded in luring about 1,000 students away from the public school system.

These black academies are direct descendants of the storefront alternative schools that appeared in many black neighborhoods during the 1960s. Unlike the 1960s academies, which stressed black nationalism above all else, these new black-owned private schools stress rigorous academic programs and emphasize African and Afro-American culture in their curriculums.

And unlike the storefront academies of the 1960s, many of which quickly opened and closed, these black-owned private schools, operating since the mid-1970s, boast long-term building programs underway and promise to become permanent fixtures in the black communities.

At W.E.B. DuBois Academic Institute on 54th Street, there are 70 students and a waiting list of 350. The school opened four years ago with 55 students and director Elaine Parker Gills says she tries to keep the enrollment down in order to keep classes small and manageable.

Across the street is the Marcus Garvey Academy, an elementary school that started with seven students five years ago and now has 400 students and a second campus—a pre-school on Slauson Avenue.

A new junior high complex for Garvey, which will cost about $1 million and have 18 classrooms, is on the drawing boards.

Stanlee and Ernest Mills are two parents who have become attracted to private schools. They took their daughter Stacy out of public schools and placed her in a Catholic school six years ago. Now a 12-grader at St. Mary’s Academy, Stacy’s tuition is $130 a month.

The Mills are happy with their daughter’s progress. It is their youngest son, Ernest, 9, last year a student at highly regarded Baldwin Hills Elementary School, they are worried about.

Although Ernest Jr. was doing well in class, his parents did not believe he was getting a “real education” —that is, the strong academic training needed to prepare him for college.

Finally, he was transferred to Windsor Academy, which is closer to home.

“For right now, we’ll try that out, but I’m wrestling with where to send my son,” said his mother, a telecommunications assistant.

“There are no schools in our area where I want my kid to go. The teachers they put in black schools are not the teachers that should be there. They don’t know how to handle the kids. I’ve heard that from other parents too.

“I’m not interested in busing. Busing is too dangerous. I don’t trust the system, the drivers, the distance. And it’s not economically feasible to put both of them in Catholic school right now.”

Beverly Johnson is another black parent discouraged with public schools in her neighborhood. Her youngest son, Alberto, a third grader, attends Perez Elementary, a private black academy where tuition is $150 a month.

Her two older sons attend the Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet school about 20 miles from their home. Her daughter, Nicole, 2 attends Marcus Garvey pre-school, where she is given homework every night.

“Sending the kids to private school is well worth the sacrifice,” said the 32-year-old PBX operator who is married to a self-employed painting-contractor. “I wouldn’t allow my kids to go to the neighborhood schools.”

If the family can afford it, she said, she will send her two eldest sons to private schools in the future.

As black parents become more dissatisfied with their neighborhood schools, black administrators and teachers are struggling to find ways to restore confidence in those schools.

It is a difficult task. When blacks were asked in a Times Poll “Where do you think a child can get a better education in a Los Angeles public school?” 58% said in in either white schools or integrated schools. Only 2% of them said in black schools.

“Many people might call that self-hatred for the race,” said a ranking black administrator who requested anonymity. “But I don’t believe that.

“Black parents see crimes being committed in their local schools. They see children are not getting the best education that’s available. Then they see schools in other pars of the district without these problems. They would be fools if they didn’t do everything possible to make sure their children go to the best schools to get the best education.”

In the same poll, when asked “Why do you believe some blacks are in favor of busing?”, 41% said because school authorities care more about white children than they do blacks.

Black administrators and teachers in the city schools are trying to change that image. One approach is to strengthen academic programs in some black neighborhood schools by creating a school system within a school system.

The experiment calls for linking predominantly black 95th Elementary, Bret Harte Preparatory Intermediate School and Washington High School in a triad of “college prep” schools that will stress academic fundamentals and have strict dress and attendance regulations from kindergarten through high school.

In a South-Central area with 50,000 students, the three schools have a combined enrollment of 3,774, including 2,128 at Washington High (which will change its name this fall to Washington Prep), 905 at Bret Harte and 741 at 95th Elementary.

To become part of the program, parents and students must sign contracts agreeing to abide by strict academic and behavior rules. The toughened program starts at 95th Elementary, where students are given homework every night. Report cards are issued every five weeks, twice the rate of regular public schools, to insure that parents are aware of their child’s progress.

Parents are encouraged to have regular one-to-one conferences with their child’s teachers. Since the program was established two years ago, teachers report the number of parent-teacher conferences has increased dramatically.

Students are funneled from to Bret Harte where they must maintain a C average or attend summer school to improve their work. those who have more than two Ds or Fs are no promoted to the next grade. The school also requires nightly homework assignments and five-week reports to parents.

School officials say that preliminary tests show improved writing, reading and math scores. Harte has also instituted a tough attendance policy that reduced the absentee rate from 30% to 10% during the last school year.

Graduates from Bret Harte move on to Washington Prep, where the approach will be much the same. In addition, students at Washington will have to follow strict dress codes.

“I want (the program) to say to black parents that they do not have to put their children on a bus for two hours a day just to get a good education,” said Phil Jorden, school superintendent for the area where the schools are located.