Student Demarco Gordon: "The superintendent of LAUSD, he was saying that, said that either he had to get rid of teachers or go bankrupt, and stuff like that. I found that interesting, how the school options only have two options of going bankrupt or losing teachers, and that’s it. I found that we need more options than that. "
Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez on KPCC
Several dozen Los Angeles high school students wrap up summer school today. They took part in a unique UCLA program that turned them into apprentice researchers and education activists for a month and a half. KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez spent some time with the young researchers in the field.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Five high school students, their teacher, and two UCLA grad students huddled inside Crenshaw High School’s library on a recent morning.
[“1, 2, 3, coolness!”]
Guzman-Lopez: The “Advocates of Cool,” as this group called itself, chanted “coolness” before a day of surveys and interviews. In UCLA classrooms, they learned “critical pedagogy” – a vein of education theory that questions and challenges why poor and working-class people often attend substandard schools. Coupled with lessons about the basics of academic research, these teenagers became agents of change, said Crenshaw High teacher Fred Davis.
Fred Davis: Allowing students, high school students, to engage in research, participatory action research, which allows them to go out into the field and explore issues in their community and really go through the process of how research becomes really fundamental to creating change in the communities they live in.
Guzman-Lopez: The program’s topic changes each year. This year students focused on the effects of the economic crisis on young people. Sixteen-year-old Demarco Gordon was in charge of videotaping a dozen interviews with students like himself, and with the school district’s chief executive.
Demarco Gordon: The superintendent of LAUSD, he was saying that, said that either he had to get rid of teachers or go bankrupt, and stuff like that. I found that interesting, how the school options only have two options of going bankrupt or losing teachers, and that’s it. I found that we need more options than that.
Guzman-Lopez: One of Gordon’s teachers at Manual Arts High recommended him for the paid program that he called a big contrast to what he did this time last year.
Gordon: I was boxing for the whole summer.
Guzman-Lopez: Was that fun?
Gordon: Yeah, I’ve been boxing for the past four years.
Guzman-Lopez: Would you rather be doing something else besides this right now?
Gordon: Honestly, right now, you know, at first I was thinking of doing something else. But now, as I realize it, I’m enjoying myself in the program.
Teacher: All right ladies and gentlemen...
Guzman-Lopez: The first survey stop for the Advocates of Cool was Crystal O’Leary’s world history course.
Gordon (at the front of the class): The survey’s about how the economic crisis is affecting you all.
Guzman-Lopez: Demarco Gordon seemed ill at ease in front of the class. The program’s instructors offered communication pointers to him and the other students. Their survey turned up a variety of opinions about the economy. Eleventh grader Basia Chin Smith told questioners that she had no reason for worry.
Basia Chin Smith: My dad, he works for a major dispatching company, for like, people. And my mom, she does a little bit of everything. She used to own lots of property so she still gets a lot of money from that. I don’t want to sound cocky or nothing, you know, but she’s still got her Benz and my dad still has his Camaro, so I’m good.
Guzman-Lopez: She said her parents haven’t asked her to spend less.
Smith: I still have my credit card and my bag, I mean I’m balling, I don’t care.
Guzman-Lopez: Classmate Ronald Stovall, one row over and three seats back, described how his mother’s layoff from her telephone customer service job a few months ago has meant less food in the house – and more pressure on him to help out.
Ronald Stovall: She was like, you’re 17 now, you know, it’s time for you to get a summer job, but you know that’s kind of hard because I messed up in 9th grade so now I’m taking summer school for this class, so it’s kind of hard doing summer school, football practice, and getting a job and then still, you know, going to sleep on time, waking up early in the morning.
Guzman-Lopez: Teacher Crystal O’Leary said distractions like these made it hard sometimes to lead the class.
Later in the day the group visited another high school campus and an employment center near USC. With Gordon running the camera, high school senior Yaser Villalobos talked with the center’s director Mareta Papu about education and the economy.
Yaser Villalobos: Have you noticed any changes that has affected youth?
Mareta Papu: There’s definitely been a huge impact with the economy because we’ve seen a lot more people coming in here.
Guzman-Lopez: Villalobos said she’s learned that students are very eager to share their opinions about solutions to big problems. Before she took the summer course, she said, she didn’t realize what she could do.
Villalobos: I guess I was only thinking about myself, but ever since I entered this program, I’ve gotten a new perspective. We need to do something because it’s not just about how I get everything and everybody else isn’t.
Guzman-Lopez: Program organizers say similar sparks of insight have pushed other graduates of the program to take charge of their education and improve their grades along the way.