Jefferson High School Program Aims to Ease Tensions, Broaden Horizons

Two and a half years ago, a series of racially charged brawls broke out at Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles. In their aftermath, the school district overhauled administration at the campus and poured resources into the school. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports on a new program at the campus intended to ease racial tensions and encourage college going.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: For one week, all of Jefferson's 650 ninth graders visited college campuses, deconstructed prejudice at L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance, and relied on each other in a survival course.

A few dozen students gathered in the high school library to share what they learned from all this. Ninth grader Joevonie Ware filtered his impressions through a poem.

Joevonie Ware: I am from a world of hatred, I am from a world of backstabbing, I am from a place where people live without a life. I am from a world where shooting is no surprise, I am from being a scrub, to a young man, to a high schooler. I am from overcoming my fear. I am from me and me only. I am gonna make the greatest achievement ever known.

[Sound of applause]

Guzman-Lopez: Fourteen-year-old Ricardo Hernandez said he realized that other lives might be possible for him.

Ricardo Hernandez: I learned so much about myself and other people. I learned that you don't have to be a gang banger, or a tagger, or any of those bad things to be accepted in our community and in our schools.

Guzman-Lopez: The mostly black and Latino neighborhood around Jefferson is in Congressman Xavier Becerra's district. Becerra told the students at this assembly about his working class roots, his work as a federal lawmaker, and the important role college played in moving him between the two. After that talk, Becerra said adults need to offer more time and attention to help young people succeed.

Congressman Xavier Becerra: To do something like this program is a very minor way of letting kids know: We think about you, we think you can succeed, and guess what? Someone sees that talent in you as well.

Guzman-Lopez: Jefferson's student brawls a couple of years ago led to a lot of civic hand-wringing about race relations. The fights also pulled the curtain back on a campus most L.A. Unified administrators had ignored for a long time.

Senior Samuel Guzman mentored ninth graders in this program. He said that's because he witnessed the meltdown at his school.

Samuel Guzman: I mean, at first it was just complete shock, you know, complete just pandemonium everywhere, you know? But after it sinks in, you know, you just realize how much responsibility you have to make it better, you know? You realize that nobody else is going to do it.

Guzman-Lopez: L.A. Unified officials felt they could make it better by re-assigning principal Juan Flecha from Eagle Rock High to Jefferson. Crime and poverty, Flecha said, still affect most of his students.

Juan Flecha: There are a lot of issues in the community that continuously spill over into our school, and some days are better than others, and we take it one day at a time.

Guzman-Lopez: Flecha said he'll have to apply that same approach to exposing every student to the human relations program. For now, he's hoping to expand it to include ninth and tenth graders.