The Learning Doesn’t Stop When You Leave the Classroom

This post is one of an occasional series profiling Los Angeles high school students across the socioeconomic spectrum.  For other student stories, click here, here, here and here.

“I chose this school because I love to read and write,” says Isabel, 16, a student in Jennifer Macon’s class at Cleveland Humanities Magnet. Self-described as “having an interesting race,” Isabel comes from a family that’s a blend of Korean, Cuban and white, with highly-educated professional parents who, she recalls, read to her throughout her childhood. “My mom is really, really into education,” she says. “My parents have very strong opinions. My dad tends to rant about politics. I feel like their unabashed interested in politics and in discussing things, that’s what definitely sparked my twin interests in politics and social justice.”

As a child, Isabel went to Children’s Community School in Van Nuys, a progressive private elementary school that currently costs $23,420 a year. “Their mission is to instill the values of democracy through open discussion, reading and writing,” Isabel tells me—a mission she herself seems now to embody. After sixth grade, she switched to a public middle school with a humanities program, “a disheartening few years,” she says. “It was academically rigorous but there wasn’t a lot of discussion.”

I can’t help but smile at the thought of a twelve-year-old so impassioned by ideas that she’s outraged by the lack of deep discussion in seventh grade. Fortunately, the condition wasn’t permanent; she and her parents looked for a better option for high school and today she spends 40 minutes each way on a bus to get to Cleveland Humanities Magnet, time well spent in her opinion. “I love it here. I feel like I fit in really well. You find kids talking about issues, and the teachers find a way to make it relate to your own life. These subjects are really compelling. The learning doesn’t stop when you leave the classroom here. I love to research and find out new stuff and synthesize ideas. I was lacking in that at my middle school.”

As a highly opinionated and intellectually sophisticated teenager, she’s found that one of her biggest challenges is learning to manage her own strong personality. “I guess I went in sometimes with a pretentious attitude,” she says of the volatile class unit on race. “I’ve learned a lot of communication skills. I’ve learned not to let my voice drown out other people. We all center our view as correct, but this class really illuminates how much of what we absorb as reality or biological fact is actually subjective. We assign people binary genders but that’s a social construct. There are cultures with a third gender. Any construct that we take to be biological fact could easily be challenged by other constructs in other societies.”

What’s fascinating to me, beyond the actual content of her conversation and her extremely winning personality, is that what she’s saying is the embodiment of the kind of thinking the Common Core standards are trying to inculcate: skeptical, critical, able to synthesize and compare bodies of knowledge, able to listen and discuss with great fluidity and interest. Right now as a culture, we’re making the assumption that teachers can be trained to produce students like these no matter what the student’s level of literacy coming in and regardless of the home situation in which that student lives. Are teaching techniques alone going to be enough?

What are the factors that play into what we tend to call “intelligence,” “drive,” “motivation,” “literacy?” What makes a young girl grow up and become an intellectual? Her intensely intellectual parents? Her progressive private elementary school? The mixture of cultures in her home? Her inherent personality? Her current classroom experience? All of the above?

On the other hand, critics of school choice (and Cleveland, though not a charter, is a magnet and therefore a “school of choice”) argue that school choice reinforces privilege by allowing students like Isabel to take a bus 40 minutes a day to a better school away from her neighborhood. But would it really serve our society to remove this choice from her family? Is it really believable that, if she had no option other than to attend her local school, her family would become activists that would force the improvement of public schools in general? Or is it just more likely that she’d check out and become bored and alienated, or that her parents would move to a different neighborhood with better schools? And how would that serve us as a society? Isn’t it a better strategy to look honestly at the resources a student like Isabel has had that have helped her become who she is—safety, the stable presence of caring adults, early and continual exposure to literacy and discussion, an exceptional elementary school–and then try to provide those resources for all of our students?

Ironically, it may be Isabel herself who helps find an answer to some of these questions. “If I could model myself on anyone,” she says, “it would be Angela Davis. A few months ago I was volunteering at the progressive educators network and I had a chance to listen to Angela Davis speak. She talked about the importance of education in social justice. She’s dedicated her life to effective change.”

But don’t look for Isabel in Congress any time in the future. “As a liberal woman who’s not of an entirely white background, I think I’d be silenced. I think there are still systems in place to keep straight white able-bodied upper-class men in power.” She smiles. “I’d rather be outside the system to dismantle it.”


7 thoughts on “The Learning Doesn’t Stop When You Leave the Classroom”

  1. “Isn’t it a better strategy to look honestly at the resources a student like Isabel has had that have helped her become who she is—safety, the stable presence of caring adults, early and continual exposure to literacy and discussion, an exceptional elementary school–and then try to provide those resources for all of our students?”

    I think that’s a better strategy, but what’s been happening across our nation is that people with power, like politicians and other policy makers, go – Hey look at this school of choice and the great accomplishments they’ve reached. They’re not defenders of the status quo! They achieved due to no excuses! Look at the local neighborhood school full of losers. Close them down!

    The policy makers are formulating ideas absent students’ contexts. I get it – we can’t wait for poverty to get fixed, and we must do the best we can and be open to improving. At the same time, ignoring context might result in bad decision making.

    1. I totally agree. And my issue with the “we don’t have time to wait” camp is that I agree that we don’t have time to wait, but taking action actually means taking steps to remediate the trauma of poverty as well as amping up academics.

  2. I am a new subscriber–I just found out about this blog via Valerie Strauss and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

    One comment about this post: As far as I know most “critics of school choice” that I know of are actually very supportive of magnets. In fact, one blogger and parent who has written very persuasively and thoughtfully about magnets (and specifically about magnets vs. charters) is a Californian named Cynthia Liu. Do you know of her? If not, you should check out her site and maybe get in touch: She is a treasure trove of information and insights.

    Good luck on your project and I look forward to reading more posts.

    1. Haven’t read Cynthia Liu’s stuff, but just commenting —

      I think the argument for being pro-magnet, but “critical of school choice” is that magnets don’t claim to have better results with the same students as the local neighborhood school. It’s understood that they have different students, and hence their standardized test scores will be different.

    2. Thanks so much for the referral to Cynthia Liu’s site. It looks promising, though I had some issues getting access to full articles. I’ll be in touch with her.
      I know that some critics of school choice are opposed to charters because of concerns about privatization, which doesn’t affect magnets, but the other central argument against school choice does seem to apply to magnets, which is that allowing top students with very involved and empowered parents to leave local schools, taking their per-student money with them, is draining local schools of talent, money and potential advocacy.
      I’m actually puzzled that magnets are not more controversial given that as I understand it they are actually designed to serve a disproportionately high percentage of white students (as much as 40%, though the LAUSD is only 8.8% white) and also get somewhat more money than local district schools even (as far as I can tell) when co-located on the same site.
      Anyway, thank you so much for commenting and reading, and for the referral to Cynthia Liu’s site, which I look forward to reading in more depth.

      1. This got me thinking a bit and curious, so I did a quick Google search and the first article that came up –
        He talks about governance, but doesn’t talk about segregation.

        This author says that magnets were meant to increase integration:

        Anyhow, I’m still puzzled like you are why magnets aren’t more controversial.

  3. I won’t tell you anything new, but it’s the same in any other field.
    You would think past showes us anything, but that’s so rare.
    Feel free to disagree but the world changes, and none of us have no control over it.
    For instance, imagine Barack had enough balls to put Putin to his place, but it seems like it’s never happening, welcome third world war.
    A truly inspiring post, thanks!

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