Mission High and the Education Culture War

Mission High by Kristina Rizga. Nation Books. 320 pages.

“IF THERE WAS EVER a melting pot, we were it.” So reminisced a proud alumnus of Mission High School in 1977, when his alma mater, San Francisco’s oldest and first secondary school, had just turned 81 years old. A fellow graduate of Mission High, which had served waves of European, Asian, and Latin American immigrants, was similarly pleased by their alma mater’s capacity to assimilate the city’s diverse population. The best proof of Mission High’s success, he told a reporter, was the fact that he and his classmates were able to send their own children to suburban schools far from the working-class Mission neighborhood where they grew up, because “isn’t that what you would expect from the children of first-generation San Franciscans?” Hard work, good education, and the passage of time converged in entrée to suburban subdivisions and newly constructed schools with sprawling athletic fields — a West Coast incarnation of the American Dream.

Such fond reminiscences notwithstanding, the students and faculty who actually worked and studied at the storied high school during the 1970s held a far less rosy view of the institution’s “melting pot” potential. Coined by Israel Zangwill in his eponymous 1908 play, which rhapsodized about the power of American culture to wash away differences that, in his native Russia, had resulted in murderous conflict, “the melting pot” ideal was one of the first myths the 1960s civil rights movements challenged. Ethnic and racial differences were hardly erased over time, the argument went: how else to understand the persistence of virulent racism in the two centuries since the emancipation of the slaves? And, perhaps more importantly, who is to say that “melting” away cultural identity is desirable anyway?

Mission High School was a rich site for these provocations, embodying the age’s developing multicultural ethos and attracting national attention for its educational and activist adventurousness. By 1970, the social studies curriculum included courses in African Studies, Asian Studies, Black History, History of Minority Groups in the United States, and Latin American Studies, highlighting “the current experience of Latinos in this country […] with specific reference to the Mission District.” In 1974, students received a grant to open a Mission High School art gallery of ethnic art, and the local Bank of America branch commissioned high school students to paint “a monumental Latin mural” that would depict “the heritage, life, and hopes of the people in the Mission district.” A campus education center founded in 1978 aimed to help children respect their own heritage “while learning to speak English and advance in Anglo society.” Increasingly, Mission High proudly defined itself by its surrounding ethnic enclaves and the cultures of its Latino, African-American, Filipino, and Chinese students, rather than by its ability to liberate immigrants and minorities from these social and spatial identities.

San Francisco politicians playing to an electorate enlivened by civil rights activism and new waves of politically aware Asian and Latin American immigration found Mission High a powerful arena to showcase their solidarity with a diverse range of socioeconomically struggling, but ethnically proud, minorities. Superintendent Robert Alioto chose to be sworn in on its campus in 1975. Ramon Cortines, who went on to become chancellor of the New York City public schools, made much of being a Mission grad in his successful 1986 bid to succeed Alioto as superintendent. In 1996, the Mission High principal trumpeted this identity nationally, and flew to Washington, DC, to speak to educators and policymakers specifically about education in Latino communities.

Mission High became such an evocative symbol because it represented another major transformation afoot: a reorientation of national politics and culture from East to West. The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 reopened American immigration after four decades of restriction inspired by post-World War I isolationism. Inadvertently, this measure transformed the settlement patterns and composition of 20th-century American immigration, from Southern and Eastern Europeans concentrated in East Coast cities to Asian and Latin American migrants more likely to settle in San Francisco or Tucson than Boston or New York. This influx began to transform these southwestern cities into the “majority-minority,” or, significantly multiethnic spaces that now define many American metropolises — what historian Albert Camarillo has styled “the new racial frontier.” Mission High, educating immigrants in California’s most ethnically diverse city since 1896 — not to mention located across the bay from the Black Power stronghold of Oakland and the Free Speech activism at UC Berkeley, and up the coast from the searing Watts race riots and trailblazing Chicano walkouts in Los Angeles — emblematized why observers nationwide trained “all eyes on California,” as one fascinated New York journalist described.

Media fanfare and cultural festivities aside, however, Mission High has always struggled in a shifting political culture to meet its most basic mandate: helping its diverse populace achieve academically. In the 1950s, Mission sent a majority of its students to four-year colleges, but its graduation rate dropped from 20 to 15 percent from 1970 to 1980. Today, perhaps unsurprisingly given the bleak picture of American urban education, Mission High continuously reports faltering — or in today’s lingua franca, failing — test scores, though nearly 90 percent of its students are accepted to college. Symbolic of the exciting promise of culturally responsive pedagogy, Mission High has for almost 50 years also signified the challenges of a new era in politics and culture.

This is the fascinating but fraught prehistory of an important new book, Mission High by Kristina Rizga. The Mother Jones education reporter embedded in the historic high school for four years, itself an extraordinary achievement given the byzantine bureaucracy involved in gaining access to public schools, especially under-resourced ones with higher priorities than shepherding journalists around. Rizga deftly positions 21st-century Mission High as a showpiece of the American education system, but with a distinctly contemporary spin. Multicultural flourishes such as Spanish and Mandarin-proficient faculty or posters of Cesar Chavez on the wall are not what distinguish Mission High today. Bucking what are perhaps the central governing assumptions of contemporary education reform, that schools that perform poorly on high-stakes standardized tests are “failing” and that poor teachers are to blame for this educational malaise, Rizga defiantly declares Mission High School a success story worthy of national attention. She characterizes this success in part by high rates of college acceptance, but also by decidedly unquantifiable measures: a welcoming school climate in which the quirky principal might eat worms when he loses a wager with students; creative teachers with advanced degrees who earnestly believe in students’ abilities regardless of dire personal circumstances; and happy students who become “addicted to” academics and enjoy coming to school.

Rizga’s biggest coup might be discursive. First, in decoupling “success” from performance on high-stakes evaluation measures, she forces us to reconsider a governing notion of modern education reform as well as a key funding metric. Beyond this redefinition, she also resuscitates as pedagogically valuable the terms “excellence,” “standards,” and “accountability” that have been derided by the left as coded language justifying conservative efforts to squeeze teachers unions, implement test-driven curricula, and dismiss growing numbers of the neediest black and brown students and the teachers who serve them as failures.

The medium for reimagining these powerful, but today politically loaded, concepts are character-driven case studies heavy on thick description interspersed with contextual chapters explaining key moments in educational reform. In separating the interwoven narratives of the flesh-and-blood actors like 12th-grader Jesmyn and math teacher Mr. Hsu from the analytical sections, Rizga gracefully steers the reader away from the familiar cleaved divisions in the current debates over school reform. It is understandable, therefore, why Principal Guthertz, a passionate defender of teachers’ unions, is nearly as enthusiastic about the utility of standardized tests as one measure of student progress. Rizga herself celebrates teachers’ embrace of “accountability” tactics such as frequent observations and professional development opportunities, but also a range of creative pedagogies corresponding more to students’ interests than efficient test preparation. Rizga shows that the terrain of 21st-century education is far more nuanced than the caricature of anti-testing boycotters keeping their children from school pitted against data-driven bureaucrats extracting Scantron results from disengaged teachers and students.

How this mélange of educational philosophies plays out at the granular level, in the classroom conversations and cafeteria tussles of Mission High, provides the book’s most fascinating material — which at her best, Rizga relays with the subtlety and grace of pioneering education writers Jonathan Kozol and Paul Tough. For example, a prevailing pedagogical assumption of the past century (and especially among progressive educators trained at schools of education like Stanford or devoted to social justice, categories that encompass much of Mission’s faculty) derives from philosopher John Dewey’s notion that schools should serve “the whole child” and “fit the school to the student” rather than transmit a fixed set of narrowly academic skills. Yet a marker of Mission High’s success is a professed focus away from the “private lives” of students to focus solely on academic achievement rather than holistic identity. Ms. McKamey, a faculty leader who emerges as a campus hero, explicitly described her approach as shifting conversation from “the personal challenges students bring to school” to “noticing and discussing strategies that work”; Jesmyn, for example, specifically appreciated how her teachers focused on her as a student rather than a product of her challenging background. Though Rizga doesn’t spell it out, Mission High’s squadron of progressive educators appear to have learned lessons not only from Dewey but also from the culture-of-poverty theses popular among mid-1960s liberals, and the “back to basics” conservatives of the 1980s in order to arrive at their unique hybrid method.

Surprisingly, then, it seems to be precisely teachers’ selfless willingness to engage with their charges far beyond the classroom — fielding afterhours phone calls, or spending entire Sundays with students in crisis, or editing countless drafts of an English-Language Learner’s Shakespeare paper — that contributes to Mission High’s success in stirring troubled “at-risk” students from apathy to inspiration, a repeated narrative arc of the text. Embodying self-sacrifice and meting out tough love, Mission High’s faculty hews to the familiar trope of the “teacher with a heart of gold,” but departs meaningfully from the famous white savior-disciplinarian icons popularized by World War II veteran Mr. Dadier (Daddy-O) in Blackboard Jungle (1955), or ex-Marine Ms. Johnson in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Dangerous Minds (1995). Less drill sergeants than exceptionally motivated educators and coaches who provide individualized attention to students with a dizzying range of academic and personal difficulties, teachers like Hsu and McKamey manage to acknowledge and work through these challenges in a way that empowers students to defy, rather than be defined, by them.

One of the tragic casualties of our contemporary educational culture wars is our sense of teachers as professionals, and as human beings. Defined at best as replaceable by temporary (non-unionized) labor such as Teach For America, an educational temp labor organization staffed by recent college graduates, or at worst as parasitic drains on a cash-strapped system more concerned with their pensions than pedagogy, “the teaching force” (itself a dehumanizing term) has been vilified by a powerful wave of educational reformers, as journalist Dana Goldstein and historian Diana D’Amico have brilliantly elaborated. It is therefore a pleasure to see them wholeheartedly and often successfully doing their jobs — working math problems, writing paragraphs of editorial comments, reading between the behavioral lines of student disengagement. Writing teachers as people and professionals, as Rizga expertly does, is strangely a radical act.

So what do we make of the exceptional but evocative Mission High School? It depends. Historians and social critics (like me, full disclosure) find a tremendously fascinating site where major historical and contemporary trends in educational thought, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes seamlessly, cohere in pedagogical practice. The professed focus on academics echoes a conservative refrain since the early 20th century to privilege core intellectual skills, especially for economically disadvantaged children who might fall prey to “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” as George W. Bush put it in 1999. Yet faculty such as McKamey embrace this academic imperative by echoing the “self-esteem curriculum” champions of the 1990s (when California led a pioneering commission on the topic, against the protests of “Three Rs” educational conservatives). That is, in celebrating Jesmyn as “dignified” and “beautiful,” McKamey significantly highlights her positive non-intellectual traits in order to encourage her academic performance, rather than seeing them as distinct. A broader accentuate-the-positive schoolhouse culture also nurtures hope among teachers understandably susceptible to demoralization, an approach borne out by recent organizational behavior and psychology research which shows that emphasizing success and cultivating holistic well-being boosts core outcomes like productivity, or in schools, academic success.

Beyond the realm of airy theory, however, Mission High’s literal location is fruitful in a way Rizga doesn’t fully exploit, perhaps because she featured the storied institution primarily because Guthertz allowed her to “be a fly on the wall.” The students and teachers themselves seem to have an appetite for their personal historical significance that Rizga curiously leaves unexplored, though Guthertz effuses about local history in his campus tour. Spaces that were once defined by exclusion — for example the widespread shunting of Latino children into “Educable Mentally Retarded” classes or discrimination against LGBTQ youth, even by fellow members of the civil rights struggles — have by the 21st century become arenas of cultural celebration. Rizga describes one student in spike heels, Pablo, announcing to a roaring ovation by his classmates, “I am Latino and I am gay.” Pablo astutely links the newfound personal and social acceptance of his identity to the 19th-century Seneca Falls Convention and the Stonewall Rebellion of 1968, but it is worth mentioning that San Francisco, and the Mission specifically, were just as central, if not more so, to legitimizing such intersectional identities as these New York events.

Finally, there are the small details that would profit from more expansive explanation. What does it mean that the testing movement was largely born at Stanford University, where several Mission High faculty were mentored? That Ronald Reagan actually pioneered the rhetoric that he trumpeted in the famed “Nation At Risk” report Rizga mentions as governor of California, just as Mission High was becoming an important political site? That Mission High, located right in the corridor employed by thousands of affluent San Franciscans who commute to Silicon Valley, is largely disconnected from the tech world even as “local” donors such as Mark Zuckerberg and Laurene Powell Jobs pour hundreds of millions of dollars into public education? That students snack on Skittles and sugared watermelon drinks in the heart of foodie culture? Rizga paints a tableau so rich she left this reader craving more analysis, particularly of Mission High’s unique California context, especially as California drives American culture.

But such rumination is mostly the purview of my fellow historians and cultural critics, a niche group to whom Rizga is probably wise in not directing her book as a primary audience. Her central contribution is undoubtedly to challenge the dominant and dehumanizing definitions of educational success that too often are only challenged in debates doomed by the entrenched political identities of the combatants. Yet a fair question remains, and also hinges on Mission High’s uniqueness: is such success scalable? Mission High recalls the thrust of the (relatively new) tradition of “solutions journalism,” that highlights effective responses to social issues as much as the underlying problems. Yet we are left wondering whether the storied high school is better understood as a fascinating way to understand our past or as a viable way to model the future.


Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Assistant Professor of History at The New School in New York City. She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015).

LARB Contributor

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Assistant Professor of History at The New School in New York City. She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015), and her writing has appeared in various scholarly journals and popular media such as The New York TimesSlate, and Well+Good, where she writes a “fitness history” column. She is a host of the Past Present podcast and her new research focuses on the emergence of fitness culture in the postwar United States. She tweets from @nataliapetrzela, and you can learn more about her work at www.nataliapetrzela.com.


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