January 16, 2012
Steel bars and chain-link fences surround most of Los Angeles Academy Middle School. With its tiny windows and high walls, the South Park campus looks as if it could house inmates, not 2,000 students.
When Karla Herrera, 13, points out her school to friends, their reaction is always the same.
“Oh, I thought that was a jail,” she said they tell her. “But it’s not. That’s my school.”
The seventh-grader woke at 6 a.m. Monday and commuted an hour by bus from her Florence-Graham home to school, where she spent the day shoveling dirt.
She was joined by six friends, who were assigned to soften the ground around the perimeter of the campus to make way for flowers and trees. The seven girls attacked the patchy, dying grass with shovels, rakes and garden brooms as tall as they are.
“It’s worth it,” Karla said. “I want to make it look nice.”
There was no school Monday at the middle school, but students and others flooded the campus for a day of community service to honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
A thousand volunteers spent the holiday painting murals, planting trees and transforming the barren walls of the school. The goal, said Principal Maria Borges, was to create a more inviting environment for students and to promote a college-going atmosphere.
The local project was part of a community service effortacross the country to commemorate the slain civil rights leader. For many, the holiday has become a day of community service, not just a day off work and school. In Washington, President Obama and his family evoked King’s words of service by volunteering at Browne Education Center.
“Dr. Martin Luther King was always an advocate of giving back to the community,” said volunteer Gwen Poindexter, 57, an attorney. “This is part of that spirit.”
Volunteers arrived at the Los Angeles Academy before the sun evaporated the morning dew. City Year, the Boston-based nonprofit organization that coordinated the event, assigned each group a four-hour project. Attorneys, professors, college students and construction workers came out in droves to volunteer. Disney, a corporate sponsor of the event, brought 100 workers and their families to get their hands dirty.
For the last seven years, the local chapter of City Year has organized community service projects at economically disadvantaged schools that have lost their luster.
Los Angeles Academy needed a face lift, students said.
The school, which opened in 1998, is often a canvas for graffiti and taggers. The courtyard, where students congregate during lunch, has the feel of a prison communal area. In fact, it was used in prison scenes in three movies, several school officials said.
But inside those walls, almost a third of the students are part of the gifted and talented program. These students, including Karla, enjoy many of the benefits of attending a magnet school but without needing extra transportation. The other two-thirds, however, have among the lowest test scores in the state. The school recently experienced a boost in its Academic Performance Index, but the school still falls in the bottom 10% of campuses in the state.
Ninety-two percent of the students are Latino. And about half are on free or reduced-priced lunch, a poverty indicator.
City Year members said they hope sprucing up the school will make students more eager to attend and possibly reduce the drop-out rate.
By noon, mulch covered the ground. Inside, the tan walls of the courtyard were adorned with artwork. Shades of blue, green and gray popped off the tiles. A hand-painted “welcome” sign will greet students every day alongside inspirational quotes and murals depicting school and college life.
Marie Sullivan, 28, delayed lunch so she could finish stroking pale blue paint on the wall. The USC graduate student could be in bed sleeping, but she said King’s selfless acts inspired her to do something positive in her community.
“We get a day off of work because of him,” she said. “We should honor him.”
Photo caption: Volunteers from UCLA paint a mural on the wall of an athletic field at Los Angeles Academy Middle School to honor the legacy of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King. (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times / January 16, 2012)