LOS ANGELES - As California policy makers and researchers try to solve the critical problems plaguing the state’s public education system, a UCLA program is training a new generation of researchers who bring a unique and powerful perspective to the issue: inner-city students from some of Los Angeles’s lowest-performing, most resource–stretched schools.
Just in time for the start of the school year, 28 students gathered in L.A. City Hall to present the findings of a statewide survey of 650 high school peers that they conducted this past summer, as part of the 2010-11 Council of Youth Research.
Their goal was to find out whether the state is delivering on its promises, part of a settlement of a 10-year-old lawsuit, to provide a quality education for low-income students of color.
To no one’s surprise, the answer is no. But the Youth Council survey provides an unusual, on-the-ground insight into the types of problems that loom largest for low-income students and the kinds of changes they hope to see.
It may also inspire young people from disadvantaged communities to pursue careers in research, where their perspectives could help shape future education policy.
“You could bring in an adult to do a two-day evaluation of a school and come up with some conclusion,” said Dimitri Meighan, a 16-year-old student at Locke High School in South L.A. and a Youth Council member. “But if you [consult] a student who actually attends the school, that student deals with the school every day, so he or she is an expert at knowing what their peers need.”
Eighty-two percent of the students polled thought that education is under-resourced in California, according to survey findings.
One resource that students want more of is technology. Sixty percent of respondents indicated that their schools don’t have enough technology available to students. The technology that they do have is often greatly outdated.
The Youth Council interviewed Ben Gertner, principal of the Roosevelt School of Communication, Media, and Technology in Los Angeles, who said, “Our classroom computers are eight years old, [and] they don’t work.”
What is most surprising about the survey findings is that an overwhelming majority of surveyed students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “My teachers care about me and strongly prepare me for the future.”
Erick Palacio, 16, a student at Roosevelt High School in Watts and Youth Council member, affirmed this finding, saying, “My teachers know how we act, they get what kind of music we like, they know our style...When the teachers try to get to know us more, that gets my attention and makes me trust them more.”
At the same time, 61 percent of surveyed students strongly disagreed with the statement that their teachers value their culture and ideas through their teaching.
Evelyn Flores, an incoming senior at Roosevelt, said that while the 10-year-old lawsuit that was the starting point for their research (known as Williams vs. California) defined a well-trained teacher as someone with a full-time teaching credential, the Youth Council researchers arrived at a different conclusion based on their scores of interviews. An ideal teacher, Flores said, “has a credential but is also culturally relevant, supportive, and willing to listen to students and share resources.”
The Youth Council’s interviews with students found that frustration with California schools was much more widespread than survey numbers suggest.
“I feel like I’m in a box,” said Karina Arias in reference to the school she attends, Locke High School, which some students described as resembling the design of prison.
“We have our textbooks, but they are old…books need to be updated,” said Rodney, a student at Westchester High School in West L.A.
The Youth Council researchers concluded that low-income students are socialized to accept an education that is only adequate because mediocre schools are all they have ever known. The young researchers believe that as a result of this attitude, low-income students will give favorable assessments of their schooling on surveys—even if the schools aren’t serving students well.
“We used to be the Golden State of education...I never thought about it [before], but having an adequate education is not good enough. We should have more than adequate education,” said Emily Ramos, a 17-year-old Youth Council member.
“Beverly Hill High School just got a brand new science building,” said Locke senior Meighan. “Money is being put in the wrong places. The schools (that) need money the most get the least money.”
The Council of Youth Researchers—all students of color— hail from East L.A., South Central L.A., and Watts: neighborhoods of historically low performing Los Angeles schools.
The students participated in a five-week summer seminar at UCLA that contextualized California education crisis through 40 years of policy history and the study of revolutionary ideas of critical social thinkers such as Paulo Freire and W.B. Dubois.
Ernest Morrell, an associate professor at UCLA and associate director of IDEA, an education research group that oversees the Youth Council project, said the impetus to train young people to become researchers was born in the late 1990s, when Winson Doby, a former UCLA vice chancellor who graduated from Roosevelt High School in Watts, recognized that there were all these neighborhoods in Los Angeles whose families were paying taxes for the University of California but their children didn’t have access to the university.
“Los Angeles was the largest city in the state, sending very few students to the public university [system],” Morrell said.
In 1999, the Youth Council was founded to increase college access for Los Angeles youngsters hailing from the most disadvantaged schools, and to advocate for educational reform.
“We felt if young peoples’ voices are included in conversations on education issues, it will only lead to better reform for California’s schools,” Morrell said, adding: “We wanted to show that with the right kind of learning environment, students are capable of doing college-level work.”
Many student researchers, such as Flores of Roosevelt High School, said they developed an interest in pursuing academic research as a career option after completing the five-week summer seminar.
“It’s important to do research [our own] so it’s not only other people who are telling our story,” Flores said. “We are the ones living through this current education crisis.”