East LA shines in new school climate map. Advocates credit intensive community investment but say there’s more to do.
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | June 8, 2017
A new interactive map on how safe Los Angeles schools are shows a wide swath of red in predominantly Latino, poor and immigrant neighborhoods, indicating students and teachers report not feeling safe.
But one neighborhood with those same demographics stands out for its lack of red. Boyle Heights/East LA is an oasis of green and yellow, meaning that students at most of those schools feel safe or somewhat safe.
The area has been a focus of intense community activism among Latino advocates. They attribute the sense of safety in the schools to high parent involvement and a coalition of community organizations that have pushed for positive behavior intervention and student support policies, particularly in the Boyle Heights community.
“We’ve worked to ensure that our schools are more personalized, that their structure is a smaller learning environment, so it’s good to see that the schools where we have focused on — Roosevelt, Garfield, Torres, Mendez high schools — that you don’t see them in red. I think a few years ago you would have,” said Maria Brenes, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, an organization in Boyle Heights that promotes safe, healthy and non-violent communities on Los Angeles’ east side.
After studying the map, Brenes said it showed off improvements that have been made in the East LA area but said there’s more to be done.
“There’s been progress, but we have a lot more work to do, especially for our youngest, elementary, and middle schools. It’s very concerning that children at that high percentage rate feel that bullying is a problem. I don’t think parents want their kids to be in that kind of environment,” she said and suggested that parents call their children’s schools to discuss the findings.
“And it’s also an opportunity for the district to replicate what is working in the schools that are in green,” Brenes said.
In this predominantly Latino area east of downtown, at least 10 schools represented on the map fall in the green category, meaning that more than three-quarters of students and staff said they felt safe in their schools. There are 30 schools in the yellow/somewhat safe category. Only four schools are in the red/less safe category — two elementaries and two middle schools.
Mendez High School is in the green “feel safe” category as only 18 percent of students said they do not feel safe in school, and only 4 percent said they have felt afraid of being beaten up.
“I think that students feel safe at schools as a result of a strong school leadership and because of an organized and collective effort to ensure safety, and to ensure good teachers and strong programming that extends both inside the school and then after school hours,” said Deborah Marcus, executive director of Communities in Schools of Los Angeles (CISLA), a high school dropout prevention organization that has partnered with LA Unified to implement an Integrated Student Support model at 10 schools in the district including Mendez, where the graduation rate has jumped from 46 percent to 96 percent in just five years.
“It’s a successful collaboration that is happening in Boyle Heights and that is very unique in the city,” she said. The Integrated Student Support model prioritizes making sure that students’ social and emotional needs are met, Marcus said.
In contrast, a nearby high school with similar demographics including enrollment that is more than 90 percent Latino shows up as red on the map. Miguel Contreras Learning Complex – School of Social Justice, located in the downtown Los Angeles area, falls in the “less safe” category — 40 percent of students responded not feeling safe, 52 percent said bullying is a problem, and 61 percent of teachers said school discipline isn’t effective.
Another similar school is Dr. Julian Nava Learning Academy’s School of Business & Tech not far from Boyle Heights with 95 percent Latino enrollment. It also shows as red on the map, with 40 percent of students not feeling safe, 71 percent saying bullying is a problem, and 84 percent of teachers saying school discipline isn’t effective.
All three high schools are located within Local District 2.
Mónica García, the LA Unified board member for that district, said that the positive data for schools in Boyle Heights and East LA are a good indicator of the well-being of the communities there.
“Personalization and healthy behaviors are really taking place at these schools,” she said Thursday. “This has been a result of investing in facilities and a result of the community movement for successful models, including A-G curriculum, community schools, restorative justice, wellness centers. A lot of this has been by listening to the moms and parents that are demanding quality services for their kids.”
Nadia Díaz Funn, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Community (ABC), a nonprofit organization formed to serve as a voice of Latino interests, believes the district should continue to value feedback from families and teachers in order to direct resources for targeted interventions. She also urged the district to form more community partnerships at schools struggling to create safe learning environments, as safety is a priority for parents.
“Parents we’ve worked with throughout the district consistently tell us that safety is the number one priority when it comes to selecting a school for their child,” she said. “Safety, along with overall health and wellness, are critical factors in a child’s readiness to learn. They are pre-conditions to academic success.”
The map’s green, yellow, and red color categories were created based on responses from students and staff at 786 traditional and charter schools that participated in an LA Unified-conducted survey about their school experience. The map is based on responses from the 2015-16 school year, the most recent available. LA Unified has a total of 1,300 schools. Only a small number of charter schools participated in the survey, so mostly traditional schools show up on the map.
“The problem of students not feeling safe at school is that they also start feeling harassed by school police not only in high school but since middle school,” said Manuel Criollo, director of organizing for the Community Rights Campaign, a grassroots organization that worked on a school climate bill of rights that the district adopted in the 2013-14 school year.
“In 2007 the number of suspensions was 7,000, now it has been reduced to around 3,000. When we started the campaign about 10 years ago we knew that police harassment was one of the reasons why kids did not feel safe at school and was pushing them to drop out school,“ he said.
Criollo believes that the restorative justice program — part of the school climate bill of rights — that started in 2013 in 153 LA Unified schools and has since expanded to more than 500 schools, has made improvements in some of the most vulnerable communities across the district. But he thinks the district still needs to assign more resources to programs like restorative justice to ensure safety in schools.
“We need to put pressure again so the district assigns more of the new school year’s budget to restorative justice and less to school police. The district has increased the budget for school police for the last five years, and the restorative justice program received much less,” Criollo said.
To find out how safe your LA school is, here’s how you can use the interactive map.