The Neighborhood as Curriculum

Crenshaw, L.A.Crenshaw section of South Los Angeles, near Crenshaw High School. May 2011.

The role of curriculum in school "turnaround" efforts is not often acknowledged, which is why I wanted to write this piece, about Crenshaw High School in South L.A. The school has struggled with difficult demographics, constant administrative turnover, and persistently low test scores. But the district has now empowered a group of activist teachers at Crenshaw to enact an unusual reform agenda, in which an interdisciplinary, problem-solving curriculum built around social challenges in South L.A. is married to more traditional goals, such as raising standards through the national Common Core:

Last semester, the 10th-grade Social Justice Academy focused on school improvement across L.A. For their final project, students had to analyze a data set that included test scores at various schools; neighborhood income levels; school truancy rates; and incarceration rates.

In math, students graphed the relationship between income and social opportunity in various south L.A. neighborhoods. In social studies, they read conservative and liberal proposals for school reform and practiced citing data in their own written arguments about how to improve education. In science, students designed experiments that could test policy hypotheses about how to improve education. And in English class, they readOur America, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago. …

What’s controversial about the Crenshaw reform agenda is that it is explicitly political. It asks students to think critically about the social forces shaping their lives and to work actively to improve their low-income neighborhood. Poor children often hear that they need to do well in school in order to escape their communities. What if, instead, kids understood that doing well in school could help them become more effective advocates for their families and neighbors?

I first learned about Crenshaw through Alex Caputo-Pearl, a 19-year veteran social studies teacher and faculty leader at the school. Alex was actually part of Teach for America's very first class of recruits, in 1990, the year he graduated from Brown University. Since then, he has demonstrated an extraordinary level of commitment to social justice-oriented school reform in L.A., agitating for change within the teachers' union as a member of the Progressive Educators for Change caucus, helping to organize parents to demand better services in low-income neighborhoods, and now working with a group of colleagues to overhaul Crenshaw's curriculum.

(And here's why union representation can be so crucial for teachers: As a reward for his efforts, Alex was branded a troublemaker by the district in 2006, and transferred against his will to an affluent elementary school across town. Students, parents, and the teachers’ union protested. He was reinstated.)

After making contact with Alex about a year ago, I was able to visit Crenshaw last May and sit in on a day of teacher professional development training for the new curriculum I discuss in the article. I hope to visit L.A. again this spring and next fall to track Crenshaw's progress over time. In the meantime, check out the whole piece, at Zocalo Public Square.

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