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Lincoln High School and the Logic of Volunteering (part 1)

December 17th, 2010 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

I recently spent time volunteering at Lincoln High School in Los Angeles.  Here are some of my observations, together with comments on the logic of being a volunteer at a non-profit organization.

The place. Founded in the late 19th-century, Lincoln is one of the oldest high schools in Los Angeles. It presently enrolls approximately 3,000 students. Its demographics are approximately 85% Hispanic and approximately 15% Asian. Although each year’s freshman class comprises approximately 1,400 students, barely 400 graduate as seniors four years later. The administration cannot account for the whereabouts of the missing students. They simply vanish – presumably, blending into the community, emigrating, or taking lower-tier positions in the local service-based economy.

It might be said that Lincoln is subject to all of the dynamics and challenges of an “inner-city” school. It is severely constrained not only by the socio-economic characteristics of the community it serves, but also by that community’s cultural expectations (or lack thereof) for its youth, and the complex matrix of social factors and background conditions within which it functions.

Several years ago, in an effort to address these and related problems, Lincoln introduced the concept of “small learning communities” (“SLCs”). The concept of the SLC builds on the work of Alexander Meiklejohn and John Dewey. They criticized the increasing specialization and fragmentation of colleges and secondary schools. Rather than divide the educational experience according to functional disciplines (such as English, Chemistry, etc.), they hypothesized it would be more desirable for schools to create smaller, self-contained “communities of study.”  Each such community in turn could develop its own decentralized, cross-disciplinary curriculum.

Numerous subsequent academic studies have proven the correctness of this concept, and Lincoln is ahead of the curve when it comes to implementing it. In fact, this approach, and the structural dynamics it imports, is one of the most important factors militating in Lincoln’s favor.

Another problem Lincoln faces is its physical plant, built in the 1930s after the Long Beach earthquake. Its buildings have long, narrow hallways. Classrooms are rectangular, with seats in rows facing front. There are no windows. It looks like a prison.

All of which creates several issues. Large, imposing, monolithic buildings carry a subtle but pervasive pedagogical message, which is, education is difficult and impenetrable. In Lincoln’s case, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the school is built on top of a hill, further isolating it from the surrounding community. Long stretches of unrelieved interior walls create the impression the school has something to hide.

This design also is inconsistent with the concept of local, de-compiled SLCs. Smaller, single-story structures would tend to foster a sense of community, by making it easier for students to find their way around in the world. They also would facilitate student-student and student-faculty interaction. Most importantly, they would proclaim that education is achievable and accessible.

The Students. From the standpoint of educational philosophy, it is a fallacy to think that any student is biologically or genetically more predisposed to some characteristic or attribute, than any other. There is no such thing, for example, as an “innate” talent to play the violin, or a “natural” ability as an athlete. Rather, skills such as these (and numerous others) are learned. They are acquired through a complicated admixture of cultural ingredients, parental involvement, and access to educational resources and opportunities. Sometimes, all it takes is for a single enthusiastic teacher to spark or ignite what has the potential to become a life-long interest in a particular subject.

I’m standing outside in a courtyard. A beautiful girl, young, surely not more than 17 years old. Soft, velvet-brown skin. Huge eyes, rimmed with kohl, sky-blue mascara back along the sides, Cleopatra-style. Lashes twice their normal length. Long black hair, ironed straight, but with a slight curl at the ends. Parted in the middle (not bangs). Mobile telephone sticking out of her back pocket. Talking with her friend, sauntering along, not a care in the world. Visibly pregnant, her belly sticking out over the top of her skin-tight jeans.

I’m sitting at a desk in a classroom, hopefully inconspicuously, next to a student. The teacher walks by. “Have you read the book?” she asks. It doesn’t look like it’s ever even been opened. She picks it up, and out falls a folded-up piece of paper. “What’s this?” she asks. “A suicide note,” he replies. Pretty creative comeback, I think to myself. The class is supposed to be engaged in some kind of a vocabulary exercise, but nobody’s participating. Several groups are chatting quietly among themselves. One girl is softly singing a rather accomplished version of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”  I immediately think of my daughter, who worked out an entire ballet to that same song. My desk-neighbor is painstakingly shading an intricate drawing in the Chicano-gangsta style. The teacher asks him what he’s doing. “Taking Prozac,” he replies.

What steps can be taken to stimulate these students – to challenge them, to spark them, to ignite them?  I think the answer is, a lot of “conventional” teaching techniques – lecturing at a blackboard, discussion group, etc. – simply don’t work. Not just for these students, but for many students today, anywhere. While I can observe and describe the phenomena with a reasonable degree of precision and accuracy, it’s more difficult to prescribe exactly what should be done to fix it. Brilliant minds in educational policy have been working on this issue for years, and I am not qualified to do anything more than suggest the contours of a remedy, from my perspective.

With these caveats, it must go something like this: more sharply attenuate the educational experience to the parameters drawn by the culture out of which the most important constituents of the process – the students – arise. They are the ones who have taken up (or inherited) the roles, the tools, the significance, of the world in which they live. They are the ones who are so transparently familiar with that world and its accouterments that they use and deploy them, without thinking, without conscious thought.

Students who are failing English, for example, somehow manage to turn in 10-page treatments for screenplays. Students who seemingly fail to grasp basic principles of geometry submit artwork that extraordinarily utilizes complex shapes and patterns. There are many affinities between algebra and music, all the way from Bach’s “Musical Offering” to the versatile guitar playing of many heavy-metal musicians.

There is a cruel – one might even say, perverse – misalignment of elements between this world-view, and the world-view presented by the curricula of high schools like Lincoln. Educational policy has decreed that, from a pedagogical standpoint, all students need to know some parts of the same thing – say, U.S. History, for example. I have no view if this is important, or not; probably not as important as many think. The utility and application of curriculum mandates must be seriously and rigorously vetted, so at least they have a fighting chance at pertinency. But even accepting their continued role, there are different, more sensitive, more nuanced ways to present the same material. This may be the arena within which the most progress can be made.

The Teachers. Another heuristic fallacy is that the teachers at a school like Lincoln somehow are second-rate. That they are bored, listless, and resigned to a career servicing constituents who themselves are sullen and unmotivated. I did not find this to be so. The administration and faculty with whom I worked were skilled, knowledgeable, and alert to the needs and requirements of the students. In fact, I wish I had some of them, instead of some of the teachers I had in high school.

The Volunteer. Here is how these factors intersect, though “collide” might be a better word. The faculty, no matter how skilled and motivated, is inundated by a tidal wave of students. That wave washes over them, leaving them cold and drenched. They are confined and hedged not only by their own assumptions and expectations, but also by curriculum mandates, departmental procedures, and the like. As a result, they barely have time to tend to the basic requirements mandated by the School Board, much less cultivate and nurture students who actually might be interested in something.

The role of the volunteer under these circumstances is clear. It is not to displace, or second-guess, the teacher. The teacher ostensibly is a trained professional; the volunteer is not. Nor is the volunteer there to be a teaching “assistant,” or a teacher’s “aide,” to hand out books and papers, or to baby-sit the students while the teacher takes a break. Rather, the proper role and function of the volunteer is to pursue teacher-initiated projects that the teacher would pursue, and readily could pursue, if only the teacher had any left-over time, in which to do so.

For example:

(a) The teacher always has wanted to present materials on cultural bias in movies. There’s nothing off-the-shelf, and the teacher never has had time to develop them.

(b) There is a lot of grant money available for {insert}. The teacher’s project is a great fit with the grantor’s objectives. It may just be a matter of pulling the two together.

(c) The volunteer may have unique professional experiences that could be brought to bear in the classroom environment, everything from performance techniques to video podcasts to substantive executive skills.

My point is there are any number of different initiatives the teacher could pursue, if there were enough hours in the day to do so, but there aren’t. The volunteer achieves its highest and best use, when it can take the initiative, catalyze activity on these projects, and then see them through to conclusion (however they resolve).

Not all teachers will take to a resource like the properly-deployed volunteer, as and in the context I’ve defined. If the teacher doesn’t have any ideas that need doing, or is content simply to meander along with the status quo, then there might not be a lot for the volunteer to accomplish on that teacher’s behalf. However, if the teacher is flexible, or has a vision of how to do it better, or can discern an improved critical path towards his or her students, then its’ more likely he or she will be able to use such a resource. In saying this, I don’t intend anything pejorative about teachers, or volunteers; it may just be a matter of personality or temperament.

I also want to note, it’s not my intention to over-emphasize performing arts examples (though I was in the Audio-Visual Club in third grade). However, it’s a fact that today’s secondary school students are incredibly attuned to music and video, due to MTV, YouTube, and the proliferation of pop culture in general. It therefore seems natural (as per above) to redeploy and repurpose these resources.

It never will be possible to evaluate the economic worth of volunteers using statistics – how many volunteers, how many schools, etc. The reason why is, this approach doesn’t account for leverage. One volunteer working with one teacher in one class impacts 25 students. If they collaborate on the same project over four periods, that’s 100 students. This modality fundamentally is different than others where there is a one-to-one correspondence between volunteers and constituents served; for example, working with a homeless person.

Statistics also don’t account for persistence. Many leverageable opportunities are amenable to counting – for example, the number of meals served to the elderly, or the dollar value of donated clothing that subsequently is re-sold. But these in turn support what best might be characterized as immediate-need problems. Once the need is satisfied, or fulfilled, it goes away, until it recurs (which may be shortly, as with food).

Educational opportunity, on the other hand, does not partake of, or participate in, similar short-term constraints. A student remains a constituent of the secondary school system for four years, and remains in a grade for at least one year. This affords repeated opportunities, in a dynamically open environment, for the volunteer to make an impact. And, it may take that long to evaluate whether an impact has been made.