In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the height of protests and actions by civil rights activists around de facto school segregation in the Los Angeles area, the residents of a group of small cities just southeast of the City of Los Angeles fought to break away from the Los Angeles City Schools and create a new, independent school district—one that would help preserve racially segregated schools in the area. The “Four Cities” coalition was comprised of residents of the majority white, working-class cities of Vernon, Maywood, Huntington Park, and Bell—all of which had joined the Los Angeles City Schools in the 1920s and 1930s rather than continue to operate local districts. The coalition later expanded to include residents of the cities of South Gate, Cudahy, and some unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, although Vernon was eventually excluded. The Four Cities coalition petitioned for the new district in response to a planned merger of the Los Angeles City Schools—until this time comprised of separate elementary and high school districts—into the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The coalition's strategy was to utilize a provision of the district unification process that allowed citizens to petition for reconfiguration or redrawing of boundaries. Unification was encouraged by the California State Board of Education and legislature in order to combine the administrative functions of separate primary and secondary school districts—the dominant model up to this time—to better serve the state's rapidly growing population of children and their educational needs, and was being deliberated in communities across the state and throughout Los Angeles County. The debates at the time over school district unification in the Greater Los Angeles area, like the one over the Four Cities proposal, were inextricably tied to larger issues, such as taxation, control of community institutions, the size and role of state and county government, and racial segregation. At the same time that civil rights activists in the area and the state government alike were articulating a vision of public schools that was more inclusive and demanded larger-scale, consolidated administration, the unification process reveals an often-overlooked grassroots activism among residents of the majority white, working-class cities surrounding Los Angeles that put forward a vision of exclusionary, smaller-scale school districts based on notions of local control and what they termed “community identity.”
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