The post below is by guest blogger Alex Hernandez.
I attended my neighborhood public high school in central California. The school was integrated through busing and, in the early 1990s, our 2,600 students were roughly one-third white, one-third black and Latino, and one-third Asian. We had a democratically-elected, local school board. I lived the progressive dream for public education.
I knew something was very wrong at my school. We had about 1,000 freshman and 500 sophomores. Our graduating class had 330 students and maybe 50-75 students went straight to a four-year college. I’d walk around the halls wondering which of my classmates wouldn’t make it.
It’s hard to understand that a bad school can have great teachers. My twelfth grade English teacher and eleventh grade math teacher were among the finest in the area. I also loved one of my Spanish teachers who was kind and motherly. We played craps in the back of her classroom (a lot) while she laughed and pretended to cover her eyes. In staff meetings, she wasn’t passive-aggressive like one of my English teachers who would read the newspaper, holding it high in protest so you couldn’t even tell who was behind it.
I eventually graduated fifth in my high school class and was fortunate enough to attend Claremont McKenna College, a selective liberal arts college. I worried a bit when I read more books in my first week of college than in my entire four years of high school.
My junior year at Claremont, a friend pulled me aside and tried to gently inform me, “Uhhhh… You know you can’t write, right?” It’s one thing to be told by a teacher that your work isn’t up to snuff. My friend was just trying to be kind and I was completely humiliated.
One would think a 4.5 high school GPA, inflated by honors classes where “A”s were worth five points, would mean I was college-ready. But I placed in the lowest-level math class offered at my college and the people who cared for me the most felt genuinely sorry for my literacy skills.
California began ranking its public schools based on state test scores in 1999 and abruptly stopped in 2013. My high school spent most of that period ranked in the bottom 20% of ALL public high schools in the state. The rankings confirmed what we all long suspected and knew to be true in our hearts.
I’m an education reformer, because…
I know some schools are better than others.
I know good teaching matters… and it is scarce.
I know great teachers can work in bad organizations.
I know schools only work for kids if the adults are all rowing in the same direction.
I know schools don’t just magically get better.
I know families with means move to segregated public school districts, choose private schools and/or take tests to gain admission to exclusive public schools — and no one thinks anything of it.
I know I was one of the lucky ones.
I know we can do better.
Alex Hernandez (@thinkschools) is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation’s best public charter schools. He serves on the boards of DSST Public Schools, Ednovate, 4.0 Schools and Rocketship Education. Alex graduated from Claremont McKenna College and has an MBA and Masters of Education from Stanford University. He lives near Boulder, CO with his wife and twin sons and can usually be found on his porch late in the evening playing Mexican folk songs.