Alumni of Alexander Hamilton High School, affectionately called "Hami Kids," are proud of where they come from. Why wouldn't they be? Their school is currently one of two in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) with a Humanities Magnet Program, from which 100% of its students enroll into tertiary institutions, and approximately 90% of them enroll into 4-year colleges or universities. Their second and more famed Academy of Music Magnet Program covers eight areas of the arts outside of music and claims a slew of notable alumni, including singer-songwriter Fiona Apple and actor Shia LaBeouf.
Outside of these two magnet programs, Hamilton High School administers four Small Learning Communities to attract students with specific interests, using the same services provided to the magnet programs. These distinct programs may sound like they divide students and achievements within the campus, but as principal Gary Garcia explains, "we pride ourselves in that we're a whole school -- we have a whole school community."
Since the 1980s, Hamilton High School has increased enrollment and improved student performance so much that today, students commute largely from its own community in South Robertson, the high school's home since 1931. For a long time, however, this was not the case.
"Hamilton in the early 1980s was losing enrollment and the district was thinking about closing the school," says Garcia. "These days [when schools goes defunct] the district opens smalls schools with 800 or 1000 kids, but back at that time they weren't doing that because it's more expensive to run a small school, and so the solution was to bring in a humanities magnet. By 1989 they'd opened up the Academy of Music Magnet."
The establishment of magnet programs in LAUSD's constituency was a solution to a political mandate -- school busing. In the 1977 the LAUSD, under federal court order, instituted mandatory busing in an effort to desegregate Los Angeles public schools. It was a controversial initiative and a failed political effort that angered communities all over. Parents rallied cries of stripped freedoms on top of concerns of a loss of community pride and cohesiveness, and that their children were at risk to violence in outside neighborhoods. They cited lack of evidence in the district's claims that resources were spread equally and that student performance benefited from busing. As a result, many parents pulled their students out of the public school system and enrolled them into private schools. Hamilton High School, then a predominantly Caucasian and Jewish student body, as a result lost significant numbers in enrollment.
Today, Hamilton High School enrolls students from 101 different zip codes, according to Principal Garcia. "Our population in 2012 is very diverse. They come from all parts of the city, all economic levels, all ethnicities and languages, et cetera." It's something Garcia says the students find significant pride in and boast of the students praise of Hamilton's diversity that includes students in the LGBT community. "We don't have a lot of bullying here or discrimination," Garcia says, citing examples of bonds between diverse student bodies such as the Gay Straight Alliance and the Desi Club. "In the north end of South Robertson we have a number of people from Southeast Asia. We all know the history of Pakistan and India where the adults in those countries don't get along, but the kids here, they see that as old country issues. They get along with each and created their own club."
Hami kids promote diversity and cohesiveness outside the classroom as well and into their community. Since the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council was established in 1992, a Hamilton High School student has always sat on the council. "It's a different student every year, usually a senior who goes to college -- outside of the city -- and then they're done," says Garcia adding that "the meetings are interesting because it's city business (i.e., zoning, planting, etc.)... It gives us -- the people who are involved in the neighborhood council -- it gives us a connection."
During the festival, the Hami Alumni Association had photographs displayed. Archival images of Hamilton showed a campus surrounded by orchids, and of uniformed youngsters in the schools former ROTC class of 1940 -- many of whom would become officers in World War II. Yet the most striking image was of the students themselves: the largely white faces are seen in stark contrast to its now predominately African American and Latino student body.
The Hami Alumni Assoication annually awards graduating Hami seniors with scholarships. "The cool thing is alumni from the 1950s and the 1960s, they're all mostly white people and our students are mostly not," Garcia says. It's all African American and Latino kids getting scholarships -- perhaps from zip codes where they otherwise would not. "They're Hami kids. It doesn't matter the ethnicity," he concludes.