School Climate & Safety Opinion

An Urban High School With No Violence

By Kitty Kelly Epstein — March 04, 1998 4 min read

Oakland, Calif., has a high school where there are no fights, no security guards, no metal detectors, no guns, and the police department visits to ticket meter violators rather than to arrest students. California and several other states that earned an F in “School Climate” on Education Week‘s latest state-by-state report card (“Quality Counts ‘98,” Jan. 8, 1998) would do well to examine this school’s innovations.

It is not a private school. It has low-income students and little technology, but it earned California’s Distinguished School Award in 1990, and many students say it is the best school they have ever attended. A teacher who has been there for 25 years says she wouldn’t teach anywhere else.

Asked to explain the difference in atmosphere at the Oakland Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, one student says this: “There was a fight a day at my old school. Here we are a family. Students will stop each other from fighting, because we don’t want anyone to mess up the good thing we have here.”

When teachers are pressed to explain how fights are avoided, several core ideals stand out: First, the Street Academy is an institution of tight relationships. Every staff member, for example, is the “consulting teacher” for 15 or 20 students. The teacher meets with those students twice a day and reviews a sheet on which other teachers have recorded information on that day’s academic performance and behavior. The consulting teacher responds immediately to any problems--calling a parent, conferring with another student if there are conflicts. Problems are not allowed to fester and grow. Even verbal altercations are taken seriously, and students are not sent back to class until they have worked out a solution.

When I asked one student his response to all this scrutiny, he had a ready answer: “I like it. I don’t have to watch my back all the time, and I’m going to graduate.”

Several years ago, I interviewed 50 urban high school students about their reasons for dropping out of school. Almost half of them cited an unresolved conflict with another student. A girl I will call Theresa M. was typical. “I had a hassle with another girl,” she said. “I was little and couldn’t fight. I didn’t have anyone to talk with about it, so I just rode the bus around all day instead of going to school.”

A second factor in play at the Street Academy is that, while many schools espouse multiculturalism, this school practices it in earnest. The staff’s ethnic composition mirrors that of the students--mostly African-American and Latino--and many staff members live in the community. Cultural content is not a tack-on item, but at the deep essence of the school. Racism is explicitly discussed; staff members embrace and respect each other across racial lines; and there is a stern response to cross-racial disrespect among students.

A third factor is that the Street Academy is small and its campus closed. Those who think that the 3,000-student American high school is the only possibility should look at the private schools where the wealthy send their children. They are small places where teachers are required to watch closely over the academic and personal development of their charges. Public high schools in other industrialized countries are also much smaller--averaging around 400 students in some European countries, for example.

Because the Street Academy is small and treats its students as whole human beings, youngsters tell the teachers what is actually happening in their lives. The English teacher might take a kid to McDonald’s when his family is short on cash. The social studies teacher will find another youngster a shelter or a bus ticket. Every year, thousands of American candidates for teaching credentials are taught Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as part of their educational psychology courses. And each year, those thousands of new teachers go to work in high schools that don’t even acknowledge, let alone resolve, the most basic of those needs: food, shelter, safety, and a sense of belonging. Urban high schools cannot solve the array of problems confronting poor people in America, but no school can earn the respect of its students if it makes those problems and their victims invisible.

Finally, the Street Academy is self-renewing, creating teachers who get better every year instead of burning out. The principal has led the school for 21 years with a magical mix of democracy and toughness. Teachers have enormous latitude in creating new teaching methods and procedures, but the school’s leader is demanding of everyone, including herself, when it comes to meeting student needs.

Many schools have a poor climate, because American adolescents have huge, unmet needs in the typical high school. Some parents have said that the Street Academy is like a “private school for poor kids.” And that is what poor kids need--schools with the same atmosphere of discipline, hopeful expectation, and camaraderie that wealthy parents provide for their children.

Kitty Kelly Epstein is an associate professor of education at Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif., a consultant to school districts, and a former teacher in the Oakland and San Francisco schools.

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