Nearly a dozen teenagers are scattered in small groups across a large classroom at Downtown High School in San Francisco. Some strum on guitars. Others hold hand-written lyric sheets.
This isn’t just a music class. The students are all writing songs inspired by the novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go by Chester Himes, which deals with class, race and politics in the 1940s.
Downtown is not your everyday high school. For one thing, it’s a continuation school. That means students here haven’t done well at their previous schools. Seventeen-year-old Sergio Recinos used to go to Galileo High School.
“A lot of my friends went there, so that’s the reason I went there,” Recinos says. “They started smokin’ weed. I got into it, and like, you know, I ended up here, because of my credits.”
At Downtown, students like Recinos get a different learning experience than at conventional schools. Here, subjects are taught in the context of real-world applications – projects that the students work on together, hands-on. It’s called “project-based learning.”
At the beginning of each semester, a student picks one class, or project, which they’ll stay in for the term. The projects have acronym-names like ACT (Acting for Critical Thought) which is focused on theater and performance, or PRISM (Physics Reflected In Social Movements) which looks at politics, activism, and science. Recinos is in the project called MMARSS (Music and Math Alive in Resistance to Social Systems). He says he likes it because he eventually wants to get into the music business.
How It Works
Every project has a theme for the semester, with two main teachers who design all of the content and curriculum and choose one book to study carefully together. Downtown teacher Erin Waddell says that’s a rare freedom in today’s testing- and standards-driven climate.
“The teachers have total freedom in terms of how they schedule a day,” says Waddell. “So if it’s a deadline for art sculptures, we can say that half the day or the entire day is devoted to that. We don’t have to cover all of the subjects in one day.”
Waddell’s project is GOAL (Get Out And Learn). Her students are off-campus four days a week. They spend two of them at Aquatic Park near the Hyde Street Pier, where much of the time is spent on boat-building. By the end of the semester, the students will have built a wooden boat from scratch.
Seventeen-year-old GOAL student Isaac Murga says that he cut class all the time at his last school. He was bored. That’s why this particular project works for him.
“If I was in another project where I had to be in school, I might not even show up for that,” he says. “Here, they got me doing stuff that I like, so I come every day.”
Waddell says that’s the key to project-based learning: keeping kids engaged.
“It’s the way we experience life: our history is not separate from the science and is not separate from math, nor literature,” says Waddell. “I personally think that perhaps fewer students would end up at a continuation high school if project-based learning was more mainstreamed and not just something you could access in alternative education.”
A Personal Connection
Ellen Wong is the current principal at Downtown, but she started out here as a parent around 12 years ago. Her son was having trouble at his traditional school, and Wong says she even considered sending him to a reform school.
“I didn’t know there were alternatives within our own school district,” she says.
A district counselor suggested they try out Downtown, and her son was able to complete high school there. After he graduated, Wong stuck around, having become a believer in Downtown’s methods. She says staying in one small learning community for a whole semester means students and teachers develop deeper relationships.
“[A lot of our students] come from backgrounds where they’ve had many years of not being successful and being lost in the cracks,” says Wong. “And sometimes it’s really difficult for them to realize the teachers have kind of a laser focus on them. They kind of know what’s going on. In the past they could probably hide, but here they can’t be invisible.”
Still, some students’ issues with truancy or lack of credits are too far gone for them to get back on track, even here. In that case, says Wong, the goal is “to help them to move forward along the path and find them the next program that they can go to.” That might mean a GED course, an adult school, or maybe even college.
Generally, between 40 and 60 students graduate from Downtown every spring. At any given time, the school will have around 200-250 students. But that number can fluctuate within the school year, as kids move into and out of the program.
It’s hard to say what those numbers actually mean in terms of the school’s success; the data is hard to analyze. For example, the San Francisco Unified School District, like many other districts, calculates graduation rates based on a 9th-grade cohort. That means that the percentage of graduates at any given high school is based on how many students entered the 9th grade four years ago at that school. A continuation school like Downtown by definition has no 9th graders. What’s more, students at Downtown who are in their fifth year of high school are actually counted as dropouts in district statistics. But Wong says data isn’t the only way to see how students are doing.
“Students learn in so many different ways, and you just have to expose them to different activities,” she says. “Because you don’t know what’s really going to spark them, to engage them. You just don’t know.”
Bringing It All Together
At the end of the semester, each project has an exhibition, a time to share what they’ve learned and created with the rest of the school. MMARRS’ exhibition takes the form of a concert, held in the school cafeteria. Students have chosen names for their bands, and they perform the songs they’ve written.
Ivan Zermeno, lead guitarist for a band called “Purple Reaper”, introduces his group’s song by explaining the Chester Himes novel they read.
“The book is about some dude from the 40s,” Zermeno tells the crowd. “And he’s trying to adapt to a world that’s really messed up, but he doesn’t want to be like, an Uncle Tom or whatever.”
The band then launches into some heavy, Rage Against the Machine-style riffs, and as the lead singer prowls the stage, the cafeteria erupts with cheers.
Sergio Recinos is not rapping today, but he does have a science project to present: a hand-built microphone. He demonstrates and explains the electrical connections to the audience, and as he turns it on, a softly humming feedback can be heard through the speakers. He and his collaborators proudly take questions from the audience.
Recinos says he’s glad to have re-engaged with school. “It sucks, seeing your mom sad at you, like: ‘My son’s messing up’, you know,” he says. “So I was like: you know what, I’m just gonna get this high school sh-- done with…”
Recinos is getting passing grades now, and if he stays on track, he has a chance to graduate with Downtown High School’s class of 2016.