Tales of Human-Scale Education

Arnie Langberg shares three stories of humanity from High School Redirection

Earthville EducationEditor’s note: Visionary educator Arnold Langberg served as Principal of Jefferson County Open High School (in Evergreen, CO), originally and more commonly known as “Mountain Open” (and later merged into the Jefferson County Open School) until 1986, when he joined Denver Public School District as their Administrator of Alternative Education and then proceeded to found High School Redirection, another groundbreaking public alternative school.

In this article, Arnie shares stories from both schools that illustrate the critical roles that human connections play in creating effective learning communities.

High School Redirection lasted for four years as part of the Denver Public Schools. The story of its birth and death will be told another time. This piece will focus on three incidents involving students.

Story #1: Who Is Holding You?

I was sitting in my office (which for me was not the hiding place that it was for too many of my principal colleagues in other schools) when someone came running in to tell us that there was a fight going on in our cafeteria.Bob Pena, our social worker, and I ran down the hall to provide some control of the situation, and we discovered two of our young male students screaming at each other and pummeling each other.

As I think back to what might have been going through my head at the time, two probable thoughts emerge. The first is that there did not appear to be any weapons involved other than voices and fists. The second was that there was no audience or other combatants.>Both of these were signs of progress in the development of the culture of the school.

Redirection was a city-wide school and it was located in the territory of one of the major Denver gangs. I believe that we had a higher ratio of gang members than any of the conventional high schools and I am sure that we had more different gangs represented. During our first year, when two students were fighting, many other students would egg them on and, in my view, “throw fuel on the fire.” During our second year, as students began to feel a sense of ownership in their school, if there was a fight the other students would leave the scene and let the combatants work it out for themselves. By the third year the other students would actually break up the fight!

So Bob and I each grabbed one of the fighters, and as I tried to hang on to mine, who was screaming and flailing, I whispered in his ear, “Who is holding you, Roger?” I felt him pause in his outbursts and, in almost a giggle, he replied, “Arnie.” And it was only a short time later that the four of us sat down in my office to discuss what had led to the battle and how we were going to move forward from the incident.

Would this have been possible in a big, impersonal high school where I might not have known the student and he might not have known me?

Story #2: Hats Off to Identity Shifts

The second story begins with a young woman coming into the office with a teenage boy to register for our school. I thought that they could both be possible students, but she was the mother of the boy and they were there to enroll only him. I told them that we did not have any openings and that I could not add one more advisee to any teacher’s load because they were already under a great deal of pressure.

The mother explained that her son, Pete, needed to be in school because of some legal situation, and that all he wanted to do was study calculus. (I wonder how often high schools across the country were being besieged with similar requests?)

Calculus is my favorite course, so how could I ignore such an unusual applicant? I offered to have Pete limit his presence in the school to sitting in my office and working on his own, and I would help him whenever I had the time. We would take it week-by-week rather than make any long-term commitment. It turned out that Pete was a bright, dedicated student and we enjoyed working together.

In our second week, I noticed that Pete had been wearing a hat that had the letters NSK on it, and I asked him what they stood for. He told me they stood for “Navajo Street Killers.” I made no further comment and we went back to our calculus.

During this time the school district was establishing a number of policies that were designed to combat the influence of gangs in the schools. At a high school principals’ meeting, when we were told that students would not be allowed to wear hats in the schools, I stated that I would prefer to deal with the situation differently, because almost everything about Redirection was different from the other schools. No one objected, and at the next staff meeting I told our teachers about the policy and I suggested that, to be consistent with our school culture, we should have the advisors develop procedures for their own advisory groups with input from the students.

Within a couple of days after the above discussion with Pete, one of the advisors asked me to help her deal with a problem she was having with one of her advisees. The student had not been living up to his agreed-upon educational program, and the advisor, consistent with the procedure that her advisory group had arrived at, told the student that he would not be allowed to wear his hat until he began to do his school work.

The advisor and the student came to my office to seek my mediation of their disagreement. I asked Pat, the student, how long he had been in the school, knowing that this was his second year, and then I told him that I understood why a student new to the school would wear a hat, as a way of establishing his identity in a new culture. I didn’t see why Pat had to do so, because he had already established himself with us, and I would therefore support his advisor’s decision to deny him the right to wear his hat in school until he did the school work that he had previously chosen to do.

My reasoning was apparently successful with Pat and his advisor, but the bonus was that the next day, Pete was no longer wearing his hat!!!

Story #3: Unlearning the “N” Word

Zach’s story began in the school gym where ten students (all of whom were black) were playing basketball under the informal supervision of a black teacher named Sal. The ball rolled out of bounds near Sal, and Zach, one of the students, yelled to Sal, “Hey nigger, throw us the ball!” Sal exploded and ordered Zach to come with him to my office.

Sal was still fuming as he told me that Zach had called him that word, and Zach seemed puzzled by Sal’s reaction. ”That’s what we homeboys call each other,” he said. I asked Sal to explain to Zach why he was so upset. He described his upbringing in Baltimore, a southern city that still exhibited a great deal of racial prejudice, and that the “n” word was used by white people to demean black folks. I added that although I had been brought up in the north, I, too, had the same sort of reaction to the word that Sal had, having seen how it was used by even some of my high school friends.

Zach then apologized to Sal, saying that he meant no harm, and that he had been unaware of how inflammatory the word was. Sal, however, was in no mood to accept the apology, and I realized that both of them should think more about the situation and we would meet first thing the next morning to decide what to do next.

In the morning, Sal had calmed down and he recognized Zach’s sincere attempt to apologize and to understand the history of the word. When I asked him if he was satisfied, however, he said that there were nine other students who had been part of the incident, and they, too, needed to understand all of this. Zach knew that all of the others were in a class that would be meeting in an hour after our meeting, and he offered to come to the class with Sal and me to explain why it had happened and what should be done about it.

We asked the nine to stay with us at the end of their class, and Zach presented what had happened and what he had learned from it. He said that he would never use the word again and that his friends should make the same commitment. Then each of them shook hands with Sal and apologized to him.

When everyone else left for their next activity I asked Zach to stay with me for a minute. I put my arm around his shoulder and I told him that I was impressed with the way he had handled himself throughout the incident and, since I had helped to remove a word from his vocabulary, I felt a need to add one in its place. The word is a Yiddish word, “mensch,” which literally means “man,” but which colloquially means a person of great character and substance. “Zach,” I said, “you are a mensch!”

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