Inside a ‘low-performing’ school

Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong, writes Kristina Rizga in Mother Jones after spending 18 months “embedded” at San Francisco’s Mission High. Rizga followed a Salvadoran girl who’d joined her mother in the U.S. after the rape, torture and murder of her beloved aunt.

At a San Francisco middle school, Maria learned almost no English in a special class for immigrants and then in a mainstream class.

At Mission High, the struggling school she’d chosen against the advice of her friends and relatives, Maria earned high grades in math and some days caught herself speaking English even with her Spanish-speaking teachers. By 11th grade, she wrote long papers on complex topics like desegregation and the war in Iraq. She became addicted to winning debates in class, despite her shyness and heavy accent. In her junior year, she became the go-to translator and advocate for her mother, her aunts, and for other Latino kids at school. In March, Maria and her teachers were celebrating acceptance letters to five colleges and two prestigious scholarships, including one from Dave Eggers’ writing center, 826 Valencia.

But Maria, who’s still learning English vocabulary, scores poorly on state exams.  Despite a rising graduation and college-going rate, Mission High scores among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country.

The article — go ahead, read the whole thing — reminded me of The New Kids, a book on a small New York City high school for recent immigrants. The school pushes all students –who come from Tibet, Africa, Haiti, China, you name it — to college.  But they’re way, way behind in reading, writing and math. Some have missed years of schooling. Or they just haven’t had enough time to learn English. Can they really make it in college without the mentoring their high school provides? If the problem is just weak English skills, the super-motivated probably can. But what makes sense for the rest?

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