If you want to believe that Southern California is heaven, ease onto the 110 Freeway and set your GPS to South Pasadena. There, in this city of 25,000 only a few miles from downtown, the trees are so prized that in 1991, the city council passed an ordinance to protect them. Squint to shut out the cars and you could believe that it’s 1915, with historic California bungalows lining the shade-dappled lanes.
But that’s not why people move to South Pasadena. They move there for the schools. The schools! When I visit South Pasadena High and take in the elegant Art Deco buildings, the sunny, clean pathways, the library—my God, an actual, real-life school library, a giant space filled with books, remember school libraries? And school librarians? South Pasadena has them! I am not making this up! There sit two pleasant middle-aged librarians, checking out books as if they have no idea they’re an endangered species; it would have been only slightly less startling to see two whooping cranes or two hartebeestes! Truly, as I stand in the school library, my eyes fill with tears of nostalgia but also bitterness because the school where I taught did not have any library at all, only a ragtag collection of books in each teacher’s room—I want to turn back time so that my own kids can go to South Pasadena High. So that I can go there. So that everyone can go there.
I mean, this is not a private school. This is a free public education.
It’s amazingly difficult to get a clear answer to what, exactly, is the per-student funding for any school, but South Pasadena High appears to have a per-student budget of around $8,500 per student, which is not that much more than the LAUSD’s $7,500, though the South Pasadena Educational foundation raises about half a million dollars a year to lower class size and add a variety of enrichment programs.
The majority of the parent body is college-educated. A substantial chunk have graduate degrees. There is no ethnic majority on campus; 42% are Asian, 35% are white and 18% are Latino/a, with the remaining 5% coming from African-American or mixed race families.
Ben Arnold, a genial thirtyish English teacher, has agreed to let me observe his 11th grade honors English class for the day. We stroll along the path to his class while he tells me a little about his background: he taught for several years near his hometown by Lake Tahoe. Though the region might sound idyllic, in fact, the communities where he taught were very low-income, presenting him with challenges he does not face here in South Pasadena.
I’ll write in a later post about his class itself, a terrific experiment in which he made all of his students sign up for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. But I am also fascinated by our conversation about the different challenges he faced in his previous school and those he faces now.
“At my old school, we had kids from all these different countries speaking 17 different languages, how do you deal with that? I spent so much of my day trying to combat the lack of engagement and motivation and behavior problems,” he tells me. Though the work was difficult and frustrating at times, he understood where his kids were coming from. “A lot of behavior stuff comes from stuff at home. If someone’s hungry, living with abuse, living in a hotel room, doing your homework isn’t high up in your needs. Half of my day was convincing kids that education mattered.”
I’ve written extensively in these pages about the exhaustion caused by overcrowded classes, insufficient resources and the complex challenges of teaching kids who come in below the trust line. Ben must be on Easy Street now. Right?
Not exactly, he tells me with a smile. “Now the challenge for me is to challenge them.” He doesn’t have to persuade them that school matters—but academic buy-in can have some unintended side effects. “The kids have learned to test well,” he tells me. “But how do I move them beyond the desire to accumulate the most points, to get a better grade? How do I get them to move beyond playing the game?”
For Ben, part of the solution has been projects that reward innovation and creativity, not the following of rules. That’s why he’s having them write (or start) novels; it’s a sneaky way to teach the principles of characterization and craft. Some of his students love it. Others, including some top students, are deeply resistant. In fact, when I sit in on his class, I’m struck by the fact that even here, there are students I would say present behavior problems: though most kids are on task, two blonde girls in hotpants sit in the back, chatting and texting so assiduously that they might as well have been sending out a crawl to a news wire service, with occasional breaks to flirt with the quiet boy in front of them, who is doing everything in his power to continue writing without flat-out rejecting them and possibly pissing them off. I am reminded of what social creatures teenagers are; as a teacher, I’d forget that their emotional survival often depends on not alienating the alpha kids in the room, who have powers that extend beyond the classroom into the cafeteria, the weekend and on into the fathomless Instagram-scape.
Like Kristin Damo and Cynthia Castillo, Ben persists, offering positive reinforcement to individual students, convinced that it’s essential to help them break out of their mindset. “I want to move them beyond being a good regurgitator into being a curious thinker and a writer who’s really communicating,” he says.
Curious. It’s a word I keep hearing. Two days earlier, when I asked Kristin Damo at Locke High School in Watts, one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles, to answer the question “what is education?” she said that she wanted her students to become “intellectually curious.” Tomorrow, Jeremy Michaelson at Harvard-Westlake, which costs $32,300 a year and serves one of the wealthiest communities in Los Angeles, will have a similar answer.
Curiosity. Is that what an education is really all about? Curiosity? But how do you instill that?
And what is curiosity, anyway?