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So I grew up in East Los Angeles, not even realizing I was poor. My dad was a high-ranking gang member who ran the streets. Everyone knew who I was, so I thought I was a pretty big deal, and I was protected, and even though my dad spent most of my life in and out of jail, I had an amazing mom who was just fiercely independent. She worked at the local high school as a secretary in the dean's office, so she got to see all the kids that got thrown out of class, for whatever reason, who were waiting to be disciplined. Man, her office was packed.
So, see, kids like us, we have a lot of things to deal with outside of school, and sometimes we're just not ready to focus. But that doesn't mean that we can't. It just takes a little bit more. Like, I remember one day I found my dad convulsing, foaming at the mouth, OD-ing on the bathroom floor. Really, do you think that doing my homework that night was at the top of my priority list? Not so much.
But I really needed a support network, a group of people who were going to help me make sure that I wasn't going to be a victim of my own circumstance, that they were going to push me beyond what I even thought I could do. I needed teachers, in the classroom, every day, who were going to say, "You can move beyond that." And unfortunately, the local junior high was not going to offer that. It was gang-infested, huge teacher turnover rate.
So my mom said, "You're going on a bus an hour and a half away from where we live every day." So for the next two years, that's what I did. I took a school bus to the fancy side of town. And eventually, I ended up at a school where there was a mixture. There were some people who were really gang-affiliated, and then there were those of us really trying to make it to high school. Well, trying to stay out of trouble was a little unavoidable. You had to survive. You just had to do things sometimes. So there were a lot of teachers who were like, "She's never going to make it. She has an issue with authority. She's not going to go anywhere." Some teachers completely wrote me off as a lost cause.
So I began my teaching career at the exact same middle school that I attended, and I really wanted to try to save more kids who were just like me. And so every year, I share my background with my kids, because they need to know that everyone has a story, everyone has a struggle, and everyone needs help along the way. And I am going to be their help along the way.
He's like, "No, Miss, I'm not going. I need to be in class because I need to graduate." So he knew that I was not going to let him be a victim of his circumstance, but we were going to push forward and keep moving on. And this idea of creating a safe haven for our kids and getting to know exactly what they're going through, getting to know their families -- I wanted that, but I couldn't do it in a school with 1,600 kids, and teachers turning over year after year after year. How do you get to build those relationships?
So we created a new school. And we created the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media. And we made sure that we were still attached to our school district for funding, for support. But with that, we were going to gain freedom: freedom to hire the teachers that we knew were going to be effective; freedom to control the curriculum so that we're not doing lesson 1.2 on page five, no; and freedom to control a budget, to spend money where it matters, not how a district or a state says you have to do it. We wanted those freedoms. But now, shifting an entire paradigm, it hasn't been an easy journey, nor is it even complete. But we had to do it. Our community deserved a new way of doing things.
And as the very first pilot middle school in all of Los Angeles Unified School District, you better believe there was some opposition. And it was out of fear -- fear of, well, what if they get it wrong? Yeah, what if we get it wrong? But what if we get it right? And we did. So even though teachers were against it because we employ one-year contracts -- you can't teach, or you don't want to teach, you don't get to be at my school with my kids.
So in our third year, how did we do it? Well, we're making school worth coming to every day. We make our kids feel like they matter to us. We make our curriculum rigorous and relevant to them, and they use all the technology that they're used to. Laptops, computers, tablets -- you name it, they have it. Animation, software, moviemaking software, they have it all. And because we connect it to what they're doing — For example, they made public service announcements for the Cancer Society. These were played in the local trolley system. Teaching elements of persuasion, it doesn't get any more real than that. Our state test scores have gone up more than 80 points since we've become our own school.
But it's taken all stakeholders, working together -- teachers and principals on one-year contracts, working over and above and beyond their contract hours without compensation. And it takes a school board member who is going to lobby for you and say, "Know, the district is trying to impose this, but you have the freedom to do otherwise." And it takes an active parent center who is not only there, showing a presence every day, but who is part of our governance, making decisions for their kids, our kids.
Because why should our students have to go so far away from where they live? They deserve a quality school in their neighborhood, a school that they can be proud to say they attend, and a school that the community can be proud of as well, and they need teachers to fight for them every day and empower them to move beyond their circumstances. Because it's time that kids like me stop being the exception, and we become the norm.
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Pearl Arredondo grew up in East Los Angeles, the daughter of a high-ranking gang member who was in and out of jail. Many teachers wrote her off as having a problem with authority. Now a teacher herself, she’s creating a different kind of school and telling students her story so that they know it's okay if sometimes homework isn’t the first thing on their minds.
Pearl Arredondo helped establish a pilot middle school that teaches students to be good communicators in the 21st century. Full bio »