By Jazmine Mendoza, 16, Valley Regional HS #5 (San Fernando)
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Jazmine loves everything about her school, she just wishes it had better lunch food.

I went to San Fernando Middle School and in eighth grade I had to choose between Sylmar High or San Fernando High. When I told my friends I was going to Sylmar, they asked why. Most of them were going to San Fernando because they thought Sylmar was “ghetto.” The school had low test scores and a high dropout rate. I told them that my cousin, who took school seriously, went to Sylmar. And if she liked it then it must be a good school.

I want to be one of the few from my family to graduate from college. My mom would have done anything to be able to go to college, but she got pregnant with me and wasn’t able to finish high school. So a lot of my determination comes from me wanting to do what she couldn’t. When my sister and I complain about homework or school, my mom tells us that it’s not so bad. She says doing well in high school leads to college, a good career and a nice house.

I was excited to start high school because I knew I’d have more classes to choose from than middle school. And I would be only four years from college. But a couple weeks after ninth grade started, I thought my friends who chose San Fernando might be right about Sylmar being “ghetto.” Every day while I brought a shoulder bag jammed with notebooks and folders for each class, I saw other students walk in with no backpack, no books—just a pencil in their back pocket. Most students showed up late to classes because they were socializing on the quad. And once class started, most of them were talking to each other and not listening to the teachers.

The worst was my first-year sign language class. The class was overcrowded, which made it hard to hear the teacher over the talking students. And even when he got some students’ attention he would only have us copy him doing a couple simple signs. It was easy if you paid attention.

I was disappointed that the teacher had to dumb things down. We spent weeks learning how to say hi, introduce ourselves and answer a couple simple questions like, “What’s your favorite color?” Then to test us the teacher picked students to sign in front of the class. But as he called names, one by one each student would shrug their shoulders and say, “I’m not going to do it.”

Our teacher stopped trying

The teacher would say, “Really? We’ve only been working on it for the past few weeks.” The students would laugh in response. This happened several times and I could see that my teacher felt that pushing the students harder was worthless. So we kept moving slowly and I got so bored I brought a Seventeen magazine to read in class. In the end I felt like I hadn’t learned anything.

I didn’t tell anyone about how bad some of my classes were, because I didn’t know who I would complain to. My mom saw that I was getting good grades, so she never asked me about school.

A few months into the year, the students ditching and smoking in the hall and teachers giving up became normal to me. I had a few good classes, which I did well in, and to challenge myself I took health at a community college. But since I found my community college class challenging, I started taking it easy at Sylmar—just like everyone else. I stopped raising my hand to answer teachers’ questions and told my sign language teacher I wasn’t ready to take the tests, even when I was. The teacher let all of us take the tests later without any penalty. I was ashamed that I got sucked into that. I started thinking about transferring to a different school for sophomore year. I wanted an education that would prepare me for college.

I got mostly As and Bs on my report card, but I felt like I didn’t learn very much. And I failed geometry, because when I asked my teacher for extra help he would tell me that it was all on the board and ask me if I was listening. How was I going to do when I took more advanced classes like calculus? I began to give up on myself, but worse than that, I felt like my school gave up on me.

Toward the end of freshman year I learned that we had to choose an academy for sophomore year. The academies were smaller schools that specialized in a career path or subject and they were all on the Sylmar High campus. There were six academies: Social Justice Humanitas, Business, Law & Government, Health & Wellness, Visual & Performing Arts, and Future Teachers. Once we chose our academies, we’d have all our classes with the same students and a small group of teachers who taught only at that academy.

I planned to choose Health & Wellness because my goal was to become a doctor. But on the day we were supposed to turn in our applications my life skills teacher, who was one of my favorites, told all of us in his class to join the Humanitas program, which focuses on social justice, art, literature and history. This teacher recognized how bad some classes at Sylmar were and said that he enrolled his son in Humanitas because it was so much better. I liked hearing his honesty, so I changed to Humanitas.

WE'RE ALL CONNECTED. To build a sense of togetherness, Jazmine and her classmates passed a ball of string to each other as they defined what “community” meant. Photo by Victor Beteta, 18, University HS

In 10th grade I noticed drastic changes in students’ attitudes right away. Most of the students in Humanitas seemed excited to be in class. Everyone was on time, prepared and raised their hands to participate in discussions.

In class we did a lot of “feedback loop,” during which the teachers told us what they expected from us, and we let the teachers know what we expected from them. Our English teacher asked us what we wanted her to do to help us understand the material. I told her that when we are reading a book for class, she shouldn’t move on to the next chapters until she’s made sure we understood what we just read. In response to my suggestion, our teacher had us pair up after every few chapters of whatever book we were reading and discuss the characters and events we had just read about.

Our discussions made me think

One of my favorite classes that year was world history. One time our teacher asked us if we thought the slave trade was an act of racism. An opinion we read in our textbook said that the slave trade wasn’t racist. The argument said that black people ended up as slaves because the Europeans found their slaves in Africa where almost all people happened to be black. Some students agreed and took the position that the Europeans didn’t intend to enslave Africans just because they had darker skin. The other side said it was racist because slavery was dehumanizing and white people owned black people as slaves, not the other way around. I wasn’t sure what to think, because I could see both sides. This type of discussion was common in world history and everyone tried to come well-prepared for them.

All the teachers in Humanitas encouraged us to ask whatever questions we had and even to stop by outside of class to get them answered. A few times after my English teacher explained our assignment to the class, I would call her over to explain it again to me because sometimes it helps me to hear things twice. She was always happy to do that.

In Humanitas the last period of the day was advisory. If you needed help with a class, you’d ask your classmates in your advisory, or you could go to the teacher whose class you were struggling in. One day a lot of us were saying that we weren’t learning much in chemistry. Our advisory teacher overheard us and asked what was wrong. We told him that our chemistry teacher took too much time telling us how to organize our notebooks and not enough time explaining chemistry or he went off topic. Our advisory teacher was surprised and immediately suggested a plan for Humanitas students to rate their teachers. Each teacher would be evaluated on a 1 to 5 scale on things like the quality of their lectures, class control and preparation.

We liked our chemistry teacher—he was a nice guy—we just wanted him to teach better. When our chemistry teacher saw the results, he acknowledged that he wasn’t using the class time efficiently. After that he stopped spending so much time on notebook organizing and stayed on topic more, and by second semester the class was a lot better.

Students look out for each other

Another thing I liked was that each student had a mentor who was an older student, and we also mentored freshmen in Humanitas. One day toward the end of the year I was feeling out of it so I was relieved when Jairo, my mentor, came and asked how I was doing. I told him that everyone’s bad mood was bringing me down. He reminded me to keep studying for the upcoming AP world history exam (he was always telling me to stay on track academically) and we also talked about my boyfriend. That talk made my day.

If there had been mentoring freshman year, I know things would have been better. When I was lost in my geometry class, I didn’t know who to ask since my teacher didn’t help me even after I asked. If I had had a mentor, he or she could have directed me to someone who could have helped.

As part of Humanitas we even went on a college tour and visited UC Santa Barbara, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Stanford and Berkeley. After touring each university, we would sit with a group of current college students who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. They told us how they came from the same place as us, and if they made it to a university, then we could too.

I also learned what classes and standardized tests I needed to take to go to college. We calculated our GPAs and saw what colleges we might be able to get into. This was like a new world. Toward the end of my sophomore year I felt like I was back on track for college.

Humanitas has challenged me and given me the support to meet those challenges. I think it’s good that the teachers in Humanitas ask for our best, because in the end that’s what everyone in life will ask for. Seeing the classes my freshman year at Sylmar not asking for my best made me think, “Why should I try my hardest?”

At the end of 10th grade, we learned that our Humanitas program would be moving from Sylmar High to become part of the new Valley Regional High School #5, so I made the switch, too. I was a little afraid because I wasn’t sure if Humanitas would be the same. But from the first day Humanitas didn’t let me down. The teachers are constantly asking whether we like not having bells on campus, how we like the curriculum, and if our teachers are teaching well. It feels like we students are helping run the school, and we feel a responsibility to give serious and honest feedback. It’s exciting to smell freshly painted hallways and not sit at tagged up desks like we had at Sylmar. The environment within Humanitas is so comforting that it makes me love school 10 times more. I can’t wait to make these last two years in high school the best.