CYC-Online 59 DECEMBER 2003
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Being my personal best

Instead of giving in to the gang culture in his largely Hispanic neighbourhood, Charles Vidal sets an example to all who run institutions by starting a school with positive symbols, respect for the pupils, and a strong sense of belonging.

“We are the only dependable routine in these children's lives. They have no adults who are motivating them, and it is our job to give them the hope and a sense of purpose which promote success and personal achievement.”

Adriana’s run-down neighbourhood is ruled by a deadly combination of apathy and violence. At 13, she is the leader of a group of adolescent girls, out in hair spray and heavy make-up, whose social life revolves around the parties and territorial wars of Modesto, California, gangs. A few months ago, Adriana’s best friend was brutally murdered when her boyfriend left the girl at one of these parties. The girl remains immortalized in the spray-painted graffiti that commemorates her name.

Modesto’s largely Hispanic population of 172,000 is home to 43 identified gangs. Some of the primary centres for gang-related violence are schoolyards, where pupils come armed with knives and guns. The schools are used by gangs as fertile recruiting grounds for adolescents coming from broken homes and living in communities with high unemployment, who are desperately looking for a sense of belonging. Under such circumstances, academic success is not a priority, and the drop-out rate among Hispanics is 60 percent before the age of 15. Adriana currently attends the Evelyn Hanshaw Middle School, for 11 to 13-year-olds, which has undertaken one of the city’s boldest attempts to keep disadvantaged children in school. While most public schools perpetuate academic failure by neglecting to consider the background of the children they are to teach, Hanshaw defies the traditional textbook approach to education by creating an environment that responds to the specific needs of its children – in this case a school that offers its students safety, a sense of self-worth, and a feeling of belonging.

Located across the street from the Salvation Army building, the school is built and fenced in protective concrete. Standing at the entrance, with a pocketful of pencils and a walky-talky is principal Charles Vidal. He and two security guards are wearing burgundy jackets. They carefully monitor the students as they walk to class. One guard writes down the license number of a suspicious-looking car that slowly cruises by. “When we first opened, I used to have groups of guys standing on the other side of the street watching. I made sure we had enough policemen to let them know who this school belongs to. Territory is important here,” Mr Vidal says.

When Adriana and her friends see their principal, they immediately cluster around him. “Hey, Mr Vidal, I’m being my personal best,” she says. “Glad to hear it, Adriana. Need a pencil?” “Yeah, thanks,” she responds. A boy with slicked-back hair struts by with a “University of California at Los Angeles” sweatshirt. “Hey Carlos, I like your shirt, good job,” Vidal calls out. As 900 students walk to their classes, this continues to happen. Vidal greets many of them by name with a smile and occasionally a warm pat on the back, more like that of a concerned parent than an authority figure In a curious ritual, adolescents with don't-mess-with-me attitudes voluntarily approach their principal, smile and repeat the Hanshaw slogan “I’m being my personal best” for which they receive a yellow pencil. Vidal is an ardent believer that academic success starts with the way these kids see themselves.

“Our school mascot is the Titan – an all-powerful person known for greatness of achievement,” he says. “we’re trying to tell these kids that they all have sleeping Titans within them, and it is our job to wake them up.”

“We are the only dependable routine in these children's lives,” he explains. “They have no adults who are motivating them, and it is our job to give them the hope and a sense of purpose which promote success and personal achievement. This particular school is often the best thing in these kids” lives. I have to counsel some of them before they will get on the buses to go home on Fridays.”

For the students here, school has become much more than an obligation; it’s a haven. Adriana refers to her school as a “fairy-tale land.”

“On the streets you’re respected because you are big and bad, but school is our own world,” she says. “It’s like we can be kids and they respect us. Everyone is so sweet and nice that it makes you feel good.” Before Vidal opened the school in 1991, he interviewed hundreds of drop-outs to find out why they had left school. He discovered that there was a huge gap between what schools generally evaluate as important for students and what was specifically relevant to these children. “The kids I spoke to could not understand how what they were learning applied to their lives on a daily basis,” he says. “It did not make sense to stay in school.” Hoping to keep them in school, Vidal decided that the priority was to build an environment that took into account the need of these street-smart kids from turbulent families and gang-plagued neighbourhoods by creating a school that offered them the sense of community they were searching for.

The students are strictly forbidden to dress all in one color or wear paraphernalia that imply gang membership, such as red or blue shoelaces . Even sports-team shirts or baseball caps are forbidden. But colours, handshakes, and slogans – all of which are used by gangs to symbolize membership and “belonging” on the streets – are adopted by the students for one purpose: their school and their future college education. The youths are praised and rewarded for wearing burgundy, the school colour, and T-shirts with college emblems. They have their own handshake, which is supposed to represent receiving their future diplomas. Hanshaw Middle School tries to get them to start imagining what it would be like to go to college, not by telling them how important it is, but by making them feel as if they are already there. The students are divided into seven “neighbourhoods,” each named after one of California’s state universities. The highlight of the students” year is a trip to “their” college, where they meet students with similar backgrounds who have stayed in school and made it to college.

This feature: Vidal, Charles. (1994). Being my personal best. The Child Care Worker. Vol.12 No.2 p.8

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