“This isn’t a school.”

We’ve spent some time this week writing about the need to clear away/let go of conventions about high school that limit the ways we think about learning and teaching. This certainly isn’t a new observation, but neither is it common in the reform community. You know where it is common? Among students. They already know it. Especially those who have dropped out.

Last week I had the opportunity to spend the morning at El Centro de Estudiantes, an alternative school run by Big Picture Philadelphia and Congreso de Latinos Unidos. As a regular practice, students at El Centro are expected to get up in front of their “advisor” (teacher) and peers and present their progress to date in several different areas, including basic academics, personal/social (how they contribute to the school community, for example), independent work and internships, and independent reading. The goal is to demonstrate their learning. Once the student has presented, his/her peers ask questions, then offer feedback. And they really do. I’m not saying I saw everyone comment, but most of the students contributed to the discussion.

I wasn’t at the school long enough to really get a feel for the depth of the academic work. But what is immediately clear is the bond that these students have formed with each other and with the adults in the building. In most high schools, there is an oppositional relationship between students and staff. School becomes a game in which the students try to subvert the official program, usually with great success. At El Centro, they’ve taken the game out of the equation. Students get that this place is there for them, and that it’s really only as good as they make it. They refer to the adults by their first names. They describe the school community as a family. They recruit their friends and their cousins into it.

In between presentations, I got to spend about 45 minutes with a group of five or six young men and women, just talking informally about their experiences in the school. At one point I asked whether being at El Centro had changed the way they thought about the schools they attended before they dropped out. The first student to respond got right to the heart of it.

“This isn’t a school,” he said. And then he went on to describe all the things El Centro is to him. A community. A family. Teachers and peers who cared about him. Learning that was relevant to life and that followed his interests. In short, all the things school should be.

But it usually isn’t. For most of these students, school was the game. Or worse, it was a dangerous place where fighting was the only way to get by. Those of us working to invent a better version of high school need to start from this point. We need to take away the game first and foremost. That doesn’t guarantee success, of course. But at least it makes it possible.