Sunday, November 08, 2009

THREE’s A CROWD WHEN IT COMES TO EASTSIDE SCHOOLS: The addition of the Mendez learning center disrupts age-old campus loyalty -- to Roosevelt or Garfield highs, which are locked in a 75-year rivalry.



Victor Avila, 17, shows off his moves to peers at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center. Most of the students were transferred to the new campus from Roosevelt High. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times / November 5, 2009)

by Esmeralda Bermudez | LA Times

November 8, 2009 -- Things were a bit discombobulated last week on the Eastside, where a generations-old allegiance to Roosevelt Senior High School has been upset by a new relative: the recently opened Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center.

At Roosevelt, hallways shimmered with gold and crimson banners hung in anticipation of the biggest football game of the season, against Garfield High School.

At the new Mendez high school -- populated by many students transferred from Roosevelt's overcrowded campus -- the walls were bare; the gymnasium empty.

At Roosevelt, students celebrated spirit week and crowned a homecoming queen.

At Mendez, students felt unsure about their newly selected mascot, the jaguar. There were murmurs of school spirit. But there is no football team, no cheerleading squad, no queen to crown.

"We're starting with nothing," said Michael Mena, 15.

In neighborhoods that have long identified with Roosevelt or Garfield, Mendez students find themselves without a high school legacy that some said is as intertwined with the Eastside's story as is Mexican American culture. Next year, when Esteban E. Torres High School opens in East Los Angeles to alleviate overcrowding at Garfield, hundreds of other students will face similar change.

Some Mendez students are not fazed by the shift. They see the move as an opportunity to carve a new identity on the Eastside.

"It's a privilege," said Levi Hernandez, 16. "The choices we make now are going to help all future classes."

Others, particularly the 400 or so who were transferred to the new campus in September after attending Roosevelt one or two years, can't help but feel disoriented. A few said they are determined to transfer back to their former campus.

"I try not to think about it too much," said Usbaldo Camarena, 14. "I'm here, but I still feel like I'm a part of Roosevelt."

For more than 80 years, cousins, siblings, parents and grandparents have graduated from one of the two schools. Those in Boyle Heights distinguish themselves as Roosevelt Rough Riders. Those in East L.A., just east of Indiana Street, proudly call themselves Garfield Bulldogs.

Roosevelt claims Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as a graduate, along with USC's athletic director Mike Garrett and Clippers owner Donald Sterling. It also boasts an Olympic-sized pool used during the 1984 Olympics.

Notable Garfield grads include boxer Oscar de La Hoya, along with retired California Supreme Court Justice John Arguelles and four members of the musical group Los Lobos. The school was made famous by math teacher Jaime Escalante, who transformed the calculus program and was profiled in the popular movie "Stand and Deliver."

Both campuses were central to the historic 1968 walkouts, a series of protests aiming to improve conditions at Los Angeles schools.

"It's one of the few things people can really hold on to in a community where they don't have a lot of big materialistic things to brag about," said Roosevelt athletic director Mike Flores, who, like most of his relatives, is a Garfield graduate. "It's a deep pride they have."

Inside homes, barber shops, taco stands and at bus stops, the 75-year-old Roosevelt vs. Garfield football rivalry prompted relatives and friends to tease one another, to celebrate and reminisce. More than 20,000 crowded into the East Los Angeles College stadium Friday night. Roosevelt won 28 to 16.

At Mendez, students continued to brainstorm ideas to foster school spirit.

The leadership class conceptualized the school newspaper, which is expected to create unity on the gleaming campus at 1st Street and Mission Road. The week before, they organized their first school dance, attended by 90 out of 800 students. They also launched several new clubs, including chess, weight lifting and dance.

"We want to feel proud of our school, like we're a part of something," said David Martinez, a 15-year-old who is running for president in the school's first election. "But it's going to take time."

The opening of the $106-million campus was seen as a triumph in a community that until recently had little choice but to enroll students at Roosevelt, a low-performing school that struggled with nearly 5,000 students and a year-round schedule. The majority of Mendez students come from neighborhoods that were within Roosevelt's boundaries.

Students at Mendez -- named after a Latino couple who fought segregation in schools during the 1940s -- have more space and top-of-the-line equipment and learning materials. They attend either the campus' math and science school or a technology and engineering school.

By next school year, officials plan to add sports teams, including basketball and cross country. But chances of a football team are slim because the site does not have a football field.

School board President Monica Garcia praised the school spirit traditions on the Eastside, but she said she also expects Mendez students to deliver big on report cards.

"I want us to get as excited about reading at grade level and being career- and college-ready as we do about spirit week and football games," she said.

On Friday night, many of the newly minted Mendez Jaguars roared for Roosevelt as loudly as the Rough Riders.

Jasmine Cortez, 16, sat flanked by Roosevelt students and parents. She was transferred to Mendez from Roosevelt for her junior year.

As she watched the packed stadium and Roosevelt's cheer squad holler "Let's go Riders! Let's go!" she said she longed for her former school, but she recognized that she was part of something new. "One day, hopefully," she said, "Mendez can have all of this too."

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