Skip to main content

1. Walls, Silence, and Resistance: A Tour of South Central High School

Published onApr 10, 2020
1. Walls, Silence, and Resistance: A Tour of South Central High School

Getting in and Getting out: Welcome to South Central High

The first time I visited South Central High School, it was a Thursday morning in 2004, and at least a dozen police cars were parked on the street in front of the school. They were a black and white barrier, covering more than half the red-curbed block. In addition, the local “ghetto bird” (the students’ name for a police helicopter) was on a not infrequent search for a criminal in the school’s surrounding streets. The feeling was oppressive. It was hard not to feel suspect, under someone else’s control, and powerless when walking into the school. Later in the day, I learned that the police were at this location for a monthly meeting held in the school’s cafeteria. But rather than making the school feel safer when I entered it, their presence made me feel on edge in the school. In and around the classrooms of SCHS, security at the school and around the neighborhood is always perceived as heightened.

From the outside, SCHS looks like a typical West Coast open-designed campus (aside from the constant presence of police at or around the school). People enter and exit through the central administrative building during the day. The campus takes up an entire block and is comprised of decades-old buildings and aging “bungalows” that once stood as temporary classrooms. I never heard of any plans for phasing out these classrooms.

The SCHS campus is surrounded by a twelve-foot-high metal fence that is topped with curving spikes facing outward. Friends and family members often pass food between the bars to students during lunch breaks, which conveys a prison-like feeling to school life at SCHS.

Getting into and out of SCHS can feel just as daunting as this image suggests. A security guard stands by the front door, which usually is only cracked open and often is shut and locked. Campus visitors need to knock loudly and hope someone is on the other side of the door waiting to receive them. Moving past this door, visitors need to show identification and sign the register before they are directed to the main office, where they will be assigned an escort to accompany them to whatever office or classroom they may be headed toward. This multistep process can feel confusing and intimidating. Most of the parents I’ve worked with at SCHS are native Spanish speakers, and the bustle of language from one door to another (even though some of these positions are staffed by bilingual employees) can deter them from being involved and engaged in the lives of their children.

Students and teachers don’t necessarily have it any easier. (I detail the rigid processes that students go through to leave the school on a daily basis later in this chapter.) As a new teacher in my early twenties, I found it difficult to enter the school or leave during my planning period, depending on who was at watch at the front of the school—even though I regularly showed up to work wearing professional business attire. (I had internalized at an early age the notion that I should dress up if I am going to meet somebody important, and I knew that my students were the most important people I would encounter during my work day.) The school eventually instituted a uniform policy, and I switched between collared shirts and ties and the uniformed attire that students wore. Other than a penchant for wearing worn-down Converse low-top sneakers, my clothing usually didn’t match that of my students. And yet I regularly was stopped while heading for the door and asked where my pass was, why I was out of class, and where I was going—despite the lanyard with my name and position that hung from my neck. Even though I was at the school every day and saw the same security guards, this was a daily rigamarole that had to be endured whenever I needed to go to my car, buy lunch, or be off campus for a short time. Such small inconveniences followed me throughout the campus for most of my teaching career: security asked why I was out of class, why I was using the teachers’ restrooms, and why I was parking in the teachers’ parking lot. Being Latino and walking with a backpack may not have helped. Although it is easy for me to complain about the heightened security, this thoroughness was intended to increase safety for students and adults on campus. But such experiences illustrated for me the daily indignities that teachers and students experienced because of the structures that governed SCHS.

Educational researchers Daniel Solorzano, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso have looked at the role of “racial microaggressions” in educational contexts.1 Described as “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously,”2 microaggressions are a constant factor for students at SCHS and are pervasive in how the students quoted in this book view and describe the world. From the language that security guards use to address students to the wariness that police show around them, microaggressions are often paired with adult skepticism about students. In addition to shaping the daily experiences of students, microaggressions also demoralize teachers.

As an eager new teacher on my first day visiting the school, I felt intimidated by the appearance of a decrepit school that seemed to be surrounded by police vehicles. After spending years within the school, however, the space felt fulfilling and hopeful to me. Although SCHS can offer myriad bleak tales of school failure and underperformance, at the heart of the campus is a thriving and beautiful hunger for knowledge and education. Many of my students were brilliant, and my teaching colleagues were dedicated and creative in their pedagogical approaches. In this chapter, we’ll explore campus life, key policies that affected classroom learning, and the academic challenges that led me to confiscate mobile phones in my classroom, seeking out good—humanizing—interactions with my students.

Further Exploring SCHS

Beyond the imposing metal bars that keep SCHS students in and trespassers out is the city of Los Angeles and its traffic-laden freeways. SCHS is one of the oldest public high schools in the city of Los Angeles and celebrated its hundred-year anniversary just prior to the year captured in this book. As generations of students matriculated through (or dropped out of) the school, new buildings were added to the growing campus, coats of paint were added, and older structures were converted for new purposes—all in an effort to keep an archaic campus up to speed. The school’s book storeroom, for example, started out as an auto shop.

Figure 1.1 An auto shop converted into a book storeroom

Figure 1.2 An auto shop converted into a book storeroom

Likewise, a former shop classroom housed two different classes at the same time, leading to occasional excessive noise.

Figure 1.3 The view from one class into another

As the enrollment at SCHS began to exceed the capacity of its buildings, temporary classrooms were installed on campus. These temporary buildings were euphemistically called “bungalows,” and they were not “temporary.” By the time I arrived, these buildings had aged along with the rest of the school, and there were no plans for them to be removed or replaced with something more solid. These were some of the first classrooms I taught in at SCHS. In my first year, my students used a broomstick to measure the depth of a hole in my floor and found that it went down four feet to the earth below.

Along with the physical changes, the century-old campus has undergone significant challenges and demographic shifts in the last few years. One of the main changes was that students were funneled into and out of the school twelve months of the year. With a student population of approximately 3,400 students at the time, South Central High School was one of the largest schools in the city and one of the few that operated on a year-round three-track schedule. To accommodate all enrolled students, a third of students are always “off track” and not scheduled in any classes. To deal with overcrowding at SCHS and other schools throughout the city, the Los Angeles Unified School District moved these schools to year-round schedules that meant that other than for a two-week holiday in December, the school was always operational.

Table 1.1

My students were on the B track of the year-round calendar. Our school year started a day or two after July 4 and ended the last week of June. During those twelve months of our academic year, we had two two-month breaks. For educators, this schedule was wonderful. Teachers could travel during off-peak seasons and have long rests between four-month-long stints of teaching. Further, instead of summer school (B track’s school year begins in the middle of summer), SCHS offers students “intersession courses” twice a year—six-week-long courses for credit recovery and occasional electives.

During intersession one year, one of my students came into a film class I was teaching visibly upset because he’d been issued a truancy ticket for being outside of school during school hours. The municipal law states that minors under the age of eighteen cannot be outside “loitering” between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Even though B track was in intersession (the equivalent of summer break), the problem was that our class started at 10 a.m. The next day, I saw a police officer who was issuing a ticket to another of my students. He said that students either needed to be accompanied by an adult (which is an unrealistic expectation because their parents are working) or arrive at school by 8:30 and wait for the class to begin. This response shouldn’t have surprised me. It fit together with the microaggressions and other policies facing youth of color who actively seek learning opportunities. To comply with this attendance policy, my students met me across the street from the school each day, and we walked in together—a coordination process that ate into our instructional time. Some of my best students missed class to go to court to fight truancy tickets they received while trying to go to school voluntarily. My students were not surprised by these events. They understood that structural barriers stand in the way of their getting the educational experiences that are the right of all young people living in Los Angeles.

Looking again at the literature that correlates student performance with socioeconomic background, I can’t help but connect the truancy example with the school’s racial makeup. The demographics of the school’s student population mirrors those of its surrounding community—83 percent Latino, 15 percent black, 2 percent multiracial, with an English language learner (ELL) group that makes up 39 percent of the students. Additionally, 87 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch.3 Free and reduced-priced lunch is a useful means of measuring household income. Looking at the surrounding elementary schools that eventually feed into SCHS, the number of students receiving free lunch is closer to 100 percent. The lower percentage at SCHS is not because families become wealthier as students go into high school but because some teenagers don’t turn in the required paperwork.

The quantitative data about SCHS can reinforce perceptions built by the rough-around-the-edges appearance of the campus. During the years that I taught there, the school’s dropout rate was always above 60 percent.4 The data collected on students at SCHS (demographics, aggregate academic performance, and pathways after they leave the school) by and large frame SCHS as an urban school that—to use the language of the popular documentary Waiting for Superman—is a “dropout factory.”5

How, exactly, does a school become an “urban” school?

More than a century ago, when Los Angeles was beginning to be developed, there was no city blueprint declaring that here would be a ghetto and there would be a suburb. A West Coast equivalent of New York’s Robert Moses did not proclaim that South Central would one day become a stereotypical space for talking about dropouts, gangsters, and localized violence. And yet South Central High School and some nearby schools are in one of the most economically impoverished areas of the city and academically are among the lowest-performing schools in the city. Educational researchers and sociologists have produced significant research drawing connections between socioeconomic levels of youth and their academic performance and postsecondary choices.

For several years, my eleventh graders and I collaborated on researching and sharing the history of South Central Los Angeles. This work included conducting interviews with community residents and family members, diving into local history archives, and looking at media artifacts from across the history of South Central (often visiting the Southern California Library just a few blocks south of the school). As one aspect of this work, we gathered around a small closet in the school’s library and looked through the near-complete collection of yearbooks from the school’s opening through the present day. The activity illustrated that the school began with an all-white student body in the early twentieth century, shifted in the 1970s and 1980s to a primarily African American student population, and shifted again to a primarily Latino population. Along with making comical asides about changing fashion trends and hairdos over the decades, students saw a narrative of historical white flight as local industry jobs disappeared decades ago.

In addition to the dwindling workplace options for students in the neighborhoods around the school, the school struggled to offer powerful college counseling for the increasingly large student population. While I was teaching at SCHS, the school had one college counselor for the entire campus. In the year of this study, only 35 percent of students graduated from South Central High School. Of this group of students, 14 percent completed the required courses to be eligible to apply to most four-year universities.6 Too often, rhetoric in education debates is about decreasing the dropout rate, but it ignores the fact that students at a school like SCHS can graduate from high school and still not be eligible for postsecondary options other than increasingly overcrowded community colleges.

A Brief Note about the Police

Before continuing this tour of the campus, I want to briefly address language I use throughout this chapter when discussing the police. Nearly a decade after my first visit to the SCHS campus and its police-car facade, I was house hunting with my future wife for a home in Fort Collins, Colorado. My mother was with us on the day we traveled with a real estate agent from one housing development to another across the quiet city. One house seemed like a contender: the layout felt right, the backyard was reinforced enough to thwart our dog’s constant schemes to escape, and there was ample room for the books a professor and librarian haul with them from one abode to another. However, when I looked outside, I saw three different police cars parked at adjoining homes. Our real estate agent pointed out that many officers lived here because it was close to a local station. As close-minded as it may sound, I told the real estate agent I couldn’t live surrounded by police officers. I wouldn’t feel right. My mother raised a skeptical brow about what I might be planning to do in our new home.

I grew up in a suburb of San Diego and was raised to turn to the police if I was ever in trouble. They were people I could expect to help me. I also have never been harassed by the police at or around SCHS. But I have seen several of my students escorted out of the school in handcuffs, dropped to the floor with a controlling knee digging into their backs, and sweating uncomfortably in the back of patrol cars. Some of my students have been stopped on their way to campus, and others have received truancy tickets for coming to campus on the days their official track was not in session. Law officers have important responsibilities in our communities and are exposed to physical dangers that most of us never encounter. But my years teaching in SCHS showed me that the relationship I had with police officers and the law through my middle-class upbringing was drastically different from that of my students and the nearly entirely black and brown community of South Central Los Angeles. Some communities are criminalized and treated with very different assumptions about who lives there and what the value of “their bodies” is (to quote Ta-Nehisi Coates) than other communities are.7 However, recent scholarly texts like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness8 and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City9 explore the overwhelmingly negative effects that a constant police presence, activities of police, drug policies, and the criminal justice system have on the lives of youth of color. In this book, I look at the roles played by police, campus security, and adult control of the school’s campus.

“Ladies and Gentlemen”

In preparing to explore in-class uses of technology and the ways that digital tools could affect classroom learning, I spent eight weeks sitting in the lunch area of SCHS after lunch and after school. Although most people might not think that instruction takes place in this kind of space, I was able to observe the important lessons that students learn daily in their interactions with ever-fluctuating campus policies.

On the two days of my week not spent in student clubs or teacher union meetings, I watched students trickle back to class or home as soon as the school bell rang. As they headed into classes in the morning and through the gates that led them home at the end of the day, students created migratory patterns as they moved toward and away from key spaces for socialization. As a teacher, I was usually in my classroom by the time the bell rang to signal that lunch had ended, and I often saw students slide into class just seconds before they were considered late. Although I tended to not enforce the policy, students who were not inside a classroom at the moment the bell rings were required to return to the “tardy line” and go through a bureaucratic process with an escalating level of punishment before going back to class.10 After I spent time outside of my class and observed what happened on the other end of the lunch bell, I better understood the lessons students learned when they are tardy and not in my class.

Perhaps the most obvious fact about teenagers—some kids are frequently late—I learned long before observing the tardy line. There are myriad reasons underlying this fact—and many are shaped by socioeconomic factors like taking public buses, supporting other siblings, and working part-time and full-time jobs. Some other students just “can’t get right” (to quote one of my teacher education professors, Jeff Duncan-Andrade).11 Teachers know which students somehow slouch into their classrooms a few minutes late every day, no matter what period.

Junior, an eleventh grader in my class in my first year of teaching, was my first student who was chronically late. He was also the first student I felt I failed to connect with and then failed to keep track of after he dropped out. This was despite my varied efforts to motivate, reprimand, and cajole Junior to show up on time (or at all). As I reflected on my blog years later,12 I often used my conference period to cross the street to the gas station where I knew I would find Junior loitering and tell him he was missed in class. I found the phone number for the pay phone at this gas station and called that number when he wasn’t in class, and he learned to hang up when he realized his English teacher was hounding him. And soon his name was dropped from my class roster.

As part of a school system, I spent a lot of time trying to control Junior rather than build the meaningful relationship that might have persuaded him to be present in my classroom. Years later, when I undertook this study, I better understood how my adult authority contributed to Junior’s outlook. A student like Junior spends a lot of time at SCHS being ushered toward, standing in, and being “processed” at the end of a tardy line. Often, the interactions between students and adults in this tardy line turn into microcosms of disruptive aggression. Students get frustrated by how they are treated, and adults get frustrated at the lack of obedience displayed by unruly adolescents.

Despite attempts to improve the learning environment at South Central High, students I observed in the tardy line regularly complained about their treatment by teachers, administrators, and police at the school. The line for students to receive tardy passes before going to classes occasionally bulged with hundreds of students.

Like a psychotic Disneyland line, this seemed like the unhappiest place on earth. The students mobbed and sprawled in what only somewhat suggested the definition of a line. I saw occasional gang-related skirmishes, particularly when a new “track” of students cycled onto the campus every two months. Trying to maintain adult order over the transitions as new students funneled into the school mirrored the moment-to-moment transition of trying to corral thousands of students into classes in a seven-minute passing period. These efforts took the same shape and were primarily a set of commands barked at masses of students:

“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s go!”

“Get to class, ladies and gentlemen.”

“Keep it moving, ladies and gentlemen.”

The adults who attempted to move kids to classes from the main quad frequently relied on standard repertoires of disciplinary practice, like jazz musicians improvising from a set routine of chord and rhythm changes.13 Their daily efforts to compel students to go to class or to leave campus after school had a typical shape: an assistant principal or campus security guard spoke loudly in the direction of groups of students. The nuances of this practice—volume, distance, and diction—are important to consider. How loud, from how far, and with what words adults spoke to and at students illustrates the relationships between these two groups and their respective power on campus. Consistently, the adults used the same phrases in addressing the students of South Central High School.

One observation that I recorded exemplifies a typical encounter between students and adults. Some students were sitting at tables after lunch. No adults seemed to be patrolling the area, but from the south end of the lunch tables, I heard, “Gentlemen, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” Mr. Panza, the assistant principal for discipline, was wearing a leather jacket as he briskly walked through the area, carrying a handheld public address system. He seemed to be speaking to the group collectively and not to a specific student.

The words amplified from Mr. Panza’s PA—“Gentlemen,” “Ladies,” and “Let’s go”—were among the phrases most frequently used by Mr. Panza and other adults and were part of his personal disciplinary vocabulary. Initial observations of these language choices suggest that Mr. Panza and the other adults were engaging in a businesslike professionalism and were showing respect toward students. However, looking closer and seeing these exchanges again and again, adult efforts actually appeared to dehumanize these students.

During this study, I recorded and transcribed seventy different adult interactions with students that were close enough or loud enough for me to document. (Other incidents, I observed from a distance but, unless a bullhorn and PA system were used, could not discern the words exchanged.) Adults said “Let’s go” 62.9 percent of the time and the words “ladies” and “gentlemen” nearly half the time (17.1 percent and 25.7 percent of the total incidents, respectively).

On the one hand, “ladies” and “gentlemen” were phrases typically used for respectful deference. However, within the school community, the language replaces individual students’ identities. Instead of saying “Julio” or “Veronica,” for example, students are referred to, en masse, as merely “gentlemen” and as “ladies.” For example, I regularly noticed Janie talking with her friends. I observed eight instances of Janie being in the lunch area after the bell had rung. Often, an adult walked over to the group of friends, and—even though she is regularly seen in the area when the tardy bell is about to ring—addressed her group as “ladies.” The adults never referred to her as “Janie” or even mentioned her constant presence in the lunch area, which to me felt like a lack of concern for understanding who the students were. Yes, these adults were interacting with hundreds of students on a daily basis, but part of humanizing education is about acknowledging, seeing, and knowing the individuals we interact with. In the following chapters, as I look at how learning was best supported in my classroom, the point I return to again and again is the need for adults to provide the space for trusting and caring relationships in schools. In place of humanizing practices, adults in the lunch area invoked formal rhetoric that—although useful for quickly addressing crowds of students—suggests that the adults don’t really know student names or want to learn them.

There is a school of thought that argues that adults should forcefully move students into classes and off campus quickly after school. This approach can be seen as “tough love” that will help students get to where they need to be. The politics of words is largely invisible. After four years as students at SCHS (and likely experiencing similar language in elementary and middle school), the students I interacted with were treated with distance and a lack of trust. I question how the years of such distanced and clinically amplified language shaped how students see the world and their role within it. My own middle-class schooling experience was one in which such practices were not typical. I was occasionally late to class and sent to get a tardy slip or serve detention, but such small self-afflicted inconveniences were carried out by people who knew my name and likely cared about me.14

The after-lunch corralling process was replicated after school as well, when this effort pushed students away. Perhaps unlike your own memories of lingering after school to visit with friends and plan the rest of the day, SCHS adults tried to get student to vacate the campus as quickly as possible. The sooner students left, the better. Although the threat of a tardy line did not loom in the afternoon, the same sweeping commands were issued by adults to funnel students through the exit gates. There were few exit gates (so that adults could limit and control strangers entering the campus), but this meant that students regularly climbed over the campus fences to skip class, get lunch across the street, or avoid taking the extra steps to the official exits.

At the end of lunch, bullhorns and walkie-talkies sent adult voices over a sea of students. Even though there were many positive interactions between youth and adults at SCHS, the confrontation of policy and discipline after lunch and after school functions as a microcosm of frustration and dehumanization.

Michel Foucault describes the role of surveillance and control within prison systems: “The prison cannot fail to produce delinquents. It does so by the very type of existence that it imposes on its inmates.”15 However, my observations in these lunch areas illustrate student countermeasures and actions that emphasized defiance, subversion, and sousveillance to preserve student power. Students were able to ignore, hide, or otherwise resist the language of adults in these spaces, but such moments fizzled out over time. After students were funneled into the tardy line or the school was vacated, there were too few spaces for students to hide on campus before adults sent them to the enforced locations of the school.

If schools are the places where young people learn how to participate in adult society, then I am concerned about the lessons they learn through their interactions with adults at SCHS and the ways that processes of dehumanization at school reflect socioeconomic patterns in society. The cat and mouse game of authority and power enacted at the school several times each day shapes how students see the world around them. Policies and the ways they are enacted affect what students understand the purpose of school to be.

Campus Life and the Impossibility of a Policy Inventory

Many educational research books and articles have tried to delineate the various policies, agencies, and offices that affect how schools operate, what students experience, and what kinds of professional expectations are placed on teachers.16 Often their Venn diagrams and flowcharts become a complicated soup of arrows, circles, and too many words written in too small a font. At the same time, the processes of ushering students through the hallways via distancing language are not an accident. The factors that influence what happens at a school are complicated.

Rather than attempt a partial overview of the many policies affecting students and teachers at SCHS, I want to continue this tour of SCHS by looking at a few key areas of educational policy that most directly affected my students and their experiences in my classroom. One of the more forward-thinking principals during my years at SCHS once attempted to inventory all of the extracurricular programs and clubs available to students so that students could browse this catalog and take advantage of the many choices that were available to them at the school. However, that principal left the school before the project was finished, so it became another microcosm of complex and intersecting choices for students to sort through on their own. Policy efforts have real implications on how students make choices and on how funding for their educational experiences is allocated. If SCHS cannot execute a plan to list all of the positive extracurricular opportunities available for students, how can the school’s policies be implemented fairly and effectively, day in and day out, in the classrooms of thousands of students at the school?

Compliance Gestapos

In 2000, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 100 students against the state of California claiming that the state and its agencies “failed to provide public school students with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers.”17 The case of Eliezer Williams et al. v. State of California et al. was settled in 2004, just as I was taking charge of my first classroom. The case directly affected the day-to-day experiences of my students. The Williams case settlement required the state to allot nearly $1 billion to provide materials, improve facilities, and make other local improvements to underserved California schools.

When the settlement was announced, it felt like a windfall for schools serving historically disadvantaged communities, like SCHS. Learning spaces would get better, and books would always be available, which to me as a new teacher felt like the insurance I needed to help my classes prepare for success. Moreover, the state would send auditors to campuses to check on conditions and access to materials throughout each school year to make sure funding was spent as the lawsuit intended.

These changes did not happen.

Each semester, the distribution of textbooks felt lackadaisical until word was received that the Williams auditors were coming to school. Then there was a whirlwind of rushing textbooks into every classroom. When a man or woman came into class with a clipboard, students were prepared for the questions that they were asked:

“Do you have a textbook in this class?” “Yes.”

“Where is it?” “Over there.”

“Can you take it home?” “Yes.”

This was the extent of how the Williams settlement supported learning in my experience as a teacher.

My class often centered on reading novels and plays—J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. As I interpreted the Williams settlement, it required every student to have access to the class text (not necessarily a textbook) in every class. However, an assistant principal often checked to make sure my students had large, expensive textbooks merely so that they could check off a box on a list. Every year, class time was disrupted to fulfill the district’s compliance needs. Then interim Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Ramon Cortines once described to me the layers of bureaucracy that get in the way of positive teaching and learning at schools, calling some district agents “compliance gestapos.” He said that in this context “teachers should come first.” Ultimately, the Williams settlement illustrated for me, as a new teacher, how a well-intended policy can interfere with classroom learning and result in wasteful in-school spending. Although I used the annual interruptions to explain to my students why we were issued textbooks and discuss the role that students played in setting legal precedents for educational equity, the entire experience shaped how students saw their time valued within schools.

Standards and Testing

On the other end of the spectrum of public awareness, educational standards and high-stakes testing are perhaps the most regularly reported on area of U.S. education today. Although most readers can remember how they were evaluated in schools and how tests shaped their entrance into professional careers, the standardization and assessment that have been institutionalized over the past two decades are probably starkly different than what you may have experienced. The general structure of classes, the periods allotted for learning, and some of the instruction in these classes look the same. However, the demands on teachers, the assumptions of what students should be learning, and the ways we measure this learning continue to be transformed from year to year. After George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act on January 8, 2002, an emphasis was placed on students’ performance on exams (and later, a trickling upward of these results on teachers and on teacher education programs), and this has shaped the kinds of knowledge and experience that are happening in schools today. When I was teaching at SCHS, the school was still using the California State Board of Education’s Content Standards. These were replaced a year after this study when the state (along with forty-two other states and U.S. territories) adopted the Common Core State Standards.18

Before getting into how standards are implemented and affect student learning and the teaching profession, I first consider what these standards mean. Typically, when I ask the preservice teachers I work with at my university to consider the word standard, they develop a definition that describes a specific, measured level of their instruction. This standard is what all teachers are working toward. It is both a ceiling and a bare minimum in this sense. Although this narrow definition defines what should happen in a classroom, it also limits learning experiences. Standards loosely address cultural and language diversity but typically do not reflect the lived experiences, interests, and societal shifts through which students see the world around them.

At the same time, I ask my preservice teachers to remember that all of us implicitly carry our own standards for the world around us. In this sense, I ask my students the following questions: What are the personal standards to which your own beliefs adhere? What beliefs about education, justice, and engagement do you feel should be reflected in everything you teach? Such questions reveal that standards like the Common Core are only one aspect of a series of protocols that are (or should be) standardized in our classrooms.

Finally, there is a third definition of standard that is less familiar in the teaching realm but immediately familiar in other contexts. In the jazz world, standards are the song charts that musicians need to know inside and out if they plan on making a career of live performance. Groups run through these charts, taking turns soloing and riffing off of one another. The standard is the backbone of the working musician. I think this is closer to the kind of space that teachers inhabited for decades prior to the current educational epoch of high-stakes testing. Teaching once was about honing a repertoire of proven practices that could be adapted based on the needs in a particular classroom.

And although I see much of my own work as an extended riff on the standards of pedagogy that I’ve practiced during my years as a teacher, I want to consider the kinds of melodies and mundane compositions that emerge from the policy standards driving classroom education today. South Central High School was designated as a school in “Program Improvement” for the entire time that I taught there, based on its students’ performance results on California standardized tests. As a result of evaluation measures from No Child Left Behind, Program Improvement “places the school in a continuum of structured interventions designed to help identify, analyze and address barriers to student achievement.”19 However, Program Improvement has established specific interventions for only a five-year period, attempting to ensure that no school is designated as part of Program Improvement longer than that. SCHS was in its fifth year of program improvement for an additional four years. This meant that the school was labeled as low performing for nearly a decade while little was done schoolwide to address this fact.

The Freshman Preparatory Academy

Perhaps the most visible response I saw to stagnant academic performance came in 2010 (a year prior to my own study). In light of staff concerns about ninth graders who were at risk of dropping out, the school established a Freshman Preparatory Academy (FPA). The FPA was designed collaboratively by the core teachers for each calendar track, and each cohort of teachers established key principles they felt should guide their instruction with the new high school students. Although common pacing plans were established in core content areas such as math and English, the principal at the time also stressed teacher creativity. He encouraged teachers to pilot new pedagogical approaches that can be adapted by others if empirical data—as measured primarily by test scores—demonstrated student achievement. Although he did not speak directly to using phones and games in classrooms, I interpreted his mandate for creative change as encouragement to explore the goals of the FPA within my own research. Midway through the year, after successfully helping to launch the FPA, this principal (at the time, my seventh in so many years) officially resigned due to reasons unrelated to the focus of this study. The FPA persisted despite his absence, but a lack of leadership made teacher collaboration difficult.

Inconsistency and Movement on Campus

With the ebb and flow of administrative leadership at nearly every level from the federal government to the assistant principals who observed and evaluated my teaching, policies and their execution played an important but sometimes counterproductive role at SCHS. For example, during the years of this study, a new policy was enacted regarding where students could enter the campus in the morning. Students previously were able to use several entrances on all sides of the campus, but Mr. Panza, who was in charge of discipline and security, reduced the number of student entrances to two—one gate on the north side of the school and one gate on the south side of the school—to make the job of security on campus easier. However, students in my class noted that security guards were still posted at the former entrances to turn away students, and when I visited the two working entrances one morning, I found massive crowds. Students were skateboarding, being dropped off, trying to get through gates, and occasionally overflowing into the street, and (at least on my visits) they were supervised by only two adults.

A few years earlier, another major campus policy began to change the way I perceived space and interactions within it. The old hall pass was a sheet of paper affixed to a clipboard, but this was replaced by a new hall pass—a bright green and yellow vest like those worn by construction workers. Any students who had to leave classrooms to use the restroom or travel elsewhere on campus had to wear these new vests. The new vests would make it significantly easier for security guards to identify students who were approved to leave classrooms and students who might be considered trespassing.

Figure 1.4 A green and yellow construction vest functioning as a school hall pass

As a researcher, I saw these new vests code the student population in a way that refocused adult attention on specific, visually apparent students. Many of my students felt that it was demeaning to have to wear a bright uniform just to use the bathroom. The vest was seen as another effort to dehumanize student experience at the school.

When the liquor store across the street from the campus began selling identical vests, a viable market in hall passes beyond teacher purview was created, which undermined the discipline policies on campus. As a related side note, even though a school uniform was in place, students wore partial uniforms to school in order to get past the watchful eye of campus security.

Figure 1.5 A student’s workaround for the shirt collar required by the school’s uniform policy

It may not be the most professional of decisions I ever made, but I asked one of my artistic students to spray-paint a large black fist onto the back of my official classroom hall pass vest. Mr. Panza confiscated it and, even though it still functioned as a very bright hall pass, would not return it to me because a vest with an image on it would be “too confusing” for school security.

Figure 1.6 A customized hall pass

After my hall pass was confiscated, I sent students out of class with no pass and told them to explain to security guards (if stopped by them) that Mr. Garcia was waiting for his pass to be returned. After the weeks of being vestless in the halls, only one of my students was ever asked why he was out of class without a vest. In effect, the new passes were another inconsistently applied campus policy.

The Inconsistency of Time

Just as campus policies for leaving class often shifted, the measurement of time was also slippery. I saw SCHS’s use of time denigrate students in ways that can be read as classist, racist, and apathetic toward the needs of urban youth. In an ironic reversal of the racist notion of “colored people’s time,” students at SCHS were constantly left uncertain about when a bell would ring and when their lunch would begin or end. Another microaggression left unchecked.

During the year of this study, the bell schedule changed three times in the first two months of the year. Why did the schedule change so often? Usually, it was caused by simple arithmetic errors that were left unnoticed over the summer. As a memo sent to teachers noted:

Due to a mishap last spring with the district bell schedule design software, our current schedule is 18 minutes too short for our regular length days. Therefore, 2 minutes will be added to each passing period, and 1 minute will be added to each class period.

For the third bell change, a slightly more confusing notification was sent to teachers that required an approval vote from faculty regarding the new allocation of school minutes:

Please find the NEW Bell Schedule attached. Please note that since staff voted to eliminate Advisory on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, there are 6 minutes added on to Period 4 on Monday and Wednesday and 2 minutes added on to Period 4 on Tuesdays to allow for school announcements. On Wednesday and Thursday, announcements will continue to be at the end of Advisory after lunch. Please remember this new bell schedule will not start until a week from Monday on October 17.

“Advisory” was a counseling period where students could gain mentoring support from teachers, share their learning experiences, gain study skills, and prepare their postsecondary plans. During this year, teachers received no clear guidelines on how to use the advisory time, and with the above announcement, advisory was cut down to meeting only twice a week. For students needing mentorship and opportunities to connect with adult and peer mentors, this move nearly eliminated the advisory opportunity all together.

In addition to the structural changes, SCHS had a problem ringing bells at the right time. Starting on the first day of school, the bells rang at erratic times, anywhere from one to seven minutes before or after the “official” time. Minutes ebbed and flowed uncertainly as teachers and students eyed the clock, uncertain about whether class should end or continue. This felt like a professional slight to teachers who plan for consistency and depend on bells ringing correctly in order to end class in an orderly fashion.

These examples of disrupting consistent learning time affect how students perceive their schooling as valued and important. Like receiving truancy tickets for coming to school, the discrepancies between school policies and the lived realities of students and teachers can be striking. For the urban youth at SCHS, these inconsistencies tell students that adults do not care enough about them to run the school properly. They reinforce messages of shoddy schooling perpetuated in the media and stereotypes about urban communities. This is the way our schools define a new and even more racist understanding of “colored people’s time.”

Technology and Unspoken Policies in Campus Life

The following chapters of the book closely scrutinize the role played by technology at SCHS, but it is important to pause here to consider the policy implications of electronics at the school. There was no clear delineation of what was and was not allowed with regard to technology use during my years at the school. Although national policies and research trumpeted the potential of digital tools to transform and level the educational playing field, district and school policies seemed to be more concerned about preventing classroom disruptions, protecting Wi-Fi passwords from students, and fretting about teachers’ use of social networks. They reflected a paradigm of technology that was archaic and campus policies that were unclear and largely undiscussed. The landscape of technology use in classrooms has shifted significantly in some ways since I left SCHS, but inconsistency reigns supreme when it comes to implementation and articulation of policies at the school and district levels.

At the same time that the school’s assistant principals advocated incorporating technology within classrooms, school policy suggested that the electronic devices that students were most comfortable with were seen as distractions rather than useful learning tools. The policy constructed these tools as counterpedagogical, despite research illustrating the learning opportunities that phones and handheld devices can offer.20

The campus policy on technology not only limited student engagement in online activities but also provided barriers to students seeking out information on platforms that students are already literate in. Both the environment and the ways that information seekers feel within an environment affect the process of engagement and learning opportunities. The school’s physical environment, resources, and policies help perpetuate the digital divide. When computers look dilapidated, are covered with graffiti, and load applications slowly, the message to students is that the school doesn’t care about student learning opportunities. The civic lesson is one of inequality: as students in poor schools, they do not deserve the same opportunities as students in more affluent schools.

Likewise, even though digital technology was not allowed for most students, adults relied on electronics for control. Adult voices were amplified by PA systems and bullhorns, and adults wielded technology to enforce discipline in the school. I often saw adults use technology at SCHS to control the campus. In chapter 3, I discuss how giving iPods to my students disrupted classroom order (and led me—like the other adults discussed in this chapter—to undermine my own pedagogical best interests). Based on my observations of adults and school policies, rudimentary technology seems to get in the way of student voices. The larger school climate is affected by adult actions and inconsistency, and teachers must foster powerful relationships within our classrooms.

Graffiti and Meeting the Most Present Student I Never Met

As this tour of South Central High School comes to an end, we find ourselves in the bungalow where my first class met. Although not directly addressing campus policies, in this section I return to the students and their lasting presence within the school. During my first year of teaching, a spectral presence named Fonce Woddy invaded my classroom. When I first entered the classroom, it looked a bit worn from years of use but fairly clean, except that the words “Fonce Woddy” were written—on many desks, on the inside of the room’s doorjamb, inside a drawer in the teacher’s desk, on a trashcan, in the classroom circuit breakers, and on a computer monitor. In my first week, I pulled down the projector screen mounted in front of the classroom to project a video for the class and discovered that a huge Fonce Woddy tag was scrawled across the screen.

Figure 1.7 Fonce Woddy’s tag on my trashcan

Figure 1.8 Fonce Woddy’s tag on the classroom’s circuit breaker box

Numerous studies have examined tagging graffiti, the role it plays in identity and culture, and both the negative and positive aspects of this largely illegal form of art.21 Rival gangs tagged the walls of local businesses, and students and nationally known artists contributed to on-campus graffiti murals. The presence of graffiti as an art form, a mode of communication, and a cultural label could be seen nearly everywhere on and off campus in our neighborhood. Perhaps graffiti added to outsider perceptions of the school as “urban,” but it was a clear part of student culture. Students read walls as updates on current rivalries, appreciated complex lettering and painting, and were annoyed when a textbook or class novel was covered in tags. Graffiti was always part of classroom life.

Conclusion: Looking beyond Mismatches

Energy. On any given day, the space of South Central High School swirls with bodies and excitement. The sight of so many students ready and prepared for challenges in classrooms can be beautiful and rejuvenating. Given the density of students at the school, SCHS can’t help but be busy at any given moment. And it’s not just the students who exude energy and enthusiasm. Although teaching at SCHS can be hard, there is a reason I spent my entire secondary teaching career at the school. My work as a part of the teaching labor force—as an educator, a learner, and an organizer—was valued by my peers and by the local community. It was fun to teach at SCHS, and it was rewarding. The politics of being a teacher, of being uncertain about job layoffs each year, of sorting out shifting requirements within my classroom: that stuff wasn’t fun, and I strongly believe that it is one of the biggest ways we push quality teachers out of the profession on an annual basis.22

As frustrating as some of the experiences of being a teacher or a student at SCHS can be, the school thrives on possibilities. Looking at policy inconsistencies, daily microaggressions, and gaps in technology might paint a picture of a school that operates shakily on a day-to-day basis. It gets better, and understanding how the school functions allows us to dive more fully into the social lives of youth and their wireless practices in the next chapter and then my own classroom’s foray into mobile-mediated learning in the remainder of the book.

Throughout this chapter, I’ve offered glimpses of what life looks like at SCHS through demographic and “achievement” data about the school, the policies that govern what takes place in classrooms and around the campus, and anecdotes about student experiences. And yet these textual descriptions can never capture the essence of what makes SCHS tick—the vibrant student life, the hunt for a parking space in the school’s parking lot when you’re running late, the adolescent-like joy teachers experience when driving the custodian’s cart across campus to haul heavy materials from one room to another.

SCHS and other urban schools around the country have a lot of work to do to improve. And yet even this chapter’s surface-level look at SCHS highlights how some student intentions are thwarted by adult actions. Ultimately, the mismatch between what students need as developing members of society and what adults provide within the school is one of the key tensions that emerged from my research. Looking at how students understand the campus space (as discussed earlier), classroom time (discussed in chapter 2), and uses of in-class technology (chapters 3 and 4) illustrates that a school may appear to be doing its best for its students but consistently failing them. Although a school can send a strong message about adult authority with a highly visible police presence (such as the line of police vehicles that greeted me during my first visit to SCHS), we can learn a lot about how to transform schools if we better understand what youth are doing and build trust in our day-to-day interactions.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?