By P.S. Barber
There is, in the educational processes of the United States and so in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), a fundamental conflict: this deep-seated dialectic pits the very essence of Learning – Critical Thinking – against a powerful and authoritarian obsession – Order.
It’s an acute mistake to assume, as Venice High School (VHS) has, that students challenging this inherently repressive Order-obsession THROUGH NON-VIOLENT DISSENT must be threatened, managed and manipulated, corralled and coerced while SIMULTANEOUSLY their core grievances, those at the heart of a long-standing battle with their Principal, Oryla Wiedoeft, are swept under the rug for the sacred sake of Order.
A bit of background: Venice High School has served our community since 1911, Abbott Kinney personally picked the first principal and just like all of Venice, VHS has undergone numerous changes over the years: moving campuses, fires and earthquakes destroying campuses, changes in demographics, many thousands of students graduating over numerous decades. Today, a Magnet school with a student body of over 2,000, the graduation rate is currently 80%.
Because it’s relevant to our story, here are some of the current VHS racial and economic demographics: a total minority enrollment of 86%, the largest part of that, 70%, is of Hispanic/Latino descent; 15% are White; 13% are African-American; 6% are Asian; another 58% are statistically considered economically disadvantaged; 12% are disabled.
Here’s how the students’ deep and ongoing conflict with their principal began:
Not long ago, November 10, 2016, the day after the election of the 45th President of the United States ended in a shocking upset, everyone awoke to a new world. The lives of many of those VHS students of Latino descent, as well as African-American, disabled, and LGBTQ students – anyone who fell under the category of “Other” – were immediately impacted on innumerable fronts: this new, improbable and pitiless reality menaced them personally, threatening their extended families and imperiling their suddenly fragile futures.
As a result, a small number of VHS students agreed to meet during morning Nutrition to discuss and emotionally access their new, ominous here-and-now. So as not to disrupt school or break any rules, the students purposefully and responsibly chose the appropriate time and place to meet, the Parents Center, where they regularly met with Ms. Lydia Ponce, their school-parent liaison.
Word spread quickly through various social sites and rather than the anticipated small group meeting, a surprising 80-100 concerned students unexpectedly showed up, eager to compare notes on an oncoming Armageddon which fate had thrust, unsought, upon them. Numerous of the VHS teenagers in attendance were from student-led organizations such as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan), the Black Students Union (BSU), the Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA), and a group called, Students Deserve; many other students, also apprehensive, packed the room.
The students passionately discussed their legitimate fears and expectations, dissected the imminent uncertainty which each vulnerable and afraid student felt down to their shivering bones that November morning in the Parents Center. And while Students of Color, disabled, and Trans students — anyone outside an express and unabashedly expressed xenophobic criteria — spoke with open frustration and fear, it was the Latino/a students who felt particularly at risk.
The unexpected President-elect had run his campaign of intolerance on a promise to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), an Obama Executive Decision which protected so-called “Dreamers” from deportation: all of whom have known no other home but the United States; all of whom are, by proof of having registered under DACA in the first place, acceptable to the United States in terms of background checks, employment, paying over 2-billion a year in taxes, as well as being students, active-duty military, First Responders, police, doctors, lawyers, you name it; when all’s said and done, Dreamers are all-around good, wanna-be citizens, per-capita contributing to the Republic more than many native-born Americans.
The average Dreamer, when brought to this country, was 8 years old, each child obviously having no say in their arrival. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ false statements that DACA caused a, “surge of minors” at the U.S./Mexico border, or that the program’s recipients, “drain Social Security” (none are yet old enough to receive benefits and actually contribute billions INTO the budget), as well Sessions’ nativist lie that immigrants steal jobs from REAL Americans, reflects the Trump Administration’s cynical and racist-based attitude towards immigration in general and towards the Latino population in particular.
Echoed against this background of pervasive racial intolerance from the highest sources in the U.S. government, but on a more immediate and intimate level, many of these same students unfairly impacted by their new President, were also having ongoing conflicts of a similar nature with their principal, Oryla Wiedoeft.
Principal Wiedoeft, beginning her third year at VHS, first clashed with her high school students two years ago over their request that the school’s robo-calls, which were available only in English and recorded by Dr. Wiedoeft herself, also be made in Spanish for those families who’d stated on their school Emergency Cards that their preferred first-language be Spanish; without these calls being made in Spanish, many parents were deprived of vital information and missed school events, even though VHS permanently has translators available on-premises.
Principal Wiedoeft did make overtures to the students and their concerns about the robo-calls, saying parents who wanted their calls in Spanish needed to come down to the school in-person and fill out new paperwork for that specific purpose — a massive inconvenience for working parents, just to make redundant, already readily available information included in the school’s records. Principal Wiedoeft’s attitude, the students inferred, was not only less than helpful — it was, in fact, discriminatory.
Sensing a “double standard,” the students saw their growing grievances dismissed or overlooked while, at the same time, they felt, a climate of indifference (if not outright hostility) was being fostered by Dr. Wiedoeft towards them — sometimes individually, sometimes as a group. Indeed, there was a growing sentiment among these students that their Principal, instead of listening to them seriously, was determined to actively silence them.
Most importantly, the students felt this animus was somehow racially motivated: for instance, in an insensitive (at best) attempt to relate to the MEChA members’ problems, Wiedoeft referenced herself as white on the outside, but brown on the inside; again callously, albeit without malicious intent (one may assume), the Latino/a and Hispanic students were told by their principal, that any of them who were not themselves Spanish speaking, should be ashamed of themselves – hardly a compassionate position in the face of immediate, real and desperate consequences to the lives of these particular students.
During the school year and during their ongoing conflicts, Principal Wiedoeft, without warning, replaced the students’ mentor and MEChA sponsor, Lydia Ponce, with one of the high school’s Spanish teachers, Ms. Leon. The students, not informed of this change beforehand, of course had no voice in the sudden disappearance of their long-trusted advisor, leaving them with an abysmal feeling of betrayal.
Additionally, MEChA members felt Wiedoeft’s hand-picked advisor was too cozy with the principal and so the very purpose of their meetings – speaking openly about grievances without fear of recrimination – de facto, undermined MEChA itself. This unilateral and seemingly spiteful move, certainly political in nature the students felt, “took away our safe space,” and instead created an oppressive environment where they were, they sensed, observed hyper-critically and, “made to feel like targets” of the Principal’s personal ire.
Similarly, the Black Students Union believed Principal Wiedoeft was actively biased towards them and many members felt their Principal’s disposition was racially motivated. The examples given: during Black History Month, BSU was forced to change its schedule three times because the proposed commemorations were deemed, “too exclusive… and the White kids wouldn’t fit in.”
According to BSU students, Principal Wiedoeft used racially insensitive language while informing them that their high school was not a suitable platform for their chosen Black History Month observances; this time, Wiedoeft apparently said that she, “understood their problems,” because her, “grandmother was of Mexican descent.” Overlooking their Principal’s insensitivity, the BSU members keenly denied Weidoeft’s unsubstantiated accusations of their celebrations being exclusionary or, “too radical.” In fact, the avowed purpose of the BSU celebrations were one of “inclusion,” openly embracing everyone in the Student Body who wished to participate.
Other events, such as the school’s Black History Month student assembly and BSU itself were left out of the school newspaper, The Oarsman, as if they never existed or never took place. This struck many as stemming from a personal hostility which, they felt, Wiedoeft held against the Black Students Union and its members. Though it remains an unproven charge against the principal, the blatant exclusion from The Oarsman of BSU events and its negative repercussions throughout the school, speaks volumes about how pervasive the atmosphere of resentment is that Wiedoeft’s generated within a large segment of her school’s student body, in particular, among many disaffected Students of Color.
In a similar case of seeming bias, BSU members were told they couldn’t work in unison with MEChA because it, “would NOT promote unity,” in the school at large and, “would exclude the White students,” even though BSU and MEChA made it clear that participation for the ENTIRE student body in their various celebrations was, in fact, their welcome dual-objective.
But Principal Wiedoeft was intransigent: “BSU has its month. MEChA has its month.” This implacable opposition to these particular student organizations working together, further alienated many more students, adding fuel to the fire of speculation that “racism” was at the core of their Principal’s “unjust” actions towards them.
In the course of her two years at VHS, Principal Wiedoeft has also clashed with The Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) over gender-neutral bathrooms. While the LGBTQ students’ relationship with Wiedoeft over this issue was less contentious on the surface than with the other student-led groups mentioned, the GSA also felt Wiedoeft often showed an insensitivity in language and attitude towards non-binary and Trans students, mostly it must be said, giving her the benefit of the doubt, out of ignorance rather than malevolence.
And while Principal Wiedoeft gave some verbal support for the idea of gender-neutral bathrooms — occasioning students to do outreach with parents and community – in the end, GSA members felt betrayed by their Principal when, before the end of the 2016 school year, she dropped the idea of providing gender-neutral bathrooms altogether.
And though Dr. Wiedoeft did occasionally try and reach out to the all the politicized students, wondering what she could specifically do to make the Latino students feel safer about their newly tenuous futures, Principal Wiedoeft eventually backed away from each of the students’ suggestions – such as passing out flyers about possible immigration raids — claiming she had to, as school Principal, remain politically neutral EVEN in the face of the students’ extreme and immediate dilemmas.
And while, as an abstract concept, the official position of detachment is in-part true, this fact does nothing to mitigate the students’ real-world concerns, which one would think, and which the students came to believe, was a much more compelling pursuit than the security of bureaucratic impartiality.
The reason this article focuses on the members of MEChA, BSU, Students Deserve, and GSA in particular, is because these student-led groups, by the end of the 2016 school year, vociferously stood together in publicly demanding the IMMEDIATE DISMISSAL of principal Wiedoeft for, “a history of blatantly and systematically discriminating against students of color.”
An extraordinary charge to be leveled by segments of a student body against their own high school principal. A very serious indictment, directed without restraint and without fear (chiefly by students at-risk from discrimination to deportation) against a manifestly more powerful and sometimes vindictive authority.
These student groups inspired an organic and authentic recalcitrance towards a very specific form of authoritarianism, undeniable in its underlying racial geneses: and they, along with the other students assembled that morning in the Parents Center, were determined to speak out against the injustice freshly perpetrated against them by, ostensibly (but for a twist of fate), their very own government.
This amalgam of politically focused, student-led groups initiated a passionate movement at Venice High, fighting with a vehement determination to be heard in spite of multiple pressures to silence them; a group of serious students working together with integrity of purpose and righteousness-of-mind, with a true moral cause — SAVE OUR LIVES! And also save the lives of their families and friends.
This alarming expectation was then — as it is now — in no way hyperbolic. The current DACA struggle between Congress and the White House, juggling with the lives 800,000 Dreamers, makes this harsh reality over an uncertain future unequivocally clear. So in the face of this new, dire future, these politically-prescient VHS students chose to be pro-active about their dilemma and, rather than sit silent, agreed to speak out loudly and publicly. So that November morning, the students of VHS communally concurred, like innumerable other students and citizens across the country, they needed to protest against this new all-wrong, Alt-Right President.
The VHS students decided they would rally that afternoon, gathering at the Senior parking lot. Importantly, they decided they’d protest NOT ONLY during lunch but then, willfully breaking school rules in an essential form of democratic dissent, skip class and continue protesting on through Fifth Period.
And like events earlier in the day, when the students gathered at the Senior lot during lunch, many more than expected showed up: in fact, so many more, the rally had to be moved to the front of the school auditorium. And while this successful protest did little to change their immediate reality, the students felt empowered and knew, as they moved forward in the collective fight to come, they all had each other’s backs.
It was after this public expression of protest against being targeted by a new Trump administration, that the students’ relationship with their principal took a turn for the worst, souring particularly for students in the key protesting organizations, as well as for teachers and counselors who supported the student-led organizations; eventually, the entire Senior class itself was targeted by Principal Wiedoeft.
It was during this time that certain individual students began to feel beset by their principal: many were called into the Administration offices, forced to answer questions about their further plans for dissent, and warned that continuing to express their sentiments in the ways they were, could possibly threaten their graduation status.
Particular students who clashed with Dr. Wiedoeft at this point were: Mireya Curiel (class of 2018), prior President of MEChA and current editor of “The Oarsman”; Mauriah Duffey (2017), prior BSU President; Danielle Cosmes (2017), Students Deserve Leader; Faith Freeman (2017), GSA President; Cobalt McAvinue (2017), another student pressured for being politically insubordinate and who became a chief target of Principal Wiedoeft’s vengeance.
But it wasn’t just the students who started having trouble with Principal Wiedoeft: History teacher and Teachers Union (UTLA) representative, Soni Lloyd, served as the Students Deserve councilor last year and, according to numerous VHS sources, came under Wiedoeft’s reprisal for his mentorship of the purportedly progressive student group.
Similarly, the Students Deserve official representative, Alfredo Gamma, was dismissed by the LAUSD-wide organization (at the end of the year) for a perceived over-radicalization of students; as mentioned earlier in this article, also targeted was Lydia Ponce, the Parent-Student liaison who’d long-earned the student’s trust and who was unceremoniously replaced by a Wiedoeft-friendly teacher; another important member of the school’s community departed when Gaby Morales, an Attendance Office employee who unceasingly visited the homes of students not doing well, giving freely her time to improve the lives of innumerable minority, economically disadvantaged, and at-risk students, was unpopularly axed by Principal Wiedoeft.
The final straw for the students was the euphemistic “firing” of their only African-American College Councilor, Mr. Guy Cerda. The official terminology is, Mr. Cerda was, “Non Re-elected” to return for a third year at VHS by Principal Wiedoeft. “Non Re-elect” sounds benign, but amounts to open termination not just from Venice High School, but from the ENTIRE LAUSD. It’s essential to note, Mr. Cerda subsequently challenged his “Non Re-elect” and WON his case. Mr. Cerda’s firing was rescinded — a true rarity, evidently, in the bureaucratic world of LAUSD – although Mr. Cerda was assigned to another school and is today, not working at VHS.
When the students heard about Mr. Cerda’s imminent dismissal last year, it shook them into action: after all, since his two years at VHS, Mr. Cerda had facilitated the implementation of a school-wide Parent Teacher Student Association, organized various college fairs, college prep workshops, increased the number of students going to 2-and-4-year colleges by 11%,, almost doubled AP testing from 650 to 1267, and established a College Signing Day celebration for Seniors.
Over 840 students of all grade levels signed a quickly circulated petition pleading for Principal Wiedoeft to keep Mr. Cerda at VHS. The students also printed up flyers which they distributed to parents (just off-campus) as they ferried their children to and from school. The students gained the support of a large number of parents, some of whom eventually became involved in the students’ struggle with their principal.
It was through supporting the distribution of flyers and other similar student activities, that Students Deserve representative Alfredo Gamma came under fire: though these forms of non-violent dissent were chosen specifically by the students and represented THEIR needs, the proactive endeavors didn’t match — so the organization argued — Students Deserve’s official agenda.
Similarly, Mr. Lloyd was made to jump through hoops by Ms. Wiedoeft while working with Students Deserve, drowning him in bureaucratic red-tape and official arcana which, many felt, were roadblocks designed to undermine the VHS Students Deserve program itself. Eventually, VHS students formed a new organization which specifically addressed their concerns: they called their new student group, the “Student Union.”
THE HAMMER COMES DOWN
When a May 4, 2016 front page article in the school’s student newspaper, The Oarsman, argued against the firing of Mr. Cerda for officially, “indefinite reasons… [and] budget cuts,” it was Principal Wiedoeft’s unsolicited writing alongside the students’ which unfortunately drew the most attention. After numerous threats to shut down the school newspaper for publishing articles which displeased Dr. Wiedoeft, she suddenly insisted that she use The Oarsman herself as a forum for her opinions – despite other available forms to get out her message. And so, Principal Wiedoeft (rather than addressing the student’s concerns over the departure of their only African-American counselor) wrote an editorial in The Oarsman explaining the legal reasons why she couldn’t explain her personal reasons for firing Mr. Cerda.
The students even tried appealing, along with parents, to the LAUSD Director of Secondary Schools, Mr. Jaime Morales – but they got no positive response and so, Principal Wiedoeft’s “Non Re-elect” of the students’ esteemed college councilor became immutable. It was then that the students of Venice High, at the end of their collective rope, decided to stage a walkout in protest against the firing of Mr. Cerda and bring to a head their long-growing conflicts with Principal Wiedoeft, publicly asking for her resignation.
The daring students, led by the aforementioned organizations but representing pupils from ninth to twelfth grade, on June 5th, staged their walkout – and they weren’t shy about it. Alerting local media with press releases beforehand, TV and Print news covered the audacious event unfolding on the VHS front lawn: scores of students carrying signs and singing songs in the blazing noon sun, impassioned by their own political Promethean heat, determined to be heard and effect a change in their high school, made a big impression that day.
But still, nothing changed. Dr. Wiedoeft remained. Mr. Cerda was set to go.
Then on College Signing Day, a gathering Mr. Cerda had created to congratulate those seniors heading off to college, all hell broke loose: students handed out flyers in support of Mr. Cerda to stunned school and LAUSD administrators, held up signs and shouted slogans in support of their college counselor, turned their backs on speakers and shouted-down Wiedoeft until she finally had to leave the stage for a time.
That only raised the stakes. Wiedoeft’s bureaucratic counter-punch was to write up a document which all the school’s Seniors were ordered to sign or risk exclusion from all further student activates (including sports, music, theater, etc.), as well as disbarment from upcoming events such as the Seniors Awards Night and Graduation ceremonies. This “contract” the Seniors were forced to sign was drawn up with the LAUSD letterhead affixed atop the page, including the names of the Superintendent of Schools, Michelle King; the Local District Supervisor, Cheryl Hildreth; and that of the VHS Principal herself, Dr. Oryla Wiedoeft.
This seemingly official LAUSD agreement, which amounted to a unilaterally-imposed Loyalty Oath, adjured the school’s Senior class to, “behave in a dignified manner and [not] engage in any disruptive or inappropriate activity.” The Loyalty Oath goes on to threaten physical ejection from school events and ceremonies if “Order” is not maintained, because school activities were, “a privilege that is earned” and can be “taken away.”
This is an overt threat, not an “agreement” of any type. It is a sort of blackmail usually perpetrated by authoritarian regimes against its citizens as a purposefully unsubtle form of coercion, rather than an “understanding” of any sort. The word “agreement” implies the sides involved came to a consensual and mutually-beneficial understanding. There was no such process here. In fact, as was discovered later, the LAUSD Administrators listed on the official document’s letterhead, had no idea Principal Wiedoeft had constructed and distributed the provocative document. It is within the Principal’s authority to use the letterhead at her discretion for official school business, such as the Loyalty Oath strictly was; but Wiedoeft’s ostensible support from LAUSD for such a punitive document, was less than disingenuous.
All but one of the school’s graduating Seniors signed the document: Cobalt McAvinue, who calls himself, “just a White kid from L.A.,” refused to sign the compulsory document, claiming it violated his civil rights. When Cobalt and his mother showed up for Senior Awards Night, Principal Wiedoeft, true to her word, had Security escort Cobalt and his mom from the auditorium. It wasn’t until after the school year, after protesting his extreme and unfair treatment, that LAUSD later remunerated Cobalt with his justified scholastic award.
LEARNING DISSES ORDER
There is plenty of precedent to support the argument that in American schools, the official knee-jerk reaction to student defiance against the canonized ideal of Order, is chastisement. The underlying assumption is that, left unchecked, unsanctioned student behavior will ineluctably devolve into unmanageable chaos and anarchy and so must be at all costs, truncated, nipped in the bud, murdered in the proverbial crib. It is not historically unusual for this point of view to be promulgated: it is, in fact, the very basis of the U.S. educational system.
American public schools were forged by Puritans with roots in a religious fervor for Order — and punishment as the means to enforce those regulations, including, when needed for the good of the student, corporal discipline. There even existed in the early days of American education, a list of precisely how many lashes children should be administered for breaking the sacred rules: a student was to receive 4 lashes for, “boys and girls playing together”; 7 lashes for, “making swings and swinging”; and 10 lashes for the horrific offense of, “playing Bandy,” which was, one can assume, the best game on the playground.
After World War I, the “Educational Trust,” a conglomerate of American businessmen and educators, determined that the chief goal of public schools would be to, “impose on the young the ideal of subordination.” Indeed, in the quest for better citizens and productive workers who could support the burgeoning capitalist American Dream, our educational system was seen as the perfect means to that end.
The Utopian ideal which American educators chose to copy and implement, was the Prussian secular-compulsory model where, above all else, National uniformity in thought, word, and deed were officially venerated. And so, a rush towards homogeneity became America’s educational orthodoxy; industrial efficiency was added to the mix and soon the American school system became a huge national working factory to produce — primarily — factory workers.
These well-indoctrinated and subservient workers would, so the theory went, do as they were told without question and hold the State which educated them, such-as-it-is, in the highest regard. And the students-who-became-workers would account the State henceforward as their loyal and benevolent patron to whom they owe undying allegiance, to whom they are forever beholden as the progenitor of their better fates in this new, unquestioned social revolution.
Things didn’t quite work out that way: because people, children most especially, aren’t machines. And the antiquated Cartesian model of the human spirit, gears and springs and levers, is utterly antithetical to the beating heart of Learning – which is — Critical Thinking. By definition, Critical Thinking implies QUESTIONING – challenging — being CRITICAL and scientific in one’s analysis of reality and all its complex and manifold aspects: THAT is the objective of education. Not the stultified version we’ve come to accept across the United States, including in our own schools.
John Dewey, the progressive thinker and educator of the early 20th Century, suggested that the rise of the, “formal-discipline idea of education,” eventually treated children’s minds like pieces of, “mental machinery separate from observation, memory, imagination, and common-sense judgments of persons and things.” The American public schools, Dewey said, treated students as machines that should be, “trained by special exercises… as one might devise… for developing biceps.” The result was a nation-wide student-stratification which arose from the discipline-based ideology where, “subjects par excellence, possessed a predestined fitness… [just] as certain machines are better than others.” All this, led to creating a public school system where the, “method consists of a set of operations by which the machinery… is set going and kept at work.”
And that Machine-Method demands for its smooth functioning, more than anything else — ORDER. At all costs, Order must be maintained, first and foremost. Even at the sacrifice of students and Learning — Order must be preserved — If not, the gears, pulleys, and wheels won’t whir as they’re designed to do. Well… the Venice High students who protested against their President and their Principal felt they finally HAD TO DISRUPT that Order in order TO BE HEARD. And so the dissenting VHS students became the axiomatic spanner in the works. And the immense soul-munching Machine came screeching to a halt.
THE WAY FORWARD
There is another way to educate, besides bringing down the hammer when students express distress at being deported or discriminated against by their government or their school. And the intuitive students of Venice High, with great instincts and out of a devout exigency, rebelled against the Administrative worship of Order by taking THEIR LIVES INTO THEIR OWN HANDS and EMPIRICALLY EXERCISE the processes of Critical Thinking AGAINST the REPRESSIVE ORDER of an Administration which deprived them, in their minds, of that very indispensable purpose.
It’s crucial to point out that the conflict which arose (and still exists) between Principal Wiedoeft and her students needn’t have begun so contentiously or grown into the substantial crisis it did. Instead, the conflicts could have been, as another school Principal put it, “a Teachable Moment.” Mandy Breuer, Larchmont Charter School Principal of Secondary Education said, “Public schools truly can and should be incubators of democratic citizens.” Breuer contends that public schools often graduate students who are, “mindful and compassionate, but with critical-reasoning to challenge the status quo and advocate ideas that promote for a more equitable society.” Breuer went on to say, “Every day teachers get teachable moments and if we aren’t seizing those moments as opportunities to create empowered, engaged and mindful citizens, then we are failing as educators. We have an obligation to cultivate social communication skills and everyday our students bring us scenarios on which we can build vigorous, authentic learning opportunities.”
If approached without the predisposed orthodoxy towards Order above all else, the Teacher and Taught PARTICIPATE in the act of Learning TOGETHER – instead of the classroom being an obsessively austere one-way street. As another long-time teacher and practiced educator, Dr. Amy Frame, pointed out, almost more than anyone, it is teachers who care most deeply about students. And that in high schools in America, curriculums ARE focusing more on “higher order” skills which educators see as necessary for success in 21st Century. Mastering Critical Thinking, is primary among the “deeper learning” skills adopted in this newest view of education; VHS claims it is also committed to these ideals.
Former high school math teacher and current independent instructional coach, Chase Orton (Undercovercalculus.com), now trains other teachers in advanced ways to communicate math skills to students. Mr. Orton, channeling the educator John Merrow, contends that public schools are inclined to, “value what they measure, not to measure what’s of value.” In other words, graduation rates and test scores (easily measured and a solid sign of Order) are given the highest value. Other complex process, such as Critical Thinking — which presupposes some level of conflict and dissent — is not given as much weight and is therefore considered, though given lip-service otherwise, as of lesser value; especially when Critical Thinking tends to foster in students’ freshly awakened minds, an eliciting of “misbehavior” or criticism against the canonized ideal of Order. This, it must be pointed out, is more a product of Administration policies rather than teacher-student relationships; teachers ARE typically dedicated to their students’ Learning first and foremost – INCLUDING hands-on experience with political dissent – more than principally measuring test scores.
Now, there are extant and explicit laws circumscribing student behavior and student rights regarding Freedom of Expression; these laws allow school Administrations substantial leeway for interpretation and enforcement. The rules are purposefully broad in a legally-legitimate concern for students’ safety; but they also intend to leave room for peaceful student dissent. The Tinker Rule and other precedent-setting guidelines from previous legal cases establish roadmaps for addressing students’ critical concerns, while still maintaining safety standards; unfortunately these standards, prejudiced by an authoritarian obsession for Order, can be abused by any school Administration so inclined.
Recently in Arizona, a law was struck down which (implemented in 2010) abolished Tucson’s high school Mexican-American Studies curriculum for, “politicizing students and fostering resentment against White people,” as well as, “promoting ethnic nationalism which bred racial resentment.” The law, initiated in 2006 by former head of Arizona’s Education Department and one-time State Attorney General, Republican Tom Horne, and Superintendent of Public instruction, John Huppenthal, uses language uncomfortably reminiscent of the phrases adopted by Principal Wiedoeft when dealing with the Venice High students of BSU and MEChA.
In striking down the Arizona law, Federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima said it violated the students’ First Amendment right of Equal Protection as well as their right to, “receive information and ideas.” Further, the judge found, the Tucson law showed discriminatory intent and that the inequitable rules, “both in enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus.”
Mr. Horne (who claims he’s motivated by an anti-racist ideology) complained about the Mexican-American Studies curriculum, saying, “it was a pure historical accident that a group of radical teachers created that program.” Apparently, Horne’s referring to the fight for Chicano rights in the late 1960s and Montezuma Esparza’s inspirationally-led school walkouts. These were not, as Horne complains about Arizona’s ethnic studies, a movement led by, “Communists who express un-American values,” but rather begun by marginalized individuals willing to protest for their Constitutional First Amendment rights.
Horne went on to say that schools’ ethnic studies, “teach kids they’re victims and can’t get ahead in life,” and that students should instead, “be taught [to] work hard so they can achieve their dreams.” This Pollyannaish point of view conveniently obviates the fact that the world is not, nor ever has been, a benign meritocracy where racism or colonialism never existed or where their repercussions don’t still reverberate across our country – even in our schools.
The truth is quite different. Multi-cultural education – studying other societies and histories rarely represented in school textbooks – has been proven to achieve positive effects on school communities across our country. Independent studies from Stanford University and the National Education Association (in 2010), show that students exposed to culturally-responsive education acquire better overall attitudes towards learning and achievement, better school attendance (in particular for at-risk students), improved literary skills, and a positive affirmation of students’ identities while, at the same time, creating within them a much needed, “sense of agency,” which further motivates them into college and on through their lives.
Additionally, test scores and graduation rates have been proven to rise when students participate in ethnic study classes. These twin objectives are hyped as the top two goals for both LAUSD and Venice High School on their websites. In fact, in a recent L.A. Times article, Superintendent Michelle King touted LAUSD’s recent 3% increase in the number of students graduating as compared to the previous year; critics argue that the increases reflect an ongoing, “lowering of standards” simply to bolster the appearance of performance. In either case, the bottom line remains the same: INCLUDING ethnic studies in High Schools helps all students succeed in all areas instead of, as Principal Wiedoeft suggests, injuring some at the expense of others; this scholastic fallacy can be consigned forever as a now-factually-debunked theory.
And while there are significant hurdles in American public schools for teaching students of varying backgrounds about their cultures (including the sullied facts of our nation’s history), it can only benefit White students of largely European descent (as well as students of color and others) to fully understand their nation’s genesis in genocide, slavery, and colonialism.
Such in-depth classes offer students opportunities for the development of Critical Thinking and empathy for not only the lives of others, but for their own backgrounds: the multifarious FACTS of our history are an unavoidable necessity to the UNDERSTANDING of our perplexing roots as a Republic. And certainly UNDERSTANDING is the deepest goal of education. So it’s overblown and spurious to suggest that knowing the truth of our nation’s origins, or the darker facts of its short existence, will somehow signal an end to Order in the American public school system.
Students are considerably smarter and more sophisticated than some Administrations sometimes seem to give them credit for: students typically WANT to learn about the world and how they fit in it, get a window into how reality really works. What they DON’T WANT is to be silenced, or worse, have their nascent minds and inchoate spirits sublimated by the very authority appointed to educate them.
In the same way that Students of Color profit from learning about their cultural origins (without it being leveraged as “victimization”), it’s also essential that in their educational evolution, White students NOT be made to feel that THEIR cultural backgrounds are a cause for guilt or responsibility towards a past not of their making. It is the FUTURE that is of concern! White students learning, as Principal Brewer put it, “to feel comfortable with feeling uncomfortable,” is the acid test and obvious first step in discovering what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes – which is the lifeblood of our democratic ideal that contends WE ALL ARE, in the end, vitally Equal.
Likewise, it’s crucial that Students of Color — while simultaneously asserting that White kids can never actually understand what it is to be a minority – realize that they nonetheless expect White students to somehow miraculously bridge that impassable gap and acquire an esoteric depth of subjective understanding they can, by definition, never attain.
Ideally, led by involved teachers, counselors, and crucially — under the SUPPORT of a like-minded Administration not obsessed with Order above all else — the cultural and ethnic diversity of a school can, instead of becoming a point of uncontrollable conflict, be an OPPORTUNITY for Learning and the development of Critical Thinking: “Education is not the filling of a pail,” W. B. Yeats wrote wisely, “but the lighting of a fire.”
And as a note to the VHS students themselves, who have fought so hard this past year for their individual rights: though the passions which motivated them are good fuel for action, the students themselves are not without blame in forging this negative dynamic with their principal, Dr. Weidoeft. It is essential to point out that much of the rhetoric and the adverse conclusions drawn about their Principal, lack the very aspect which this article has touted – namely, Critical Thinking.
The accusation of “racism” is a much too hasty and easy of a fallback position: it demands little or none of the deeper reasoning skills the VHS students claim, such as analytical thinking, towards a complex problem. The VHS students themselves are subject to some of the same shortsightedness of which they accuse their Principal – namely, a pre-determined bias. This does not mean they are incorrect in their fight for the freedom to protest their real and critical situation. It merely means the VHS students need to take a step back from their implacable position and apply some of that same Critical Thinking so essential to their lives, to this current struggle with their Principal.
The students of VHS owe it to themselves to ALSO go the extra mile and help create a new environment where not just well-wrought emotions lead the way, but deep and honest analysis is applied — not only towards their Principal, but towards themselves — which is the only way to help create a well thought out and productive path for the future of Venice High.
The problem of racism in America – to which our schools are not immune at any level – is colossally complex, woven into the woof and warp of our nation’s soul; even though, it’s still often difficult to get White people to even acknowledge there IS such a thing as “White Privilege.” But Black Americans sure know there is. So do Latinos. And so do White Americans, really – they just haven’t, as a whole, had the courage to acknowledge it. In the 1930s, William Faulkner, the great American writer who knew the subject of White racism well, wrote once that the history of slavery is, “The curse of every white child that was born and that ever will be born. None can escape it.” Even Lincoln knew the conflicts perpetrated by White Americans against Black people brought to this country in shackles were anathema socially and morally, saying the resentments arising from our Civil War (which we still revisit every day in this country) created antipathies, “too deep even for a millennium to efface.”
And while resurrecting America’s past is not a goal, per se, understanding our present, and forging a beneficial future IS a worthy objective. And the Students of Color at VHS have every right in wanting to control events, rather than let events control them. But it’s simply idle speculation and particularly vicious name-calling to stoke the fires of “racism” without the larger context and structures of American society being taken into account. It is much more likely that the SYSTEMS which Ms. Wiedoeft and LAUSD represent, even in their continuing efforts to ameliorate tensions between students and the Administration, are THEMSELVES in need of examination and change.
It is in UNDERSTANDING the LARGER PICTURE of HOW POWER WORKS, how it has established itself and been codified and how, in the struggle between Order and Learning, it is often not the removal of a particular individual which causes, or solves, a problem — it is the SYSTEM ITSELF which needs re-examining! And so the VHS students, their teachers, and most importantly the ADMINISTRATORS, might consider reevaluating the structures of LEARNING and create a dialectic in the classroom where CONFLICTS can SERVE as fecund fodder for growth, rather than cause for retribution. Then… the teachers and Administrators can get down to the real business of helping the students of VHS achieve their dreams, however noble or majestic.
The Venice Beachhead reached out to Principal Wiedoeft for this article. We received a response from LAUSD Public Information Officer, Samuel C. Gilstrap (Office of Communications and Media Relations). Mr. Gilstrap, in an email, stated Ms. Wiedoeft was, “not available” for interview as part of our research. Subsequent attempts to reach out to LAUSD through Mr. Gilstrap went unanswered, reflecting a basic “closed-door” policy regarding Venice High School and the students’ conflict with their principal.
Research also discovered that Principal Wiedoeft has been on “Medical Leave” for a number of months; our sources confirm the authenticity of the claim and the Beachhead Collective wishes Dr. Wiedoeft speedy recovery. She is expected to return to VHS in mid-October. The Venice Beachhead still holds open the offer of interviewing Dr. Wiedoeft and other LAUSD officials.
Since Dr. Wiedoeft’s absence, the VHS students (working with parents) have opened a gender-neutral bathroom in the school; robo-calls are also being made in Spanish for those requesting; a Latino/Mexican cultural studies class is now on the VHS curriculum.
Categories: Education, Venice, Venice High School
Very informative and rigorous article. I appreciate the race/power dialectical critique of things going on at VHS. A similar thing happened with us in Santa Monica years ago, and we continue a struggle TODAY against the champions of Order & “Development” in SM city hall (corporate invasion & gentrification). Critical thinking – on race, class, gender & sexuality- is indeed under siege, and often goes under our critical thinking radars. Glad to see light in the Footnote. La lucha continua …