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A Brief History of Crenshaw High School

In 1968, Crenshaw High School opened as a 25-acre flagship campus in South LA that would level the playing field between schools in black neighborhoods and schools in white neighborhoods. At the time, school leaders promised this school would reduce overcrowding, offer one-of-a-kind classes, and feature cutting-edge media technology.

Years later, the school battles with dwindling enrollment. How did this promising school result in a reputation for academic underachievement, gang violence, and championship-winning sports? And is that even still true today?

Special thanks to Rodney Lytle for suggesting this episode for the Recap.

Today we’re looking at Crenshaw High School’s unique history that stretches back to the early 60s, and how the campus and its reputation has evolved over 50 years of serving students

Humble Beginnings 

With new funds from a 1960 school bond, the Los Angeles Board of Education planned a series of new schools to offset the rapidly growing population of the City of Los Angeles. In its expansion strategy, South LA would get two brand new high schools, Crenshaw High School, and Alain LeRoy Locke High School, which were both designed to alleviate the rising enrollment at Dorsey, Manual Arts, and Washington high schools.

In March of 1963, the Los Angeles school board announced plans to buy 130 parcels of land for the proposed Crenshaw High School in the Park Mesa Heights community, which is just South of Leimert Park and View Park Windsor Hills. 

By this time, the residential neighborhoods of Southwest Los Angeles had already matured around monumental developments, such as the Crenshaw Center, the Vision Theater, and Dorsey High School. However, in order to build a 25-acre campus, Crenshaw High School would have to take the place of several established buildings in the Park Mesa Heights neighborhood. The school would require 130 parcels of land.

The Los Angeles School Board agreed to purchase the parcels for $16,000 each. The school board faced pushback from some landowners. And, as a result, a few parcel-owning residents were able to squeeze a bit more out of board. By 1966, the 25 acres were secured by the board, and the school was ready to move forward with construction, with an expected opening date of January 1968.  . 

In April of 1966, the school was expected to cost $6.5 million. It would include over 80 classrooms, a library resource center, a two-story shop building, a boys’ and girls’ gymnasium, a cafeteria, a multipurpose building, a ceramic building, and a physical education field. On top of the new opportunity-bound buildings, the school board promised a specialized curriculum that would include foreign language. The Southwest Topic Wave reported it as “the most modern school in the Los Angeles city school district.” 

The development of this school in a growing black neighborhood was huge because the Los Angeles Unified School District was accused of segregating its schools across the city for decades. Not by law, per se, but through small subtitles that could easily be confused as chance or choice. As early as 1942, black residents protested against the Los Angeles Board of Education, claiming the school district manipulated boundary lines to enroll fewer black students. This rezoning practice excluded many black students from nearby schools with large white populations. Now, in a turn of events, the most modern school in the district at the time, Crenshaw High School, would be accessible to black students.

The Los Angeles School Board, acknowledging former claims of segregation, believed that the Crenshaw High School would “attract students, regardless of race, from other parts of the district,” because of its specialized curriculum

Keeping A Promise 

By early January of 1968, days before the spring semester began, the construction of the school was behind schedule, but the Los Angeles school board promised that it would still admit students, despite several buildings being unfinished across campus. The district expected a spring enrollment of 1,650 students

Crenshaw High School started off with booming success. At the start of its fall semester, it was chosen as the first high school in Los Angeles to receive a closed circuit television for science and math department usage.

Crenshaw was also reported as one of the first high schools to offer a course in laboratory animal technology. It also had a strong mock trials program where students staged trials in the Los Angeles Superior courtroom.  The Crenshaw High School had a chapter of Future Farmers of America, coupled with an agricultural program that produced countywide winners in livestock, crops, and horticultural projects. And on the academic front, the school had students winning National Scholarships, college grants, and so much more. And in March of 1971, only three years into the school’s existence, the notorious Crenshaw High School basketball team won its first basketball championship

Despite being an inner-city school, Crenshaw High School proved otherwise with its fantastic instruction, award-winning students, and unique instruction opportunities. Things could only get better from here, right?

Throwing Crenshaw High under The Bus

One way or another, success often comes to an end. And for Crenshaw, it was in the early 70s. After the first four years of the school, I noticed a reduced frequency of how often newspapers reported on Crenshaw High School. While not necessarily connected, the relationship between schools on the Westside and black students changed. In the 1970s, a series of court rulings propelled Los Angeles Unified School District to begin bussing economically disadvantaged kids from their neighborhoods to more affluent neighborhoods for schooling. 

Knowledge of bussing is crucial to understanding how it had impacted Crenshaw. Families now had a choice of where to send their students instead of being hooked to the neighborhood school. 

At the same time, in the early 70s, the reporting of Crenshaw High School transitioned from being overwhelmingly positive to almost a weekly crime watch. Like this report of a high school student shot on campus on his way to class during a mugging gone wrong. Or this Crenshaw student among many others who was expelled for assaulting a teacher with his fist. Even worse, when the school’s black principal called the school “Fort Crenshaw,” in the face of rising gang violence that hindered the once monumental and specialized instruction. The worst story I read was in 1975 where a group of vandals broke into the high school and caused over $45,000 in damages. In that loss was the Closed Circuit Television System–which, only 7 years earlier, Crenshaw was the first school in the city to receive. 

This uptick in violence didn’t help the school when it found itself at the crux of Los Angeles’ school bus debates. In 1977, the Los Angeles Unified School District was transporting more than 18,000 students, mostly black students, to schools in white neighborhoods. Some parents in South LA felt like the schools on the westside and in the valley were not only safer, but of a better quality

In one article in particular, a Times staff writer wrote a piece on how many Black families were divided on sending their students to the local school, or bussing them farther away. One parent who lived in the vicinity of Crenshaw said that “Crenshaw High isn’t safe. I don’t want my kids shot or knifed. I don’t want to expose them to the violence, the police cars circling around the school at all times.“ 

That article cut so deep that the Crenshaw High School student government responded to that article a week later in the Times. They said, “To categorize Crenshaw as ‘a school of violence’ is grossly unfair when violence in schools is a community-wide, city-wide, nation-wide occurrence, highly publicized in some areas and a well-kept secret in others.”

Despite the schools growing association with crime and loss of instruction, one thing remained consistent at Crenshaw High School: The sports. In fact, by the 1980s, the LA Times limited much of its reporting to the high school sports teams.  You’ll find early sports reports of Darryl Strawberry, then a burgeoning high school baseball player. And the Crenshaw High School basketball team, of course, remained undisputed champions.  

And the school became almost solely known for its athletics. But that didn’t help its enrollment. 

In the 90s, Crenshaw High School saw a resurgence outside of sports. For starters, through a nonprofit partnership, the high school opened a Martin Luther King Jr. museum. In performing arts, the school saw a revival in its music program that later performed for Prince Charles during his visit to Los Angeles in 1994. And there was also a revival of the school’s agricultural program–where students owned and created products though their student-ran farming business.     

As the Park Mesa Heights and the Crenshaw neighborhoods see a demographic transformation, the Crenshaw High School has struggled to maintain its once strong enrollment.

In 1974, Crenshaw High School enrolled  2,900 students. By 1985, the school’s population dwindled to around 1,800 students. Even with growing school pride and revamped offerings, the enrollment in 2012 fell to just over 1,200 students.

As an effort to reimagine the school and build more appeal to families, Crenshaw High School split into three magnets in 2013: Today you’ll find a science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine Magnet; A Business entrepreneurship magnet; and a visual and performing arts magnet. Today, the Crenshaw High School has an enrollment of around 750 students.

But this student enrollment issue is rampant Southwest Los Angeles. The once overcrowded schools of Dorsey and Crenshaw had to cancel their football openers because there were too few students enrolled.  

Even with falling enrollment, there are still developments planned for the school. In 2018, Crenshaw High School underwent a $100 million renovation that would include a new cafeteria, a new eating area and a new performing arts center.

Today, Crenshaw High School competes with so many others, but there is something uniquely representative of the South LA region and its history within it. 

Even more so, the school has a long list of alumni, including Rapper Ice-T, Baseball player Darryl Strawberry, James T. Butts, Jr., the mayor of Inglewood, and radio talk show host and former contender for Governor during the second California Recall: Larry Elder. 

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