“So of all the schools you attended, if you could go to just one of them, which would you pick?” I ask Natalie.
She smiles and looks up a moment, thinking about it. A poised, friendly senior at Gabrielino High School in San Gabriel, she has the warm smile and firm handshake of a polished professional. My friend Will Wong, who teaches math at Gabrielino, suggested that I interview her because Natalie’s life story makes her an inadvertent test case for a lot of the current theories in education. Over the last six years, she’s attended a failing public district school, a high-performing charter school (Animo Leadership, which I have covered here and here) and Gabrielino, a traditional large district school in a diverse middle-class neighborhood.
Though Natalie was born in L.A. and grew up in Inglewood, her entire family spoke Spanish at home; she didn’t learn English until kindergarten. Through 8th grade, she attended Inglewood district schools, an experience she remembers with a shudder. “Oh, my God,” she says, shaking her head. “Inglewood has a lot of gangs from all these places, East L.A., Hawthorne, South L.A., and there’d be racial fights in the halls all the time. We had a police station on campus. I guess like the police were there but it didn’t make any difference.”
Classes at her Inglewood middle school were terrible. “Nobody paid attention. Teachers were going in and out—we had a lot of subs, we’d have one sub for a month, then they’d leave. Nobody knew what to do. If you were quiet in class and took notes, you’d pass. I didn’t know anything about high school. I’d barely heard of college.” She had cousins who were in gangs and never went to school. “The school would call my aunt and tell her that they should be in school. She’d be like: what can I do about it?”
Her uncle was a teacher at Animo Leadership at the time and told Natalie’s mother that she had to get her children out of Inglewood schools. “You have to go to college,” he told her. She entered the lottery and when her name was picked out of the bucket, she became a student there.
The culture shock was overwhelming. “It was hard,” she says with a smile. “We did summer bridge” (a program to get incoming 9th graders accustomed to school expectations) “and if I didn’t do my homework, you had to call your mom. There was a lot of homework. I’d have an English paper due and a science project due at the same time. They didn’t call it a high school. They called it a college prep school.”
Because she was behind in her core subjects, she had to take English support and Algebra support in addition to her regular classes and 20 minutes of “power reading” at the end of the day. It was exhausting. She remembers ruefully a time when she got behind in her work and the school did a kind of intervention, calling in her mother and her teachers, who surrounded her and asked her how she liked school. “I talked and they listened,” she says.
“And one thing I want to tell you,” she adds. “At graduation, every senior has to go on stage and tell you where they were going to college.” The announcements made a big impression on Natalie, who had never thought of herself as being on a college path.
I asked her if she liked all that work. She smiles. “The first half of the year, the kids all complained. But after a while, nobody wanted to leave.”
After her freshman year, though, her parents decided they wanted to get their family out of Inglewood and moved to San Gabriel, a middle-class small city outside of Los Angeles. Again, the culture shock for Natalie was extreme. Gabrielino High School, a sprawling new campus of 1800 students, looks and feels much more like a typical America suburban high school, with grassy lawns and walkways between buildings. The student body is 60% Asian, 32% Latino, with the remainder a mix of white and African-American students. Test scores are high; their API score for last year is 841, with a population that is 57% socioeconomically disadvantaged, contrasted with Animo Leadership’s 811, a stunningly high score for a school in a population that is 94% socioeconomically disadvantaged. Both schools would classify as high-scoring by any standards.
For Natalie, the diversity was a huge plus. “At Animo everyone was Mexican,” she says (I’m not sure this is entirely accurate, but this was her impression.) “We all knew the same people, we all had the same history. Here there’s a different energy, it’s like it’s in the environment. People are more friendly.”
At Gabrielino, it was easy to make friends, but she was struck by differences in the way people talked. “The way we talked at Animo, it was slang, slang, slang,” she tells me. “Here it’s proper English. My friends tell me I had a ‘ghetto’ accent. I was so offended!”
She enjoys Gabrielino. Though the school has higher test scores than Animo Leadership, she feels it’s easier academically. “Over there it was more work” at Animo Leadership. “And they had block schedules (100 minute long classes), so we got more done.”
As far as teachers go, she feels both schools are similar. “They’re about the same. At Animo they’d push and push us but in the end it was our responsibility. Here it’s the same. They tell us we’ve gotta do it, they can tell me all day, but in the end, I’m the one who has to do the work.” Next year, she’s headed for community college. She wants to be in business, but isn’t sure exactly what she’ll do.
That’s when I ask her which school she’d pick if she could pick only one. “Animo,” she says, after a long pause.
I’m taken aback. After all that work she described? She enjoyed that?
She can’t articulate exactly why, but talks about the connection between parents and teachers at Animo Leadership. “I feel like teachers need to understand our background,” she says. “I feel like they need to know where we come from, what our middle school was like.” She seems to love the fact that her mother was required to be on campus periodically. “I wish teachers would all have their parents come shadow their kids,” she says.
What seems to have stayed with her is the collaboration between parents and teachers to push her to a new place, while still understanding the realities of her life. For her, a great teacher understands the subject matter and a student’s home life—and gets parents to have a parallel understanding of school and home. When kids fall into trouble, she hopes teachers will spend time getting to know their students—as does virtually every student I’ve talked to.
“It’s always about stuff at home,” she says. “Try to comfort the student so they can feel like school is home.”