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Letter from the Editors


Thank you for reading this volume of Watt Way digital magazine.

Watt Way is a student-produced web publication showcasing longform writing and multimedia projects produced by journalism students at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. Created in the spring 2006 semester by graduated students enrolled in an advanced magazine writing class, contributions since then have come from a variety of classes and students, including undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in specialized reporting classes in business and education. In the 2008-2009 academic year, the magazine also drew students from the School’s new specialized journalism program, a one-year master’s degree program launched in fall 2008.

Our work focuses largely on South Los Angeles, a rich collection of neighborhoods and incorporated cities just south of the USC campus. As students learn how to weave compelling narratives accompanied by multimedia projects, they also how to learn how to navigate with more sophistication the South LA communities of immigrants, African Americans, Latinos and working-class Angelenos.

USC students and professors who contribute to the magazine are especially indebted to the Journalism School’s administration, which has offered substantial support over the years to enhance the magazine. We hope you will return to our site often to celebrate the achievement of our students and to learn more about the city we call home.

                                                                                          Bill Celis and Laura Castaneda,
                                                                                          USC Annenberg School of Journalism

Beyond the classroom: Teachers of immigrant and poor children play double role


“We are their second parents, sometimes even closer”

Teachers at the Johnnie Cochran Middle School go the extra mile. They have to. They often work beyond the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. school schedule to establish a relationship of trust and comfort with their students, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants, helping them cope with their educational and emotional issues, from helping them to fill high school applications to educating about birth control. Meet two teachers who work at Johnnie Cochran in South Los Angeles and whose dedication makes a difference in the lives of their students.

Inna kopelevich describes the present education system as
"below grade level," indicating the need for mandatory support
groups for struggling students.

Inna Kopelevich

Math and music have always been the love of Inna Kopelevich’s life. They are the only two things she says she ever wanted to do. Dressed in gray sweatpants and jacket, her hair pulled behind with a colorful headband, Kopelevich sits high on a chair with a projector running behind her explaining to her class of 25 students the nuances of algebra. She has had the good fortune of having lived through her first dream of working in the music industry as a promoter, publisher and manager of a recording studio. She has now returned to fulfill the second one: teaching math.

As an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, Kopelevich and her parents came to U.S. in late 1978 to pursue the American dream. Kopelevich’s parents stressed education, and they made sure nothing came in between their kids and schooling. She feels she needs to do the same for her students. And she has left no stone unturned in this pursuit, for which her students can vouch.

The biggest gift for a child is the gift of education, and she wants the best of it for her students. Kopelevich and Sara Hernandez, another teacher at the school, have spearheaded a non-profit organization called Independent Support System (ISSS) designed to help their low-income students attend top private schools in Los Angeles. For students at the Johnnie Cochran Middle School studying at a private school is like a dream. But Kopelevich’s unrelenting spirit and devotion has proved that this is possible. Heven Ambaye, Joel Argueta and Francisco Sanchez were this year’s top three students from Cochran who won admission to private schools on full scholarships. And this is just the beginning. Around the school, Kopelevich is always looking for students whose lives she can help better.

Angela Asij, a petite 13-year-old eighth grader who gets straight A’s in all her subjects, remembers that the only subject she ever had trouble with was sixth grade math. “My earlier teacher would leave at 3 p.m. and would not stay back to help me with extra counseling or guidance,” she says. Her face lights up while talking about her present math teacher, Kopelevich. “I had lot of family issues sometime back, I felt that I was being ignored and not loved by my parents,” says Angela. Miss Kopelevich then explained to me that since I had been the only child for a long time, that’s why I felt like that and that my parents needed to look after my sisters as they were very small and needed more attention.”

Kopelevich also helps students, like Angela, with their application for the high schools. “They get a ‘choices’ brochure where they get one choice for a magnet school and I help them make the decision of where to apply along with their parents,” says Kopelevich. Her efforts are not restricted to only potential students; she pushes all her students to apply to the magnet schools.

“Some of these kids don’t have parental support. They live in foster care, with one parent, or parents work two jobs, so we play the role of teachers as well as parents. We don’t just teach, come in the morning and leave at 3 p.m., we mold and mentor,” she says, watching the students in her class, namely Kevin, who has turned around completely in his desk to talk a classmate. “Kevin are you working or are you dreaming about after school?” Kopelevich asks sharply with mild admonishment. He is quickly reminded of an important fact that teachers have eyes even at the back of their heads.

Asked if there is anything about the present education pattern she would like to change, she says it would be the school system. “It is below grade level. I would love to have kids that are very low in math to have extra support, in fact mandatory support, because we do have support groups, but children don’t show up,” says Kopelevich, who has taught at Cochran for 4 ½ years. Better prepared students, she says, are important because standardized tests to gauge achievement have become more important. “The thing that is hard is when we get students in the middle of the semester and most of the time these students have low level, and don’t have the skills to learn algebra.” Miguel Zaragoza is one of her new students who joined her class a month back. He was kicked out of his previous school for vandalism, which he cites was a case of mistaken identity. Luckily for Kopelevich, the only subject Miguel seems to like is math. He gives full credit to his math teacher for making the subject interesting. “She is good,” he says. “She knows how to teach.”

Katrina Castellano feels standardized tests are biased, catering
to Midwestern white people rather than urban poor students.

Katrina Castellano

One day, Katrina Castellano, a Cochran teacher, got a frantic call from another teacher managing a homeroom group. “Ms. Castellano can you come over and help me out, there is a girl who is very upset”. That was the first time Katrina met Rosa (whose name has been changed for this story to protect her privacy). Within minutes of talking with each other, they had formed a bond. The bond was cemented further in the last two years after Rosa left for high school. Castellano recently heard from Rosa that she had undergone an abortion. “Her mother’s heart is broken because her daughter got an abortion, whereas my mother’s heart would break if I got pregnant,” says Castellano.

For Rosa, Castellano is her second mom, even closer. “She always feels she can tell me things that she can’t even tell her mom. You know like they can’t possibly ask their parents about birth control. The parents will freak out, but I can educate them on that,” says Castellano, stressing the cultural differences that alienates immigrant parents from their American-born children. Castellano gives her students lot of tips about high school, college and boys. She is quite surprised to see the immigrant children, especially girls, getting serious and thinking about long term relationships when they are in 10 or 11- years-old.

Castellano, who has been teaching at the school for four years, encourages her students to think about high school and college. She gets them interested in the idea by sharing her own experiences at the college. She tells them about college life, professors and academic pressures. She has noticed that over the period of time, more and more students think about going to college and some even know which college they would like to attend.

During her homeroom classes, she talks to the students casually. Like Inna Kopelevich, she believes it is very important. “It is good for them to converse with an adult who grew up here, so they hear how things are said. Sometimes the only adults they converse with are their parents and most of the time their parents have broken English, so they hear things wrong,” Castellano said.

Castellano tries to make her class interesting by using examples from the student’s life. For instance, she will sometimes use current movies, rock stars, actors in order to teach characterization. She plays charades with her class in which the students write several character traits of one character from a book or movie, then come in front of the class and act out those traits. She makes a point to keep her students minds engaged in some activities if they finish the class work early. “We use word processors, electronic dictionaries and computers for the activity. My laptop is the central point to all of my lesson planning and lessons”, she says.

“I sometimes throw in big words as teasers,” she said. “Like if they are being bad, I will say ‘please don’t be vindictive,’ so they don’t know what I am saying, but they understand the context. But in terms of testing them, I use simplified language. Talking about the testing pattern she says that they had been using ‘character and traits’ for the last so many years and last year the testers switched to ‘character and qualities’, so it becomes more of a vocabulary test instead of testing student’s knowledge. I feel so bad for my kids. I tell them in classes - Ok guys this is how they trick you. The sad thing, however, is that the most of the special needs children don’t test well. They get anxious, and some of them are English language learners or they don’t even understand the words. She believes that the test is socio-economically biased. “Meads (honey liquor) was one of the words listed in one of the tests. These are kind of the words that only rich kids will know,” she says with a hint of agitation in her voice. Castellano feels standardized tests should be more culturally relevant; one cannot compare the urban immigrant kids with Midwestern white people.

So, do you have any white students? I ask. The question just pops out. “One. And I don’t know what do with her. I have never taught any white kids” comes her prompt reply followed by a laugh.

So, what keeps her going? Her face instantly transforms. “My students,” she said, with a big smile. “I love teaching. You can never master it, and so you are always learning more and going like ‘oh, I did that so much better than yesterday,’” she said, rolling her light brown eyes back and forth, her hands rising instantly and moving freely in the air as if to explain the complexity of teaching different students differently but also the daily introspection of your performance.

Latest economic casuality: state lottery revenue


As the California State Lottery reports sharp declines in ticket scales across the state, many business owners and residents in South Los Angeles say the dwindling economy has had mixed results on local lottery ticket sales.

Lottery ticket sales have plummeted by $105 million, or more than 10 percent, in the first four months of the 2008 fiscal year, compared to the same period last year. The Lottery does not keep track of sales for specific cities or regions, but some local business owners say the decline has been noticeable.

“I saw many more tickets sold before,” said the owner of “Mart,” a convenience store at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Arlington Street that is frequented by lottery ticket buyers in South Los Angeles. “Now, very few people buy tickets.”

Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the California State Lottery, says lotto officials have drawn a connection between the drop in sales and the souring economy. When a recession last hit California, sales dropped by about 4 percent by 2003.

“I think obviously the economy is one of the primary factors that people point to when they look at the drop in sales, namely because if people have less money in their discretionary funds, they’ll probably buy fewer lottery tickets,” he says.

But other business owners and lottery players say the dim economic forecast actually motivates some to spend more—and more often—on the chance to gamble their way to wealth, despite the low odds of winning big.

Poor more likely to play lottery

This phenomenon strikes particularly close to home in the poverty-stricken South Los Angeles. Studies have shown that residents of economically disadvantaged areas, such as South LA., where an estimated 30 percent of residents live in poverty, are more likely to buy lotto tickets.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently found that people who feel subjectively poor bought nearly twice as many lottery tickets as those who are made to feel wealthier.

“The hope of getting out of poverty encourages people to continue to buy tickets, even though their chances of stumbling upon a life-changing windfall are nearly impossibly slim and buying lottery tickets in fact exacerbates the very poverty that purchasers are hoping to escape,” one of the study’s lead authors wrote in a report, which was published last July in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.

The appearance of a lottery advertisement in the window of one convenience store that opened just one month ago was all it took to generate substantial interest from the surrounding community.

“We don’t have a lottery machine yet, but a lot of people are coming in and asking for tickets — Especially now with the big jackpot,” says the owner of the store, which is located on Jefferson just one block west of Arlington, who asked that his name not be published. “I expect business to pick up Monday when the machine comes.”

Traverso also points to other, behind-the-scenes factors for the fall in sales, including the size of the prize, which has been considerably lower than usual this year because of an increase in players cashing in on smaller prizes.

“More winners are winning at the smaller jackpots so we’re not seeing that prize money roll over into the larger jackpots,” he says.

Smaller payoffs contribute to decline

At this time last year, there had been nine jackpots of $100 million or more, Traverso says. This year, the jackpot has reached $100 million just four times.

“A lot of sales depend on the occasional player as opposed to the regular player that buys every day,” he says. “One hundred million dollars is the threshold where the occasional player seems to get excited and say, ‘Oh, well, maybe I’ll buy a ticket this time.’”

The recent $120 million jackpot was a lucrative enough idea to inspire one man, who approached the counter at “Mart” complaining about the $9 price tag on a six-pack of Miller Lite beer, to gingerly remove a $20 bill from his pocket to purchase a small stack of lottery tickets.

He says, “$120 million is worth my 20 bucks. I need this money tons and tons.”

He adds that the beer “is not even for me, it’s for my girl,” but notes that if he hits the $120 million jackpot, all the prize money would indeed be for him.

Dr. June Foley, a psychology professor who specializes in the psychology of gambling at Clinton Community College in Bluff Point, New York, says there is a great deal of scientific research supporting the idea that the buzz accompanying higher jackpots can impact one’s decision to buy lottery tickets.

“When jackpots are high, people talk about them more and they even get on the news,” she wrote in an e-mail. “People spend more time fantasizing about winning and thinking about the winners they have heard of.”

The impact on schools

Because about 35 percent of lottery revenues go toward public education, a continued drop in sales could have an impact on South L.A. schools. The California State Lotto contributed more that $960 million to public schools grades K-12 alone in 2007—more than $145 a student, according to 2007 financial reports. About 54 percent of lottery funds end up as prize money, and the rest is used for retailer commissions, operating expenses and game costs.

Brian Reed, a teacher at South L.A.’s Animo Pat Brown Charter High School and a member of the school’s advisory board, which oversees the budget, says his school receives about $4,700 a year, or 1.3 percent of its operating budget, from the state lottery. He says he’s not sure if lotto revenue will greatly affect the school’s upcoming budget, but the situation could exasperate the already heightened concerns about pending budget cuts in the school system.

“In general, we are expecting to make cuts this year because of the state’s general financial situation, but nothing about the lottery in particular has been talked about at our school,” he says.

Robots cruise into Crenshaw curriculum


Joy Bryson, Alonna Gilmore and Jasmine Adway work on a Vex robot. Related: AUDIO SLIDESHOW
Three teenage girls at Crenshaw High School huddle around a computer wired to a Vex robot, a little semi-autonomous car with front and back bumpers that help it sense when it has run into an obstacle. They’re trying to get a program that they wrote downloaded into the robot so it will know to reverse direction when that happens.

Jasmine Adway reads on-screen notifications aloud while Joy Bryson sits next to her reading from the instruction manual. Alonna Gilmore stands by, the three of them chattering back and forth as they try to make the transfer work.

When the robot finally comes to life, its wheels spin and squeal like a distressed pig. But class ends before they can test to see if the program is running properly. The group of boys who occupied this work station earlier took too long getting their robot to work, and the girls needle them about it.

For the past three years, Crenshaw has offered students the opportunity to build robots as part of an after-school program. This year that club activity officially became a part of the general curriculum. At the same time, other students are learning how to fly airplanes and even build bridges, and all these high-tech programs have sprung up in a school that failed to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act every year since the law was passed in 2001.

The faculty last year voted overwhelmingly to invite the help of the Greater Crenshaw Educational Partnership, a non-profit corporation led by the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, with collaboration from the Los Angeles Urban League and the Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation. Among the reforms so far at the school is the introduction of small learning communities, or SLCs, which are mini-schools with curriculum aligned to general fields of study. The robotics and aviation classes are part of an SLC called STEMM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. But the seeds for these classes were sown long before the reform partnership came to Crenshaw.

Realizing a vision, one piece at a time

As Los Angeles Unified schools have axed shop classes over the years, the “geeky kids” have found they don’t have a place to fit in on campus, says Urban Reyes, who oversees the school’s student data systems and helps out with nearly everything else technology-oriented at Crenshaw.

“All the shop classes have gone, so what did we do with the guy who loved racecars, or loved to tinker, or was just brilliant mathematically with programming?” Reyes says, standing amid trophies and retired robots in an upstairs computer lab at the high school.

Reyes says he and a few other teachers came up with the idea of carving out a special niche for Crenshaw to attract such students, so that the school would be as known for engineering as, say, the University of Southern California is for football.

That effort began four years ago, and since then realizing the vision has come piece by piece. The first step, Reyes said, was to partner with Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement, or MESA, an organization that seeks to help students from underperforming populations in particular prepare for college and to pursue math- and science-based degrees.

The robotics club came the following year. Reyes says he was encouraged by a friend to enter a team into an annual competition hosted by the organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST. Reyes helped start the after-school program, recruited students to participate, and even served as the team’s coach.

The FIRST Robotics Competition challenges high school students around the world to build a robot in six weeks and then pit it against robots built by other teams in a series of games, the rules of which remain secret until the first day of the build season. Though Crenshaw didn’t win the overall competition that first year, they did receive the 2005 California Rookie Inspiration Award, and the program has continued ever since.

With the MESA partnership and the robotics club up and running, the next step was to create an aerospace education course. Once again, what would eventually become a full-fledged class started as an after-school program, only this time students were learning about the principles of aviation and taking airplanes for a spin in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator using realistic yokes and pedals.

The initial goal was simply to pique students’ interest in flying, Reyes says. With that goal achieved, he began asking around to find outside partners to help with the class, but it was by chance that he managed to connect with Thomas Wathen, who heads the eponymous non-profit corporation that owns Flabob Airport in Riverside and seeks to spread aviation education—in particular to at-risk youth.

Reyes said he was standing in line at Albertsons waiting for chicken to feed his robotics club students when he struck up a conversation with the man next to him, who turned out to be another teacher.

“We’re just talking about, you know, how long the line was, how good the chicken was, and one conversation led to the next, and we hit it off,” Reyes says.

The teacher directed Reyes to the Experimental Aircraft Association and helped to put him in touch with Thomas Wathen. According to Reyes, Wathen agreed to give Crenshaw $13,000 for student tuition money for AeroScholars, an online EAA course that offers college credits. With that, a new class was born.

Getting off the ground

Students in the Aero Education class complete assignments through the AeroScholars Web site, learning about everything from thrust to how to read an instrument panel.

Gerard Lynch teaches the class this year. Lynch, who doesn’t himself have a pilot’s license, says he taught math in Africa through the Peace Corps before spending seven years in the telecommunications industry. But with an academic background in aerospace and civil engineering, he says he is well-versed in the principles of flight.

The class is structured in three phases. In the first phase, students spend time learning aerodynamic theory directly from the teacher. Lynch says he had his students build model gliders to exploit the principles of flight they were learning about in class. In the second phase, students continue to develop their theoretical background, learning the types of air space, the history of aviation, and the careers available in the industry. Finally, they strap into the flight simulators for a series of 20 lessons led by a virtual flight instructor. And that’s just the first semester. Students who stick with the class through the end of the second semester will have accumulated enough knowledge to pass the written portion of a pilot’s exam, Lynch says.

According to data from the California Department of Education’s online database of schools, Crenshaw High recently surpassed the district and state in terms of student-to-computer ratio (at least in part because the number of students has dropped by a third in the same period). But starting the Aero Ed class has nevertheless been a challenge, because it calls for even more computers, the special simulator yokes and pedals, and better equipment and facilities. The flight lab is currently located in an old closed-network television studio with bad wiring in the main building. Just days before the students were to take their first stab at the flight simulators, an electrical short fried an outlet, forcing the class to delay its first lesson. Reyes worked with facilities staff to fix the wiring, but they still had to work with outdated technology and a lack of computers. Lynch says they came up with a temporary alternative by borrowing a few extra laptops from another SLC, and a new shipment of yokes and pedals arrived shortly thereafter.

“We’re like Marines. We have to adapt and improvise,” Lynch says.

Funding gets scarce

None of these programs come cheap, either. For the FIRST Robotics Competition, for instance, teams must pay $6,000 for equipment and entry. The Annenberg Foundation agreed to donate the money that first year, and it was help that was much needed.

More than 3,000 students crowded the halls at Crenshaw High the year Reyes and other teachers began implementing their plan, according to the education department data. Students had fewer computers to share among them than the average school at both district and state levels. And nearly half the students were eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals, a rough indicator of a population’s social economic status.

Yet the club was popular enough to keep students coming back, and the Annenberg Foundation donated $6,000 for a second year. By the third year, however, the foundation withdrew support, and Reyes had to scrounge for funds while students resorted to cannibalizing parts from the previous year’s robot.

Urban Reyes works with UCLA student volunteers after school.
“One of the biggest problems for us is what I refer to as the M-and-M syndrome: money and mentoring,” he says.

The winning robot at FIRST last year came from Hermosa Beach, which sits right near a strip of aerospace companies, including Northrop Grumman and Boeing. Crenshaw, by comparison, is surrounded by grocery stores, fast food joints and nail shops, Reyes says.

“We were using chewing gum, yarn, old parts, bungee cords. Meanwhile, the competition was operating with titanium,” he says. “So you can see where we need mentors and resources to take us to the next level.”

Reyes says he managed to get $2,000 each from the Raytheon Black Employees Network and the Los Angeles Urban League. The rest they earned through car washes and other fundraisers. The mentoring has come from undergraduate volunteers from the local collegiate chapter of the National Society for Black Engineers at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Playing with robots is better than sewing

When the local MESA program office, housed at UCLA, held its first competition of the year recently, three Crenshaw freshmen won $300 each for their design of a wind-powered car. Since no other high schools in the area entered the contest, the three boys only had to compete against their schoolmates. All of the participants were in the robotics class.

As with Aero Ed, the class is still brand-new, and because there aren’t many, if any, robotics textbooks written at a high school level, the kits are the students’ sole course materials, Reyes says. Each kit everything needed to build a Vex robot. But while Reyes’ goal is to have one kit per student, in reality three to four students must share. That’s where MESA comes in.

One of the MESA projects teaches students how to design and build bridges. The students use computers to work on the design but ultimately get to build a real, wooden bridge.

Such projects get folded directly into the robotics class, in part because the limited resources mean not all students can be working on a robot at once, but also because the projects help the students to develop the skills they need to build a successful robot in the spring, says Punjatorn Chanudomchok, the robotics teacher.

With the three programs running and even supporting each other, all of the pieces of that vision four years ago have so far fallen into place. The final phase, Reyes says, will be to develop a computer-aided design class to show students how to take an idea from concept to reality.

Yet the future of the program remains uncertain. For one, the reform partnership now has control over the budget, and they have the overall health of the school to consider. Students at Crenshaw High were truant at a rate nearly seven times the district average last year. If the partnership wants to make adequate yearly progress, they’ll at least need to keep students in their seats, and the ultimate consequence of failure could be state takeover.

In that regard, Reyes’ case rests on the strength of the robotics program, which has only gotten more popular each year. And three of the five top contenders for valedictorian this year were members of the robotics team last year, he says.

Alonna Gilmore, the student who stayed after school to hang out at Mr. Chanudomchok’s class, seems satisfied.

Punjatorn Chanudomchok brings UCLA volunteers up to speed so they can help.
“It’s really cool, the stuff you learn. You learn how to program robots,” Gilmore says. “It’s like being a kid again.”

Not all students will put in extra time, but nearly every student in the class was given a chance to transfer out if they didn’t like it, Chanudomchok says, adding that some students may carry an attitude and be too preoccupied with other things to show interest in something school-related.

But “I think if it was this or sewing or computers, they’d probably stay here,” he says.

Either way, these students will have their work cut out for them starting in February, when the FIRST Robotics Competition officially kicks off.

As for the Aero Ed students, they’ll be heading to Flabob Airport in February, where each one will not just sit at the controls next to an experienced pilot, but will get to grab the yoke—and fly.

Obama presidency offers economic silver lining


Owners of the small stores that dot South L.A.’s historic Leimert Park shopping area see one bright spot in this year’s gloomy retail season—Barack Obama.

The president-elect has caused a surge in interest in all things Obama and many things African. Shopkeepers in the traditionally black district have rushed to meet the demand with a dizzying array of memorabilia and collectibles.

“It’s a moment in time and it ain’t coming back,” says Jackie Ryan of the Zambezi Bazaar shop as she rings up an Obama jigsaw puzzle and ski hat for a shopper. “You’ll have this to hand down to your children and grandchildren.”

“I should have made something Obama. They are selling like hotcakes,” the customer replies.

The Obama frenzy is one upside to an otherwise dreary outlook for the 2008 holiday season. Consumer spending is expected to fall as the country slips further into a recession. Retails sales were down 1.8 percent in November compared to the previous month and 7.4 percent lower than the same period last year, according to new numbers from the U.S. Commerce Department.

Shop owners in Leimert Park say they have witnessed the downturn for the past few years, starting with the housing market collapse. The area’s demographics have been especially hard hit by the slowing economy.

The neighborhood was designed in the 1920s by Frederick Olmstead Jr. and developed by Walter Leimert starting in 1928. It was largely a white community until the 1970s when black shopkeepers moved in. Today the village area is known as a hub of black culture and arts, even drawing some comparisons to New York’s Greenwich Village.

The Leimert Plaza Park on West 43rd Place plays host to concerts and gatherings throughout the year. Despite the area’s history as a hotbed of cultural arts and activism, shop owners today say their customers are still typical Angelinos. The neighborhood remains a black middle class community of small stucco homes.

“Our customers are average working people. They are teachers, bus drivers, they have average working jobs, but their wages are lower,” Ryan says. With less discretionary income, shoppers have held back on big spending so far this year.

At Gallery Plus, a store filled with a jumble of stationary, clothing and artwork, owner Laura Hendrix says she has resisted offering deep discounts across the board.

She says she looks for ways to work with individual customers, coming up with “incentives” to keep them coming back to the store. In some cases, she has even agreed to barter for other services.

“My hairdresser loves this place,” she says.

The shop has been in the village for 18 years and Hendrix explained her strategy lies in careful planning and management of the store’s inventory.

“I try to carry items that last throughout the year,” she says. “Otherwise you get stuck with them at the end of the season.”

She is selective with the holiday merchandise she does carry—opting for higher quality note cards and Christmas ornaments and hoping there are not too many leftovers.

However, the opposite seems to be true with Obama paraphernalia. Baskets overflow with Obama buttons and shirts hang from all parts of the store.

“There’s a focus on African American products with Obama,” Hendrix says She believes there is a stronger interest in African culture and many people want to reconnect with their roots.

However, that focus has not translated into strong sales at the more expensive Kumasi Gift Shop.

“We can’t even make $100 a day,” says Patricia Sarpong, who is originally from Zimbabwe and has run the shop with her husband for the past five years.

The shop carries ornate African artwork and instruments, along with a variety of traditional clothing. However, shoppers have not been snapping up items like $500 hand drums.

“They want small, small items,” Sarpong says, noting that the $10 to $20 gifts have been selling the best.

The store is currently holding a 50 percent off sale in an effort to generate enough cash to at least cover rent. However, foot traffic in the shop remains light.

But Sarpong has her eye not just on the Obama inauguration, but on February’s Black History Month. She said interest in genuine African products typically peaks then.

For now though, it is people’s pocketbooks holding them back. “You can tell, they like the things, but they don’t have the money,” she says. “Of course you can say ‘50 percent off,’ but they still struggle.”

Sarpong says she is hopeful that stimulus plans under Obama will infuse enough cash into shoppers who will then go for the high-end items.

At the Bazaar, Ryan says the key to her survival lies in the reliability of her shoppers. “They are conscientious buyers,” she says, explaining that shoppers know that they are supporting a local business.

“They are people who come here to shop and they come here to buy,” she adds. “People tell us what they want and we have to listen to them.” She says customers even start calling in October asking about Christmas cards for the season.

The shop boasts an assortment of knickknacks, incense, board games and clothing. But the small stores cannot carry everything. A man walked in looking for basketball jerseys. He was told to check out the Culver City Mall instead.

Word of mouth remains the most powerful advertising tool, she says. Women from the neighborhood stop by to catch up on a book club or chat about old friends.

But the year has its ups and downs, Ryan says. “To me, the holiday season is kaleidoscopic.” There is a churn that she must stay on top of.

The neighborhood has also been rough. Ryan complains that the city has done little to help the homeless and mentally ill in the village, and their loitering hurts the shopping experience. Rent has also outpaced the store’s growth. Ryan says her rent has ballooned from $500 to $2200 a month, and the village does not enjoy the rent control or government subsidies seen in other districts.

Ryan and Hendrix are both involved with the Leimert Park Merchants Association, and say the city does help by organizing tours of city workers to come shop in the district. The history of the park remains a big draw for shoppers.

For now, Ryan says she has no immediate plans to leave. “It’s amazing that we’ve been able to maintain our store as long as we have,” she says.

USC students learn the value of comparison shopping


Melissa Lawson walks the aisles of Ralph's Fresh Fare on Hope Street, tossing a yellow onion and two carrots into a plastic bag before moving along. A USC senior, she has been on her own in the world of food provisions for three years, but none have been as hard as this one.

"I grew up in a household that really cared about food, so having my own house now means that I get to cook most nights, which I love," Lawson says while pausing in front of the cheese display. "But groceries have just become exorbitantly expensive this year and it's really beginning to take a toll."

Lawson is not alone on this. At a school like USC that only guarantees campus housing and meal plans for freshman, the majority of students move off campus and are on their own for three solid years. Those that once thought cooking for themselves would be more cost effective than eating out can think again: The USDA reported that the cost of food across the board has risen 6.3 percent between October 2007 and October 2008, and has continued to increase since then. Beef is up 7.9 percent since last October, cheese climbed 8.4 percent, apples rose an astonishing 20.1 percent and potatoes jumped 31.1 percent. What this translates to in dollar signs is the single highest price increase of food in 18 years.

Lawson is like many students who have taken advantage of the newly constructed Ralph's Fresh Fare, a more upscale, health-conscious version of the prototypical Ralph's targeted toward SC students on Vermont and Adams boulevards. An avid fan of cooking, Lawson says the produce at Fresh Fare is noticeably better than the regular Ralph's, though with the rise in prices she's been seeking out other sources.

"When I have the time, I'll drive all the way to Culver City just for the Trader Joe's because their breads and cereals are so much cheaper. But then again, when gas was really high I found myself doing that a lot less. It's a no-win some days," she says.

On a Saturday in November, Lawson and her roommate, Charlotte Florance, ventured downtown to the farmer's market to see what they could find.

"The produce is great quality, and because it's not as trendy as the Santa Monica market, the prices aren't too bad either," Florance says after purchasing a bag of green onions and fresh portobello mushrooms for a combined cost of four dollars.

"This will make a few good omelets," she says, holding up her finds and smiling.

But the trend of farmer's markets has its downsides. While in Europe, local produce is starkly cheaper across the board than anything you'll find in a grocery store, the recent American obsession with organic and free-range food has often made the fresh markets a luxury more than a convenience.

"I can't afford to be paying this much for cheese, just because it's local," Lawson says, pointing to a sign for goat cheese at nine dollars a pop from a local farmer. "But then again, a block of cheddar even in Trader Joe's is, like, eight bucks right now."

Though not in dire straits, Florance is still feeling the hit. Like many SC students, her parents agreed to pay her way through school, and that includes food.

"I'm certainly lucky to be in a position where this isn't a life or death situation, but I still come back from Ralph's with a week's worth of food for one person, and it can easily be 70 or 80 bucks," she says. "I can't even fathom how families of five are managing."

The USDA attributes the surge in prices to several factors. A rise in global demand for food combined with the weak American dollar has resulted in an increase in agricultural exports. In layman's terms: if we're exporting everything, what's left in the US is going to be costly. Additionally, there has been a trickle-down effect across the globe due to a rise in grain prices. Not only does that make bread and cereal products higher, it makes it more costly to maintain the livestock that produce milk, eggs, and cheese, as well as the meat for chicken, pork, and beef.

In addition, the use of corn for biofuels has created a shortage, highly problematic for both the farmers that use it as feedstock and also for entire demographics of the population that rely heavily on corn products, like tortillas, for their diet. More than anything, costs of food are dependent on oil prices, which directly affects production and transportation costs. Though costs have fallen as the end of the year nears, analysts predict them to skyrocket again in the beginning of 2009, which means for people like Lawson, there is no end in sight.

"My mom has been telling me tips here and there that she remembers from the recession in the seventies," she says as she unpacks her bags from the farmer's market. "Make food that will last a while as leftovers, avoid canned goods because they cost more to produce, buy chicken in bulk. But in this economy—with gas this high, with employment this low, and to be graduating in six months—to be worried how I'm going to afford food in my budget is just.... terrifying."

Growing up fast presents challenges for youths


AUDIO — Eighth grader Gabriel Hamilton feels that things need to change now. She hopes that with Barack Obama as president, he will be able to make a difference in her life and the lives of millions of others by making this world and this country a better place to live.

Thirteen-year-old Gabriel Hamilton, an eighth grader at Johnnie Cochran Middle School, defies all common misconceptions about a young teen. She works hard in school and dissuades her friends from being gangbangers. She does not wish to get pregnant at this age and she wants parents not just to tell their kids to avoid sex, but to tell them why not.

“People say you don’t know if you are going to use a condom because when the time comes you are going to be so ready to do it you are not going to worry about it. But I am not stupid I know I need to use protection”, she says turning slightly red as she makes her point. The eight-grader who joined Johnnie Cochran Middle school in the sixth grade said she has learned from her mother’s mistakes and does not want to end up like other 13-year-olds or 14-year-olds who she sees getting pregnant.

Her story is one of the hard realities facing students at Johnnie Cochran and other urban schools across the country. The nation’s unraveling economy has only compounded the pressures poor and working-class families were already facing, with the pressures seemingly falling harder on children and youth like Gabriel. Poor housing, thin or no employment, chronically underfinanced schools, which are also often failing, all conspire to place urban America in one of the deepest holes it has seen since the conditions that spawned the 1965 Watts riots. Buried within the present economic crisis is another calamity which is leading to the disintegration of the family structure. As parents work harder to meet the economic needs of their families, the children face the brunt of separation from their parents for long hours, days or at times even weeks. This separation manifests itself in terms of isolation, loneliness and low self-esteem among children and youth like Gabriel. While some tend to survive this transition with love and support from teachers and friends, many children fall through the cracks.

Economic tumult accelerates the disintegration of family structure, affecting the
relationship between parents and children severely.

Living with grandmother

After her mother, Rashida, lost their apartment earlier last year in February, Gabriel and her twin brothers moved in with their grandmother. Rashida wasn’t able to work for some time after she had a baby last year. The situation worsened as she could not find anybody to look after the baby later and had to stay away from work. This affected her finances severely and she helplessly watched her saving deplete before her eyes. Rashida currently works as a hair stylist and has been in and out of beauty parlors since the age of 16. While this arrangement provides some relief to Gabriel from what she describes as a ‘struggling’ relationship with her mother, she says that living with her grandmother is also very challenging at times. “My grandmother is very old, sometimes she helps us, sometimes she doesn’t, she likes to yell, if you are doing something really quick, she yells,” she further adds.

What hurts Gabriel the most though is the relationship that she shares with her mother, “We don’t talk much and when we do we don’t have a mother-daughter talk. If I was to get pregnant and call my mom like okay mom I am pregnant and I need help says Gabriel, she would yell, she would fuss, she would want to hit me.” A few weeks earlier Gabriel’s step mom, Melanie, who is her dad’s girl friend, had a talk with her about safe sex and on using protection. She also told her to seek her for help if she ever got pregnant or needed tips on birth controls, a conversation she needs given U.S. data on teen pregnancy.

One-third of U.S. girls got pregnant before age 20, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 435,000 babies were born to teens between 15 and 19 years in 2006. Amy Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, writes in the Washington Post that the rise in teen pregnancies is a result of a lack of environment in which young people receive support from parents and other adults and learn about relationships and making wise sexual choices.

However in case of Gabriel such guidance is not available. Her mother, Rashida, acknowledging the communication gap between the two says that, “She doesn’t really share much. She tells me about school and teachers but she not really open to conversation, just a little.” Rashida doesn’t talk much about boys with Gabriel, as she feels that she is still young to have such conversations. “I may have spoken with her one or twice, but I don’t need to mention it to her, because she knows better,” she further says adding she is not 16 yet.

Gabriel strongly feels that the only way parents can touch a common note with
their children on issues of sex and pregnancy is through talking and not by
yelling or hitting them.

A fractured family

She lifts her head when asked about her father and when she does that you cannot miss the sparkle in her eyes. She reminisces about the good old times she shared with her father, five years back before he went to jail. She remembers everything from the meeting and the father-daughter talks they used to have. While her father is not around anymore to physically take care of her now, she can still feel the concern in his voice when he advises her to be careful and to use protection when the time comes. She says this is quite different from earlier times. When he was around he never told her not to have boyfriends. As she talks about her father further, her hands suddenly move anxiously around the table and a shadow of fear looms over her face and within few seconds the reasons becomes apparent. “They say that if his appeal doesn’t get through he may have five more years, 10 more years or even 30 more years, I am praying for my dad so that his appeal go through, because if it does he might get out next year or in beginning of May,” says Gabriel crossing her fingers. Gabriel doesn’t know the reason her father has been put behind the bars. Looking back at her childhood days spent around her father, she remembers that he had lot of money. “He owned building; he owned record stores, produce music and stuff. My dad he didn’t do bad things to do money, probably he did but from what I know when I was there he didn’t.” Her struggle to keep her memories of her father untarnished becomes evident when she says, “Whatever people say on the streets you can’t listen to them they don’t know.” Rashida on the other hand is clueless about her husband’s charges, “I don’t what he got himself into.”

Something from her past that she cherishes the most are the memories of traveling on a family vacation to Louisiana and Mississippi with her parents. Another equally cherished memory that she has is that of her friends, especially Brenda and Kent, who stood by her through thick and thin and helped her keep herself together. “My life was okay because I had two families—my friends who were always there for me and my family,” says Gabriel. She affectionately talks about Kent, who has now moved away to Ontario. “He brought so much joy to my life, he had real laughs and they were funny and when I was sad, when I was down and mad he would always try to do something to make me feel happy, try to make me smile again.” Her friend Brenda with whom Gabriel shared a special bond also had to move away. “Now,” says Gabriel, with a visible mark of sorrow in her voice, “my life is different, I want to cry, but I don’t because I don’t want to be emotional.”

The impact of teachers

Some of the conversations with students that have really hit Marsha Tilles during her six years at Johnnie Cochran Middle School as a student counselor are the ones she has had during the period when the student had lost somebody close to them be it parent or friend and they were feeling very alone and isolated. So, when she meets with the students the first things that she usually does is talk. “A lot of times that is enough, they just want somebody to listen, they want to feel cared about, they want to feel heard and understood,” she says talking from her past experiences. Things as simple as talking can make a huge difference in one’s life. And Gabriel is a perfect example of this necessity. While she has had many ups and downs in her life, at one point of time she hit rock bottom. “At one point I tried to kill myself and I took 12 aspirins and I was really sick,” says Gabriel adding that it was also the time that she suffered from low self esteem regarding her appearances and thought she was “ugly.”

But a talk she still remembers changed her life. At the school one day she met a girl who shared with Gabriel her life story and how she used to be. Her story proved to be very inspiring for Gabriel. “After talking to her I started bringing my self esteem up,” she smiles adding that sometimes when people tell you stuff it can change your life around. And you can’t miss the transformation when you hear the range of aspiration that Gabriel has envisioned for herself—from being a model, or an actor, or a nurse. In the near future she would like to attend a better high school and is working hard for it by studying for her subjects and improving her grades at school. She has scored mostly B’s on all her subject in her school year this far with an exception of one C on her reading course. “It’s kind of boring,” she says of her reading class. She tries to balance her school as she juggles with her second responsibility of taking care of her sister and twin brothers.

While the school per say is not an important part of her life, what she values the most is the experience of being with teachers who work hard to teach students. She is especially fond of her Math teacher Inna Kopelevichcx and sometimes her history teacher, too. However, there are also some teachers that she feels uncomfortable about especially the way they talk to students. Flaring up in a sudden outburst, Gabriel twitches her face as she narrates what she hates about some of the teachers in the school. “I hate it when teachers make you seem like their life was so harder than ours, because it is not,” she further adds that “When they talk to students they act like they know us, oh she is just trashy or she is just hoochie, she is just fast for her age, or she don’t want to try.”

“Things will change”

Another thing that bothers Gabriel is the gang violence. Her fears have legitimate reasons not only because the neighborhoods around the school have been prone to random gunfire and other violence in the past, but also because many students from middle school and high school get fixated by gang culture and end up joining them. Just the other day, Gabriel remembers that she had to dissuade her friend from joining the ‘Bloods’ gang. “He wants to be there, because he is bad. He says he is, but he is not,” she says. “I told him that if you love your parents and other people, you will not be a gang banger because if you die the next day, you know it is going to hurt them.” She wants gang violence reduced and she hopes that President-elect Barack Obama will bring about the change that he has promised.

“Everybody needs to start new life this New Year,” she says almost in a monologue, “things need to change because it’s getting harder now, and I am getting tired.” The rush in her voice is evident as she makes her wish for the New Year. “I wish I was 18, like grown up so that I could have my own life because I know my mom’s side of family will not get any better because they don’t try. They always argue and fight each other, and sometimes I feel it will not get any better.” In the same moment, she talks about the person who has been her pillar of support in times of distress—God. “God will work everything out eventually, and if you bring God in your life, your life will get better, in some ways, somehow, no matter when,” she says. Gabriel closes her eyes and murmurs, and her faint voice seems to be saying, things will change, they have to.

A community’s tough love helps youth find themselves


Early on a Saturday morning in November, Los Angeles Police Officer Abel Muñoz of the Rampart division walked up and down three lines of at-risk youth, ages nine to 17, standing on Belmont High School’s outdoor track. They stood in formation, silent and still, their eyes fixed ahead.

“What is discipline?” Muñoz questioned firmly in a booming voice.

No answer.

“What is discipline?” he asked, louder this time.

“Discipline is a skill, sir!” one teenage boy ventured.

“Wrong!” Muñoz ordered the students to the ground for push-ups.

After adding some jumping-jacks, sit-ups and jog to the school gym, Muñoz gave his own answer. “Discipline is having self-control of your mindset, your behavior, your conduct… Other influences do not affect your self-discipline.”

Next came the formation drills. At Muñoz’ direction, the 23 students called out in unison as they switched from position to position—hands behind them, hands to the side, salute.

Standing in those formations were teens and pre-teens from various inner-city schools who were there for reasons that ranged from talking back at home to criminal offenses.

But the Juvenile Intervention and Prevention Program (JIPP) is no ordinary boot camp. In a collaboration between Belmont High School and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart division—a unique junction between two of the city’s largest bureaucracies—students not only get vigorous physical training and police officers screaming discipline into them military-style, but they receive counseling, leadership skill training and tutoring as well. Parents are also required to do their part by attending group counseling sessions.

The program, entering its third year, is starting to gain recognition locally and nationally and uses what Belmont High School assistant principal Stephen Koffman calls the “whole child” approach. It appears to be working. About 90 students who participated in JIPP's fourth through sixth "cohorts," or 18-week sessions, were tested before and after their enrollment. The results showed that after completing the sessions, students’ reading and math scores rose by 25 to 30 percent, and the number of students who reported feeling “normal” increased by 127 percent in the Beck Depression Inventory test. Except for severe depression, all other levels, such as borderline clinical and extreme depression, showed decreases.

“We put the child at the core of the program, and (looked at) what are the three macro interventions that affected the child’s life,” said Koffman, who helped develop JIPP. “We came up with the community, with the school and with the family.”

Police and schools working together

Koffman joined the project in the fall of 2006, about six months after Rampart division officer Larry Covington founded the program in March of that year under a different name. It started out as just a boot camp, under the auspices of the police department, but Covington sought out Belmont High School for assistance once he realized the students in the program were reverting back to old behavior. Koffman was chosen to help.

“Being a licensed clinical social worker and working with at-risk kids for about 15 years, I realized that boot camps are completely ineffective means of invention, as well as prevention, and one of the things that we wanted to concentrate on was to affect the whole child…We’re not a punitive program by nature. We’re delivering the message to the kids that we’re not going to give up on you.”

Since the partnership, Koffman and Covington have headed the project as a team, scrapping together limited resources and volunteering a lot of overtime hours. For the past two and a half years, JIPP has relied on what services the school district and police department could offer. The school district’s Beyond the Bell program provides learning materials that prepare the students for the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), and it also pays for the program’s teachers. The police department provides overtime pay for the Rampart Division officers who train the youth, though the officers were donating their Saturdays for the first two years. Koffman and Covington were also able to recruit outside help from California State University, Los Angeles, which contributes counseling by psychology graduate student interns.

Parents pay $140 per child for each 18-week period, but Koffman and Covington say the minimal fee along with the services provided by LAUSD, LAPD and Cal State LA are no longer enough to sustain the demands of the developing program, which has had class sizes ranging from about 20 to 130 students. That is why a recent grant—the program’s first—of $85,000 from the AT&T Foundation means major help for JIPP in the former of an additional staffer to process paperwork and continuing raising more money.

The grant has also served another very important function—it has brought long-awaited recognition to the program that has been trying to break above the surface for the past couple of years. Since receiving the AT&T grant, JIPP has been formally recognized by the Los Angeles Unified School District’s school board.

As a program held at a high school with the district’s second highest dropout rate—56 percent of its students dropped out in the 2006-2007 school year—JIPP has also been selected to present as a model program at two national dropout prevention conferences. The events were the 20th National Dropout Prevention Network Conference in November and forum by the National Dropout Prevention Center that will take place on February 2009.

“It’s almost like if you go to those award shows and (they call) the singer for the best new artist, and they get up and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been on the road for seven years, but I’ll take the new artist award,’” Koffman jokes as he sits in his Belmont High School office. “Yeah, that’s us.”

Koffman and Covington have been trying to get the word out to schools in the area, letting administrators know about what they do. Some schools are already making full use of it, such as Burroughs Middle School in West Los Angeles, which has referred about 100 students to JIPP this year alone.

How Martin benefited

Martin Muñoz started smoking marijuana this year at age 12. The five-foot, seven-inch boy, who looks more like a 14- or 15-year-old, was belligerent at home and in the classroom. So, when his mother received a call that he was skipping classes and found out he was at a local park, she went straight to the Rampart police station and asked the officers to bring him in. They said they couldn’t make an arrest, but they did hand her a JIPP application. A month later, Muñoz was in the program.

“He was one of the rebellious ones,” said Officer Abel Muñoz. “He would smack his lips, he would roll his eyes, and he gave us attitude in the beginning for a few weeks.”

Martin Muñoz was angry with his mother for enrolling him in JIPP, but now he actually enjoys the physical training, and he has even taken on responsibilities in the program.

“As the weeks progressed, we saw a change in his behavior and his motivation to the point where we promoted him as a squad leader because he’s taken a leadership role,” Officer Muñoz said.

While Muñoz’ mother said he son still has to work on his attitude at home, he is now behaving better at school. According to Martin Muñoz, the program hasn’t been easy, but he is glad he is making the progress.

“I stopped doing the drugs and everything, and (I’m) just focusing on school now,” he said with a smile. “When I first came, it was hard for me. I had to push myself a lot to get where I am now.”

Many of the kids come in with bad attitudes when they start. That is why JIPP’s first six weeks, called the Resistance stage, consists mainly of training with the officers who set the disciplinary boundaries, shaping up bodies and attitudes. To many of the teenagers, it is a complete shock.

“I would admit, the first Saturday, the officer made me cry,” said Maritza Hilario, a 15-year-old sophomore from Bravo High School high school whose mother enrolled her in JIPP in September because of attitude problems. “After that, I just went along with it. Just do everything you have to do, and you’ll get by.”

Koffman and Covington said the students’ behavioral problems often stem from the struggles of their home and neighborhood environments. While the JIPP accepts students from all over, most of its youth come from the local District 4, or the Pico-Union area, known for its high concentration of immigrant and low-income families, as well as its gang activity.

“(The kids) face the culture of poverty,” Koffman said. “Are they worried about their lights being turned off? Are they worried about getting fed, having clothes? They have to walk one or two miles around certain neighborhoods just to get to school… So, they’re dealing with all types of psychological trauma.”

Another problem the program leaders find is that many of the youths’ parents fail to assert appropriate disciplinary guidelines, which is what they work on in the parenting classes.

JIPP has a 66 percent completion rate, which Koffman and Covington say is good for an intervention-prevention program. Some of the most “hard-core” kids tend to drop out at the beginning because they don’t want to deal with the police, others are kicked out for extreme behavior, and a very small percentage are arrested for criminal behavior while they are enrolled in the program.

“Some people will forget that they’re dealing with police,” Officer Covington said.

A brighter future

But the ones who Covington describes as “on the bubble” usually stick it out to the end, many of them later moving on to other LAPD-run programs.

Gregory Tett, a sophomore from Lincoln High School, said he wants to go into the Explorers program next. The Explorers program trains youth for future careers in law enforcement.

Tett was ordered to enroll in JIPP by the courts after he got in trouble for doing graffiti on private property, which he committed while on probation for separate robbery and assault offenses. The 15-year-old’s commanding officers and teachers in the program identify him as a bright, dedicated young man who made some wrong decisions and is trying to turn his life around. Tett said the other kids who dropped out could have also made the change if they had made more of an effort.

“If they pushed themselves a little bit harder, they could have done it,” Tett said. “There’s little kids that came here—still here. If they did it, I think the other guys could have done it, too.”

Since JIPP began two and a half years ago, the program leaders estimate that more than 220 at-risk youth have graduated from the program. Tests and surveys of the students and parents who have participated in past cohorts show that JIPP has not only improved students’ behavior, but it has also led to improvements in other areas of their lives.

In 2006, for example, a random sampling of students who participated in JIPP showed that their overall school attendance levels increased by 46 percent for all periods. It was even higher for some individual periods—first and fifth period class attendance each increased by about 63 percent.

During the same time, Belmont High School also saw a significant reduction in full-day school suspensions. There were just 96 full-day suspensions in the 2006-2007 school year, a 73 percent decline from the 361 full-day suspensions a year earlier for “disruptive defiant behavior,” the school’s most common suspension type.

“Unfortunately, we only have the kids once a week on Saturday and they’re back to their normal routine throughout the week,” Officer Muñoz said. “This is not a miracle program. This is not a magic program where kids come through our program and they leave, and they’re all good. We’ve had very successful stories, and we’ve had stories where kids have to repeat, come back to the boot camp. But we do see a good number of them that do go out and change their lives and their behavior for the better.”

Experimental school poised to open with promise, and problems


Central Los Angeles High School #9 is the newest addition to LAUSD and Grand Avenue. The completed project
cost more than $230 million and will be the only school that will focus on the arts.
For the past three years, students at Berendo Middle School have been immersed in an arts program that has exposed them to theater, dance, music and the visual arts, all in preparation for a new arts high school in Los Angeles. But will everyone, students, parents and school district included, be ready for the arts-oriented experiment?

Berendo, along with Virgil and John Liechty Middle Schools, is among the schools that will be sending students to the new high school in downtown Los Angeles. Central Los Angeles High School #9 for the Visual and Performing Arts will be the new addition to LAUSD, come fall 2009.

But Central L.A. High School #9 has little to do with the rest of the schools in the district. This school, in the works since 2001, will be on the north side of Grand Avenue and will complement the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The lofty, gray and metallic building looks like it was shipped from the future with its cone-like theater and circle-shaped windows. One of its more noticeable features is the long, 140-feet high tower looming over the 101 Freeway.

One of its supporters is billionaire and philanthropist Eli Broad, who is also behind the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and is a regent at the Smithsonian Institution. Broad along with others from the Grand Avenue Partners (GAP), which includes all the arts institutions along the avenue and also focus on revitalizing the area, supported the $230 million project that has taken more than eight years to finish.

For more than two years, GAP has helped the surrounding schools with the transition. The art agencies such as the Music Center, MOCA, and Colbert School of Music have partnered with the district to arrange field trips and deliver performances at all the schools. Once the students are settled, specifically 11th graders, they will be given the opportunity to intern at any of these agencies. The school offers one other innovation: academic teachers who also are trained in music. Jim Hahn, founder and director of ARETE Preparatory Academic School in west Los Angeles, a small private school that is also trying to integrate arts with academics says that “The idea of partnerships with arts and academic teachers is interesting. I don’t think it’s been done in public schools yet, but, because it’s experimental they would have to have a clear-cut plan because they will be dealing with a lot of students.”

The school offers plenty of promise—and problems.

A funding shortfall

The $230 million only covered the cost of the luminous building. The district is currently in the midst of a national search for a principal who will start in February. As for the teaching staff, the district cannot afford to hire anyone until a new fiscal year next summer begins. The academic curriculum will have the same requirements as all other schools in the district. Richard Alonzo, local district 4 superintendent, explains that the difference in the curriculum will be that the school will be divided into four academies: music, dance, drama and visual arts. In order to incorporate the arts with academics all the teachers will be required to have some background in the arts. “Anyone that will be hired that has any kind of an arts background…if you’re a math teacher and you happen to play the piano, then that’s the people that we want to hire. They have the sensibility to the connection of the content and the arts” he said.

In planning for an arts school, Alonzo researched schools across the nation that had successfully integrated academics and the arts. While researching, he also realized that running an arts school costs more than 50 percent than a traditional public school.

“LAUSD has to have more funding in order to offer a rich arts program because right now they spend one third of what a private school spends and that’s not enough,” said Paul Cummins, executive director of New Visions Foundation. “For example, Crenshaw High School has a beautiful dance studio but they can’t afford a dance teacher.”

Arts education has long been the first subject cut in economic downtowns because it is often viewed as a frill. But in Los Angeles, supporters of the school are making efforts to make sure the school opens with plenty of money. To help with the funding, Alonzo founded the non-profit organization Discovering the Arts Inc. three years ago that will help raise money to make up the difference from what the district will offer.

Cummins also mentioned that LAUSD’s innovative idea will be more beneficial in offering a quality education. Rather than spending time teaching students how to take a standardized test, an arts-academic curriculum would help students stay in school. He said, “The arts are one of the ways you engage kids to education and the way you have lower dropout rates. Students will stay in school if they offer something they like to do.” He continued, “The arts have been cut out because they spend more time on preparing kids to take tests. You raise your test scores a little bit but more kids drop out because they don’t like going to school to take tests.”

The school will service 1,200 students from around the “Belmont Zone of Choice,” an area that includes Belmont High School and Miguel Contreras High School and 500 more from the rest of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Most of the students will come from schools of below-average performance, such as Berendo.

Leveling the 'playing field'

Berendo Middle School, founded in 1911, is located near downtown Los Angeles and Korea Town. The immediate neighborhood is composed of predominantly Latino families below the poverty level. The school itself is an austere, white building with a tall metal fence around it. Across the street, the colorful houses in green, yellow and blue have tall, metal fences and tattered cars parked in front; it is a substantially different neighborhood from that of Grand Avenue, where the new arts school is under construction.

This school is plagued with the classic problems found in almost every LAUSD. The average test score on the state-mandated standardized test is around 660 out of 1,000. It has taken the school 14 years to improve 200 points; in 1994, the school’s average score was a little above 400. “[Berendo] has been a program improvement school, meaning that our test scores are below acceptable measures based on No Child Left Behind and based on any measure," said Principal Robert Bilovsky. Fifty percent of the students at Berendo are in ESL classes (English as a Second Language), a factor that affects their test scores since these students have to take a standardized test designed for fluent-English speakers. One hundred percent of the students are on free lunch, another aspect that points to the social status of the neighborhood. Although the school has been relieved of roughly 700 students by John Leighty Middle School, it is still servicing 2,300 on a year round basis.

Still, even if the school is not ready yet, and even if the arts-academic curriculum is not yet set on stone, what the new Central L.A. High School # 9 is offering 1,700 kids is the opportunity to explore a foreign world only a few blocks away. These kids that have been taking drama classes and music lessons, Bilovsky says, “are very parochial; they only know the area that’s right around here. They don’t know what else is out there.

“We’ve shown the students the informational DVD, and their initial reaction is, ‘I can go to that school? Is this real? Is this really there and I can go there?’” recalled Bilovsky, who expects to send roughly 100 students next year and hopes to increase that number every year. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be successful based on facilities and the small learning communities."

Indeed, a recent study by the Education Commission of the States supports the idea that arts can, and often does, play a critical role in improving the academic performance of students. “Among the most critical findings is that learning in and through the arts can “level the playing field” for youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds," said ECS, a Denver-based non-profit, non-partisan education research organization funded by the 50 states. In a national sample of 25,000 students, ECS reports that those students "with high levels of arts-learning experiences earned higher grades and scored better on standardized tests than those with little or no involvement in the arts—regardless of socioeconomic status. Learning through the arts also appears to have significant effects on learning in other disciplines, with students consistently involved in music and theater showing higher levels of success in math and reading.”

Alonzo acknowledges all these facts. A former arts teacher himself, he has helped schools in his area improve their arts program to help kids with the transition. “Our local district is helping more than the larger district in helping us getting the extra teachers we need. Mr. Alonzo in particular has been very big in pushing the arts in the whole district,” said Bilovsky.

What upsets Alonzo is when he’s asked if these kids deserve this school. “Over the past 26 years, the kids living in this downtown area have not had the opportunity of going to a neighborhood school," he said. "We have been busing out thousands of children from this area including kindergarten kids.” And that, according to Alonzo, has cost the district more than building a new school. “Belmont High School had 5,800 children, drop-out rates of over 50 percent, a daily attendance of less than 80 percent, so here we have the worst of school conditions that existed, and I’m insulted when they ask if they deserve a school that cost this much,” he said. “They deserve that and much more.”

However, there are speculations on whether the school will eventually become an elite academy. “There is a lot of discussion whether it should be a magnet school or if students should try out for it, or if it should be available only for those students who meet the qualifications,” Bilovsky said. “I’m glad they haven’t done something like that because it would exclude a lot of our students who are pretty talented and just need the exposure to the arts in order to improve their talents.” Because, he says, “Loving the arts is not a middle class or upper middle class opportunity. It should be for all of our students.”

Crenshaw’s aspirations counter public perception


The stereotypes are all over Crenshaw High School: black and brown students in saggy britches talking smack to each other constantly and texting in class; teenaged mothers and fathers; young boys on house arrest sporting ankle bracelets that hug the outside of their white tube socks and nestle against their name brand sneakers like the latest fashion accessory.

They are among the masses that come to school late with McDonald’s in-hand and the ones that don’t come to school at all. And coming to school means crossing gang territories that rival Crenshaw High’s purported affiliation, a dangerous feat for all regardless of their involvement, said Crenshaw High Dean William Vanderberg.

These are the students you hear about on television and in news reports. These are the statistics. These are the casualties of the education system.

With a graduation rate of a mere 57 percent, Crenshaw High can seem like your stereotypical “urban” school. And in Alex Caputo-Pearl’s Social Justice and the Law Academy at Crenshaw High, Caputo-Pearl sees an even harsher reality: nearly two-thirds of his students may not be graduating in May, he said.

But some of his students, short on credits and often times even shorter on attention, in this newly-formed academy still have goals for after high school: community college, historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCU’s, big name schools, trade school and, yes, further along, they want careers in everything from law to being business owners, social work and maybe even real estate brokers.

But despite recent improvements of 6.5 and 5.4 percentage points since 2003 on standardized tests, Latino and black students respectively continue to lag behind whites and Asians in becoming academically eligible to enter California's two public university systems, according to a recently-released study by the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

Experts blame this state-wide statistic on students’ shortages of required courses and inadequate counseling at high schools, such as Crenshaw High, in low-income, high minority areas, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

So while the statistics may be counting them out, Caputo-Pearl and many of his students still dare to try to be counted in another kind of statistic: those who achieve the American Dream. They dare to hope for lives beyond the borders of South Los Angeles.

Furthering their education is their way out, they say.

Whether or not they’ll get there, well, that’s the struggle.

But just as many break the stereotypical mold as those who fit it.

* * *

Crenshaw High School senior Gregory Michael Williams pauses to reflect for a moment in Alex Caputo-Pearl's busy classroom.
Gregory and his group were brainstorming questions to ask interviewees for their group project concerning
students' apathy toward education.
“Chris, take off the earphones. Chris… Chris,” says lead teacher of Crenshaw High’s Social Justice and the Law Academy Alex Caputo-Pearl. The bell has rung and class is in session but the lanky young man is still bobbing his head. The white chord and ear buds of an iPod are clearly visible against his chocolate skin. The music, loud enough to be heard two rows over and all the way to the front of the class.

Head down, barely able to hear Caputo-Pearl, Chris Mitchell looks around at the stillness of the classroom and, finally, takes them out of his ears but keeps the music cranked up.

Another look and another request from Caputo-Pearl, and he turns it off.

Chris, 17, is a Crenshaw High senior with your average teenage dreams: money, power, fame. He makes the goals sound easy.

“I’m going overseas to play basketball after high school,” he says. “I know some people. I have connects.”

When asked about how realistic that might be, Chris, who plays point guard, gives a look that says, “I know I’ll make it.”

But like so many others with hoop dreams and basketball on the brain, there’s no guarantee and the odds are stacked against him. Fewer than one percent of college basketball players ever make it to the professional level. And his grades are admittedly coming up short. Perhaps though, they’re good enough to get him into the University of Connecticut’s business program—another lofty goal—before he heads overseas for self-predicted basketball superstardom.

“I want to build an empire like Jay-Z,” a music and apparel mogul, award-winning rapper and partial owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, Chris says about his career plans.

Ask him, and he’s already well on his way in some shape or form. “I already applied,” he says about the University of Connecticut. And a response letter has already come.

He hasn’t opened it yet. “I’m waiting for my birthday; April 21.”

* * *

“I ain’t gonna get into no four-year college.”

Seventeen-year-old Crenshaw High senior Brianna Irby speaks it like it’s Scripture.

“It’s true. For real,” she added.

Her reasons? “I didn’t take some classes that I’m supposed to take, like Algebra 2. I never took Algebra 2.”

But the cinnamon-skinned girl with glasses and braces is finding another way to make it out of Crenshaw High and onward to her goal of becoming a social worker like her mother.

“My plan? Well, I’m going to start at a two-year school or a community college. I’ll transfer my credits. I know I can do that. I’ll work it out,” she says.

Brianna’s mother Cerelia Bragg is earning a master’s degree at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work.

“She’s doing OK,” Bragg said about her daughter’s academic progress during a classroom visit on a recent Thursday. With a mix-matched head nod that seemed to convey both worry and hope, she stared at her daughter from across the room. Brianna smiled.

* * *

After class on a Monday, Caputo-Pearl calls a handful of students to stay after the bell.

Keilah Duren is one of them.

“Some of you have different things going on with the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Examination). Not all of you have super high GPAs. Not all of you have super low GPAs. You are exactly the kind of kids this can help,” he says urging them to attend a free SAT preparation class on the coming Saturday. There’s even a free breakfast he adds for extra bait. “And free lunch, but most of all, it’s food for your mind.”

Continuing the sell, Caputo-Pearl says, “This session could mean a bump of 40 or 60 extra points (on your SAT).”

The group stands in silence, but not for long.

“If we have a book, why we gotta come?” one asks.

“If you don’t know how to use it, it can hurt you,” he rebutts.

“But all you gotta do is just read it,” says another student.

The banter continues.

Caputo-Pearl tells them when and where the session will be held. “If you need a ride I’ll take you,” he says.

With 16 years of teaching experience in the elementary schools of Compton Unified School District and at the middle school and high school levels of Los Angeles Unified School District, Caputo-Pearl wants his students to be the ones that make it.

“For me, I've always been interested in public education because I see it as a social justice issue. And, I grew up in Maryland in very segregated schools and my parents were some of the few parents in my neighborhood who supported the bussing program to integrate schools.”

“Because of that experience I was exposed to pretty stark inequalities in the school system,” he said.

Keilah sees them too.

“Creanshaw High is, like, a very urban school. I don't want to say ghetto but it's pretty urban,” she says with a laugh.

The 17-year-old sees the gang affiliations throughout her school, and the drop out rate at Crensahw High is no secret, she said.

But in a way, she feels immune to it all.

“Crenshaw is not that bad,” she says and she’s girded by success stories outside of school --- success stories that started with college, stories she hopes to emulate. Her big brother goes to Morehouse College in Atlanta and her godmother and one of her aunts went to Spellman College, also in Atlanta.

So after graduation, her goal is to “go straight to an HBCU,” she said. She has her sights set on Spellman, an all girls’ historically black college.

“You're around your (own) kind, but it's not like I just want to be around them. I think you can learn more about the past than what they teach at school,” she said.

Even with her head down, texting on her cell phone more often than not, in class, she considers herself determined.

“I want to make a lot of money in the future for one, and college has been on my mind since I was younger and I always wanted to be a lawyer or somewhere in the politic world.”

Big goals.

She attributes some of it to having role models --- her big brother, aunt, godmother, as well as her parents; something that many in her class are lacking.

Even though her father is “always busy” she knows him fairly well. He’s a realtor. Her mother is a licensed practical nurse, or LPN, and is on her way to getting her registered nurse license.

Keilah’s circumstances are a stand-out among Caputo-Pearl’s class and he encourages her often.

While walking out of class on a recent school day he reminded her of the SAT prep class.

“I’ll be there,” she said.

“And did you convince that young man that you’re going to Spellman?” he asked about a back-and-forth she had with a classmate.

“I told him! I sure did,” she said.