In defense of Community High School
A recent article on Annarbor.com detailing AAPS’ potential plan for slashing its budget elicited numerous proposals from readers to either move students from Community High School into a school-within-a-school at Skyline, or to eliminate Community altogether. I don’t teach at CHS, but I think closing it (or moving it) would be an awful idea. In many ways, Community is the perfect counterpoint to larger schools like Pioneer (where I teach), Huron and Skyline, and it provides the district with what I see as a very necessary balance.
While current trends in education call for aligning curricula and teacher-proofing classroom standards and practices so all students and teachers can be on the same page at the same time, Community High - while maintaining academic excellence and even managing to report high scores on standardized tests - defies such trends. That’s important. The truth is one-size-fits-all education doesn’t work for a lot of students. For those kids (who may not need the kind of additional support services offered at Stone School or Roberto Clemente), the quirkiness and flexibility at Community is precisely what allows them to succeed. Anyone who has ever had the privilege to attend a CHS graduation can attest to the fact that students often express a sincere affection both for their Forum leaders and for their overall high school career that’s profoundly moving. Pioneer, at times, can feel like a factory. I don’t think Community ever feels like that and I, for one, would like to see more of what happens at Community happen at the larger schools.
Don’t get me wrong, bigger schools have their strengths too. The extra-curricular programs at Pioneer and Huron are extraordinary (note to public - if you get a chance, check out Pioneer’s “Future Stars” Finals this upcoming Saturday @ 7:30 pm), as is the variety of electives and AP classes offered, and for some kids a bigger school is better socially as well. More opportunities to meet new people on a daily basis. Less chance of getting pigeon-holed into a clique. I personally enjoy teaching at Pioneer because I feed off the energy, the uncertainty and occasional befuddlement engendered by so many bodies bumping into each other. Nevertheless, one of the real benefits of the Ann Arbor district is its ability to offer both ways of life - the frenetic pace of what seems like a teeming city at Pioneer and Huron, and will eventually seem so at Skyline; and the more relaxed, casual rhythms at Community. Some kids need a place where they can feel comfortable playing Dungeons & Dragons in the hallway. The fact that our district manages to offer such a place is something we should celebrate.
I’m sure not everything at Community is perfect. Like at all the schools in our district (or anywhere else) there are likely to be areas where the teaching, classroom management and programs can be improved. Yet, I can say without reservation that in my limited experience conducting the occasional poetry workshop at Community or accompanying a guest writer to an assembly or class visit there, the learning environment has felt academically focused and vigorous. I don’t know a whole bunch of teachers at CHS but the ones I do know well - Tracey Rosewarne, Judith DeWoskin, Ellen Stone - don’t just teach for a living, they make a life out of teaching. They light up their classrooms with their passion and spend much of their time outside school figuring out how to become more luminous. They read and they write and they travel and they search and search and search for deeper ways to understand what they teach, and the result is that their students crackle with curiosity. And, yes, they would be great teachers wherever they taught, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love the building they’re in. That doesn’t mean they haven’t made that old creaky place their own. That doesn’t mean they haven’t turned Community into a downtown incubator that yields an annual flock of creative, innovative hatchlings.
Case in point - Davy Rothbart.
Davy’s the creator of Found Magazine, which, if you haven’t read, you need to pick up. I think Davy’s a kind of genius and Found represents a sort of contemporary above-ground archaeology. The “finds” on display in his magazine are artifacts, fascinating pieces of our zeitgeist, glimpses into our cultural handiwork. Oh, yeah, and Davy writes too. He won something like a dozen Hopwood Awards in Creative Writing as an undergraduate at U-M. I’m not saying he wouldn’t have created Found or become a terrific writer if he hadn’t gone to Community, but I am betting Community encouraged him to pursue the quirky meanderings of his mind. I am betting nobody at Community ever told him not to follow his muse, not to believe in the value of his voice.
Another case in point - Steve Hall.
Not only is Steve one of the countless wonderful musicians to come out of Community, but he was also the driving teenage force behind the initial collaboration between the Neutral Zone and the University Musical Society - an alliance resulting in Ann Arbor’s yearly teenage talent extravaganza at the Power Center: Breakin’ Curfew. I had the good fortune of being present at the early meetings between the NZ and UMS, and it was clear Steve’s education at Community had not only provided him skills but also with a sense of possibility, a belief that any vision, with enough grunt and grease, could be realized.
The list of fabulous young writers I’ve been lucky enough to work with over the past dozen years who bear the imprint of teachers at Community is long: Lewis (Sailor J) Wallace; Evelyn Hollenshead; Dan Vellman; Sara Brickman; Maggie Klein; Nina Feldman; Jake and Rafe Scobey-Thal; Maggie Ambrosino; Allison Bondie; Angel Nafis; Aimee Le; Alia Persico-Shamas; Hilary Burch; Gahl Liberzon and Glenna Benitez, to name just a few. Each of these students shares a love for language and a desire to develop a unique voice. Community helped cultivate that love. It’s obviously a fertile field where students who want to write can find the sustenance to grow.
Conservative folks who think of Community as a boutique liberal playground should understand something else too. Out of all the high schools in the district, I suspect it’s the one most likely to inculcate a sense of personal responsibility. Unlike at Pioneer where punitive measures like tardy and homework sweeps intimidate students in order to keep them in line, students at Community must develop a greater degree of intrinsic motivation to attend class on time and to complete their work. Some kids may need the more stringent safeguards at Pioneer, true, but some may also come to rely on that kind of external taskmaster in order to accomplish anything. At Community, a kid in many ways has to be his own taskmaster. That too is an invaluable skill to learn.
Lucille Clifton, one of my favorite poets, is fond of saying Poetry is a house with many rooms. Well, education is a city with many buildings. Community High School is a thriving one. We’d be foolish to close it.
** NOTE - the next big poetry event coming up is when Ann Arbor Wordworks presents its annual poetry concert Homegrown at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater in the Michigan League on Friday, Jan. 29th. A whole bunch of poets of tremendous talent - including Maggie Ambrosino, Mike Moriarty, Ben Alfaro, Courtney Whittler, Aimee Le, Fiona Chamness, Gahl Liberzon, Brittany Floyd, Daniel Bigham, Maggie Hanks, Lauren Weston, Mike Kulick, Peggy Burrows, AJ McLittle, Chris Moriarty and Anthony Zick - will be rocking the stage. The show promises to be spectacular. It’ll run from approximately 7-9 p.m. The Mendelssohn is @ 911 N. University Ave., in downtown Ann Arbor a short walk from CHS. Tickets will be $5 for students in advance, or $7 at the door. $10 and $12 for members of the general public. To reserve tickets at the advanced price or for more information, email me @ firstname.lastname@example.org or call me @ 734-223-7443. **
Jeff Kass teaches creative writing at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor and at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and directs the Literary Arts Programs at the Neutral Zone, including the VOLUME Youth Poetry Project, which meets every Thursday night at 7 p.m. He will post new blog entries every Tuesday and Thursday morning throughout the school year.