Where School’s Spirit Is a ‘Sense of Community’

By Daniel Gursky — September 16, 1992 16 min read

MODESTO, CALIF.--Evelyn A. Hanshaw Middle School here, like every school filled with 12- to 14-year-olds, is a study in adolescent hormones.

Boys with adult bodies and sideburns sit beside baby-faced classmates still waiting for puberty to kick in. The girls, more mature and looking even older with the help of ample makeup and hair spray, are at the age when even 14-year-old males seem unbearably juvenile.

By all accounts, Hanshaw’s students find themselves at the most difficult period of childhood--a time of pimples, growth spurts, insecurity, unfamiliar emotions, and an increasing desire for independence. As one teacher here points out, academics rank near the bottom of most students’ concerns.

Hanshaw’s students are far from atypical. In recent years experts in early-ado
lescent education have issued numerous calls for revamping the middle grades to better address the physical and emotional realities facing their pupils.

But if middle school is tough on all early teens, it is especially trying for those at schools such as Hanshaw, who enjoy few of the advantages that can help more affluent students make a smoother transition to high school and adulthood.

More than three-quarters of Hanshaw’s 800 students are Hispanic; most qualify for free school lunches, and few speak English at home. Their South Modesto neighborhood is on the wrong side of the tracks--or river, in this case--and big-city problems of drugs, gangs, and drive-by shootings abound. Yards dominated by weeds and dirt outnumber neatly maintained lawns in front of the neighborhood’s modest, often rundown houses. Many residents drive aging cars that the more well-off inhabitants north of the Tuolumne River would have replaced long ago.

Built at a cost of $13 million and opened a year this month, Hanshaw Middle School is a gleaming standout in this economically depressed community, the only two-story building for blocks.

It is too soon to call the school an unqualified success. But Hanshaw’s teachers and administrators clearly offer their students something that often is missing from a more traditional junior high school: a sense of community. That feeling, the staff hopes, will encourage the students to stay in school and ultimately to transcend the poverty and menial farmworker jobs so prevalent among South Modesto’s Hispanic population.

“We have a lot of pent-up potential in these kids, and it just takes a program to bring it out,’' Charles Vidal, the school’s principal, told a visitor last spring. “That’s why we’re the Hanshaw Titans, because a titan’s an all-powerful person, one known for greatness.’'

“I’ve told [the students] that they all have a sleeping titan inside of them,’' he said, “and it’s our job to wake them up.’'

Interviewing Dropouts

Mr. Vidal spent almost two years planning the school; he visited other California middle schools serving Latino students, held community meetings, and went door to door to more than 500 homes, by his count.

Physically, the result of all the planning is a school that suits the principal’s active style. Five off-white buildings surround a central grassy courtyard, with column-lined walkways connecting the buildings. During the rare times when he remains in his office, Mr. Vidal can see everything going on in the courtyard through large picture windows.

More important than the attractive campus, however, is the school’s academic and social structure.

While serving in his previous job as principal of the district’s alternative-education center, Mr. Vidal found an untapped source of ideas for designing his new school. Troubled by a districtwide study from a few years ago that found that more than half the Hispanic students never finish high school, he used a private grant to hire a half-dozen paraprofessionals to round up dropouts so Mr. Vidal could talk to them about their school experiences.

When he asked the dropouts why they had left school, Mr. Vidal recalled, the general response was, “‘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. But they failed to do one thing,’' he said. “The piece that they’re missing is: ‘This is why you have to know it.’ If you cannot tell a student why they need to know it, you’re wasting their time.’'

Making Class Relevant

As a result, at Hanshaw attention to relevance permeates the classroom. One day as the 1991-92 school year was winding down, students in one class delivered short speeches on contemporary issues, ranging from abortion and teenage pregnancy to poverty and racism.

Another class discussed discrimination in apartment rentals and scanned newspaper classified advertisements to find an apartment that fit the theoretical budget their teacher had given them. In a third classroom, as part of preparing a time capsule, students wrote and read short essays offering advice to the citizens of Modesto in 2022.

“Geography’s important, but can kids map out their own community and understand that first?’' Mr. Vidal said. “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. Let’s teach them about themselves and their community, the things they encounter.’'

Interdisciplinary Focus

Additional inspiration for the development of Hanshaw came from “Caught in the Middle,’' a 1987 California report that recommended the establishment of middle schools in which teachers work together to teach the core curriculum and smaller groups of students spend much of the day together.

The idea behind the middle-school concept is to ease students’ transition from their protective, self-contained elementary-school classrooms to a departmentalized, seven- or eight-period high-school schedule.

Here at Hanshaw, 7th graders study the academic subjects in two interdisciplinary 88-minute core classes, one covering mathematics and science, the other English and social studies. The 8th graders attend 44-minute classes in each of the four subjects, but their teachers still attempt to tie different subjects together.

In both grades, students also complete an “exploratory wheel,’' which includes some of the school’s most popular classes. The 7th-grade exploratories cover arts and crafts, home economics, chorus, and industrial technology I, while 8th graders delve into computers, industrial technology II, study skills, and teen issues.

“The whole idea behind middle school,’' Mr. Vidal said, “is to give them a taste of something, an experience of something that might get them to pursue it in high school.’'

21st-Century Skills

The principal scored a coup by hiring Robert Ransome, the state’s 1990 “technology teacher of the year,’' to set up the industrial-technology laboratory.

“Instead of just making bird cages, we’re looking at the skills the students will need in the workforce in the 21st century,’' said Mr. Ransome, who took a $9,000 pay cut to come to Hanshaw.

Mr. Ransome’s classes are designed to expose students to a wide array of short modules each semester. In early June, for example, the 7th graders were designing floor plans for houses using a computer program, making rubber stamps, building geodesic domes out of toothpicks, and designing their own business cards.

All the work is done in pairs, as students progress through manuals Mr. 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 are not up to par.

Perhaps more impressive than the intricate projects themselves is the fact that this group of 7th graders was working intently, with little supervision, even during the last period of the day in the next-to-last week of school.

The 8th-grade industrial-tech lab features longer, more advanced modules, such as a mock radio station, hydroponic gardening, design and construction of earthquake-proof towers, and bicycle repair.

Links to Colleges

As in many middle schools, Hanshaw’s students are broken up into seven separate “houses,’' groups of 60 to 100 students who take all their classes together from four or five teachers. Mr. Vidal, however, took the concept a little further: Rather than name the houses after animals, letters, colors, or the like, he decided to name them after California State University campuses.

But Sonoma, San Jose, Stanislaus, and the other house names are more than mere labels. Each house has formal ties with its parent campus, and the students have a chance to visit their campuses.

Only 3 percent of Cal State’s graduates are Hispanic, Mr. Vidal noted, so he hopes some of Hanshaw’s students will aspire to increase those numbers.

The college outings involve no homework; Mr. Vidal just wants the students to see that people go to college voluntarily. He tells them to picture themselves as college students someday.

For some of the students, that goal is more ambitious than even Mr. Vidal could have imagined. When the students last year headed off in buses to visit the campuses, all within a few hours’ drive of Modesto, their teachers discovered that many students had never even been on a freeway, much less to a university.

Back at Hanshaw, students who wear shirts from their sponsor colleges or other universities enjoy certain privileges. The cafeteria and student store both have express lines for university-logo-clad students. Students wearing such attire are likely to be rewarded with a new pencil and a “Good job,’' “I like your shirt,’' or other words of encouragement from Mr. Vidal, who greets as many students as possible each morning before school.

Conversely, the student dress code bans professional-sports-team attire, because many gang members have adopted pro-sports logos. In addition, students cannot wear more than one item of red or blue, the colors associated with the Bloods and the Crips, gangs with a strong presence in South Modesto.

Mr. Vidal explained that he wants to offer the students a sense of school camaraderie as an alternative to the powerful lure of gangs.

The school tries to reinforce that sense of community with its own terminology: Students are called “citizens’’ and teachers are known as “community leaders.’'

Teachers as ‘Visionaries’

Hanshaw’s 36 “community leaders’’ include teachers who transferred from other schools in the district or from other communities after hearing about the school. In addition, there are some first-year teachers with nontraditional backgrounds, including a city councilor and the former director of a natural-history museum in town.

They are a dynamic group, or “visionaries,’' as Mr. Vidal puts it.

“There are a lot of teachers who cannot work beyond the vision of their principal,’' he said. “You have some very creative teachers out there, but you have a lot of principals who are just managers and who are not taking the risks they need to take.’'

The first year at Hanshaw, by contrast, was a continual series of risks as teachers developed a curriculum based on projects and themes, with almost no reliance on textbooks. Extra planning was required to devise appropriate projects that fit the school’s use of cooperative learning, mixed-ability grouping, and team teaching.

“It’s easy to just open the textbook and go through it,’' commented Jeff Albritton, who teaches 7th graders in the English and social-studies core. “But to go home and try to think of ways to make it connect to the kids--I think we’re all doing that.’'

Mr. Albritton, for example, turned his classroom into a medieval castle as part of a unit on the Renaissance.

Mike Brennan, the city councilor-turned-teacher whose class is next door to Mr. Albritton’s, came up with the idea of preparing a meal to feed the entire Hanshaw 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 soliciting donations, and worked in groups to plan the dinner. The event was so successful that Mr. Brennan plans to do it again next year.

“It became a hands-on experience, and lots of people would say, ‘That’s not school,’'' Mr. Brennan said. “But it’s more real life. It means more to them, and I think that will carry over with them a lot more.’'

The 8th-grade teachers also tried to integrate their curricula, although to a lesser extent. When students studied ecology in science class, for example, they learned graphing and statistics in math; when the science classes turned to astronomy, the math classes examined exponential numbers.

Teachers also found ways to link science and social studies: Students studied plate tectonics in science and mapping in social studies. Social-studies classes likewise provided obvious ties to literature, especially through historical fiction relating to the time period being studied.

“This first year, a lot of the themes we have done have been by accident,’' Mr. Albritton noted.

Themes for this school year will include such broad topics as transitions, independence, justice, wellness, and social structures. The teachers are confident they will have a better grasp of the curriculum after the challenge of starting from scratch this past year.

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

Focus on Self-Esteem

No matter what the class, teachers here never seem to miss an opportunity to offer their students some positive encouragement and boost their self-esteem.

Mr. Vidal is the number-one booster. His morning announcements--delivered in both English and Spanish--end with what has become the school motto: “Be your personal best.’' Students approach him in the courtyard to assure him they are following his advice, teachers regularly remind their students of the motto, and some classes recite their own personal affirmation. Cheryl Green-Jenkins’s 8th-grade English students, for example, start class with a pledge to do their best, stay in school, graduate, and go on to college.

“That little piece in itself makes such a difference,’' Ms. Green-Jenkins’s said. “When kids feel good about themselves, they will do just about anything.’'

“The other thing we try to do here,’' she added, “is point out the positive and not the negative in students. 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.’'

The students seem to pick up on that philosophy. In a social-studies class for students with limited English skills, two large groups of students recently were 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 stumbled over a passage and a couple of classmates laughed, other students quickly reprimanded them.

“Don’t laugh,’' they said. “It’s not funny.’'

“What really is going on at this school is simply a positive affirmation of these kids,’' said the social-studies teacher, Robert Rosenthal. “You have to realize that academics are not necessarily their first priority. It’s important to make sure that we accept them as a person and affirm them as a person.’'

“I’m not one who’s head over heels into this self-esteem stuff,’' he continued. “But always, whether or not they’re performing what we want, we let them know they’re a worthwhile person. That’s what they need to carry away from here. That’s what self-esteem is really about at this site.’'

With more-affluent students, the pervasive encouragement might seem “sappy,’' said Craig Johnson, a science teacher. Take Mr. Vidal’s habit of getting on every school bus before it leaves on Friday afternoon to talk briefly with the students, tell them he will miss them, urge them to be careful, and remind them to be their personal best.

It is almost impossible to overestimate the benefit of such attention for some Hanshaw students, Mr. Johnson believes.

“A lot of these kids don’t have an adult who spends two minutes with them all day long,’' he explained. “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 life that leaves no time for the kids.’'

“Just having an adult paying attention to them is unbelievable for some of these kids,’' he said.

Monitoring Test Results

Few would question the goal of increasing students’ self-esteem, but observers outside Hanshaw and the school system ask the inevitable questions about test scores.

“The other schools [in Modesto] 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,’' said Ms. Green-Jenkins.

“We knew within our own school that we were being successful with the kids, but [that] the measure of our success was going to be the numbers,’' she added.

As it turned out, the 7th and 8th graders both scored above their grade levels on the California Test of Basic Skills. Average daily attendance at the school this year hovered around 98 percent, which Mr. Vidal calls “an unbelievable figure for a school like this.’'

Similarly, the number of students failing at Hanshaw was about the same as or lower than that at Modesto’s four junior high schools.

“Even if the test scores don’t scream and they stay the same as what a regular school is,’' said Jerry Pasa, a 7th-grade resource specialist, “the difference is the attitude of the kids toward the school and the feeling like they belong here.’'

“If that’s the only difference that we’ve made, then we’ve done a hell of a lot, because that affects the social aspects of a person,’' he said. “And if you’ve got good social skills, you’re going to make it through life.’'

Although those positive results have prompted some people to reassess their negative impressions of the school, teachers say there is still some lingering resentment, especially about spending so much money on “those’’ kids.

“There was so much negativity about starting the school up,’' said Mr. Johnson, the science teacher, “because people didn’t want to be transferred, and people were envious about the large amounts of money that were going to be spent that they could ... spend on ‘better’ kids.’'

“I hope a majority of the people withheld their final verdict and waited, but I know a lot didn’t,’' he added.

Maintaining Ties in High School

Now that the school’s first year is over, Hanshaw’s staff members worry about what will happen to their students in high school.

Although the district is building a new high school with money from the same bond issue that financed construction of Hanshaw, there has been little talk of restructuring that school or the district’s four other high schools.

“I’m extremely concerned,’' said Mr. Vidal. “We’re not restructuring the high schools fast enough.’' In planning Hanshaw, “we couldn’t wait for them to restructure.’'

Nearby California State University-Stanislaus, one of the school’s sponsors, has agreed to track the progress of some Hanshaw 7th graders into 8th grade and on through high school.

But Hanshaw’s teachers do not want to wait to see how their students fare a few years from now.

To help graduates maintain ties to the middle school, the teachers have set up Hanshaw “college clubs’’ at Downey High School, where most of last spring’s graduates are now enrolled. The Hanshaw alumni will be able to stay in touch with each other and with their former teachers, who say they will do whatever they can to help their students succeed in high school.

At the same time, staff members hope other teachers and schools in Modesto will adopt some of Hanshaw’s innovations when they see positive results.

“Our ultimate goal is to convert some of our high school teachers to try and teach a little more like this,’' Mr. Johnson said. “In the meantime, if we can’t, we still think we’re preparing the kids better.’'

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Where School’s Spirit Is a ‘Sense of Community’