Personal Best

By Daniel Gursky — October 01, 1992 21 min read

Charles Vidal grabs a handful of new pencils from his desk drawer and heads out of his office into the central courtyard of Evelyn A. Hanshaw Middle School in Modesto, Calif., where 7th and 8th graders are milling around before the start of school.

He passes three Hispanic boys, all dressed in T-shirts bearing different messages. “Hey, Fresno State,” Vidal says to the one wearing a shirt from California State University at Fresno, “come over here.” Handing the boy a pencil, Vidal tells him, “Good job. I like your shirt.”

The boys continue on their way. But after a couple steps, the other two stop and turn toward Vidal. “Mr. Vidal,” both of them say in the nearly unintelligible mumble of 13-year-olds talking to adults, “I’m being my personal best.”

“Glad to hear it,” Vidal responds and passes them a couple of pencils, too.

The short exchange, somewhat baffling to an outsider, offers some insights about Hanshaw Middle School and Vidal, its unconventional principal.

The “Fresno State” student knows the school’s dress code prohibits attire from professional sports teams. Shirts bearing university logos, on the other hand, are encouraged, particularly those from the California State University campuses that Hanshaw’s seven student “houses” are named after. Later in the day, the Fresno State shirt will entitle the student to express-line service in the cafeteria and school store.

And while the sight of 13-year-olds voluntarily telling their principal they’re being their personal best seems unusual, to put it mildly, it isn’t at all odd at Hanshaw: They are repeating a phrase that has become a school motto of sorts; the expression is heard during the morning announcements, in classrooms, on the school grounds, and in the gymnasium.

Interacting with students is what Vidal loves most about his job. If he’s not handing out pencils, he’s greeting students by name as they arrive at school, sitting in their classrooms offering encouragement, taking them to lunch to reward extra effort, or boarding every school bus on Friday afternoons to remind his students to be careful and, of course, to be their personal best, even at home. He’s like the head cheerleader of a school that sees boosting its students’ shaky self-esteem as a central function. “If I’m in my office,” Vidal says, “I’m not doing my job.”

Hanshaw Middle School opened in September of 1991 in a depressed, gang-plagued neighborhood of South Modesto with a start-up enrollment of nearly 800 students. Almost everything that goes on inside the gleaming $13 million state-of-theart facility shows Vidal’s influence, from the interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum to physical education classes that emphasize lifetime fitness skills over competition to the school’s lingo. (Students are called “citizens,” teachers “community leaders.”)

The campus, with its attractive two-story off-white buildings that surround a grassy central courtyard, perfectly suits the principal’s active style. On those rare occasions when he is in his office, Vidal can see everything going on in the central courtyard through large picture windows. Technological touches include telephones and computers in every classroom and a media center with videocassette recorders and CD-ROM players.

Hanshaw is the result of almost two years of planning by Vidal and his teachers, many of whom he hired months before the school actually opened. One of the first things Vidal did after being selected to run the new school was to ask the state education department for a list of distinguished middle schools serving predominantly Hispanic populations. He visited some of these schools but was not helped much by what he saw. The other programs were either too much like traditional junior high schools or designed to meet specific community needs.

The key to designing a successful school, Vidal concluded, is to know one’s community. So, he decided to convene town meetings to discuss ideas for the new school. He also knocked on more than 500 doors, by his count, to find out more about the lives of his prospective students—most of whom speak a language other than English at home.

The South Modesto streets he canvassed are most definitely on the wrong side of the tracks—or the Tuolumne River, in this case. They are plagued with big-city problems like drugs, gangs, and drive-by shootings. Predominantly Hispanic, South Modesto is nothing like the all-American world portrayed in the movie American Graffiti, which was filmed in the city 20 years ago. Countless houses are in need of repairs, or at least a paint job. And the residents who own cars tend to drive models that the better-off residents north of the river would have replaced long ago.

There are no paved sidewalks in this part of town; students walk to school along dirt paths that turn to mud when it rains. The steep-banked irrigation ditches that carry water to the area’s immense agricultural fields double as hazardous swimming holes on the many days that the temperature tops 100 degrees.

It is the residents of South Modesto who fill the area’s menial jobs; they are the farm workers, day laborers, house cleaners, and the like. Without any changes in the local schools, Vidal realized, the children in the neighborhood would likely languish in the same cycle of poverty that has plagued their parents. He vowed not to turn out another generation of second-class citizens.

“We have a lot of pent-up potential in these kids,” the 40-year-old principal says. All that is needed to unleash that potential, he argues, is some encouragement, attention, and a predictable routine. What Vidal hopes students will get from Hanshaw Middle School is a sense of community missing from many of their lives. “That’s why we’re the Hanshaw Titans,” he notes. “A titan is an all-powerful person, one known for greatness of achievement. And I’ve told my students that they all have sleeping titans inside of them, and it’s our job to wake them up.”

South Modesto is a world (and 300 miles) away from affluent and conservative Orange County, Calif., where Charles Vidal grew up. “It wasn’t the real world,” he says of his childhood stomping grounds.

Vidal had planned to become a lawyer, but a parttime college job as a junior high school coach changed his mind. He went into teaching in the mid-1970s, landing a position as an English and history teacher at a low-income, inner-city high school in Riverside, a city in Southern California. It was that first teaching job, Vidal recalls, that gave him “a real sense of the power of education and how you can affect individuals and turn them around.”

After five years in Riverside, Vidal moved to Modesto, a relatively poor city of 172,000 in the arid farming country east of San Francisco, to become dean of students at Modesto High School. He later became the school’s assistant principal. Eventually, Vidal was made principal of the district’s alternative education center, which, by the time he was tapped to head Hanshaw, was serving almost 4,000 K-12 students who couldn’t make it in a regular classroom setting.

During his tenure at the alternative school, Vidal conducted a research project that altered his outlook on schooling and later influenced the design of the program at Hanshaw Middle School. Troubled by a study showing that more than half of the Hispanic students in the district never finish high school, he requested and won a private grant to examine the problem. He hired a half dozen paraprofessionals to round up dropouts so he could talk to them about their experience in school. When he asked these youngsters why they left school, one answer came through loud and clear, Vidal says: “I don’t see how what you’re teaching me applies to my life; it has no meaning to me.”

“It wasn’t because teachers weren’t working hard to develop lessons,” Vidal says. What they were failing to do was show students why they should learn the material. “If you cannot tell a student why they need to know it,” he says, “you’re wasting their time.”

Armed with this nugget of truth, Vidal and his teachers developed a set of themes and projects for Hanshaw that are solidly rooted in the students’ lives. On this June day, for example, students in one class deliver short speeches on contemporary issues, ranging from abortion and teenage pregnancy to poverty and racism. Another class discusses discrimination in apartment rentals and scans local newspaper classified advertisements to find an apartment that fits the theoretical budget their teacher has given them. In a third classroom, students prepare a time capsule, writing short essays that offer advice to the citizens of Modesto in the year 2022.

“We’ve got to deal with some real problems in South Modesto, so one of the emphases is to teach what’s really relevant now,” Vidal says. “Let’s teach them about themselves and their community, the things they’ll encounter.”

By all accounts, young adolescents are at the most difficult period of childhood, a time of raging hormones characterized by a newfound interest in the opposite sex and a growing demand for independence, both at home and in school. To help their students through this trying time and provide a transition from the protective, self-contained classrooms of elementary school to the more rigid, departmentalized schedule of high school, Vidal and his colleagues followed the middle school model when designing Hanshaw.

Unlike the four other traditional junior high schools in Modesto, Hanshaw is divided into seven “houses,” which are essentially schools within a school. The 60 to 100 students in each house take all their classes together from four or five teachers. Rather than naming the houses after animals, letters, or colors, Vidal came up with the idea of linking each house to one of the many California State University campuses within a half-day’s drive of Modesto. He arranged for all the students to visit their namesake universities, where they were hosted by a team of minority students. The field trips involved no homework, only a little imagination: Vidal simply wanted the youngsters to picture themselves as college students some day.

Despite California’s booming Hispanic population, Hispanics account for only 3 percent of California State’s graduates. Vidal wants to push that number up. He hopes his young teenagers will see that students go on to college because they aspire to challenging, rewarding careers. But even Vidal, in all his enthusiasm, did not realize just how great the leap to college may be for some of his students. When the buses set off for the campus visits, the teachers found that many of the youngsters had never even been on a freeway, much less a university campus.

The teachers within each house at Hanshaw share a common daily planning period. During this first year, however, that time would have been more appropriately called a designing period, since Vidal basically set his teachers loose to create their curriculum from scratch. “Textbook learning is an insult,” Vidal says. “Teachers are handed a textbook that they had nothing to do with developing; they’re given a teacher’s edition; they’re given a sequence for learning; they’re given the questions; they’re given tests. We find security in teaching as we’ve been taught, but it’s not meaningful to the kids, and in the long run, we’re losing them.”

Rather than leading students sequentially through huge amounts of material with the textbook as the guide, Vidal and his teachers decided to approach learning through a series of broad, interdisciplinary themes. “I told teachers that we weren’t going to be in this just to cover material,” Vidal explains. “We’re not going to teach everything. Rather than doing 27 things half-assed, we’re going to do six or eight things really well.”

Many of the themes were developed almost by accident, says 7th grade teacher Jeff Albritton. Teachers, he notes, spent countless hours at home devising ways to make the material relevant and stimulating. At one point during the year, Albritton turned his classroom into a medieval castle as part of a unit on the Renaissance.

Unlike most schools, Hanshaw encourages its teachers to do more than lecture. All of the classes center on projects; team teaching and cooperative learning are the norm. Vidal hates to see his teachers talking for more than 15 minutes an hour, so the rooms are noisy places, buzzing with group activities. “We don’t have one teacher and a room full of spectators,” Vidal says. “That’s a baseball game.”

The 7th grade is structured around two 88-minute interdisciplinary core classes, one covering math and science, the other English and social studies. Vidal and his staff created a different schedule for the 8th graders, hoping to prepare them for the more departmentalized regimen of high school. These students attend 44-minute classes in each of the four core subjects, but their teachers—like the 7th grade teachers—still attempt to link subjects together.

This year, the 7th grade core teachers, in particular, devised some imaginative lessons. Mike Brennan, a first-year teacher and Modesto city councilor, came up with the idea of having his class prepare a meal to feed the entire school and surrounding community. As the project grew, it drove the class’s curriculum for more than a month; students contacted business leaders and others in the community, wrote letters to solicit donations, and worked in planning groups. The event was so successful that Brennan intends to repeat it this year. “It became a hands-on experience,” he says. “Lots of people would say, `That’s not school.’ But it’s more real life. It means more to them, and I think that will carry over a lot more.”

The 8th grade teachers also managed to integrate subjects, although to a lesser extent. When the students in one house studied ecology in their science class, for example, they studied graphing and statistics in math, and during a unit on astronomy, the math classes turned to exponential numbers. Teachers also found ways to link science and social studies, discussing plate tectonics in one course and mapping in the other. There were obvious ways to connect social studies and literature; students read historical fiction relating to the period they were studying.

Themes the teachers hope to raise during the 1992-93 school year include such broad topics as transitions, independence, justice, wellness, and social structures. The teachers are confident their jobs will be easier after the challenge of starting from scratch this year.

“This has been a hard year,” 7th grade math and science teacher Edyth Curtis said in June. “After 13 years of working with a curriculum, coming here was like being a first-year teacher all over again.”

Hanshaw’s innovative approach is not limited to the core academic classes. In physical education, for instance, the students are more likely to practice golf swings, swim in the Salvation Army pool across from the school, or work off their lunches with aerobic routines than compete in games of basketball or football. And the fitness-oriented approach seems to be paying off: Teachers measured students’ body-fat percentages at the beginning and end of the school year and found that almost three-quarters of the students had become more muscular. “At this age, self-improvement is important,” P.E. teacher Toni Grgich says. “We’re trying to get them to do stuff they can use forever and carry on into adult life.”

Like the other teachers, Grgich finds small ways to link her course to what is going on in the other classes. When students study the Renaissance, for example, she teaches them jousting and juggling. Or she may have them recite the preamble to the Constitution while doing their daily jumping jacks. Unlike other schools where she has taught, Grgich notes, students at Hanshaw like to come to P.E.

Some of the school’s most popular courses are those that are included in what is known around Hanshaw as the “exploratory wheel,” a requirement for every student. The 7th grade exploratories cover arts and crafts, home economics, chorus, and industrial technology, while 8th graders delve into computers, industrial technology, study skills, and teen issues. “The whole idea behind middle school,” Vidal says, “is to give students a taste of something, an experience of something that might get them to pursue it in high school.”

That is definitely the idea behind Hanshaw’s industrial-technology laboratory, developed by Robert Ransome, the state’s 1990 technology teacher of the year. His 7th grade classes are structured around five-day modules that expose students to a wide array of topics. On this particular day, his students are using computers to design floor plans for houses, making rubber stamps, building geodesic domes out of toothpicks, and designing their own business cards.

The 8th grade industrial-tech lab features longer, more advanced modules such as hydroponic gardening, working on a mock radio station, designing and building earthquake-proof towers, and bicycle repair. “Instead of just making bird cages, we’re looking at the skills the students will need in the work force in the 21st century,” says Ransome, who took a $9,000 pay cut to come to Hanshaw.

Students work in pairs as they progress through instruction manuals Ransome has prepared. To get a better sense of the working world, they keep time cards and can be temporarily “fired”—exiled to the back of the room for a day—if their attendance and work habits aren’t up to par. The care and attention they give their work is, in some respects, more impressive than the intricate projects they produce. Today, for example, Ransome’s 7th graders are working intently, with little supervision, even though it’s the last period of the day in the next to last week of the school year.

No matter what the class, teachers and administrators at Hanshaw Middle School never miss an opportunity to offer students some positive reinforcement. Vidal, of course, is the number one booster, and the teachers never know what to expect from him. One day earlier this spring, during a visit to an 8th grade science classroom, Vidal asked the teacher to pick out two students who were doing good work. As a reward, he took the pair to the student store, opened it, gave them each a soft drink, and then walked them back to class, praising them all the way for their effort.

This constant boosterism—the pencils, the bus talks, the “be your personal best” slogan, and everything else—might seem “sappy” at a more affluent school, says Craig Johnson, the science teacher whose class Vidal visited that day. But not at Hanshaw. “A lot of these kids don’t have an adult who spends two minutes with them all day long,” Johnson says. “Their parents are working a tremendous amount, or they’re from a single-parent family, or they’re minus parents, or the parents have some overwhelming problem in their lives that leaves no time for kids. Just having an adult paying attention to them is unbelievable for some of these kids.”

The students can tell that Vidal and the teachers care about them, says teacher Cheryl GreenJenkins, and they appreciate it. Green-Jenkins’ 8th grade English students start each class with a pledge to do their best, stay in school, graduate, and go on to college. Little things like that, she says, help students feel good about themselves, and those positive feelings make them believe they can do just about anything.

“The other thing we try to do here is point out the positive and not the negative in students,” she adds. “It’s so easy to tell somebody what they’re doing wrong; you have to look a little harder to tell them what they’re doing right. If you tell them what they’re doing right, then they know what to do the next time.”

It’s a philosophy that students have picked up on. In a social studies class for students with limited-English skills, two large groups of youngsters are reading aloud from a play about a citizen who tries to get a local law passed after he has a car accident. When one of the students stumbles over a line and a couple classmates laugh, others quickly reprimand them. “Don’t laugh,” they say. “It’s not funny.”

Even the teachers who express some skepticism about the heavyhanded attempts to boost students’ self-esteem believe the school is making a difference for its young adolescents. “What really is going on at this school is simply a positive affirmation of these kids,” says social studies teacher Robert Rosenthal. “You have to realize that academics is not necessarily their first priority. But always, whether or not they’re performing what we want, we let them know they’re worthwhile people. That’s what they need to carry away from here. That’s what self-esteem is really about at this site.”

In similar—if more subtle—ways, Vidal lets the school’s 36 teachers know that they are appreciated. He constantly offers encouragement and support, always urging them to “maintain the vision.” He describes his faculty as “visionaries” who couldn’t move beyond other principals’ limited horizons. “You have some very creative teachers out there,” he says, “but you have a lot of principals who are just managers and who are not taking the risks they need to take.”

Vidal, by contrast, almost demands that his teachers take risks; he assured them early in the year that he would take responsibility for any failures and give them credit for every success. “If they don’t fail at some things,” he says, “then they know they’re not taking enough risks, especially with this population. We want to sleep at night knowing we did everything we could do.”

Vidal’s trust in his teachers extends beyond the classroom; he gives them a major voice in school governance. Decisionmaking at Hanshaw, for example, often consists of Vidal meeting with all the teachers in the “cafetorium,” as the combined cafeteria-auditorium is known. “I go in there and we discuss problems,” Vidal says. “I don’t give them any solutions. I know where I want to go as an administrator, but my teams can give me a road map. I don’t veto anything. And the reason is that they usually come up with better solutions than I do.” In addition to their control over the curriculum, teachers have a say in everything from budgetary decisions to hiring new staff.

They clearly appreciate the principal’s openness. Ransome, the industrial-technology teacher, calls Vidal “one of the most visionary and humane administrators I’ve ever worked for. This has been the nicest year I’ve ever had in 25 years of teaching.”

P.E. teacher Grgich echoes those sentiments: “In all my years of teaching, this has been the most rewarding one. It’s been a great year.”

Still, not everyone in Modesto was as enthusiastic as Vidal and his teachers about the city’s new middle school. In fact, the teachers say, some people in the community, both inside and outside the school system, resented spending so much money on “those” students in South Modesto.

“The other [junior high schools] really believed that once they got rid of our students, their scores would go up, and we would be over here in this big, fancy, expensive campus with scores that were in the toilet,” Green-Jenkins says. “We knew within our school that we were being successful with the kids, but the measure of our success was going to be the numbers [on standardized tests].”

As it turned out, Hanshaw’s 7th and 8th graders scored above grade level on the California Test of Basic Skills. In addition, average daily attendance at the school hovered around 98 percent, which Vidal calls an “unbelievable figure for a school like this.” Likewise, the number of students failing at Hanshaw was the same as or lower than the number at the four junior high schools, and only three students were referred to alternative programs outside the school.

The teachers know that it’s “the numbers” that attract the attention of the local news media, but they’re also confident their students are doing well in ways no standardized test can measure. “The difference is the attitude of the kids toward the school and the feeling that they belong here,” says Jerry Pasa, a 7th grade resource specialist at Hanshaw. “If that’s the only difference we’ve made, then we’ve done a hell of a lot because that affects the social aspects of a person. And if you’ve got good social skills, you’re going to make it through life.”

Much of the initial resentment toward the school has dissolved as people have become more informed. But the teachers say that some critics remain convinced that the money spent on Hanshaw’s students would have been better put to use in more advantaged neighborhoods.

Green-Jenkins believes that some teachers and administrators at other schools in the district perceive Hanshaw as a threat. “Hanshaw is trying some new things, and if those things are successful, people think they’re going to be asked to implement them in their classrooms,” she says. “There’s that fear of change that we all experience.”

She and the other teachers at Hanshaw would like to see other schools follow their lead. But for now, Hanshaw is the only school in town experimenting with a radically different approach to education. And that concerns the school’s staff; they worry about how their students will fare when they get to high school. Although the district opened a new high school this fall, built with money from the same bond issue that financed construction of Hanshaw, there has been little talk of experimenting with the school’s curriculum.

Hanshaw’s teachers plan to set up college clubs, based on the school’s houses, at Downey High School, where most of the middle school’s 8th graders will go. The clubs, they hope, will help students stay in touch with each other and their former teachers. “We can still help them, even if they’re not on campus,” says teacher Mike Brennan.

On this spring day, as the first year of their experiment is winding down, Vidal and his teachers are already looking forward to their second year. The 7th graders will be back and the curriculum won’t seem quite so new.

“We’re evolving,” Vidal says. “We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, but we’re more excited about what we’re evolving into. Next year will be easier; this year we’ve really been writing the book.”

This is the fourth in a series of profiles of teacher leaders underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Personal Best