Watts is a changing community: its population is shifting and the historically African-American neighborhood is welcoming families from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and even China. Students from all over the world, eager to learn and grow, congregate just north of the 105 freeway in South Los Angeles to attend Locke High School. While the community may be known for some of the largest public housing projects west of the Mississippi, it is also known for the iconic Watts Towers, community-based Watts Café, and a legacy of civic activism and civil protest. Students at Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy have participated in this legacy, as they have experienced the transformation of their neighborhood school into a public charter.
In the years since Alain LeRoy Locke’s transformation, the school has continued to represent the city as a powerhouse for marching band, athletics, and calculus. With nearly 100 percent of students receiving free lunch, the campus has consistently graduated more than 90 percent of seniors each year; many students live in foster care or in group homes, some struggle with homelessness, and others are simply surviving adolescence. Today, as I proctored the ACT in Room 202 of the main building, a concrete block hulk built in the 1960s as a response to community uprising, I was proud to watch my students prepare for college and life beyond the walls of this school.
This is my sixth year working in the community, proctoring tests, watching football games, and teaching 10th-grade English. I am one of the most senior English teachers on campus, a “veteran,” because of high transfer and turnover rates. (The drill team actually has a cheer, “So hard, so hard to be a Locke Saint.” Indeed.) I have remained at Locke because I understand the value of history in the community and realize our need to bear witness to our students’ struggles and successes. Students in this community need teachers who are committed to their future, and I am proud to be that kind of teacher. However, most sophomores at our school have six academic classes, but no electives for art or technology. We needed a chance to let students express themselves and share literature with the larger community.
Enter 826LA. The volunteers at 826 are amazing; they are smart, kind, and committed to supporting students. They brought a variety of talents–from filmmaking to spray painting–and really believed our students were able to succeed at writing, STEM, and art projects. At the end of our eight-week Macbeth unit, students created a poetry book, graffiti stencils, films, or graphic novellas. We presented our work in the new Locke innovation space and everyone received a copy of our self-printed book. We are planning this year’s follow-up, which should add in an app-making opportunity and well as tie robotics into our novel study. 826 also supports seniors at Locke with personal statements and, we hope, will enter ninth-grade classrooms to inspire our youngest students to love learning and enjoy school.
Locke is an unexpected oasis in South Los Angeles. The students are overcoming remarkable odds to graduate high school and attend college. Now, 826 helps us nurture the talents and beauty our students carry within themselves, to continue a legacy of arts and activism in the community of Watts.
-Kathleen Hicks, 10th-grade English teacher