The New Public: Engaging Student Culture in Schools and Naming Our Reality

Co-authored by Christian Castaing, a rising senior at Grinnell College and an intern with the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education

No Child Left Behind created the expectation that every student make consistent progress. While this represents an important step forward, NCLB's standards-and-accountability framework falls down in two key respects: lack of recognition that some students need more support than others to succeed; and unforeseen consequences like "zero tolerance" policies, which treat the culture and experiences students bring to class not as assets that schools should embrace or issues to be addressed but disruptive behaviors that impede learning. The 2013 documentary The New Public highlights the conflict between that expectation of progress for all and these assumptions.

When the first class of students walks through the doors of the new Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School (BCAM) in The New Public, the impacts of poverty are immediately apparent. One student lives in precarious conditions in public housing, another is disillusioned with school after years of being labeled mentally disabled in prior schools, and many are already several years behind in reading, which poses obstacles to academic progress. A recent report from the Southern Education Foundation details how low-income students now represent the majority of public school students in 17 states, and nearly half nationwide -- a dramatic increase over the past decade. Students living in poverty face numerous barriers to educational attainment, from underfunded schools and unsupported educators, to insufficient early childhood development and food and housing insecurity, as well as diminished health and safety. The New Public showcases the cumulative impacts of these impediments by the time students reach high school, and NCLB's failure to address them.

Student bodies are also increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. The New Public provides several examples of how schools can increase educational attainment by making diversity an asset, raising the visibility of diverse communities, and including different perspectives in their curricula.

BCAM tailors its curriculum to meet students where they are academically, foster and develop personal relationships, and provide project-based, socially conscious assignments rooted in students' self-expression. BCAM's peer-mentor women-of-color support group, "Fly Girls," helps students identify solutions to personal problems in their lives. It provides an open space for students to discuss personal topics of body image, disempowerment, and coping with and overcoming harassment. Within the classroom, students are tasked with documenting and recording community perspectives on a given social issue of their choice, culminating in the students creating PSAs for their respective topics. As a result, BCAM students experience a curriculum that advances their individual voice, while helping them think critically about their community and the larger sociopolitical context. The need to hit specific math and reading standards by senior year, however, forces the school to cut back on engaging arts activities, potentially threatening some students' willingness to stick it out through graduation.

Making students' real-life experiences relevant to daily classroom life helps students develop a broader worldview and a critical understanding of nuanced social issues concurrent with developing academic skills. This kind of educational experience, in which students identify the structural inequities and challenges influencing their own lives -- essentially "naming their own realities" -- has the potential to develop motivated and informed critical thinkers.

Given the importance of classroom and school culture, its absence in national discussions about education policy is both noteworthy and troubling.

Beyond graduating from high school in the same year, the seniors of The New Public and I share a few things in common. My educators similarly challenged my intellect while building on experiences and understandings I arrived with. Through their commitment, the faculty of City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco were my partners in learning and mentors throughout critical life experiences. When I got to high school, I understood that my housing and food security was incredibly unstable and beyond my control. This instability was business as usual for me. School disrupted that mentality, and helped me become an advocate, critically engaged with the needs of my community and invested in my own enrichment.

Education became my liberation. I traced the socioeconomic history of my neighborhood in history class, and used the science skills I had attained to observe and record the detrimental health outcomes of building low income housing atop the toxic remains of a navy ship yard. My mentality evolved into an intensive pursuit of youth-led initiatives and remedies to the social complexities I had once accepted as inevitable.

When my class graduated and almost all of us went to college, we knew that an empowering curriculum and supportive staff were core components that contributed to our success. Whether at BCAM or CAT, engaging students by embracing their culture is underway, and teachers know that promoting success requires looking far beyond test-based assumptions.