It's a truly tangled web that continues to weave itself at Westchester High School, the most heavily black high school campus in L.A. Unified that sits in one of the whitest areas of the city. I'll get to the history of this scenario in a bit, but suffice it to say that for several years now, a fight has been brewing between the mostly black parents whose kids come from outside the neighborhood and local Westchester parents who want to reclaim the school and turn it into a "quality" place where they can feel comfortable sending their own kids (charters, anyone?). The question of who has the most legitimate claim on the school and the right to direct any major reform efforts intensified as the campus struggled with low test scores and a declining population that is dwindling to roughly half of the 3,000 it had at its height.
Earlier this year, the school board checkmated the efforts of both groups by voting to convert all of Westchester into a magnet school (previously, just a portion of it had been a magnet). Overall, this satisfied as much as it raised more alarms: everyone agreed there needed to be a Big Move, but nobody quite liked this one, for various reasons.
Parents of color worry that the magnet program, which selects students not on merit but on a complicated point system that is nonetheless competitive, will weed out their kids who have been the backbone of the school for many years. Local parents don't like the magnet program's original court-ordered mandate of integration, which stipulates that no magnet can be more than 30 percent white. That means that, barring some dramatic demographic shift happening in Westchester itself in the very near future, the school will never be as "local" as some locals would like to have it.
Reclamation will only go so far. The racial issues are obvious, though in the media discussion of Westchester's fate people tend to stick to neutral-sounding words like "choice" and "control" and "independence." Words that are often only a degree or so away from very un-neutral terms like secession, which at least one parent contemplated in a Daily Breeze article. Of course, this parent posed the prospect of Westchester breaking away to form its own school district--er, republic--as perfectly acceptable. Virtually every other beach community has one, from Palos Verdes to Malibu. Why not Westchester?
Exactly. All of this puts me in mind of my own educational experience in Westchester in 1973, years before desegregation efforts officially started. I was a fifth-grader bused with about fifty other mostly black kids (we did have a couple of whites and an Asian) from South Central to Loyola Village Elementary. I was told I was going there not because of integration--adults probably figured that would scare us--but because Loyola had a gifted program we could benefit from. Educationally the school was fine, but socially is was a bewildering ride that was educational in very different and sometimes painful ways. Most crucially, the net effect of our early foray into lily-white Westchester was the mass exodus of locals from their own school community, a legacy that's very clear today but rarely discussed in the media, even in all the racially charged furor about Westchester's future. It's no surprise that without local support any public school withers, regardless of the ethnic makeup of its students.
No wonder white parents with little sense of history (or social realities) feel bereft of their own school, and black people who filled the void in public schools all over the city, indeed the country, feel on the verge of being abandoned yet again.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.