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Brief History on Jefferson High School in South LA | The Rise and Rebirth of Jefferson

Near the corner of 41st Street and Hooper Avenue, you’ll find Thomas Jefferson High School, the fourth oldest public high school in Los Angeles. The massive campus, home of the Democrats, sits in the working-class community of Nevin, which is just east of the Historic South Central neighborhood. 

But what’s the story of this massive art deco-style school and what does it mean to South Los Angeles as a region? 

Well to start, we’ll have to look at the original Jefferson High School that was built in 1916. 

Building Jefferson High School 

In the summer of 1915, The Los Angeles Times reported on the Los Angeles School District’s plans to build a $250,000 campus that would occupy the stadium east grounds, which was then used as an open event field for bicycle races, rodeos, and more, before the advent of the present Coliseum near USC. Jefferson High School was a part of a $4.6 million initiative that LA city voters approved to expand the city’s elementary and high school capacity. 

Jefferson was planned to be big from the very start. Architect Norman F. Marsh, who served as principal architect of design and construction for the City of Venice, designed the original Jefferson High School campus. 

Marsh’s final design of Jefferson’s original campus was as elegant as it was fireproof. He designed in the colonial revival style of architecture, complete with prominent columns. And the campus’ initial structures, which towered over the 19 acre campus, were built using brick and concrete, and were trimmed with artificial stone.

Opening Jefferson High School 

Jefferson opened for instruction on September 11, 1916, with 24 faculty members, a growing enrollment of around 500 students, and an even larger roster of opportunity for the students. The Los Angeles City School District equipped Jefferson to help students along a college-level pathway, accommodating math, science, and art courses in its main classroom building. And it also had facilities for vocational training and animal husbandry

During its initial semesters, Jefferson also expanded its sports program by onboarding one of the best athletic directors in the city at the time, which led to the introduction of a new football team, a new baseball team, and track team. Within the first decade, Jefferson became a powerhouse in sport competitions among Los Angeles schools winning season championships. In fact, Jefferson’s track and field team would go on to obtain 8 state championships and over a dozen varsity-level championships by the 1960s—a record unique to Jefferson high school

More than sports, Jefferson established a prominent music program that became a staple within the southland community. And the school built a competitive traveling debate team that made headlines several times in the course of its early history. 

By the end of its first academic year in 1917, Jefferson High School graduated 8 students, and planned to graduate 100 more by 1918. Each year, the graduating classes grew bigger and bigger

The Shake Up

On March 10, 1933, one of the largest earthquakes shook Los Angeles, effectively destroying Jefferson’s original architecture that was largely made of brick and concrete. When Los Angeles assessed the collateral damage, that quake impacted over 155 school buildings, which led to the school district pausing regular instruction on dozens of impacted campuses, including Jefferson.

In response to the aftermath, Jefferson set up 15 tent bungalows on its open fields to keep school in session for half days. However, the damage at Jefferson was so severe, it remained one of the last few schools to fully reopen in the Los Angeles School District.

That same year, the Board of Education contracted the architectural firm of Morgan, Walls, and Clements to redesign the school building from the ground up. The new building did away with the regal concrete and brick style, and introduced the 1930s art deco building with reinforced concrete that is present in the neighborhood today.

Introducing The New Jefferson High School

By 1936, the school had rebuilt much of its campus, and had expanded its evening school to include an aviation program.

But the quake marked more than the school’s external refresh. While the initial high school had a predominantly white working class population in the 1920s, the California Eagle reported the school being 63 percent black by 1938.  

In fact, the early Jefferson High School made strides in inclusion and racial equity. Beyond its inclusive debate team, Jefferson became one of the first high schools in Los Angeles to employ a black high school teacher when the school hired music teacher Samuel Browne to the faculty in 1936.

Browne, an early 20s alumni from Jefferson, and a musician enthralled with the jazz scene on Central Avenue, was revered for his contribution to the school’s all-star orchestra and the development of the schools musical program. Today, the school’s main auditorium is named after Browne, likely for his immense contributions to Jefferson High School in the first half of the 20th century.

Jefferson’s progress didn’t stop in the music department, either. The school also introduced a black history course in 1944, and built access to a guidance program in 1948 to assist students to and through high school.  

Walkout of 1968 

In March of 1968, several high schools in East L.A. organized walkouts to bring attention to the miseducation of Mexican-American and other latino students across the Los Angeles School District. According to the Library of Congress, the Los Angeles educational system created an educational funnel to discourage Latino students from pursuing higher education and to guide them into vocational work through oversized classes, fewer resources, and the suppression of Chicano culture in the school curriculum. Over 15,000 students walked out from seven high schools during the East L.A. blowouts.

And in that list of demonstrating schools was Jefferson High School.

Even though Jefferson was a predominantly black school, the students and teachers identified with the misallocation of resources. Jefferson teachers led a multi-day strike and walkout, demanding a Black principal to lead the high school. And students aided the effort with a 400-student protest and rally on Jefferson’s athletic field during an all-day boycott. 

After nearly three days of lost instruction, the Los Angeles Board of Education agreed to some of the demands listed by students and teachers. 

Within a week of the quelled protests at Jefferson, the board installed Louis J. Johnson Jr., the former vice president of boys at Locke High School, as principal at Jefferson—making him the first black principal at Jefferson. The board also headed to teacher demands to elect a Black vice principal and a Black head counselor at Jefferson, too. 

Several other students shared their discontent with school policies and lack of representation in leadership directly with the board in later, formal conversations. 

Bewitched at Jefferson

In the early 1970s, Jefferson High School received national recognition when one of its tenth grade English classes created the story for a Christmas-themed episode of Bewitched that initially aired on ABC affiliates on December 24, 1970. 

Earlier that school year, Marcella Saunders, a 22-year-old English teacher, taught short story courses at Jefferson, and found that her students were interested in television, and worked with her students to write an alternate episode to the then-hit series Bewitched. She pivoted her lesson planning and began teaching English through screenplays

Saunders began contacting TV productions, and wrote to William Asher, the producer-director for the Bewitched series. Asher, who was intrigued with Saunders’ English course at Jefferson, organized trips to the filming studio of the set. Twenty-six inspired students in Saunders 5th period English class wrote the foundation for an alternate Bewitched episode called Sisters at Heart, where the characters explored the dangers of racial prejudice between two innocent girls. Saunders and her class sent their alternate script to Asher. He liked it and had it refined by Bewitched writers.

After “Sisters at Heart” aired, Saunders became one of the first non-professional to win the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences  Board of Governor’s Emmy Award for her innovative teaching method. 

With new momentum after the large amount of press, Saunders planned a mass media course at Jefferson, which would be supported by a foundation that took in the money from the Bewitched script, and future sales of the students’ creations. 

However, in my research I found no further mention of Saunders or the proposed mass media course at Jefferson after her Emmy win.

Moving Forward 

As with the fate of every major public high school in South LA, Jefferson High School, a publicized trend of violence became evident by the early 1970s.   

And news coverage shifted to covering the inner city school’s high-performing athletes sports, especially in regards to its basketball team, rather than its access to resources, academic success stories, or elective courses. 

And by the late 80s, Jefferson, formerly a predominantly black school in South LA, became predominantly Latino

Jefferson in the 2000s

Coverage on Jefferson ramped up in the mid-2000s, most noticeably when an on-campus brawl with more than 100 Black and Latino students erupted on Jefferson’s campus in 2005. The end result left Jefferson with increased police presence, and skyrocketing student absenteeism following the days after the brawl for nearly two weeks. 

This brawl, however, made the campus ripe for turnaround initiatives. During the same year as the brawl, in 2005, the Los Angeles Board of Education briefly considered a proposal from Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school network, to take over campus to rid it of  its sinking academics, rising absenteeism, and its staggering 58 percent dropout rate by the year 2007. Green Dot promised to pay teachers more and to reduce Jefferson’s alarming statistics.

The Jefferson community adamantly opposed Green Dot from taking over the school, and the district did not move forward with that proposal. Instead, in 2006, Los Angeles Unified School District made a plan to restructure the school into small learning communities. That year, New Tech: Student Empowerment Academy, a pilot charter school opened on Jefferson’s campus.

In 2009, The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit aimed at turning around low-performing schools, sought to take over Jefferson—a repeat of what happened in 2005—but the action never materialized and Jefferson remained an LAUSD school.

In 2010, LAUSD announced a plan to turn Jefferson into a complex of small learning communities with unique career and academic specialties that would eventually develop into 5 small schools, which would impact Jefferson’s 1,900 students. 

The small learning communities have since dissolved, and did not manifest into enduring separate schools. However, within a decade, Jefferson’s enrollment shrunk to 720 students by 2019, a 60 percent decrease in a decade.

Today, Jefferson continues to sit in Southeast Los Angeles, near the intersection of 41st Street and Hooper Avenue. On its 19-acre campus, Jefferson is now co-located with Nava College Preparatory Academy, a pilot LAUSD middle school that operates on the northeast area of the campus. 

In 2018, Jefferson began undergoing a modernization project, which has led to the demolition of several bungalow buildings on its campus, including its metal shop building, and the mechanical art building. When the project is finished, the school will have a new classroom building, a gymnasium, a new lunch pavilion, updated landscaping, and permanent lighting at the football field. The school will also remodel its administrative building, main classroom building, and cafeteria building. Based on a public bid for the project, the modernization project will cost over $100 million, and the completion date is pending as of November 2022.

While much lies ahead in the future for Jefferson, the school has a long list of alumni, including diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Ralph Bunche, dancer Alvin Alley, U.S. congressman Augustus F. Hawkins, and football star Woody Strode, along with many others. 

That’s all for this episode, and I hope that you’ve learned something new today. As is the case with videos like these, there’s no way to capture everything. So if you’ve got something to add, or a story to share, leave it down in the comment section below, and I’ll catch you guys around on The Recap.

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