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A Closer Look

Charles White Elementary School an anchor
for immigrant families beset by life’s storms

By Gloria Angelina Castillo


READ or LISTEN: Plyler v. Doe, the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows all immigrant children and youth, regardless of their immigration status, the right to a free public school education.


LOS ANGELES - Charles White Elementary School is an inner city school that educates nearly 100 percent low-income immigrant children.   The new school has been open for almost four years and has an up-to-date building with several amenities.  The staff consists of highly qualified teachers - half have their master’s degrees - but the conditions outside of the school, in the community and in the homes undermine student potential.


Charles White is located in the densest area in Los Angeles; there are 56,000 people per square mile.  The school borders MacArthur Park, the scene of a violent clash between police and pro-immigrant protesters in May, 2006, and the neighborhood is rife with gang activity.  Most of the parents of children in this school are struggling to make ends meet. They are not educated, and many, if not most, have questionable legal status.  For some of these parents, their daily struggles to pay rent, put food on the table and dodge deportation consumes much of their attention. As a result, education for their children is often an afterthought. Moreover, the older siblings of the children often provide a negative example; they are in gangs or have children themselves.


Samaniego remembers there was an officer involved shooting just a block down the street in an apartment in November 2007.  He had visitors on campus that day, and they wondered whether the school should have been put on “lock down.” 


“But the kids just went on and it was a regular day because it was a regular day,” Samaniego said.   “They know that’s outside of the school. They are safer here than they would be at home.”


As an anchor for the community, Charles White is home to adult English-language night classes.  Once a month, Cedar Sinai Medical Center sends a bus equipped with a clinic and parks outside the school, providing free health services to the community.   Many students from the elementary school get their vaccinations required by the school through this service. 


Even if the school is unable to successfully educate and assimilate all these children to help them advance in high school and beyond, as a body of research has shown, the school provides a soft landing for many newcomers. Families who succeed economically move out of the area and transfer their students to another school. Charles White Principal John Samaniego is torn.  He would like those students to remain in the school and reflect on the progress the school is making; however, he wants what is best for the family.  He also recognizes that the school is more than a place of learning for his students. For them, Charles White is a safe haven.


-- Gloria Angelina Castillo


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