EDUCATION-US: Social Justice Schools Shape New Wave of Activists

  • by Matthew Cardinale (atlanta, georgia)
  • Saturday, November 28, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

The Little Village Lawndale High School is an experimental public school that opened in Chicago, Illinois in 2005, after a community populated by many Mexican immigrants held a 19-day hunger strike.

LVLHS includes four smaller schools on a common campus: an arts school; a math, science, and technology school; a world language school; and a Social Justice High School.

In 1998, a Little Village Community Development Corporation began working in the community to identify areas where it could start programmes to address community needs. Community members repeatedly told the 'block organisers' in 2001 that they wanted a school. LVCDC is now known as Enlace, which in Spanish means 'link'.

'The School Board had [previously] allotted three high schools to be built: two selective enrollment schools and one for Little Village,' Social Justice High School Vice Principal Cynthia Nambo, 39, told IPS. However, the other two schools got built and the funds for Little Village were diverted.

Then on Mother's Day in 2001, several people, including mothers and grandmothers, resorted to a hunger strike in which they only drank juice and water for 19 days. Their dramatic action attracted support and attention from all over Chicago.

'They didn't think it was going to be as popular as it was. It really just took over the city. They set up Camp Cesar Chavez. Churches came out and camped with them all night,' Nambo said.

Finally, after the strike, the School Board and private foundations joined together to build the school. Community members and parents stayed very involved in the planning of LVLHS, including Nambo, who lead the curriculum committee.

'We had a survey that went into the community and asked, what did you want your young people to be able to have and graduate with in terms of skills, jobs... The results came out with four themes, that's why we have [four schools],' Nambo explained.

The community wanted a Social Justice High School 'to continue to fight that the hunger strikers had', she recalled.

Social studies teacher Jackson Potter, 31, told IPS he uses a youth edition of the noted leftist book 'A People's History of the United States' by Howard Zinn as a textbook in his classes.

'We wanted an alternative arc to how U.S. history has traditionally been viewed, so students can get that critical lens and think more deeply about their country, what it's responsible for over time, and how that influences the present,' Potter said.

'We begin in the age of exploration and Columbus and the mythology surrounding him. We ask, why are we [U.S. society] celebrating someone responsible for mass murder, torture, and thievery?' Potter said.

Students at the Social Justice High School learn a very different version of U.S. history than most pupils, including the near-genocide of the Native Americans by European colonisers and the murder of union leaders by the U.S. government in the early 1900s. 'I think they're hungry for it,' Potter said. 'Deep in their consciousness they have a lot of questions about it, based on their experiences in a community that's marginalised.'

'When they start exploring the historical antecedents of the present state of affairs, it helps them piece it together in a way that they're not blaming themselves all the time,' Potter said.

According to the Chicago Weekly, LVLHS's student scores on the standardised college entrance test, the ACT, were lower than average.

'This year’s junior class averaged a 17 on the ACT, and 33 percent earned a 19 or higher. By comparison, the national average is almost 21,' the Weekly reported.

'Selective Enrollment schools... have an average of 26 on the ACT,' Potter said. 'It's not because [those] students are smarter. It's because they've been handed certain privileges that are not accrued to everyone in society.'

Potter also said that over 80 percent of their graduating seniors are going to college, another indicator of success. More important, though, 'We've equipped students with the desire to not only help their families but also to help their communities in a long-term sense, and that commitment and dedication is evident throughout the building,' he added.

'Students do an asset map in their community. They... think about what institutions, what social resources [are needed] help the community thrive. In doing that, they also identify problems,' Potter said.

'Once those things have been established, the class decides through discussion, debate, what one issue they would want to work on as a class. It could range the gamut from teen pregnancy to police brutality. My students right now are tackling the problem of pollution. We have two coal power plants in our community,' Potter said.

Schools like LVLHS are the exception. Nambo agrees that fewer than one percent of schools in the U.S. strongly emphasise social justice or civic engagement.

Another such exception is Horizons School in Atlanta, Georgia, a private, left-leaning school founded in 1978 that teaches students from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

Some students at Horizons went on a field trip to Washington, DC, to watch the inauguration of President Barack Obama; others went to Louisiana to a protest over the 'Jena 6', a racially-charged controversy involving a noose found in a tree; still others went to make public comment at a hearing regarding the Savannah River Site nuclear power plant.

Micah Barnwell, 14, recalled what she told the audience. 'I said we have to take action not only for us, but our kids. We only have one world. We only get one shot,' Barnwell said.

'If we don't take action now, we've going to lose what we have. We talk about change, but we have to set an example,' said Iza Guzman, 16. 'If we don't do it, nobody's going to do it.'

Barnwell appreciates being able to discuss real-world issues in school. 'I feel respected. When I'm in the typical adolescent-adult environment, people talk down to me. They don't want to tell me their opinion because I'm impressionable. Here, teachers are willing to tell me their opinion. It's preparing me for real life. I really enjoy it,' Guzman said.

Les Garber, 64, is the administrator for Horizons and the only original co-founder still serving. 'There's a lot more to education than reading, writing, and arithmetic. We want our students to be participants in government and [to be] voters. We feel a holistic education is very important and participating in the world around us is a very important thing we can pass on to our students here,' he said.

Garber agrees it can be politically controversial. 'When you talk about values, you talk about controversy. When you say democratic values are important to us, you have to do something about it.'

'I think the whole testing craze is a corporate-driven agenda to carve up the school system and serve the interests of the business community. It totally alters the purpose of education from an educator's perspective,' Potter said.

'If we're training a generation to be cogs in the machine, they're not going to be critical thinkers to face the immense social problems we face,' Potter said. 'How do we ensure the future leaders of America have our best interests at heart and have a thorough understanding of the human capital around them?'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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