In 1999, a group of Los Angeles politicians asked John Rogers, cofounder of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, for some data about the school district.
But instead of him doing the work, Rogers thought it would be more useful to have students do the research, because he felt that students would know better about the conditions in their communities. He created the Council of Youth Research, a program that gives high school students the training and opportunity to produce university-level research.
More than 10 years later, the Council is still recruiting students, regardless of grade point average, from South L.A. and East L.A., from Crenshaw, Locke, Manual Arts, Roosevelt and Wilson, to examine the lives of students like them.
“These are communities that have really been under-resourced and under-served, where students felt marginalized,” said Nicole Mirra, the program director for The Council of Youth Research and a graduate student at UCLA's GSE&IS. “So we thought it was especially important for students from schools in those neighborhoods to be given a chance to let their voices be heard.”
The students, who are recruited by teachers from the participating high schools, not only do research, but present their findings. The Council has given presentations at Los Angeles City Hall, the annual American Educational Research Association conference in New Orleans, and in the students' communities and schools.
Research is done through data collection, survey questions and interviews with students, teachers, administrators and people from the community— college-graduate level work.
“We go through the issues that everyone's going through, and research about that,” said Beverly Castillo, a graduate of Locke High School.
They also read college-graduate level material.
“A lot of people will argue and think that kids are too young to be doing this,” said Laurence Tan, a teacher at 122nd Elementary and the Locke High representative teacher. “But they're not too young to experience oppression, they're not too young to experience poverty and violence.”
Karina Arias is also aware of the doubts some may have.
“We're kids, we're young, and they feel that we can't do the research, but since we can do the research, it's like, I'm proving everyone wrong that I know I can,” said Arias, a 16-year-old senior from Locke, a member of Watts Youth Voices and an aspiring teacher.
The Council has tackled topics such as educational conditions at schools and in their communities; the changes brought on by Williams v. California, a class-action suit that alleged the state and other agencies failed to provide the basic needs for education; and how the economic crisis impacted the education of Los Angeles youth.
This year, the students from the Council are doing something new.
“Each group is going to have a partnership,” Mirra said. “They're going to think about the issues that their partner organization is most concerned about, and they're going to do research that's going to help them in their campaigns.”
For example, Roosevelt High is working with InnerCity Struggle from Boyle Heights. Each school group will come up with a research proposal, mirror images of the kinds of research proposals graduate students need to do to get their master's and doctorate degree, Mirra said. The groups will then continue their work at their schools.
For the Council, research is just a part — although an important part — of the overall goal of social justice.
Castillo, a returning veteran of the Council and a member of Watts Youth Collective, said it's also an opportunity to educate younger members.
“That they're eyes become open to the things that they go through, and that they're able to speak when they feel like injustice is being done towards them,” Castillo said.
During her first year in the Council, that ability was tested.
Castillo was in an advanced placement biology class with a new teacher. The teacher told the class that if the book was too hard, she could get another simpler book for the class to read.
Castillo was shocked. "Does this teacher think we're not able to read the book?," she thought. None of the other students had the same reaction.
Her work with the council taught Castillo about the possibilities of lowered expectations of teachers and society, she said. The council changed her perspective.
“It makes you question the system, the schools that you are in, why you're in those schools, why do teachers have lower expectations for students,” Castillo said. “It just really makes you think.”
That's one of the goals of the council: to get students to think about the conditions they live in and question it and do something about it.