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Samohi May Get 'Village Nation' Program

Parents are hoping the mentoring program, which has been credited with raising test scores at a Reseda high school, can lessen racial tensions on campus. Officials say they'll know soon whether they're likely to get the program.

School officials say they should know by spring break the likelihood of bringing a popular mentoring program for black students—the Village Nation—to Santa Monica High School.  

The program was started in 2003 at Cleveland High School in Reseda and was inspired by the saying "It takes a village to raise a child." At the heart of the program is an all-black assembly where adults (called "elders") and youth can hash out issues in a safe environment.

The fact that the assemblies include only black people might make some people uncomfortable, but "we have to get comfortable," said Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board member Oscar de la Torre.

In Santa Monica, parents have pointed to the program's success at Cleveland High, where test scores rose significantly in the first year.

"I’m just sick and tired of being sick and tired," one woman told the Board of Education at its most recent meeting. "What is the holdup with bringing proven programs like Racial Harmony and Village Nation to the campus?"

Peggy Harris, the district's director of curriculum and instruction, recently visited Cleveland High to see Village Nation in action. The programs are now being used at other schools across the state. 

Harris said she is particularly interested in using Village Nation's models for teacher training and one of its forums, titled "Black Brown Love," designed to improve relations between Latino and black students.

Parents have blamed tensions between the minorities on recent fights on and near the Samohi campus. They also say there have been other incidents and that the situation has sparked student fears of larger race- or gang-based violence.

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An incident in May was the most recent that prompted discussions on how to improve race relations at the high school. Two white wrestling students used racial epithets—such as "slave for sale"—while after placing a noose around the neck of a brown practice mannequin.

After a criminal investigation, the two students entered a counseling program offered by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. If the students complete the program successfully, they will not face prosecution.

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In response to that incident, the board of education has charged administrators with coming up with new elective courses on ethnic studies that could be offered as early as September; offering annual "ethnic sensitivity" training to teachers; and reconstituting an Intercultural District Advisory Committee. 

The board also said it wants to ensure that support is provided to students 
adversely affected by the May incident, and their families, during the summer and upcoming school year.

School officials and parents appear to believe that closing the achievement gap through programs such as the Village Nation will help alleviate the racial tensions that have long beleaguered the campus.

"The idea of a concentrated course offering and then an experience, around racial harmony, is going to have an impact on improving relationships and cultural experiences," said de la Torre. "It's kind of two frames of mind and both of them have a place in our district."

One woman told the board that she is impressed with the district's recent efforts—including teacher training on how to prevent violence by males, and two community forums focused on race—but that those don't go far enough. She said there needs to be programs such as Village Nation on campus to teach students the implications of tying a noose around a brown dummy.

Bringing the Village Nation to Santa Monica High was a solution that .

Harris said that by spring break she would know the cost of the Village Nation programs and other details.

"I've been on this school board for 11 years, and we've had this discussion almost every other year. It's just a matter of moving it forward," said board member Maria Leon-Vazquez.

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