The pitched battle for the future of Crenshaw High School, one of the last heavily black schools in LAUSD, is both heartening and troubling. Heartening because so many stakeholders are deeply involved in the battle -- students, parents, teachers, alumni, community organizations -- and have been for many years. Troubling because in many ways, Crenshaw is a last local stand for racial equality in public education, a notion that's become as old-fashioned as rotary-dial telephones (we don't really believe in public schools anymore, let alone racial equality in those schools).
For the last six years or so, Crenshaw has built up a multifaceted reform effort that started after an accreditation crisis that threatened to shut the whole campus down. The effort was unique in that it pulled together the school community, grassroots folks, local institutions like the Urban League, and foundation money.
Saving Crenshaw and transforming what was a typically big, dysfunctional campus populated historically by black and increasingly Latino students into a successful place became a mission for all involved. Sure, there were a lot of moving parts and not everyone in the new and often tenuous coalition saw eye to eye. But the independent movement for change and equity at Crenshaw was new and energizing, a much-needed reminder that as a city, despite our diversity that we tout as our biggest selling point -- next to Hollywood -- we are miles away from anything resembling educational fairness for all.
And Crenshaw's model for achieving that fairness was eye-catching, anything but old-fashioned: a focus on cultural relevance that included instructional emphasis on social justice -- not simply as an abstract subject, but as a way to teach students the specific history of how and why their community and their school wound up in the state it's in. In other words, helping students to locate themselves in the history of the larger struggle for racial justice that has produced schools like Crenshaw all over the country.
All good stuff, and things around Crenshaw did improve. But not fast enough for LAUSD. Last month, Supt. John Deasy announced that because Crenshaw still lags behind in key success indicators like test scores, the district will take over reform efforts in what's known in reform parlance as reconstitution. The school is slated to be turned into three magnet campuses, and all teachers will be required to re-apply for their jobs. There are other provisions of the reconstitution that are potentially positive, but the point is that the independent, experimental, locally-guided reform effort to rehab Crenshaw and revive a bigger movement for racial justice in education that kind of fizzled out after Brown vs. Board of Ed, will more or less go away.
That would be a shame. The fight by blacks to save Crenshaw reminds me very much of the fight some years back to save Martin Luther King hospital in Watts-Willowbrook. Like Crenshaw, the hospital was a big public institution that came out of the clamor for black justice in the '60s. Like Crenshaw, the founding ideals faded over the years as the surrounding community continued to struggle economically -- indeed, it never recovered and in some ways got worse. But the sense of personal investment in a public institution, the notion that it could actually help blacks and other people of color achieve that elusive social equality that has proven to be so maddeningly elusive, remained strong. Whatever happens at Crenshaw now, I sincerely hope that notion survives.
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 on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.
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