Each September at Channel Islands High School in Oxnard, students show up at William Terrazas' English as a Second Language class flaunting gang affiliations and planning to quit school.
But according to Terrazas and several of his students, by June many have dropped the gang colors, started applying to colleges and universities and are featured speakers at teachers conferences. In those nine months they have learned to write reports and to speak powerfully in public about their own experiences--all in English, a language that for many of them is difficult.
According to school records, their grades are on the upswing. Although academic records are not kept separately for these young people, grade point averages and overall math, communication and writing proficiency scores for students in the English as a Second Language program at Channel Islands High are significantly higher than those for students in bilingual programs in all other district schools, Terrazas said.
And according to Christine Smith, director of student services for the Oxnard Union High School District, the dropout rate for Latino students at Channel Islands is one-half to one-third lower than that of Latino students statewide.
Keep in mind that until very recently, many of these young people were officially classified as low achievers.
Is a miracle at work?
Yes, according to Terrazas. "I see students change their lives," he said. "Miracles have been happening to us because what we are doing is right."
He believes that because they are people of color and because English is not their first language, many of his students spend their school years feeling disenfranchised, as though their culture and language have no value to the dominant culture. And that, he believes, leads to their lack of motivation in school.
"Students who are classified as low achievers must want to read and write," he said. "Learning makes sense only when students can use it to reflect on where they are in the world and gain an ability to change the world." He calls this process "finding a voice." Only by finding a voice, he says, will a student begin to achieve.
Finding his own voice was not easy for Terrazas. Raised in East Los Angeles, Terrazas found himself in high school in what he calls "bonehead English . . . designed especially for flunkies like me." His counselors told him to pursue a career that didn't require thinking. "I know how it feels to be called a low achiever," Terrazas said. "I've had teachers tell me I'd never amount to anything."
His father, a paraplegic wounded in France in World War II, strongly urged him to go on to college. "Many times he said passionately to me, 'Mijo, you have a complete and healthy body. Use it! And don't feel sorry for yourself.' "
After graduating from USC, he became part of USC's Teacher Corps Rural Migrant Program, teaching fieldworkers in the lemon fields of Santa Paula. There he was saddened by the lives of those he worked among. "With no hope and no future," he said, "for them there were just the fields of pain and the labor of life of struggling to survive." When he moved on in 1973 to teach at Channel Islands High, he took with him a determination to help people of color find power and a voice.
On the first day of class each September, Terrazas presents his goal: to get each student to write and speak articulately in English about his or her own experiences and place in the world.
Together, he said, teacher and students choose topics for discussion that are relevant to the students' lives--racism, teen pregnancy, gangs, drugs and school dropout rates are a few. During the months that follow, they discuss and research each topic.
Terrazas said he invites outside experts--congressional candidates, police and probation officers, university students, married students--to offer their perspectives.
During each class session, the students present speeches, conduct group discussions and write reports onto long sheets of butcher paper attached to the walls, while Terrazas observes, praises and provokes them. In the process, Terrazas said, the young people learn to take risks, to listen to one another carefully and cordially, and to question and explore ideas.
Over the course of the semester, he said, antagonisms between rival gang members in the class have dissolved, quiet students have become vocal and despairing young people have begun to talk about their futures.
"Everybody thought I was going to be dead or in jail or in the streets," said 17-year-old senior Mario Leanos, a former gang member who took the class last year and is now making plans to enter college. "This class helped me because I got to express myself, and I never did that before. If you speak out, it's going to help you learn about your life and do something with your life."