“There’s no harder thing than being a teacher in South L.A.,” Robert Vidaña says bluntly as we squeeze interviews into his packed schedule, sitting in his tiny cubicle in what used to be the counseling office of Fremont High School, where he is LAEP’s community school coordinator (for a post about LAEP’s work, click here; for a description of an LAEP community school coordinator’s job, click here.) Robert’s father, who attended Fremont himself, is surprised that his son chooses to work there, but Robert believes in the school, loves South L.A. for all of its challenges, and has no interest in an easier job.
He grew up in West Covina but found suburban life dull. After graduating from Pomona, Robert got a degree in urban planning from UCLA but found himself working first with the LAUSD to build interdisciplinary after-school programs, then in his current job at Fremont working to build a community infrastructure. “I know it’s the unsexy thing to do. The fruits of your labor are not going to be seen in two or three years.” But the work is deeply meaningful to him.
Like English teacher Jordan Gonzales (profiled here), Robert has seen enormous changes at Fremont in his time there since the school’s radical restructuring in 2010. “My first year, we had 5500 students. Now we’re down to 2300.” Like several of the students I interviewed, he believes that when the LAUSD built another high school a mile or so away, that school drew away some of Fremont’s most troubled students, the ones who came from Charles Drew Middle School, a notoriously chaotic school with insufficient resources to meet the needs of a high-poverty population.
But Robert believes that significant cultural shifts were the key reason for the school’s improvement, starting with the new principal’s decision to put the school’s discipline in the hands of the counselors, instead of the dean—a major shift toward thinking about healing the cause of behavior issues, rather than punishing the behavior. “It’s more of a personalization system,” he says. “What we [the school] did was train teachers and create expectations among students. The biggest change was in the way that the dean and the police treated our students. We have hard-core students work with counselors now. Mental health has been one of the cornerstones of my work here.”
Robert meets regularly with the local police, and during our visit, I sit in on one of their sessions, where he and one of the administrator’s brief local officers on upcoming events at the schools as well as any potential problems, and the police brief Robert on crime in the area, which is down 15% so far this year in the area, with 16 homicides, 10 of which are gang-related (the other 6 appear to involve homeless people.) Robert and the officers exchange information about after-school and summer programs, while a Salvation Army representative offers information about their local drop-in program.
According to Robert, Fremont currently has not seen any on-campus gang involvement or fighting. His biggest concern is what he and the police call “safe passage,” or students able to walk home without being victims of crime. One of the reasons he believes so strongly in good communication is that often students who are preoccupied with worry that they’ll be attacked on their way home will stop quite understandably coming to school or be unable to focus if they do manage to get there. Encouraging students to talk to an adult on campus to share their concerns is a major first step in protecting students, who may need to have transportation arrangements made along with increased police awareness of possible trouble.
But another of Robert’s goals is to stop crime before it even happens. One of his best programs is a peer mediation program, in which problems between students on campus are resolved by talking through issues with student mediators who have been trained to defuse conflict. On my day at Fremont, I sit down with four of the student mediators, who explain that the core of their mediation is about understanding. “We all have a need and a want,” one girl explains. If there’s conflict between two students, they talk out their problems to the mediator, explaining what they want and need, then work out a contract. Suspensions are down and the campus is largely peaceful. Out of 71 mediation contracts, only one has ever been broken–a 98.6% success rate. One girl was startled to see tagging in the cafeteria. “I was like: does that even still happen here?”
The students speak warmly of Robert, whose guidance has been an enormous support to them. “Ever since 9th grade, Robert’s always been there for me,” says one girl, who speaks enthusiastically about the college field trips he’s arranged. “He talked about high school, he talked about college. He’s part of the reason I’m going to college. He’s not a teacher, but he’s the most important person here for me.”
“Every kid needs therapy here,” he says. “Even among the good kids, what I see is a lack of coping skills.”
Because of the individual nature of the work, Robert believes that change will be slow and that there will be no cookie-cutter pattern that can be transposed from one school onto another. “I can’t just replicate what another school is doing,” he tells me. Each community has unique needs; taking the time to understand the community is an essential first step. “LAEP helped me envision what an infrastructure could look like,” he says, but the next phase of the work is something each community coordinator has to create to fit its school’s needs and resources. “This can work. The ideas and the theory will work. But the community school movement doesn’t have that critical mass yet” to prove its role in the success of a school, and there is currently no movement to push for more districts to adopt the community school model.
When I see his work, I feel profoundly hopeful. But when I see government-issued rubrics designed to measure the success of programs like this, bristling with growth indicators and deadlines, I feel profoundly terrified. Yes, accountability matters. No, we don’t have time to wait. But meaningful change is slow and communities are comprised of breathing, changing, real human beings. If, as Valerie Braimah so eloquently said to me at the beginning of my search this year, a school is an ecosystem, how do we, as a society, give fragile ecosystems like Fremont the space, time and resources they need in order to flourish?