March 7th, 2005

Commentary: Educating California

A school struggles against the odds in Los Angeles

By John Merrow
Published: March 7, 2005 / The Sacramento Bee

I wish Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Legislature and the interest groups fighting over money for public schools would take a field trip to Breed Street Elementary School in East Los Angeles to help them understand what’s at stake.

This K-5 school is in a tough Mexican American (and Mexican) neighborhood where about 40 gangs operate in a 20-square-block radius. Ninety-eight percent of the 600 kids at Breed receive free and reduced-price lunches, the normal marker for poverty.

I was at Breed Elementary in mid-January, filming a piece for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” about Breed’s SOS program. SOS stands for “Society of Students,” although the kids who participate say it also means save our schools, save our society and save our souls.

Janis Huira, the veteran teacher who founded SOS, says it stands for all this and more. “I tell the kids that first they have to save themselves, and once they do that, they can save schools, society and other souls.”

Here’s what awaits visitors at Breed: a clean, orderly building and well-behaved kids in simple blue and white uniforms. If our governor walks into any classroom, at least five students will walk up to him, introduce themselves and thank him for coming to their school. They will do this whether or not they recognize him, because that’s how they greet every visitor.

But ask kids where they’re from, and they will not name the street they live on. Instead they will answer “nowhere,” because they’ve learned that questioners sometimes shoot people who live on rival turf, and nowhere means
they have no gang affiliation.

In most classes, visitors will see what SOS calls “popcorn”: kids popping up to volunteer to answer a teacher’s question. When more than one child pops up, whoever’s spoken more recently will defer, a practice SOS calls “new blood.” And when a student gives a correct or particularly thoughtful answer, classmates are likely to call out in unison, “You’re the man (or woman).” SOS members, Huira says, believe that “you never succeed alone and you never watch your buddies drown.”

Huira began SOS in her fifth-grade class four years ago and, after one year, was encouraged by principal Katty Iriarte to expand across the school. About half of Breed’s 700 students have earned membership, which requires a commitment to do one’s best in school, turn in all homework, participate in class and encourage others to be good citizens. It hasn’t been easy, because it’s not cool to be a good student. In fact, it’s an insult to be called a schoolboy or a schoolgirl, Huira notes.

“But we want our kids to be seen and heard, because if they don’t speak up for themselves, no one will.”

Visitors may also see kids practicing the “pancake drill”: hitting the floor to make themselves as flat as possible. They are taught to do this whenever they hear gunshots.

This is no movie set rehearsal, by the way. All the 9-year-olds I interviewed have seen handguns up close. There may even be a real shooting during a visit. While we were filming, an announcement came over the public address system: “We are on lockdown. Everybody inside immediately.” It was 3 p.m., and even the parents who had come to pick up their children had to come inside and sit against the corridor walls.

Just four blocks away, two gang members had been shot dead, probably, we were told, by members of a rival gang. What was striking was how nonchalant the kids were during all of this; it’s all too familiar to them.

A visit wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the middle and high schools that Breed students are sent to. Their next stop will be Hollenbeck Middle School, with an enrollment of 2,600. After that is Roosevelt High School, the nation’s second-largest, where 5,300 students attend school in shifts. The dropout rate at Roosevelt is said to be 40 percent, meaning that it’s probably much higher.

Good as it seems to be, SOS may not be enough to ensure that kids survive the harsh, impersonal environments of Hollenbeck and Roosevelt. In those buildings many adolescents find the identity they crave by joining gangs.

Seeing the Society of Students program might be just the SOS we need. To stop its descent toward Third World status, California needs political leadership that recognizes that we have two public school systems - and that the one for poor kids is taking yet another hit. We need leaders willing to fund education properly. And California needs more adults who are ashamed to live in a state that treats its children so shabbily, and angry enough to get rid of politicians who refuse to act.

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