The Slum Buster
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law student Vanessa Alvarado: "He's really dedicated to us. He gives
us a lot of direction, but he also gives us a lot of wisdom. He's
so knowledgeable because he's had so much experience."
latched on to the school-conditions project after an ACLU attorney
called him about some clients whose kids attended a Northern California
school without heat. Did Blasi know anything about heat regulations
governing schools? Blasi didn't, but immediately was intrigued by
the idea. "I've never worked in public education, but because of
the topic and the quality of the people working on it, I thought
this would be a good project for my class."
of Blasi's sayings - he has several he regularly imparts in class
- is "Ninety percent of good public policy is getting the facts."
Another is "Someone needs to take the role of chief worrier in a
case." With those in mind, Blasi's students went to work. Breaking
into teams, they scoured public documents and pored over state regulations.
They dissected the state's Health and Safety Code. They learned
how to file Freedom of Information Act requests. They searched the
California Constitution for language on education to determine the
state's role and they read every newspaper article on the problem
they could find. Along the way, they raised questions: Who inspects
schools to be sure they have working plumbing? How often are they
inspected? Who is responsible for seeing that schools have air conditioning
and heat? What are the regulations on providing kids with textbooks?
hardest part was finding people within the schools willing to talk.
"Advocacy is about stories," says Blasi. "It's not about statistics.
So the students interviewed a lot of junior high school and high
school students and developed the narratives that are a large part
of the case."
unearthed a gold mine of information through the California School
Nurse Organization, a group known for its social activism. During
their February convention in L.A., the president announced the UCLA
project while Whalley and other students put fliers on the nurses'
chairs. That effort produced more than 100 responses. "They were
very happy to talk to us because I think they felt frustrated,"
says Whalley. "They could not get things done."
inside the school health system gave the nurses a unique perspective
and air of authority. They identified significant problems: decrepit
old portables with mold and mildew that provoked asthma attacks;
newer bungalows built with toxic materials that gave teachers and
students frequent headaches or respiratory problems; children who
refused to use the bathrooms because they were so filthy and had
to wait until they got home.