Positioned among smoky factories and aging row houses on Chicago’s West Side, the immaculate Little Village Lawndale High School (LVLHS) serves as a constant reminder to community residents of what collective action can produce. Concerned that 70 percent of neighborhood students traveled to different parts of the city for high school, parents organized vigorously for the construction of a new facility in their backyard. After initially approving the plans, city officials stalled construction, claiming that funds had to be diverted to other projects. In response, the community redoubled its efforts, culminating in a nineteen-day hunger strike at the site of the proposed building, referred to by supporters as Camp Cesar Chavez. “Construyan la escuela ahora!” was the protesters’ battle cry, and after six long years, the school was opened as promised in 2005.
Aside from the beautiful building, the struggle birthed a new educational environment for Little Village’s youth. “The parents kept saying they really wanted our school to teach the values of peace and struggle,” says Rito Martinez, the principal of Social Justice High School at LVLHS, “and what the community had to do to fight for the school.” One of four small schools housed on the campus, Martinez’s social justice school was specifically created to foster basic skills and literacy–as well as critical inquiry–through projects and problems centered on race, gender and economic equity. “There’s a combination of self-awareness and the opportunity to become socially conscious,” he says. “We’re not dogmatic about it…but we give them the opportunity for self-discovery.”
On a fall morning a week into the school year, it’s clear that the school’s methodology excites the students of LVLHS, 98 percent of whom qualify as low-income. It’s Wednesday, which means the kids participate in extended teacher-generated colloquiums focusing on topics that allow students to explore their identity in an academic setting. In a section on student organizing, thirteen high schoolers attempt to define the word “community,” brainstorming about their city’s assets and problems and how the students can tackle an issue of importance to them. Down the hall, an enthusiastic teacher focusing on ethnography leads a lively discussion about racial stereotypes in the media as an entree into the idea of hegemony. Hands pop up across the packed classroom as students argue about how advertisements influence the way society views larger populations. As Martinez notes, providing students the flexibility to “explore learning” is something that’s generally offered only to kids in affluent districts, yet the practice can be transformational.
While the history of LVLHS’s genesis is unique, its approach is not; the movement to link education, social justice and activism is appealing to a growing number of educators and community organizations around the country. Updating successful principles from liberatory education programs of the past, teachers and community members are finding exciting ways to engage a new generation of urban students alienated by mainstream methodologies, something countless reform efforts have thus far failed to accomplish. And as Congress moves to reform or scrap the No Child Left Behind Act, legislators could benefit from studying these new techniques, which have been largely ignored on a national scale.
Back to the Future
Much of the work that now falls under the social justice education umbrella is grounded in a rich educational lineage dating back more than forty years. Among the intellectual forebears is Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, author of the landmark 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire described traditional education as “suffering from narration sickness,” in which the hierarchical relationship between teacher and student causes the former to deposit facts into the latter without cultivating an understanding of what those facts mean. He argues that only through a dialectical praxis, or “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it,” will students develop the critical skills necessary to realize their potential as scholars and citizens.