South Central Los Angeles: A Community In Transition
LA’s Southwest College seeks to keep pace with changing demographics
By Lydia Lum
os Angeles Southwest College perhaps best illustrates the rising tide of Latinos and other minorities sweeping into higher education institutions of deeply steeped Black heritage, and of the challenges and new growing pains such schools face.
The community college is perched in Watts in South Central Los Angeles. In the 2000 fall semester, 78 percent of students were Black, and 19 percent Latino. Thirteen percent of Southwest College students reported Spanish as their native language. In 1980, 98 percent of the enrollment was Black, virtually what it was in its 1967 inception.
With the fall semester recently under way, Southwest enrollment figures were not immediately available. But school officials expect the Latino influx into Southwest only to continue. The 2000 Census found Latinos comprise about 47 percent of the once mainly Black area of South Central Los Angeles. Blacks make up only 45 percent. Even 10 years earlier, Blacks were still 52 percent of the population in the so-called “service area” surrounding Southwest College, and Latinos only 36 percent, according to the Los Angeles Community College District.
So where does that leave Southwest? The college rose from the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots that drew national horror. In the upheaval, residents hit the streets to protest police brutality by the Los Angeles Police Department. The violence claimed 34 lives and injured 1,000 others. Studies later determined that poor educational opportunities, among other things, triggered the riots. The community college was finally created after many years of Watts residents clamoring for a school in their own neighborhood.
With such a well-defined history, and amid such rapid demographic shifts, what exactly is Southwest at this juncture? Is it still a primarily Black college? Or is it a melting pot? Should it even consider trying to serve as a melting pot?
“We should be a microcosm of this community,” says Dr. Janice Hollis, Southwest’s vice president of academic affairs. “That is my desire. We are making
adjustments. We all learn and grow from each other. That’s how we can prosper.”
Warren Furutani, a Los Angeles Community College District trustee who lives only a few miles from Southwest, agrees. “I say we anchor the history and
grow,” Furutani says. “This does not mean we reject the past. It’s safe to say that this is, historically, a Black college. But Southwest should be attractive to not only Blacks, but also to all students. So we should provide a solid academic program.”
In recent years, Southwest officials have tried to do that with only a handful of resources. Hollis says they have increased the number of classes for people preparing for naturalized citizenship exams. Their certified nursing assistance program, created because of demand, has been made up mostly of Latino students. Southwest officials are now recruiting students in local churches, frequenting not only Sunday services at Latino congregations, but also Korean. And, Hollis says, she and others want to reach out to the increasing numbers of Armenians, Panamanians and multiracial groups moving into South and South Central Los Angeles.
The stickler, though, is money. Southwest’s $18 million budget pales against the $50 and $60 million budgets of some of its Los Angeles sister schools. And with only 6,135 students in the 2000 fall semester, Southwest remains the smallest of the nine institutions of the Los Angeles Community College District. Because full-time enrollment drives state funding, Southwest has lagged behind its counterparts in the City of Angels.
“We just don’t have enough money for what we want to do, for what we need to do,” says Hollis, who has been at Southwest since 1993. Indeed, school officials may be forced to combine some English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to stretch dollars, she says.
Southwest is not among the officially recognized historically Black colleges as defined by federal law, and therefore does not receive federal assistance as such. Still, school officials have made a point to retain Black cultural outlets, such as film festivals and forums. The college has continued to house many of the events at the annual Watts Summer Games that draws more than 6,000 high schoolers to athletic, arts and academic competitions. Like Southwest, the Summer
Games also grew out of the 1965 riots aftermath and is designed to build cultural understanding through healthy competition.
“I have not seen nor heard of anyone who doesn’t want to be at Southwest just because of its Black heritage,” Furutani says. “Servicing the enrollment, but also acknowledging the Black history is an absolute plus.”
Despite published reports of possible friction between Blacks and Latinos at Southwest and in the surrounding community, neither Furutani, Hollis nor other educators say they are aware of any such ethnic rifts.
A Growing TREND
Nationally, educators expect this same trend to continue in urban areas as the country becomes more racially mixed. In the Dallas County Community College District, 21 percent of the enrollment in the fall 2000 semester was Black, 18 percent Latino. In 1970, only 11 percent was Black and 4 percent Latino. And just like in Los Angeles, some longtime, primarily Black neighborhoods in Dallas are growing increasingly Latino, with new residents spilling into higher education.
At the two-year Mountain View College, 35 percent of students in the fall 2000 semester were Latino and 29 percent Black. In 1970, 10 percent were Black and only 3 percent Latino. Mountain View is in the Oak Cliff neighborhood, historically a Black stronghold of Dallas, but has grown increasingly diverse in recent years, educators say.
Recognizing the growth, Dallas Community College District officials began an annual public awareness and recruitment fair in the early 1990s geared toward Latinos, says Dr. Bill Wenrich, chancellor of the 17,000-student college district. Called “Dia de la Familia,” or “Family Day,” college district representatives draw prospective students to campus with a combination of cultural events along with information about financial aid, curriculum and class atmosphere, Wenrich says.
The DCCCD also is offering more of its publications strictly in Spanish. And college district employees are offered salary bonuses if they can speak Spanish proficiently, Wenrich says.
In many of these urban areas, educators are expecting the influx of Latinos and other people of color to continue. In Long Beach, in far south Los Angeles County, 41 percent of K-12 enrollment is Latino, says Carol Welsh, biology professor at Long Beach Community College. And Long Beach public schools report that 41 languages are spoken at home by their students, Welsh says. Knowing that these students are college-bound sooner rather than later, college district officials are trying to hire more minorities into its faculty, says Welsh, who also is Title V coordinator for the U.S. Department of Education. “We simply need more minority role models in our faculty,” says Welsh, who is White.
Back at Southwest College, Hollis and other officials are striving to become more proactive, and not just reactive to the changing enrollment. More than 70 percent of their ESL students are taking the non-credit course, Hollis says. “We believe they are new to the (Los Angeles) area and their priorities are survival skills, employment skills. They will take a quick-and-dirty ESL class, without looking to transfer to a four-year school. I want to change that,” Hollis says.
What should help are recent stabilities in Southwest’s administration. Furutani and other Los Angeles trustees appointed Audre Levy to the Southwest presidency, ending a series of interim and acting officials in that job over the past five years, says Furutani. Levy, who assumed the top job late this summer, has held a variety of mid- and high-level administrative jobs at community colleges since 1989. Levy told Black Issues that she’s working around the clock to get up to speed on the college’s needs since her arrival from Edison Community College’s Collier campus in Naples, Fla. One of her first priorities, she says, is to update and expand Southwest’s course offerings to better compete with the other 14 institutions within a 20-mile radius of Southwest.
“I am predicting great success for Southwest,” says Furutani, who has lived most of his life in the Los Angeles area. “I see them succeeding not only with Black enrollment but also all enrollment.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com