Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Locke High School Students Defy Stereotypes

February 2002, L.A. Youth writer Bianca Gallegos investigates Locke High School, a campus in need of attention.

Some of L.A. Youth’s most closely read investigative articles are about schools. Readers alert us to problems on their campuses, or we hear stories about something that seems amiss, as in the case of Locke High School. Teen writer Bianca Gallegos, a senior at Marshall High School in leafy Los Feliz, was outraged that two LAUSD high schools could be so far apart in academic achievement, safety, graduation rate, etc.

“Teachers don't teach. Kids sneak textbooks out of the class. The best students leave and the worst students transfer in—that's how things have been at Locke High School in Watts, one of the most troubled schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Senior Lucia Ortiz described classes taught by substitutes, or by teachers who didn't bother with lessons. Other students told her that some teachers slept in class or talked on their cell phones.”

February 2010. Teacher Jerica Coffey invited L.A. Youth editors Mike Fricano and Laura Lee to speak to students in her English class at Locke High School #3. That first visit grew to a core group of young writers sharing their stories of growing up in South Central L.A. They defied the stereotypes as disengaged gangbangers and dropouts with compelling narratives about their goals for college and careers, providing a better life for their parents and changing the negative images of impoverished black and Latino teens by mainstream media. Covette, Gabriel, Yesenia, Maritza and Frank published their stories in our March issue.

We celebrated their achievements with a “blow-out” party – balloons, flowers, speeches and each student reading aloud their personal story. The school auditorium was filled with parents, friends, teachers from nearby middle schools, siblings and the L.A. Youth staff.

The group of five expanded to 12 eager writers in the past week and a commitment to meet every Thursday from 3 – 6 pm in Ms. Coffey’s classroom. Mike and Laura are reaching out to the community for a passionate journalist to share his/her time once a week at Locke so that every teen gets to experience a one-on-one relationship with an adult editor.

We’re a necessary idea.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Protect Children in Foster Care

L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten is outraged at the number of deaths of children in the L.A. County foster care system. So am I.

With a $2 billion budget, more than 7,000 employees and the highly experienced Trish Ploehn, Director of Dept. of Children and Family Services, overseeing the agency, where’s the safety net for kids? The tragedy of childhood death is a larger social issue, addressing individuals in their environment with layers of poverty, addiction and domestic violence.

Parents have a duty to protect their children from harm. Children enter the child welfare system unprepared for the onslaught of social workers, police officers, mental health professionals, lawyers, judges and others. Their role is to protect the child. Child welfare practitioners and policymakers must be more responsive to the communities they serve. Private caregiver agencies must be monitored with more frequency and closed for even minor infractions.

I want social workers to be more aggressive in investigating and removing children from parents, foster parents and other caregivers with the first sign of abuse. And, I want child welfare workers and parents to access family support services and reunification where a positive outcome is possible.

L.A. County Dept. of Children and Family Services reduced staff and cut support services due to the budget crisis. The Board of Supervisors need to rescind the order for budget cuts. The county needs to hire more social workers, lighten the case worker load and provide more staff training before another child dies.

I’ve worked with foster youth who’ve had a positive experience with a social worker. As the publisher of L.A. Youth, the newspaper by and about teens, I’m extremely proud of our special project giving youth in the foster care system an opportunity to tell their personal stories. Through the Foster Youth Writing and Education Project, which began in 2003, we provide foster youth an opportunity to reflect on their experiences and a forum to voice their concerns, while also informing readers about the system and the challenges foster youth face every day.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Reunion

“We need progressive health care, tax reform, creative social welfare, job opportunities.” All part of Obama’s 2008 campaign – not! These were 29-year-old Cathy O’Neill’s messages to voters in 1972 as she campaigned for the 23rd District State Senate seat.

I was part of her ambitious and enthusiastic cadre of volunteers in the general and primary elections. We set up campaign headquarters in her neighbor’s garage in Pacific Palisades. Most of us were young mothers, toting diaper bags and strollers in the crowded space. We stuffed envelopes, walked precincts, made phone calls (with crying babies in the background), urging voters to endorse the bright, visionary candidate.

Cathy, a young social worker and political activist, lost the election by a few hundred votes.

Losing the election didn’t stop Cathy. She went on to found the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, a leading United States-based advocacy organization focusing on the needs of refugee women and displaced families. Op-eds frequently appeared with her byline in national and international publications. President Clinton appointed her Director of the United Nations Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Sunday afternoon we held a campaign reunion in the same Palisades home, this time indoors, continuing the “potluck” campaign tradition. How did 38 years passed so quickly? We shared photos of grandchildren, compared Medicare plans, chatted about our winding-down careers and complained about the lack of social reform. Cathy joined us late in the afternoon having spent the past few days in a hospital ICU. Her loving husband, noted journalist and author Richard Reeves, pushed her wheelchair up the stairs while we clapped and cheered at her tenacity to party while immobile and whispered voice. Multiple surgeries in the past 10 years, followed by other complications would depress anyone, yet this vibrant woman managed to join in the laughter as we told campaign stories -- hors d’oeuvres (Lipton onion soup blended with sour cream and a bag of chips served 50 people at one fundraiser) her campaign wardrobe limited to three suits and how she defended her position as a Catholic pro-choice while under attack from local churches.

Cathy never compromised her values, unlike many of our current elected officials. She paved the way for women to seek office and challenged the status quo. The same issues she was passionate about are shouted by community organizers at rallies, in churches, at backyard barbeques, and on the Internet, etc. Sadly, we haven’t made much progress since 1972.

Cathy’s legacy is extraordinary.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Modest Man

Tributes to movie executive Gareth Wigan filled the pages of Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, New York Times and international entertainment blogs when he passed away Feb. 13. He was a highly respected producer, studio executive and production chief at Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox and partnered with Alan Ladd, Jr., Lucy Fisher and others.
I celebrate his life and contributions as a dedicated volunteer and strategic advisor to L.A. Youth. We met last year when he called to inquire about getting involved with us, not just sitting on the board to raise funds, but to participate in day-to-day programs we offer young journalists.
Last night there was a memorial service for Gareth at Sony Pictures. Tributes by top entertainment talent, clips from his many films and amusing stories by his children brought me to tears.
He never mentioned his distinguished career. We were too busy talking politics, L.A.’s high school drop-out crisis, his love of opera and my constant angst about raising money for L.A. Youth. We even branched out to share notes about our families.
Bluster and ego so often displayed by Hollywood executives was not his style. We will miss his quiet dignity and contribution to L.A. Youth.