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Brock Cohen

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Requiem for a Success Story

Posted: 06/26/2012 4:23 pm

Prior to accepting my first teaching assignment at North Hollywood's Grant High School back in 2001, I'd been oblivious to the legions of teenagers who were unable to read L.A. Times blurbs or write complete, coherent sentences. As a rookie English teacher, it would have been challenging enough to turn the dial of literacy among my students from that of decoding simple sentences to the more abstract cognitive domain of synthesizing knowledge and drawing inferences. But my ignorance and ego emboldened me with the blind audacity that I could conquer whatever challenges lay ahead. Never mind that I had no prior experience working with high-poverty or special needs children -- or that I had just signed on to teach at one of the district's more maligned campuses. I was smart, I was funny, I was pretty good with kids: I could do this. Or so I thought.

Once I entered the classroom, however, I began to see that the challenge of filling learning gaps was complicated by a stew of issues that dwarfed my then-underdeveloped skill set. Malnutrition, drug addiction, household instability, physical and verbal abuse, and neglect all lurked beneath the surface of the intractable apathy and abysmal study skills that blocked otherwise bright, young kids from intellectual growth. They were deep-seated social issues that an army of one could only superficially address. I clearly needed help.

Over the remainder of the school year, I gradually sought out and formed relationships with a handful of innovative iconoclasts scattered about campus. Virtually invisible at staff meetings, their respective low profiles belied big ideas about changing the ways in which kids of all backgrounds could be educated. Together, we did something that turned out to be more earth rattling than raging against the machine: we started meeting for lunch.

Those lunches turned into meetings, which turned into a coherent course of action. Eventually, we pushed to revive a dormant interdisciplinary small learning collaborative whose objective had wavered over the years at Grant. It was a model that had been originally constituted by visionary educator Neal Anstead in 1984 and that now exists as the Cleveland Humanities Magnet. Its interdisciplinary, writing-intensive fusion of philosophy, literature, history, and the arts lead to astounding results and resulted in an influx of high-achieving students whose parents were, for the most part, actively engaged in their child's education. (Ironically, many LAUSD administrators who preside over paint-by-the-numbers curricula at their respective campuses send their own kids to Cleveland's Humanities Magnet.)

As for us, we kept the collaborative's name (Humanitas) and sharpened its mandate: we would equip all our students with the reading, writing, and higher-order thinking skills needed to compete with peers at more prestigious schools. This was easier said than done, since, unlike the high-flying Cleveland Magnet model, our version would draw from a population of students who, in many cases, were already gasping for academic survival and whose parents weren't informed or available enough to constantly lobby on behalf of their kids' futures. On another front, we'd also be forced into a bare-knuckle brawl with a new culture of bubblemania: in the coming years, the No Child Left Behind act would gradually turn many urban public school campuses into de facto test prep annexes.

When we finally put our version of the Humanitas program into action, the results came incrementally but conclusively. Students developed intellectually by attending classes taught by a cohort of teachers who regularly shared best practices and collaborated on common thematic units. High-interest reading materials were incorporated into a text-heavy curriculum and a litany of engaging activities. Every day, students were challenged to express their gained knowledge through a variety of media and to employ critical thinking skills while attempting to make connections across disciplines.

As word spread that the program was granted latitude in using professional development time to augment thematic units and to enact its own non-NCLB-friendly curriculum, Humanitas at Grant became stigmatized among many of the school's non-Humanitas staff as a dubious model whose audacity superseded its actual value. This despite the fact that our students scored significantly higher on the almighty high-stakes standardized tests factored into our school's yearly Academic Performance Index (API), or that our kids had better attendance, incurred fewer suspensions, and attended four-year colleges and universities at greater clips than the rest of the school's non-magnet population. And when whispers surfaced across campus that our success was likely attributed to a systematic skimming of the campus' highest achieving students, the Los Angeles Education Partnership produced hard data that revealed details we had already known: our SLC's overall intellectual, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition was essentially a mirror image of the school's -- and the District's -- greater population.

But we already knew we were doing right by the students. We saw it in their essays, in classroom discussions and debates, and in intricate projects that revealed insight, creativity, and an increased proficiency with the written word. We had managed to carve out an island of higher expectations in which students shared ownership and felt valued. This resulted in kids feeling confident enough to express themselves intellectually in an environment where trying and failing was simply part of the learning process. Slowly, steadily, what we were doing produced tangible results. And yet the fatalist in me wondered if it were all too good to be true: At what point would everything we'd worked for get steamrolled by powers who hadn't seen the inside of an urban public school classroom since Dangerous Minds?

Despite my hidden fears, Humanitas has continued to thrive. We have augmented our foundational strategies with additional components that attempt to bolster group solidarity while addressing the inevitable learning gaps that saddle our younger students. Before they are given a chance to plummet into an academic abyss, for example, incoming freshmen are now assigned elder mentors who have already achieved scholastic success. Additionally, each year, the seniors host a Welcome Assembly in September that exposes new Humanitas students to the program's culture of unity and inclusiveness, followed by an Awards Assembly in May that pays tribute to the myriad ways in which students have made positive contributions to the program. Perhaps most importantly, just last fall, Art History teacher Alaina Kommer -- who has been my 11th-grade cohort partner for the past six years -- founded Parents and Teachers of Humanitas (PATH), an after-school program that seeks to develop more meaningful, sustainable connections between the program and our kids' families by reaching out to them, soliciting their input, and including them as integral pillars of the Humanitas community.

Unfortunately, all that we've built over the past decade is likely to fall victim to the LAUSD wrecking ball, due to a district-wide operating deficit. We've already lost one Humanitas teacher; more (including myself) may either be displaced or laid off within the coming year. Though the district's fiscal peril is real, its love affair with inefficiency, its misappropriation of precious resources, and its fundamental misunderstanding in the ways in which high-needs children learn have all been well chronicled.

But there's plenty of blame to go around.

The teacher's union's mixed success in preventing layoffs and preserving the integrity of the profession is largely due to its failure to evolve into something more flexible, versatile, and relevant. It has lost the P.R. wars due to obstinate stances on such hot-button issues as teacher tenure and teacher evaluation and has managed to paint a constituency that was once perceived by the public as selfless and dignified as a pack coffee-swilling, pension-hoarding hacks.

Because of all this imprudence, greed, and mismanagement, Alaina is the teacher whose position is being eliminated. It makes no difference that she's Grant's Art department chair, serves on the School-Based Management committee, and founded PATH. That she has earned a litany of awards for curriculum design while managing to awaken the creative instinct in scores of underprivileged teenagers with little or no previous desire to engage in painting, drawing, or sculpture has not been taken into account, nor has the fact that she has seamlessly integrated writing, literacy, history and the fundamentals of research methodology into nearly every corner of our curriculum. The kids adore her, her colleagues admire her, and, as her cohort partner, my impact as an educator instantly diminishes with her absence.

This past Thursday, Alaina and I met to plan a Humanitas function in which she probably wouldn't be around to participate. Sitting in her nearly vacant room, I struggled to think of what I could do to prevent her forced departure without putting my own career in serious jeopardy. I also wondered what other profession takes a hatchet to its best and brightest. Stupidly, I blurted something about how much she'd meant to the students, to the program, and to me all these years. While sincere, I'm sure my sentiments only made things worse.

"I would do this job for free," she said, fighting back tears. Then, after a few moments of perhaps reflecting on her tenuous circumstances -- of her husband, a middle-school teacher and perennial RIF-getter, and her toddler son, who would still need daily child care while Alaina cobbled together enough sub gigs to get by, she added, "I mean, I couldn't do it for free, but ... this is what I've always wanted to do. Why won't they just let me teach?"

It's a great question. And it's an irony that, at a time when teachers are scrutinized like never before -- where "accountability" is the buzzword of the moment -- quantifiably successful programs like Humanitas are looked upon with skepticism and the best teachers are often treated like disposable, interchangeable widgets.

I'm sorry for Alaina and for all the extraordinary teachers throughout California who have been unceremoniously dispatched -- and to the multitudes of students whose education will suffer for it. It seems it was all too good to be true.

 

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