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Thesis film examines bitterness of Crenshaw High reconstitution

Craig Clough | October 24, 2014

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The battle over the fate of South LA’s Crenshaw High School is now over, but a new documentary film from a UC Santa Cruz grad student takes a fresh and hard-edged look at the bitterness and anger that was unleashed when the LA Unified school board voted to reconstitute the school in 2013.

The film, “Crenshaw,” is the graduate thesis project of Lena Jackson, who shot footage in 2012 and 2013 as the debate over Crenshaw’s future was being determined. (See a trailer for the film below.) 

In Jan. 2013, with the support of former superintendent John Deasy, the school board unanimously approved a plan to break Crenshaw into three magnet schools, firing all of the teachers and staff in the “reconstitution” process and making them reapply for their jobs. Deasy argued the school was one of the lowest performers in the distict and in need of drastic change. About half of the staff got their jobs back and the three schools opened the 2013-14 year as magnets.

As the film notes, many in the community viewed the reconstitution as a stripping of South LA’s cultural identity, as well as an unfair targeting of a community with fewer resources to fight the reconstitution than others.

One African-American parent in the film, pointing at the school board during a meeting, says, “You wouldn’t do this in Beverly Hills. You wouldn’t do this in the Valley. But because this is the last predominately black school in LA, you think that it’s OK? Look at these people behind me. It’s not OK. You reconstitute Crenshaw? We’re going to reconstitute you.”

Her remarks encapsulate the sentiment of the film, which focuses on the outrage some students, parents and teachers experienced during the reconstitution. It’s not so much an examination of the pros and cons of reconstitution as it is a look at the resentment invoked in those that opposed it and the insensitivity they perceived from district leaders.

“Sadly, the community ended up being not strong enough to ward off this battle,” Jackson told LA School Report.

Jackson, who is from Washington D.C., earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown in international relations before attending UC Santa Cruz’s graduate film program. Between her time at the two schools, she lived in Los Angeles and had a roommate who was a teacher at LA Unified, which is how Jackson became interested in the district’s issues and Crenshaw.

As part of the graduate program, Jackson spent a year editing, and the film is just now making the rounds. There have been screenings at campuses and other venues in California over the last month, including screenings at Dorsey High, STEM Academy Hollywood, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) headquarters, UCLA and UC Berkley.

Jackson said UTLA President Alex-Caputo Pearl, a former Crenshaw teacher, has been a key supporter of the film, helping her get access to meetings and interviews, as well as helping promote the film. He also spoke at a recent screening at Montague Charter Academy in Pacoima.

“Alex helped me along the entire way. We’ve been in contact every week for the last two years,” Jackson said.

The film features interviews with Caputo-Pearl, as well as Deasy and several Crenshaw teachers, students and parents. At the time of their interviews, Caputo-Pearl was not yet the union president, although he was an active and outspoken union leader.

Caputo-Pearl was one of the teachers who lost his job at Crenshaw, something that ultimately led him and other teachers to file an unfair labor practice charge against the district and Deasy, claiming the reconstitution was really an attempt to get rid of union leaders at the school who posed a threat to Deasy and the district. The film also features the teachers’ complaint, and testimony in the case is still ongoing. 

In the film, Deasy makes the case that Crenshaw had long been one of the lowest performing schools in the district, and the reconstitution was an aggressive effort to help the students. “This is not something that occurred out of the blue,” Deasy said.

While the film ultimately sides with Caputo-Pearl and others that opposed reconstitution, Jackson doesn’t shy away from that fact.

“This side of the story is often not told, the side from the students’ perspective, from the teachers’ perspective, from the parents’ perspective. And I felt committed to trying to bring that to the screen,” Jackson said. “So yes, it may be a little unbalanced but there is a reason for that.”

Jackson also said that other than Deasy, leaders in favor of reconstitution, including late board member Marguerite LaMotte, would not speak to her. Crenshaw is located in the district LaMotte represented for a decade, and the film does feature an emotional speech she made at a school board meeting to a group of Crenshaw parents and students, promising them that the community was “going to get a good school” as a result of the reconstitution. LaMotte passed away in December of 2013.

Jackson said that audiences have had a positive reaction to the film, but also that most are already familiar with the Crenshaw reconstitution. She is considering trying to get the film in festivals around the country and is curious to see the reactions of crowds not as familiar with Crenshaw.

Jackson also said more screenings in California may happen, and she may make the full film available online. Anyone interested should keep an eye on the film’s website for updates.


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