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The L.A. Riots: Impact and Aftermath

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At 2:30 P.M. last April 29, I was driving through South Central Los Angeles. We had just visited a promising "Schools with Purpose'' class of young black males on a junior high school campus in Inglewood.

I drove north on Crenshaw and located the home of a childhood friend. I turned east on Vernon and found the dance studio where I learned ballroom dancing as a 13-year-old. Turning north on Figueroa, I glimpsed my old elementary school and noticed the street sign pointing to our public-library branch, Junipero Serra. I didn't turn to drive by it.

I wish I had.

At 3:15 P.M., the verdict was returned in the Rodney King case. Later that day, Junipero Serra Library was burned to the ground.

My losses are only memories. The losses of the Los Angeles community are staggering, in human and material terms. Little time is available to begin the process of recovery.

Where to begin to rebuild? Besides our own families, schools are the life blood of our society, the transmitters of knowledge and values, the institution that binds us together as citizens with a shared history and a shared future.

But schools cannot exist as islands in urban America. They must be the link between families, social services, and jobs. They must have full support from those who legislate and make policy, and they must insure that students are prepared with the moral, academic, and human skills for a productive job that is guaranteed to them if they do their part.

Anything less will not be sufficient to break the cycle of poverty and challenge the rule of street gangs.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, a people in a democracy cannot be both ignorant and free. His words, no less true today, mean what we all know in our hearts: The viability of a democratic society depends on an educated citizenry.

It is critical to the future of our children--and our country--that no further cuts be made in public education.

Almost 1.6 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 live in Los Angeles County. More than half of them are at risk of dropping out of school because of poverty, limited English proficiency, and racial, ethnic, or sexual discrimination.

Urban students face difficult everyday realities. They see the connection between low motivation and poor academic achievement, they experience firsthand the increasing interethnic tensions and rampant gang activity, and they know the feeling of powerlessness to affect these and other related conditions in their community.

The impact of the spring riots in Los Angeles was to focus the nation's attention on the wretched conditions in many inner-city neighborhoods, the despair of people who cannot find work and struggle to hold body, soul, and family together, and the crumbling public school system, barely held together with taped-over patchwork funding.

Since then, the California legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson have grappled over the state budget, which at this writing was in the process of being settled. As all educators know, the budget is extremely complex, but suffice it to say that funding for public education in California, especially in relation to school spending in the rest of the country, continues on its downward slide.

In the wake of the riots, a number of proposals have been made to try to come to grips with the social and economic inequalities, the joblessness, the lack of properly funded schools, the crime and drugs, the despair, anger, and cynicism that fester in inner-city Los Angeles (read: inner-city America).

The first major proposal to come to light is R.L.A. (previously known as Rebuild L.A.), a large consortium of leaders from all sectors of public life, headed by Peter Ueberroth, which has only just begun preparing the ground for "rebuilding'' Los Angeles. It is too soon yet to have seen results from this mighty effort, but it appears that the public education sector, as a fundamental component of the social structure, might be underrepresented.

More recently, the U.S. Education Department has provided a $7 million grant to underwrite a one-year project, beginning this fall, that will concentrate on a variety of job-training, vocational-education, and adult-education services. The money will be used to help about 2,800 high school dropouts, at-risk youths, and adults who are unemployed, need retraining in new occupations, or lack the English to get jobs and job information.

This summer, as a result of the Los Angeles riots--and while the state budget was still being thrashed out in Sacramento--the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the eight inner-city school districts hardest hit by the riots took the initiative and submitted a comprehensive education proposal to four federal departments--Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development--which addresses the critical community and educational needs of inner-city youths.

The proposed Educational Enterprise Zones program has three main thrusts: summer youth programs, school-to-work transition programs, and the creation of a new curriculum for elementary schools that stresses nonviolence and intergroup relations.

  • Summer Programs for Youths. We must begin creating entry-level jobs immediately. It is absolutely essential to involve private industry in exploring job training and mentoring. It is also important to expand educational opportunities for youths through summer school, tutoring, and vocational and technological training.
  • School-to-Work Transition. Entry-level jobs for young people must be tied to their enrollment in training programs which will focus not only on occupational training but also core academic, interpersonal, and critical-thinking skills.

Past efforts at occupational-training programs for high-risk youths have had limited success because there were few or no jobs waiting for those who had taken the training. We believe that business, labor, government, education, and community organizations must collaborate to insure that all those who successfully complete the occupational programs can be placed in jobs.

The collaboratives should insure that 18- to 24-year-olds receive at least 10 hours of job-acquisition skills before sending them out for entry-level employment. In addition, 14- to 17-year-olds should receive initial training in job preparation, supplemented with job-entry experiences. These young people should also be required to participate in basic community-service or neighborhood programs such as planting trees, cleaning, and painting before graduating from middle or high school.

There are more than a million persons between the ages of 18 and 24 in Los Angeles County. A conservative estimate, based on census data, suggests that at least 120,000 unemployed young persons would be eligible for occupational-preparation programs.

The needs of this hard-core unemployed group--many of whom were involved in the riots--must be met. If they can become gainfully employed, the chances are good that vandalism, theft, drug abuse, and other antisocial behaviors can be reduced.

  • New Curriculum. In the elementary schools, teachers must be trained in the techniques of nonviolent intervention and conflict resolution, using existing training programs and TV-satellite staff development to bring national experts into every district. Simultaneously, we must create new curricula for younger students in values education and intergroup relations to give them positive alternatives that can counteract the degraded values of the gang and drug subculture.

The tragic riots in Los Angeles focused our attention on the plight of inner-city families and their children, many of whom live in third-world conditions. All too often these children see their present and future ravished by poverty and urban decay. There are too few doors to mainstream life open to them.

The only doors that have always been open to these children--freely, no questions asked, no applications made--are those of the public schools, yet the state's chronic budget crisis continues to undermine public education.

If the Los Angeles riots had any meaning beyond the explosion of a people's pent-up rage over long-standing racism, social injustice, and wholesale disenfranchisement, it would be that the building of a foundation for a better life has to begin now.

Our guiding principle is that education is the fundamental component of social and economic change. Education unlocks the doors to jobs. A steady income fosters stronger families, which foster stronger neighborhoods. It all connects.

Therefore, it is crucial that we begin immediately to teach social and moral values and techniques of nonviolent crisis resolution to younger children, and motivate older at-risk students to stay in school and help them become fully enfranchised, productive citizens with education and job training.

Stuart E. Gothold is the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools.

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