Don’t be fooled by the radiance, confidence and bubbly warmth of Azanni, Symone, Jada and Immani, four seniors at View Park High School in South Los Angeles, an ICEF charter school. They are stressed. Imani and Azanni applied to 22 colleges each, Jada to 20, Symone to 11. “I wanted to have options!” Jada tells me and the girls all laugh, agreeing. We’re sitting at a picnic table on the quad at View Park, where they’ve taken time from their classes to give me a tour of the school, talking over each other in their enthusiasm as they tell me the various places they’ve applied, ranging from Brown and Penn, their dream schools, through UCLA, Berkeley, USC, Spelman, the Claremont schools, several Cal States and many others.
Though View Park is only a couple of miles from Augustus Hawkins, whose population is primarily Latino/a, View Park’s student body is 95% African-American, with 76% qualifying for free or reduced lunch and 23% having parents who have graduated from college. ICEF’s charter system, which includes elementary and middle schools across South L.A., is unusual because of its emphasis on arts and athletics as well as academics and for its high percentage of African-American students across all of its schools, with test scores 28 percentile points higher than the average for African-American students in California, closing the test-score achievement gap by matching the scores of the state’s white students.
For all its successes, ICEF had serious financial setbacks after the budget cuts of the last few years and nearly went under in 2010 before being bailed out by former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and Eli Broad, who kicked in a little over half a million dollars to keep the schools afloat. The charter system restructured the administration and retooled the financial plan to include community partnerships that help offset the cost of arts and athletics programs. ICEF has also begun a teacher-led test-drive of blended learning, an experiment I’ll cover in my next post.
But the girls I’m interviewing don’t want to talk about arts, athletics or blended learning—they want to talk about college. Like many seniors, their focus in on the future, the source of their stress. “Senior year, you start becoming aware of what you cannot do,” says Symone. “You’re like: I need to know if something happens I can rely on myself and not be helpless.”
Immani agrees. “I’m in the process of developing my self-reliance,” something she’ll need if she goes to college out of state, which is her dream.
The girls start laughing as they reel off all the things they can’t do yet that they’re going to have to learn. “I could be in a state I’m completely unfamiliar with, completely different weather…I’m nervous a little bit,” says Symone.
“I’m completely reliant on my family for support!” says Imanni. “I’m kind of freaking out about how I’m gonna learn to catch a plane. I look around and I think: I don’t even know how to catch a taxi! I don’t even know how to catch a bus.”
Again, more laughing as the girls all tell me that they never use public transportation because their mothers drive them to school every day. All of them cite their mothers as major role models. Unlike many students in underserved communities, Jada, Immani and Azanni all have mothers with college degrees. Immani’s mother, who finished college while raising three young children, is now getting a doctorate at Loyola Marymount. Azanni’s grandmother, who went to school in Belize, also has a college degree.
When I ask what advice they’d give teachers, they talk about college. They give a giant shout-out to their college counselors, who brought admissions reps to campus from a variety of places they’d never heard of before and took them on a tour of colleges in the Bay Area, an experience that made a huge impression. “I would emphasize for teachers in low-income communities to encourage their students not to be shy about applying to the Ivies, apply to the little privates, apply to the Claremont schools,” says Jada. “Kids from low-income areas, they sometimes count themselves out.”
But again, like all the students I’ve talked to, it’s the personal relationship with teachers that they feel has the strongest influence on them. “I feel like teachers don’t realize what a profound effect they have on their students,” says Immani. “My psychology teacher has done surgery before—I don’t think she knows how much she’s influencing my career goal” of being a neuroscientist. “Even the little things you have on your desk as a teacher are an influence.”
Symone agrees. If she has one piece of advice for teachers, it’s to take the time to let students get to know them. “Telling us about your personal life, it really influences us, even that student that seems like they’re not paying attention. Your struggles remind us of our struggles. You may be related to students in ways that you don’t even know. Getting to know you as a person really helps us learn. You never know how your life is gonna influence us. Everything about you may affect where we end up.”