Student Voice: How a Community School Became an Oasis in South Central Los Angeles
Post written by Martin J. Blank and Ryan Fox, Coalition for Community Schools
Walking through the halls of John C. Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles with senior Kevin Valiencia, one finds an unexpected inner city public school in one of the most maligned neighborhoods in the country.
A climate of cooperation, enthusiasm, unity, and endless possibilities permeate throughout school. A strong juxtaposition with the surrounding community in which neighborhoods blocks apart from each other are often at war. Kevin himself has seen a friend stabbed, drive-by shootings, and police raids near his home.
It's not that the troubles found in other schools don't exist inside Fremont. Less than 40 percent of its students graduate in four years and test scores still lag behind state averages. But the angst and conflict found in many other struggling urban schools is minimal at Fremont. The suspension rate at Fremont is far below the rates at other high schools in the district. While the dropout rate is still very high, those numbers are gradually improving. Nearly 85 percent of those that did graduate in 2009 and 2010 continued on to a postsecondary education.
"There's unity (at Fremont)," Kevin said. "We're all in this together."
As a community school, Fremont has put in place partnerships and mechanisms to help better combat the challenges it faces. Fremont operates as a partnership between school leaders and an external partner, in this case, the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP), a widely respected education intermediary. LAEP provides a community school coordinator at Fremont who brings school staff and community partners together to solve problems.
Fremont's teachers are advocating for their students with high-level classes that provide them with the kind of rich learning experiences they need and want. There are numerous advanced placement opportunities reflecting the efforts of community groups that have fought to ensure that all students have access to the type of classes that will enable them to compete for entry into California's university and state college system. A series of small career-themed learning communities—Math, Science, and Technology; Medical, Environmental Science, and Agriculture; Environmental and Social Justice; and Global Media Arts—bring learning to life for students.
Fremont's work goes far beyond academics. A parent engagement group seeks to involve parents more actively in the education of their children, even as it responds to parents' fears about their children's survival in terms of both safety and learning. A 9th grade success group that focuses on severely low performing entering freshmen uses a mentoring program that involves juniors and seniors as mentors to incoming students. There's also a breaking-the-prison-pipeline group that is working to create a space where the school, its partners, student families, and residents can discuss the school-to-prison crisis plaguing the neighborhood and find solutions in the school and the community.
The school's psychiatric social worker operates hand in hand with the community school coordinator and with mental health therapists from the Weber Community Center. The UMMA Community Clinic will soon open an on-site facility that will serve students as well as neighborhood residents. And the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust is opening a community garden on the campus that will be used by the Medical, Environmental Science, and Agriculture Magnet as well as other students and residents.
Kevin is a member of a student-run peer mediation group in the school that helps fellow classmates resolve everything from racial conflicts to romantic conflicts to family issues. The mediation group has nearly a perfect success rate in resolving conflicts. The success of the mediation group has convinced the principal to push for more student mediators and for students to train teachers in peer mediation.
Kevin tells the story of one his friends that transferred from a school in the Valley and how surprised that student was at the atmosphere inside Fremont.
"Her perception of schools in South Central did not include teachers as engaged as they are at Fremont. Students weren't supposed to be as supportive as students were here," Kevin said.
It's one of the reasons Valencia is spreading the gospel of community schools wherever he can. This past summer, he traveled to San Francisco for the 2012 Community Schools National Forum and came back empowered about the difference he can make.
For now, Kevin is hoping to study biology at UCLA or Cal State after he graduates. From there, he hopes to practice pediatric medicine and then join Doctors Without Borders as a way to give back to those less fortunate than him.
That's the power of a community and school working together to expand the possibilities for its young people by creating safe, supportive, and healthy learning environments.
Martin J. Blank is the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) in Washington, D.C. He leads IEL in its efforts to build the capacity of people, organizations and systems—in education and related fields—to cross boundaries and work together to attain better results for children and youth. Blank also serves as the director of whole child partner Coalition for Community Schools, which is staffed by IEL. Ryan Fox serves as communications assistant for the Coalition for Community Schools.
The Coalition for Community Schools advances opportunities for the success of children, families, and communities by promoting the development of more, and more effective, community schools. The Coalition for Community Schools believes that strong communities require strong schools and strong schools require strong communities. The organization envisions a future in which schools are centers of thriving communities where everyone belongs, works together, and succeeds.