Locke High: Empowering Positive Change in Watts

Dr. Peggy Gutierrez

By Dr. Peggy Gutierrez

Principal at Alain LeRoy Locke High School since 2008

The Flashpoint

At 7pm on the evening of August 11th 1965, a Wednesday, at the intersection of Avalon Boulevard and 116th street, Marquette Frye was stopped and arrested for driving under the influence. The incident quickly escalated into one of the largest and deadliest riots in U.S. history. By the time the police and National Guard had restored order six days later, 35 people had died, 864 had been injured, thousands arrested, and 977 properties were damaged.

The Role of Education

Following the riots, California Governor Pat Brown convened a commission to investigate the cause and impact of the riots: Violence  in the City—An and or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965. Fifty years later, the report makes for fascinating reading; not least for just how much the report’s findings still resonate. The Commission identified poor educational outcomes in Watts as the root cause for the chronic unemployment, poverty, and high crime that had provided the kindling to the riots. Among their recommendations was the introduction of mandatory pre-school, smaller class sizes, and a community schooling approach that could better support the social and emotional needs of children.

Alain Leroy Locke Senior High School was opened in 1967 in direct response to the riots and the commission’s call for improved educational opportunities in the community. The school was created to provide children in South Los Angeles a safe and secure place of learning.  Named after the famed African American writer and philosopher who played such a crucial role in the development of the Harlem Renaissance, the school was committed to a comprehensive program that guaranteed the intellectual, moral, social, emotional, and physical development of all students. Forty years after its idealistic founding, however, Locke High School was considered one of L.A.’s most troubled and chronically under-performing public high schools, sending only 5% of its entering ninth graders to four-year colleges.

Fresh Opportunities

This summer, as the city of Los Angeles (and the nation) pauses to acknowledge the 50-year anniversary of the Watts Riots, we actively seek opportunities to praise the progress made in the community even as we recognize the work still to be done to fully achieve its unrealized potential. Sources ranging from the LA Times to the U.S. Economic Development Administration have looked closely at the historical causes of the unrest as well as the positive effect of current solutions. A recent KCET feature highlights the work of Watts Re:Imagined, The Children’s Institute, The Eastside Riders Bike Club, and the Al Wooten Jr Heritage Center.

Locke A Graduation 2015 233Since 1999, Green Dot has been committed to opening and operating successful public schools in those communities most in need of high-quality educational options. In 2008, Los Angeles Unified School District authorized Green Dot to assume operations at Locke High School, which had become one of the most chronically low-performing schools in the country. Seven years later, the Alain LeRoy Locke High School graduates students on par with state averages, sends 10 times as many students to college as under LAUSD control, and prepares students for University of California and California State University schools at nearly four times the rate of its district neighbors. Green Dot also works with over twenty local partners to provide health and wellness services to students and their parents through the Locke Wellness Center and offers a schedule of adult education programs that reach over 2,000 parents each year.

But for all the efforts of non-profit organizations, local entrepreneurs, and community groups, Watts remains significantly under-resourced. The annual A Portrait of California report, produced by the American Human Development Project, continues to rank the neighborhood as the most impacted in the state in terms of limited life expectancy, minimal educational attainment, and low household income. Green Dot is committed to continuing to work with the communities we serve to reclaim the ambitious vision laid out by the Governor’s Commission fifty years ago and return public education in Watts to a place of promise and inspiration. Only through high-quality public schools can Watts continue its trajectory of revitalization, and only through collaboration can high-quality public schools succeed.

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