“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.”