Students at Crenshaw High fill out health questionnaires as part of the Urban League's Neighborhoods@Work health program at the campus. (Olga Khazan)
Los Angeles Urban League CEO and President Blair Taylor gathered civic leaders on the steps of Crenshaw High School and announced a major five-year, $25 million effort to address academic problems at the high school and an array of social ills that bedevil residents of the 70-block neighborhood surrounding the campus. It was rare to see so many of the city's competing and sometimes rival politicians and agency chieftains come together and jointly endorse such an effort.
Representatives of the LAPD, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, the L.A. City Attorney's Office and L.A. Unified School District, among others, showed up for the 2007 ceremony and signed on to support one of the most far-reaching campaigns by a non-profit in city history aimed at turning around a distressed neighborhood in South Los Angeles.
So comprehensive and ambitious was the project in theory, that the Urban League and others suggest that the Neighborhoods@Work program be expanded throughout Los Angeles and eventually cloned nationwide. It wasn't just public agencies that offered support. Numerous entities from the corporate and private sector - ranging from Bank of America to Microsoft to the University of Southern California - also pledged funding or in-kind support.
Now, at the project's midway point, Neon Tommy reporters immersed themselves in the school and community for the past four months to gauge the progress made by the Urban League's Neighborhoods@Work program. We interviewed teachers, students, public officials, homeowners, law enforcement, experts, academics, administrators, Urban League staff and leadership and the organization's partners.
Three years into the program, a 15-percentage point drop in violent crime and a 10-percentage point decline in the high school dropout rate top the list of achievements. Along the way, League officials have assembled a staff of 33 people to steer partnerships with public agencies and private partners in addressing the health, public safety, jobs, education and housing needs of residents. Some 22 block clubs have been set up to hear their concerns.
But there also have been setbacks and financial shortfalls and some of the original goals go unmet. In these harsh economic times, fundraising lags behind the original goal announced on the steps of Crenshaw High that day in 2007.
Taylor said pledges total $15 million, but a chunk of the money has yet to come in.
"Some of the funds have been committed to be paid in future years, but have not yet been received," Taylor said.
More than 98 percent of the money for Neighborhoods@Work comes from private donations, he said. The Urban League's tax filings show private donors contributed $9.8 million to the Urban League since the start of the Neighborhoods@Work program. It's unclear how the Urban League divvied up the money among its various programs or how much went to Neighborhoods@Work. Any donations made in recent months are also unknown.
''Be advised that the nonprofit status of the Los Angeles Urban League does not require an 'open book' on our finances,'' Taylor wrote in an e-mail to Neon Tommy last week.
In all, the Urban League brought in $23.4 million last year, with all but one-fifth coming from government grants, according to the IRS filing.
Reforms at Crenshaw High have come too slowly for L.A. Unified's Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who told Taylor in January that he had "serious concerns" about "the lack of progress," according to a series of e-mails obtained by Neon Tommy through a California Public Records Act request.
Cortines warned that if he did not see significant improvement soon, "Crenshaw is next on my list to deal with...just as I have dealt with Fremont." That was an ominous threat. Last December, Cortines fired all of the staff at Fremont High School, allowing them to re-apply for their jobs or transfer to other schools.
In his written response to Cortines' e-mail, Taylor defended the work of the Greater Crenshaw Educational Partnership, made up of the Urban League, USC and the Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation. In 2008, the partnership signed a five-year agreement with L.A. Unified to help run Crenshaw High School. Talk of taking any steps similar to those at Fremont "seem to me to be premature, counterproductive and ill advised," Taylor wrote.
Taylor sought more time to produce a dramatic turn-around at Crenshaw, which is among the lowest-performing high schools in the district.
He said the Urban League helped secure jobs and internships for Crenshaw students, and that it has started working to strengthen the curriculum in the elementary and middle schools that feed Crenshaw.
"No one is more committed to changing this school's outcomes than I am, and I daresay that over the past two years, very few people have invested more time, energy or resources," Taylor said in his Jan. 14 response to Cortines. "But to be clear, I will be among the first to admit it if we really cannot do this. In the end, I want that school to change. Period. That's what our community and our kids deserve."
In a second frosty e-mail exchange in March, also obtained by Neon Tommy, Cortines said that progress at Crenshaw was too much in question to consider Taylor's suggestion that the Urban League's role be expanded into other schools.
In an interview in early April, Cortines said he detected a better "tone" at Crenshaw during a recent visit to the school. He gave most of the credit for the school's progress to Principal Carrie Allen, who arrived last year. In discussing the role of the partnership, Cortines said he thought Crenshaw had been used to score points in fundraising, but he would not single out any of the partners for this criticism. He praised USC's role in curriculum work at the school while not offering any similar compliments to the Urban League. "I think partnerships are important but I think they need to focus on the primary purpose and that's to help that school be successful and partnerships should not be used for political gain or money raising," Cortines said.
The partnership at Crenshaw High School is the most visible part of the Urban League's campaign to revitalize the Park Mesa Heights neighborhood surrounding the school. The five elements of the Urban League's program are intertwined. Making progress on three fronts- health, housing and even education -- hinges on drastic improvements in employment and safety and while some measurable progress has been achieved in some areas, others seem unimproved nearly three years into the program. Unemployment in the area still hovers at around 30 percent, and by Taylor's reckoning, Crenshaw High students "walk through two or three gang territories to get there." This disrupts the learning environment at the school, where teachers and researchers say some students live as if they are in a warzone.
Crenshaw High's challenges extend beyond academics. In spite of the focus that N@W has placed on the school itself, Crenshaw teachers blamed broken security cameras for allowing a student, who was carrying what turned out to be a BB gun, to make his way undetected onto campus, causing a lockdown on April 15. Fire alarms routinely sound in the afternoon without reason. The school partnership's interim director, Rudy Crew, said "it doesn't make any sense" that Crenshaw lacks working security cameras, adding, "There's something wrong with a system that can't do that, can't deliver that."
Neighborhoods@Work also targets the economic struggles of residents, with mixed results. Some 209 residents in the 90043 zip code, which includes Park Mesa Heights, lost their homes in foreclosureslast year.
For decades, Crenshaw residents had jobs in car and textile manufacturing plants, and Crenshaw High was a good, strong public school when it opened in 1968. But the 1980s crack epidemic and 1992 race riots spooked away businesses and more affluent residents.
Over time, churches have settled into once-empty storefronts. The drug trade and the rise of gangs led to high incarceration rates and single-parent households struggling to make ends meet.
A Los Angeles historian, Christopher Jimenez y West, put it this way: "The changing demographics of the Crenshaw neighborhood are indicative of the changes going on writ large in South L.A."
Given the entrenched nature of the problems that the Urban League and its partners are confronting, few would expect that they be eradicated in five years. But there are differing views on the degree of progress made in the first three years. Urban League leaders say elements of the project could be replicated nationwide as part of President Obama's Promise Neighborhoods program.
The Urban League provided $250 in gift certificates to recent graduates of a city-wide bootcamp at Audubon Middle School, a last chance before troubled students are kicked out of school. The camp includes a parenting class that police say is vital. "The kids are fantastic," said LAPD Officer Erwin Rocha. "The problem is they leave me, then they go back to the same environment that caused the problem and start to act up again. The key thing is to get the parents on board."
Kuliema Blueford, the head of the Urban League's employment section framed the successes in human terms: "If you see the guy who used to hang on the corner all the time getting up in the morning and putting on his uniform and going to work, and you see that same mother who was on welfare doing the same thing, then the whole community is being lifted up."â€¨
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author, political analyst and social issues commentator who has lived in the area for more than 40 years, said he had high hopes for the initiative. But when it came to his overall assessment of the project, Hutchinson was unsure whether it would work.
"The short answer is no," he said. "From what I can see when you look at the focus--Crenshaw High School and neighborhood revitalization--when you really look at the school, the neighborhood, it looks exactly like it did five years ago. In some ways there may even be greater deterioration--test scores, student performance levels, etc. are still abysmally low...When you look at the area around there in terms of housing, streets, repair, upkeep, maintenance, recreation i.e. parks, general businesses in the area, you still see essentially a community and a neighborhood like time has stood still. So even with the best efforts, and I have no doubt, certainly the initiative is a good one, a sincere one, but the bottom line is, has it really radically made a difference in improving not only the quality of education but the quality of life in the neighborhood? I have to honestly say no. But having said that the revitalization effort had to be made, and with time the UL's effort may pay off."
When the final chapter is written about Neighborhoods@Work, praise and criticism will likely abound, framed around the personal experiences of those touched by its programs. Until then, Neon Tommy spent time with community members and saw up close some of the challenges and triumphs.
Olga Khazan observes the stressful lives of teachers and students during her visits to Crenshaw High School. She met parent-resource coordinator Sybel Stanley, known simply as Granny to students, one of the delightful lifelines who helps make Crenshaw High work.
Callie Schweitzer profiles Neighborhoods@Work chief community organizer Pamela Bakewell, who's often forced to hear about her more famous brother Danny during her visits with residents. Watch Pamela Bakewell spread the Urban League message.
Andrew Khouri goes on a ride-along with patrol officers and talks with the private security team led by a Nation of Islam member, and sees what's led to the dramatic drop in serious crime. In an interview, student Brandon Hunter describes how much safer he feels at school.