Journalist parts the curtain at urban school, reveals student success is the real story

When former Mother Jones reporter Kristina Rizga first went to San Francisco’s Mission High School, looking for a story on a low-performing school, she found a big disconnect between what standardized test scores showed and what was actually happening.

“In 2010 it was on the chopping block through Race to the Top policies. Meanwhile, college acceptances are up, graduation rates are up, attendance was up, and suspensions were way down,” she said. “What I saw were high standards and intellectual engagement in the classroom. Also it not only supported high grades, it was a school promoting leadership skills and tolerance and respect for people of different backgrounds.”

Rizga spent four years at Mission, and wrote a book about what she saw, Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph. Along with some history of the school and how we got to the place where standardized test scores drive policy, it has portraits of the principal, the students and teachers.

One of those profiled is English teacher Pirette McKamey, who says teaching is complex and intellectual. She hopes the book will get that across.

“The adults and students feel connected and responsible for one another. It’s not a top down approach. There’s shared decision making.”

 — Taica Hsu, math teacher at Mission High School profiled in the book

“A friend who is not an educator and read it said, ‘I used to think teaching was a simple thing — now I realize it’s complicated,’” McKamey mentors other teachers, and wants them to understand, as Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond says, how their teaching practice is tied to the success of their students and how much power they have.  

“The way for them to realize that power is through reflection on the practice,” McKamey said. “Reflection is key.”

McKamey is one of the teachers involved in leading others in anti-racist teaching approaches. Having successful teachers like McKamey on site doing this rather than bringing in outside consultants is central in creating the culture at Mission that values teachers and students, Rizga says.

“It’s support from administrators who understand that teachers are the professionals who know more than anyone about what goes into learning and teaching,” Rizga said. “The administration respects that and gives them a lot of freedom and support.”

In the first chapter of the book, Rizga tells the story of Maria, a student who came to Mission barely speaking English, but by 11th grade, was writing research papers on the war in Iraq and on Mendez v. Westminister, a precedent to Brown v. Board of Education, in which Latino parents in Los Angeles organized against segregated schools. Maria did poorly on standardized tests, but well on everything else, and got accepted by five colleges.

Rizga says teachers at Mission use other measures than standardized tests for assessment, including looking at the actual work the students are doing on a day-to-day basis.

Not structuring the curriculum around the tests means classes are organized by themes absent from textbooks. Rizga, who majored in history at UC Berkeley, said teachers would bring in oral histories, primary documents and photos when teaching about a subject like African American and Latino organizers in the 1920s and 30s. She says these classes could be more engaging than ones she took in college.

A math teacher also profiled in the book, Taica Hsu, says he thinks by not teaching to the test, teachers at Mission can concentrate on how to listen to others, share ideas respectfully and approach problem solving in multiple ways.

Hsu came to Mission as a student teacher from Stanford, and fell in love with the culture there.  

“The adults and students feel connected and responsible for one another,” he said. “It’s not a top down approach. There’s shared decision making, and the administration involves teachers and students. It feels like everyone has a stake in the school.”

— By Emily Wilson, CFT Reporter