I am very proud to announce, gentle reader, some good news: 6 of our graduating seniors were just admitted to UCLA. If that doesn't sound like many, consider that it is over 10% of the class. Suddenly we don't look like such a failing school after all, as long as you never step into a freshman English class.
When I breathlessly shared this news with my Mom, her response was (in kinder terms), how the hell is the same school that produces students who think it's acceptable to write an essay in text-message format also producing UCLA-calibur students? It's an interesting question, and when boiled down to the skeleton, it becomes this: given the same environment, why do some succeed while others fail?
I don't pretend to know the answer to this question; it seems to fall into that mysterious category of inter-individual variation that we see in any biological community. I should mention that these students do not represent the average at our school; these 6 students just-so-happened to be the AP Calculus class.
Holding income, family background, and so on constant, some students just seem to "get" school better than others. Whether that quality is intelligence depends on whether you think that our school system has an accurate grasp on how smart our kids really are, whether forcing students to sit at a desk and passively absorb information necessarily weeds out those budding intellectuals who can't seem to sit still, etc. etc.
And I submit that, for those students who "get" school, a small, college-focused charter is a pretty damn good place to be. The teachers are young, cool, and sexy (kidding about that last one). College is mentioned every few minutes, and, for those who actually see an academic career in their future, it really can be an empowering message. Everyone knows your name and your business and greets you in the hallway -- how did babysitting your cousin go last night? How's that community college class you're taking? and so on.
The Tardigrade -- My favorite animal
In an environment like our campus, the kids who "get" school don't necessarily have to choose between smart and popular. Kids routinely come to me to ask for extra work, and I happily edit their poems and journals, guide them through college-level genetics textbooks, or discuss with them our mutual fascination for the Tardigrade during biology class (look it up -- you won't be disappointed, promise).
That's not to say that we're an elite, streamlined operation that churns kids out to the Ivy Leagues -- at least half of our students don't meet the description I'm making, and we're fighting an uphill battle when you look out the window and see the dirty, spray-painted sidewalks, and realize that many of our students can't name a single book they enjoy (one sample exchange: Me: "You don't have any favorite books? Or magazines?" Girl: "Well... I read MySpace... and text messages."). Nor do they know a single person who's been to college, or really register what college attendance means; they know the odds are stacked against them, but they don't know what they're supposed to be fighting for. Rich kids know a secret poor kids don't -- college is fun.
STEREOTYPICAL COLLEGE PARTY PICTURE WOOOOOOOOOOOO!
The saddest part of all, I think, is that the way our educational system is set up, I have to sort of waste everyone's time. My class moves along at a fairly plodding pace, which is necessary to avoid losing the bottom half of the class, but bores the bejeezus out of the top half. The brutal irony is, however, that the bottom half don't really seem to want to go to college anyway. I believe that biology is the most elegant subject in the entire world, and I revel in telling my students about the classic experiments, the great heroes, the the staggering weight of the knowledge yet to be uncovered -- and still, I acknowledge that the majority of the world doesn't really need to know it, beyond a basic level of familiarity.
Obviously I am not advocating cutting students off from scientific literacy -- heaven forbid less Americans believe in evolution and global warming than do now -- but the level of rigor of the standards I have to teach is ridiculous. Plumbers and roofers do not need to be able to explain the function of mitochondrial membranes in cellular respiration, but the state of California certainly loves to pretend that they do.
I'm sure 100% of my readers remember how these work, right?
If it were up to me, by high school students would be tracked into two separate categories: academic and vocational. While this would make the majority of educators today terribly squeamish, if you honestly asked each of our students if they wanted to go to college, I firmly believe that about a fourth of our students would say "no" (and this is, recall, at a school that parents had to choose to send their kids to, with the expectation that it would be a college-prep environment). I do not mean that we should separate students into haves and have-nots, but this idea we have of college attendance being the ultimate goal for every student is (a) logistically impossible given the number of colleges today, (b) demeaning to students who don't get in, or don't want to, and (c) barring the non-scholars from getting relevant education and experience that would enable them to get solid jobs and join the middle class.
But for the rest of them, finding out that in college you can go to a keg party and call it "networking" will be a welcome surprise.