Kristina Rizga's Mission High and the Twenty-First Century Schools We Need

Want to feel 40 to 50 years younger? Then, read Mission High by Kristina Rizga.

On virtually every page in Rizga's great book, I relived my idealism of the late 1960s. She tells the story of a school that embodies the ideals which schools should exemplify. Schools (and our society) were not as good when I was a student. But, we believed that the day would come when schools like San Francisco's Mission High would be the norm.

Rizga describes the dignity, the dynamism, and the wisdom of the diverse students at the high-challenge school. In doing so, she reminds us why integration works. Bring all types of students together with all type of adults, and awesome things happen.

Maria, whose auntie was murdered by the gang MS-13 in El Salvador, originally struggled to write two paragraphs. Maria's teachers recognized her as "an intellect battling to find its voice." They helped her to build on her tenacity, to write and rewrite research papers, and author sophisticated analyses such as her essay on Mendez v. Westminster.

Darrell had a reading disability, and like many African American students, he did not see himself as a good test-taker. But challenging lessons, such as analyzing U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, taught him how to achieve "the highest high," a "sense of pride in his own thoughts and ideas ... [that] fed his resilience." Not surprisingly, lessons on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 worked with students of all races just like it did for my kids in Oklahoma City.

Rizga recounts the backgrounds and the distributive leadership of Eric Guthertz, Mission High's principal (whose guidance is described here), of social studies teacher Robert Roth and language arts teacher Pirette McKamey. They treat each student as an individual. They build on students' strengths; they don't just remediate weaknesses.

These progressive educators teach a complete curriculum, not just bubbling in the right and wrong answers. They model the quest for meaning so students can internalize the learning process.

But, and this is an important but, these educators aren't stuck in a 1960s progressivism. They've adjusted their instruction to accommodate new research and to build on their own practical experience. Yes, they respect the students' "zone of proximal development." They've incorporated the "four r's" or "rhythm, repetition, recitation, relationships." They've also developed a balanced writing approach, not the "skill drills" of today or the "free-writes" of past. Instead, Mission's instruction stresses the conceptual side of writing, as well as multiple rewrites, and drawing upon personal perspectives.

Being realists, they've learned that "for some students, group work with limited guidance from the teacher didn't work." For instance, an inexperienced teacher struggled and his mentor, McKamey, suggested the use of more direct instruction to provide more background information to the readers. This teacher hadn't considered the need to teach geography and history in an English class, even though he was teaching Jack London and students might need to know about the frigid wilderness to grasp his work.

Finally, Mission's educators show respect to their students by providing a challenging, meaningful classroom experience. They nurture analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking. In doing so, they can be as concrete as they are speculative in their authentic instruction. Rizga writes:

Let me remind you what analysis is," McKamey says, standing in front of the class. "When I was little, I remember I used a hammer and screw-driver to crack a golf ball open. I really wanted to see what was inside. As I cracked that glossy plastic open, I saw rubber bands. And I went, 'Ha! I didn't know there were rubber bands in golf balls. I wonder what's inside other balls?' It made me curious about the world. So, we are doing the same thing. We'll analyze the author's words to dig in deeper. That will allow us to engage with the text on the author's terms."

In other words, McKamey, Roth, Guthertz, Maria, and Darrrell, along with Rizga, make the case that should have been obvious. In the 21st century, affluent parents obviously want their children to learn analysis, synthesis, critical thinking, and high-quality writing. But, all kids deserve such a challenging and holistic education. Mission High shows that the way to provide such opportunities to all children is to show them the respect of offering everyone engaging and meaningful instruction.