Here’s a scene that keeps repeating itself: I’m having a conversation with someone I don’t really know—maybe I’ve run into a friend in the neighborhood and they’ve just introduced me to the coworker they’re having coffee with. Or, I’m taking a walk with my uncle who runs into friends he’s been meaning to catch up with. We’ll chat for a minute or two—I’m asking most of the questions—and I’ll start to see a certain comfort settle onto their face. It’s the way certain “successful” people look at me once they’ve decided that I’m “one of the good ones,” or, “more like us than I thought.” Shortly after, they’ll ask what I do. “I’m a highschool teacher,” I’ll say. The recognition on their face fades. “In public school?” they ask, saying it like an accusation, or like a whisper, in case someone else overhears.
For many, the only news seen these days about public schools in general, and urban public schools in particular, almost exclusively highlights failure. For instance, just before school let out for the summer, President Donald Trump unveiled his education budget, which boasts a 13-percent cut to spending across the board and slight increases to allocation for school choice and vouchers. According to the federal government, it seems that the best thing we can do for public schools is to help families leave them. But while this isn’t true, these actions do shine a damning light on parts of our public school system.
Although high-school graduation rates in, for instance, California are rising, the path to and through college is lined with pitfalls, especially for students attending community colleges. According to the American Institutes of Research and Optimity Advisors, the overall graduation rate at the City College of San Francisco, California’s largest community college, is 31.6 percent. For Latino students, the rate drops to 19.2 percent, and for black students, the rate is 12.6 percent. The graduation rate for English language learners, who cut across racial demographics, isn’t tracked. But if high school graduation rates are any indicator, we can probably safely assume that English learners are graduating at lower rates than many of their peers.
These numbers, however, are incomplete. It’s easy to look at them and blame the community colleges and the students who attend them, to imagine that the “problem” in public schools is that students are stuck: lacking innovation, populated by unmotivated or underprepared teachers, and drowning in bureaucracy. This logic often makes us look for saviors—single programs, policies, or technologies—to rescue our schools from themselves.
But, for a moment, forget what you’ve heard about English learners, their families, and their public schools. The work at San Francisco International High School (SFIHS), which exclusively serves immigrant students learning English as a new language in the San Francisco Unified School District (full disclosure: I’m a teacher at SFIHS), is telling a different story about what English learners can do—and where innovation can come from.
During my most recent performance of the above conversation, I excused myself to check the messages that came buzzing into my phone. The school year had already eased into summer, but my students were still hard at work. One student, Miguel, wrote, “I want to take a class this summer, but my work schedule changed. I just want to keep studying.” Zhang, another student, wrote, “I just met with Omar. He is signed up for HEALTH 33, but he has a bill. Do you have a counselor for him to talk to, or do I take him to financial aid next week?”
These messages aren’t necessarily unusual, but these 150-character snapshots speak to some hard-won victories from students who are expected to fail in our schools. Miguel fled from El Salvador on foot when he was 15 years old. He navigated international borders—and detention centers—alone until he was reunited with his mother months later. When he enrolled in the ninth grade, he was nearly 16 years old, had not attended school in two years, and couldn’t read or write in English. Now, he has earned a high-school diploma and is heading to City College
Zhang graduated from high school two years ago. When he was 14 years old, he left southern China with his parents and flew to San Francisco. They didn’t know anyone in the city, and none of them spoke English. Now, Zhang is finishing his second year at City College. He’s earning an associate’s degree in engineering, completing his transfer requirements, and hoping to complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s also paid to work with me in the Span program, a college retention program for recent graduates of SFIHS. Zhang is also using the knowledge he’s gained as a successful college student to support Omar, a recent graduate from Yemen who is beginning college one year after his high school graduation because he needed to return home to care for his grandmother at the end of her life.
Miguel, Zhang, and Omar are three students who have moved through the three-pronged college and career pathway at SFIHS, which consists of an internship, early college preparation, and Span. Approximately 30 percent of the school’s students are unaccompanied minors, 33 percent have had their formal education interrupted, and 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Out of the 70 students who graduated in the 2016 class, three matriculated at the University of California, 30 matriculated at a California State University campus, and 25 matriculated at City College.
These impressive results belong to the students and their families, who were able to tap into tailored programs that could help them to succeed. In their internships, for instance, Zhang worked on a community mapping project at a tech startup, Miguel helped tenants in disputes with their landlords at a community housing nonprofit, and Omar sharpened his business skills by coordinating a farmer’s market in the Mission District. These students were able to investigate careers and topics they may want to pursue after high school by working at an organization in San Francisco; they were also able to put their burgeoning bilingualism into practice.
Certainly, there are no simple solutions to the challenges facing marginalized students and the schools they attend. Housing insecurity, health problems, and the need to earn money are just a few of the challenges students who live in poverty consistently face. Rarely is a school equipped with the resources to truly resolve these issues. Across the city, many schools in San Francisco have already seen their budgets cut, and forecasters are predicting leaner times to come as more cuts are predicted under the Trump administration. At the same time, California is facing a severe teacher shortage that disproportionately affects urban school districts. Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about improving our education system without acknowledging that, increasingly, students, families, and teachers are asked to do more and more with less and less.
And yet, my work days are filled with students, families, community organizations, and educators who are engaging in some of the most creative and high-stakes problem-solving. The problem, though, is that we rarely acknowledge this work as innovative. “Innovation,” it seems, belongs to someone else. “Innovation” is fueled by “outsiders” from business or technology. But my experience at SFIHS shows that the issue isn’t that schools are incapable of innovation, that families are unsupportive, or that students can’t handle rigor or manage autonomy.
The issue, all too often, is the failure of our most powerful institutions to commit to the success of young people. None of our programs at SFIHS exists in a vacuum. The success of our college and career pathway relies on our partnerships with local businesses, our city’s community college, and the leadership in our school district. Just as importantly, they are partnerships focused on creating supportive opportunities for students who we expect to struggle but who we believe can be successful. We can already see that when we place the burden of success exclusively on individual students, many will fail. I want to see what happens when we work collaboratively to build pathways for all of our young people to succeed.