Required Reading: Kristina Rizga’s “Mission High”

IMG_3425In the summer of 2011, I taught my first college essay workshop at Mission High School. It’s the large public high school on Eighteenth Street at the bottom of Dolores Park, and I wandered inside to meet with the folks from the Athletic Scholars Advancement Program (ASAP, for short) to partner with them to add another service to their already-extensive efforts to promote a college-going culture among Mission’s students, most of whom would be the first in their family to attend college. I taught a version of a college essay writing course I’ve been teaching since 2006, and I customized it to address these students’ particular questions about applying while undocumented, describing what school is like as an English language learner, and telling the story of major organizations at school like Dragon Boat and the Drag Show. Most of the students’ needs in the course mirrored the support their private school peers has needed in other versions of the course. The difference often wasn’t one of intellect or ability; it was usually one of logistics. These students were no less poised to head to college after graduation. They often just needed a little more logistical support in figuring out how they would physically and financially get there.

I’ve now taught the course at Mission for five years, and over the years two things have struck me. One is the passion these students and their teachers have for their school. One of the University of California System essays asks students to describe the world they come from, and invariably one or more students will characterize Mission High School as their “world.” They write fondly about its community, its supportive teachers, its challenging classes, and its wide array of activities and clubs available. These activities and these committed educators make students feel safe, wanted, and encouraged. These teachers believe in their students, and they’ve engineered an environment where success is expected for kids who past teachers and schools have written off as failures. This is a fiercely welcoming, warm, and embracing place, and I’ve felt that in the invitations I’ve had over the years to graduation and the Drag Show and basketball games. I get to spend just a few days a year with the people of this school, and their passion and commitment and ownership are inspiring and on overwhelming display.

The second thing that strikes me is that Mission doesn’t have to be the exception. The things that make it special — committed teachers, engaged students, great partnerships with the neighborhood and local organizations — are things that can be replicated in lots of other public schools. This school is successful by measures that we don’t traditionally use to define success — namely, the students are engaged, they’re attending college in rapidly increasing numbers, and they work to create a community that actively fights racism, bullying, and oppression. Mission is a special place filled with especially committed educators, but it doesn’t have to be the only place that’s like that. If we as a nation were willing to embrace these qualitative outcomes as measures of success, perhaps we’d do a better job of supporting the efforts that make them work sustainably — namely, helping support teacher collaboration and creating homegrown solutions that work from within schools to address a community’s particular needs with sensitive, specific interventions rather than an outside consultant’s one-size-fits-all solution. The hard work of schools is differentiation: it’s all about meeting students where they are academically and emotionally and being creative, flexible, and inventive enough to meet them where they are with the skills and content you plan to cover that year. Helping teachers work as teams to mentor each other and support each other’s practice is a great way to do this; it’s one of the things that transformed my own classroom teaching from poor into passable and occassionally into downright effective. I truly think that if you equip teachers with the skils to meet their students where they are, you’ll engineer the most effective, most high-quality schooling experience for the most students.

All this is a long way of telling you that I just finished reading a book that I absolutely adored. Mission High is a new book out by Mother Jones writer Kristina Rizga, who spent four years observing, interviewing, and listening in the classrooms of Mission High School. She has just published a book on the experience that highlights the stories of students and teachers at Mission plus some short essays on the history of education reform in this country. I loved the book for many reasons, not the least of which was that I recognized the spirit I’d observed in my own much-shorter time on the campus. The teachers she describes are the same names that came up over and over in my class when students described the teachers who reached out to them on their terrifying first days of school in a new country, many of them speaking no English, having no idea where to turn for help.

To me, this book is a call to arms for people in our country who care about education reform. The things that work at Mission are hard, but they’re not impossible and they’re surely sustainable. What works at Mission is a culture of dedication and respect. It means a ton of hard work, but it also means engineering a safe space for exploration, learning, and growth.

Here’s a quote from Ms. Rizga’s epilogue that sums this up far more eloquently than I do:

Alejandra’s testimony [before the San Francisco Unified School District’s Board of Education about the importance of ethnic studies classes in the curriculum] reminded me of another, les tangible, but important lesson of Mission High: who is making decisions in our publich schools, where and how they make them matters a great deal in a democracy. Democracy can’t survive without strong public schools, but public schools don’t work very well without a sustained democrative decision-making process for their students, parents, and teachers, either. The story of Mission High School is an illustration of how democratic, student-centered, and teacher-driven educational reform works when it is coming from the inside out, when it is informed by the real needs of a community. While there are essential ingredients that shape every effective school, the most important solutions live in the process of decision-making at every level.

Run, don’t walk, and buy, don’t borrow, this book. Give it to all of your friends. I’m serious. This book captures so many of my feelings about access and equity in this country, between students in poverty and students with learning differences and so many other kids who unfairly can’t access an education that engages and transforms their lives. Read this book, talk about it with your friends, and figure out how you can help. The more places we can make like Mission High — inclusive, welcoming, and rigorous for every student — the better off our educational system will be.

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