Who Asked Us?: Low Scores, High Achievers—Lessons of One CA High School

Who Asked Us?: Low Scores, High Achievers—Lessons of One CA High School

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Editor’s Note: Last week, California’s Department of Education released the annual Academic Performance Index (API), and MetWest High School in Oakland scored low at 570. Further, a majority of students scored either “below basic" or "far below basic” in math on the California State Exam. MetWest students and educators argue that the school’s high rates of graduation and college attendance show it is doing something right, despite the test scores. Oscar Servellon, a recent MetWest graduate, will start at the University of California at Davis next year. He writes about how the small school’s innovative teaching model guided him towards academic success and a stronger sense of self.

Test scores don’t reflect how well a school prepares students for college or the workforce.

MetWest students may not test well on standardized tests, but we aren’t a bunch of low achievers. Our graduation rate is much higher than other schools in Oakland. Of this year’s senior class, 32 of 33 students graduated with me in June, and 28 students were accepted to four-year colleges. The remaining four will attend community college this fall because college is an integral component of the MetWest curriculum.

In my case, neither of my two brothers pursued college, I will be the first in my family to attend college when I start at the University of California, Davis, this coming week. That’s because of MetWest.

I found out about MetWest High School by attending a few school visits organized by Ascend K-8 Middle School. Each classroom had only 17 students (this year classroom size went up to 20 students), which I liked, but what really sold the school to me was the unique weekly schedule.

MetWest is one of 60 public high schools around the country pioneering a model of internship-based education for students in grades 9-12. Students attend school for three days a week and an work at an internship for two days a week. Although I didn’t know exactly what internship was, I knew I didn’t want to sit in a classroom for five days a week.

Part of the application process included an interview with the principal, Eve Gordon. We met in her office and she asked me a series of questions: What are my interests? What did I expect from MetWest? Why do I see myself as fit for the school?

I got accepted to MetWest in 2006.

First, I set up a meeting with my advisor, Jeff Issenberg. The summer before school started, Jeff came to my house to meet my mother and to get a feel of who I am.

At first, I thought it was weird that my teacher wanted to meet my family; no previous teacher had ever wanted to meet my parents unless I got in trouble. Over the months, it took me a while to wrap my head around the idea that MetWest teachers actually cared about students.

I quickly learned that MetWest is about a lot more than just going to school for three days.

Students are split into two groups, with three teachers per grade level. In this learning environment, there is more one-on-one time with teachers, and students become comfortable working with each other.

One day every semester, we got to take a day off and participate in an “advisory retreat.” One time, we had pizza at our advisor’s house; another time, we held a barbeque over the summer.

Learning about the oppression and liberation cycle is an important part of the MetWest curriculum. Required reading like “Down These Mean Streets,” by Piri Thomas, helped us identify different levels and types of oppression. This book, one of my favorites, told the story of the eldest child of Puerto Rican immigrants and the struggles he faced while coming up on the streets of Harlem.

Thomas’ story mirrored what it’s like to grow up on the streets of Oakland. After reading the book, I could easily identify when I was being oppressed, whether it was obvious or subliminal.

On the first Tuesday of freshman year, students are asked to think about their interests and begin searching for an internship that will give them experience in the working world. I wanted to pursue an interest in writing, so I decided to intern at YO! Youth Outlook, a multimedia magazine based at New America Media in San Francisco.

In my two years of working at YO!, my writing and reporting improved, and I was supported by colleagues who cared about me. Having a mentor at YO! pushed me to want to excel in the workplace.

When it was time to work on my senior thesis project, I expanded upon what I had learned from doing an internship in youth and ethnic media to create a project that identified the negative portrayals of Latinos in the media.

I hoped my findings would create more awareness about misrepresentation of the Latino community. Based on the shocked faces of teachers and students as I delivered my presentation, I think the findings were highly educational.

At MetWest, teachers measure our progress by grading us on effort and skills. We have exhibitions every quarter, instead of tests.

At exhibitions, students proved their understanding of the material they studies by presenting in front of peers and being evaluated by them.

For required evaluation tests, such as the CAHSEE and SAT, we took prep classes on Tuesdays or Thursdays before our scheduled internships. College counselors taught us about the standardized tests, examples of the type of questions we’d be asked, and test-taking skills.

MetWest students have the opportunity to take community college classes at nearby Laney College. I took geometry. Being at Laney gave me a taste of the college experience and prepared me for college tests to come.

Metwest is all about community; the school is about students helping each other and building a better environment for themselves and those around them.

The school’s weekly town hall meetings are an opportunity for under- and upper-classmen to get together. During these meetings, we share announcements, presentations and participate in group activities.

Students who get into fights at school, though it doesn’t happen frequently, have to apologize for their behavior at the meetings. If they don’t, they face the possibility of expulsion.

Even though my friends and I complained about all the work we took on while attending Metwest, we were joyful when we received college acceptance letters and graduated together. Most of my classmates will attend the University of California or one of the California State schools this fall, with the exception of a few students who will attend prestigious private colleges or out-of-state colleges.

I chose the University of California, Davis, because it is far enough from home for me to gain independence, but not too far in case of an emergency.

My parents have always been supportive, and the MetWest staff served as a second family. During family meetings, my advisor convinced my parents that participating in extracurricular programs would be a valuable experience for me.

Those programs taught me about environmental and social justice in Mexico and enabled me to travel in Nicaragua for three weeks to learn about the country’s culture and history. Traveling helped me get outside of my comfort zone and adjust to being away from home.

Although we do not have a very strong math or science department, students are not discouraged from pursuing careers in these fields. On the contrary, MetWest wants students to pursue their passion—whatever it may be. By following the school’s mission, I grew both as a person and in my studies.

MetWest gave me the confidence to ask people for help when I needed it, instead of giving up whenever I struggled or faced obstacles.