Gene Dean is keeping it real. An English teacher at Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights for the last nine years, he doesn’t toe anybody’s party line. “What are the stories mainstream media tells about us here in Boyle Heights?” he asks his students at the beginning of their final unit. “What do these stories focus on?”
The classroom is sunny and old-fashioned, with wooden cabinets and a long row of windows. Posters advocating activism for undocumented students vie for space on the walls with posters of old sci-fi B-movies. The class of 9th graders is small, with only thirteen students here today; because of a grant, the school has been able to radically reduce class size for the last few years, though the grant will end next year. What this loss of funding will mean, nobody knows.
But at Roosevelt, they’re used to rolling with changes. In the early twentieth century, the community was largely Jewish, then Japanese and now is mainly Latino/a. The school is old, a sprawling campus anchored by an original building from the twenties, with long windows and mural-filled hallways. Around the original building, new buildings are stretched like tentacles, each one mute testimony to its time period: a zen garden to commemorate the Japanese population that was forced into internment camps, a square brick outbuilding with the spare lines of seventies industrial architecture, trailer classroom from drastically underfunded and overcrowded times, a fountain tiled in vibrant colors.
In 2010, the city declared the school failing due to low test scores and took it over under the umbrella of the Partnership for L.A. Schools. The Partnership split the school into six small schools, each with its own administration. Last year, due to declining enrollment, funding plunged as per-student dollars moved to nearby charters. At the same time, the Gates Foundation, which had initially funded small schools as an experiment, decided that there was minimal evidence that smaller schools improved test scores and yanked their funding.
This year, the six schools were merged again into one school of about 3,500, except for a magnet that has been there all along. Because of all the changes, statistics are hard to find; as far as I can tell, about 87% of the students are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, about 30% are English Language Learners, almost all are Latino/a. Test scores, though they’ve risen slightly, have remained relatively low no matter who is running the school.
Somehow, despite having survived all these changes, Gene Dean, a trim, calm, friendly man, seems completely cool and composed as he leads a lively discussion with his 9th graders about the stories people tell about Boyle Heights. What do people say about the community?
“That it’s ghetto!” says one boy.
“I heard about this body,” says a girl, and many agree; a girl’s dead body was recently found floating in Hollenbeck Park’s pond.
“Drug dealing,” says another boy.
“I heard about a guy that got shot in the face.”
“That was my friend, by the way,” says the boy.
“I heard about our iPads that got hacked,” says a girl.
“But we’re looking for positives,” says a boy.
“There are no positives in Boyle Heights!” the girl tells him.
“This is why I want to have a reflective unit,” Gene tells them. “Who’s telling these stories? Are they people from inside the community or outside of it?”
“It’s like how we think of South Central,” says a boy.
Gene tells them they’re going to do a unit called “This Boyle Heights Life.” “This American Life been criticized for not telling stories about people like us,” he tells them. They’ll spend the unit researching and writing stories about their community. Today, they team up in groups to make brainstorming posters. What are the topics people need to understand about Boyle Heights? Who are four people we should know in Boyle Heights? What are four places that should be known in Boyle Heights? What are four genres we should use in writing about Boyle Heights?
While the kids work, Gene talks to me about the changes he’s seen. “There’s been a dismantling of the public schools,” he says simply. “Within three miles of here there are at least ten different charters. What that means is that there’s been a brain drain among the student body. Meanwhile, here, with layoffs, you have an aging staff. They’ve paid their dues, they’ve done their years of teaching intervention classes [with low-skills students], they don’t want to do that any more. There’s burnout—and there’s no new blood.”
But he’s not hopping on the charter train any time soon. “Look, good teaching is good teaching, and at charters there’s more accountability. But their retention is low.” Why? “Probably burnout from test-based accountability.”
The accountability piece is a conundrum, something I’ve heard from many LAUSD teachers. Gene is all for it—within reason. “Teachers should be accountable in the same way students are accountable, with the understanding that these tests are not a representation of what these students are capable of. You can’t judge teachers in underserved communities based on standardized tests.”
What do these tests fail to measure? “It comes down to institutionalized racism and poverty,” he says. “As Cornel West says, poverty is the worst kind of violence. Because everyone is struggling, everyone suffers. For the most part in school, there’s a lack of actually talking to the kids.”
For Gene, a more accurate measure of teachers in underserved communities would be the extent to which teachers engage students in authentic conversation about topics that matter to them—and help them articulate what they’ve learned. That’s why he’s ending the year with the unit on media narratives. “We have this idea that we’re gonna teach skills in high school, then the kids can have serious discussions in college. Why are we waiting? 9th and 10th graders are starting to grow up. They need these conversations.”
He’s excited about the Common Core, which he thinks is a strong move in the right direction. “As long as Common Core stays away from multiple choice tests, it’s an awesome process. Read, answer with evidence, write an essay. It’s how I used to teach before I had to do so much test prep. I like saying this is gonna be hard, get used to it.”
But for him, the real issue goes deeper than standards or testing. “The elephant in the room is the kids’ low reading levels,” he says—a refrain I’ve heard over and over from teachers in high-poverty communities, whether they teach at charter schools or local district schools, and one that echoes my own experience. “The reason it’s an elephant is that no one wants to deal with it, not teachers, not administrators, not parents, not students. There is no silver bullet. Some teachers like to do literature and they say, well, just read one book closely. Other teachers drill and kill. Well, either way, it’s not gonna solve the problem. A lot of kids, they have more to worry about at home than this book or this worksheet.”
He thinks a place to start would be ending the blame game. “The thing that needs to stop is blaming the kids,” he says. “Even the kid that sits there and does nothing, I know why he does that. He’s got a reason. I tell him, you’re choosing this. I make sure they know it’s their choice. But that’s not the same thing as blame.” Almost always, the answer involves a student’s personal life. “The kids are incredibly smart. It’s not that. I think it’s because there’s something going on at home.”
The number of students who aren’t doing the work is rising at local district schools, he believes, because of the brain drain to charters. This brain drain, in turn, affects morale, which affects teacher performance. “There are three kinds of teachers: thriving, surviving and running away. The teachers who are just surviving have the philosophy I’m here for the kids who want to learn. Well, that pool of kids has gotten smaller and smaller. Teachers who were highly effective are now maybe only effective.”
In spite of everything, he remains optimistic. “I feel hopeful about everything right now,” he tells me. “What we’re teaching now with Common Core, these skills, those are things they’ll remember.”