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Commentary: A plea to pass the ‘Student Need Index’

Guest contributor | June 2, 2014

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An open letter to the Los Angeles Unified school board from five district students:

Dear board members:

We are students who live in South Los Angeles and attend South L.A. High Schools. One of us wakes up early every morning to take two buses to attend Hamilton High School in West L.A. so that she can have access to academic opportunities – like extra A.P. courses, and strong college preparation – that aren’t offered at her neighborhood school. For the rest of us, we struggle everyday with violence around our schools, lack of enough support services, and inadequate resources and materials.

From studying our history, we know that south L.A. students have struggled with being provided enough resources so that African American and Latina/o students can reach their full potential. We don’t think it’s right that in 2014 we are still struggling with an issue that should be a basic civil right. It makes us upset to know that students who attend schools in wealthier areas of town have access to more educational opportunities than we do. Two weeks ago, we recognized the 60th Anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that was supposed to end segregation in our school system, but from what we see in our community, it looks like “separate and unequal” still exists.

This is why many of us got involved with student organizing, so that we could make a difference in our community. For some of us, we’ve been fighting for change for years. Others of us got involved more recently because we learned about an important campaign called “Schools We Deserve.” We found out that thanks to the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), for the first time, LA Unified will receive more money from California to help high needs students. Our “Schools We Deserve” campaign is an effort to make sure that the schools with the highest needs in LA truly get these resources. That’s why we were so excited when you introduced the “Equity is Justice Resolution” at the May 13th school board meeting.

Your resolution directs the Superintendent to adopt the “Student Need Index,” a tool that uses data to rank all the schools in LA Unified based on need. The national civil rights organization, Advancement Project, developed this tool with support from Community Coalition and InnerCity Struggle. When we first learned about the Student Need Index, we were really excited because for the first time there was something scientific that could measure and describe our experiences.

We’ve been talking about the conditions in our community and schools for years, but now the index actually backs us up by using numbers. For example, the index found that students in high needs schools are nearly five times as likely to be exposed to gun violence. We knew this intuitively, as all of us know someone who has been shot, and in south L.A., gunshots, police helicopters and sirens are a regular part of life. This violence interferes with our schoolwork because it’s hard to concentrate when one is scared, sad or angry. We hope that the Student Need Index will direct more money to our schools, so we can have wellness counselors and trained adults on campus to help us deal with these problems.

The Student Need Index also looks at stuff like the number of foster care students and English language learners at a school, drop out rates, poverty, reading levels, and even considers environmental health factors. Another big thing the index looks at is the numbers of expulsions and suspensions at a school. That’s important to us because last year we advocated for the passage of the “School Climate Bill of Rights” resolution that ended suspensions for non-serious offenses, like forgetting school supplies.

If the Student Need Index passes, some of the funding could go toward “restorative justice” programs on our campuses, where alternatives to suspensions – such as community service, dialogue, mediation and restoration – are used to deal with problems. These programs are better because they keep students in school and learning, and get at the root of what was causing the bad behavior in the first place.

We believe through the passage of this resolution, we can decrease the dropout rates, increase graduation rates and college rates by using LCFF dollars for increasing support for students who live in the communities with the harshest conditions. Our long-term vision is for all students to have the opportunity to achieve their dreams, graduate from a four-year institution and enter a living wage career, regardless of where they live and what school they go to.

Board Members Monica Garcia and Steve Zimmer and Board President Richard Vladovic, we thank you for your support, but we have not yet reached victory. We need all board members to support this resolution. We attended a debate the other night with the four leading candidates for the open District 1 seat. We asked the candidates if they support the “Student Need Index,” and all four said they do! It’s our belief that if we had a voting representative right now for that seat, this resolution would pass.

Board members Tamar Galatzan, Bennett Kayser and Monica Ratliff, it is our hope that one of you will stand up and be the voice for South L.A. – and do what’s right for Los Angeles – by supporting the Student Need Index!


South Los Angeles Youth Leaders with the Community Coalition,

Cristian Gaspar, 11th Grader, Fremont High School

Ryan Bell, 11th Grader, Dorsey High School

Timothy Walker, 11th Grader, Crenshaw High School

Jathan Melendez, 10th Grader, Manual Arts High School

Siria Diego, 12th Grader, Hamilton High

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