Learning Curve

News vans gather at Gardena High School after this week's shooting.

The accidental but wholly tragic shooting that happened this week at Gardena High School made me think: what a difference 32 years makes.

I graduated from Gardena in 1979, in retrospect a very significant moment in L.A. history. It was about the last year before the effects of Proposition 13, that state initiative that cut property tax revenue to cities and dealt a serious and lasting blow to public schools, set in. The long battle for school integration (otherwise known as equal access) that had begun in 1954 was culminating 25 years later in a controversial push for mandatory busing. The '80s that sat just over the horizon would swiftly usher in a crack cocaine epidemic that would decimate black communities and make them lose the precious, relatively meager ground gained after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The decade would also usher in Reaganomics and a general disdain for government solutions to social problems of any kind, including--or maybe starting with-- solutions to educational inequity. The dawn of the conservative age (which we're still living) coincided with the increasing deindustrialization of South Central and inner cities that left them virtually without jobs.

But all that would land a bit later. In the late '70s, for a brief, shining moment, Gardena High was an almost ideal place, not just from my adolescent vantage point, but from the vantage point of what we still insist a public school ought to be. Gardena's student body was astoundingly diverse long before the word came into vogue, a near-perfect balance of Asian, Pacific Islander, white, black and Latino. More crucially, everybody was more or less working class; Gardena was a tidy but blue-collar South Bay town that wasn't all that different from neighboring cities like Carson, Torrance and Compton. Of course there were conflicts and lines of separation--the Japanese kids tended to dominate higher math classes, black students gravitated toward music and performance--but there was also plenty of overlap. The natural mix of people and ambitions was stabilizing in a way I didn't even realize or appreciate until years after I graduated and began to watch public schools in L.A. largely deteriorate into educational places of last resort. They stratified into either exclusive--a handful of campuses, mostly magnet programs that whites could tolerate--or struggling, to put it politely . Over the years, Gardena fell into the second group. That it fell there after losing its ethnic mix to white, Asian and middle-class flight is no accident.

Besides low standardized test scores, "struggling" has also become synonymous with violence. That the shooting at Gardena was accidental rather than intentional hardly matters; the incident only reinforces the general fear of public high schools as places where bad things lie in wait, or lie in things as innocuous as backpacks. The conversation the city had this past week about guns and random searches and metal detectors once again misses the point that it took a long time--32 years by my reckoning--and many deliberate decisions to get to where we are. And, modern segregation notwithstanding, that we got here together.

The above photo is by Flickr user BeFrank. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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