As his freshman year drew to a rylose, Jordan Schilling was feeling unchallenged and even a bit apathetic about high school. To get the most out of his next three years, something needed to change. That’s when Schilling found the Social Justice Pathway, an unconventional new program set to be implemented the following fall.
“Taking Social Justice was kind of a risk, but I knew I had to jump on it,” Schilling said recently. Now, as a graduating senior, Schilling looks back and knows joining the pathway was “a great decision. I would do it again 10 times out of 10.”
Schilling is one of the 25 seniors in the first “cohort” (or group) of Palo Alto High School’s pioneering Social Justice Pathway, whose mission is to empower students through project-based learning to make an impact on their community. This year also marks the first graduates of Paly’s other specialized passage — the less-structured Sports Career Pathway.
The Campanile talked with more than half of the graduating students in the Social Justice and Sports pathways in an attempt to examine the successes and pitfalls of the innovative programs. The research found that, on average, the social justice students interviewed were very pleased with the program, while the sports pathway cohort interviewed was too small to draw any meaningful conclusions. Of course, no program, especially ones as experimental as these, is without flaws, and both have seen students drop.
oth pathways are motivated by their unique curriculums. For social justice, classes are based around projects, and the curriculum is heavily influenced by students, while in the sports pathway, there is not an official curriculum but instead a selection of sports-related classes, with a heavy emphasis on helping students find careers in the field after high school.
Students within the Social Justice Pathway are automatically enrolled in modified English and history courses that address the subjects through the lens of social justice.
“You get to relate what you learn between English and history and also you get to learn about and potentially tackle community problems.”
senior, Nicole Li
Teachers aim to present students with novels told through the perspective of minorities, such as the graphic novels Persepolis and Maus and the acclaimed novel “Cry The Beloved Country.” The novels are introduced when students are learning corresponding concepts in their history course, for example reading Persepolis when studying the Iranian Revolution. Students also take Humanities, Applied Statistics and Economics in their junior and senior years.
The social justice program is the brainchild of Eric Bloom and Erin Angell, teachers with a passion for social justice who believe students learn best with open-ended assignments. Initially they attracted roughly 30 students for the pilot year and since then attracted more sophomores each year — 50 in the class of 2018 and 60 for the class of 2019. Each cohort has two teachers, with one teaching English and the other history.
“Mr. Bloom and Ms. Angell are the best teachers I’ve ever had,” said senior Avery Pearson. “The amount of work they put into each lesson and the whole pathway is insane. I think it’s turned out this well because they care so much about it.”
Student involvement in the classroom is a pillar of the Social Justice Pathway. “The curriculum right now is formulated through teacher and student collaboration. Mrs. Angell and Mr. Bloom both decide the primary lessons and some of the topics, but how we are tested and demonstrate our knowledge is primarily chosen by the students and discussed,” said Social Justice Pathway senior Matthew Seto.
“For the past few periods we’ve been talking about what it is in the book we want to learn, what we have to learn, and how to run the classroom to ensure that learning is a success.”
senior Layla Solotan
“Today, we spent the majority of the class speaking up and coming up with ideas for what we should do.”
Pathway teachers take a different approach to grading. Sometimes they don’t give grades on work, and they often grade by giving narrative comments rather than number or letter assessments on assignments.
What’s more, social justice students are also given opportunities to work in internships provided by the program. Internships offer students experience making a positive impact on their community, whether that be through aiding local law firms that focus on social justice issues, for example, or volunteering to tutor middle-school students.
The Sports Career Pathway, led by Theresa McDermott, is not as cohesive as social justice. Partly, that’s because students are given flexibility in selecting courses, and there isn’t a fixed path. Students in the Sports Career Pathway can choose courses designed to be in the pathway, but they are not held to a strict list of courses and are not required to be in the pathway for three years, according to Assistant Principal Victoria Kim. They can choose a course here or there, or they can choose to take many of the courses to get the full experience of taking a Sports Career Pathway in high school. Perhaps for that reason, Paly’s administration did not disclose the number of students “in” the pathway.
Still, the Paly website defines three concentrations within the Sports Career Pathway oriented around sports and fitness: Sports Medicine and Science, Business and Marketing or Journalism Media and Communications. The flagship class is “Getting into the Game: Sports Career Exploration.”
The course underscores one distinguishing element of the pathway, which is that students are supposed to graduate with a concrete post-secondary plan in place. Similar to the Social Justice Pathway, each student who uses the resources of the Sports Career Pathway will have received mentoring, gained work experience and developed a digital portfolio.
“I chose the pathway because I knew I wanted to continue my sports career in college by being involved in the inside of a program as a player [baseball] or on the outside as a coach or a physical therapist in training,” said senior Aron Ecoff, “The pathway curriculum developed in the sense that there are more speakers now, giving us more real life examples on how to integrate into the sports field.”
Ecoff also appreciated the connections he made. “I’ve even talked to [Warriors Assistant General Manager] Kirk Lacob about a spot with the program in bio data,” he said.
“The pathway is an option among many other Paly programs and has attracted students, but not as many as we would like. It needs to be examined and we are about to embark upon that process.”
“Before spring break, an email was sent out to the staff at Paly inviting them to be a part of the rebooting process of the Sports Career Pathway,” she said. “The pathway is very much a work in progress. About 15 staff members responded to the email and Ms. Laurence will be helping us to facilitate this rebooting process.”
Nevertheless, Ecoff found the program worthwhile. “Mrs. McDermott has been really supportive of all her students, and will do anything to lend the extra hand,” he said. “She has connections and has even helped some of our students get jobs.”
He estimates that three or four students dropped out of the class this year “because they weren’t serious about pursuing a career in sports.”
While most students found their time in the social justice to be an enjoyable experience, many agree there is still room for improvement. Critics include seniors Yotam Ponte and Jason Pollak, students who dropped out their sophomore and junior years, respectively.
Both complain their ideas were not being heard by teachers. “My communication with one of the teachers wasn’t very effective,” Ponte said. “I tried to approach the teachers with some of my ideas, but that never really got anywhere. I wrote them letters, we had a meeting, but there was never any follow-up. I would have liked the teacher to come to me more and be a little more empathetic in understanding my issues.”
Additionally, the student-run classroom can be a double-edged sword for some, who feel that classes can be disorganized, or dominated by only a few loud voices. “We, as a class, needed more aid,” Ponte said. “We were thrown into the deep end and couldn’t handle it. During our second year of the pathway we tried to do a town hall. The point was to have it be completely student run with a goal of getting issues out of the way. Each town hall proved to be very unorganized; we spent the whole time arguing about how we’re going to fix things, but never got anywhere. The teachers should have realized we needed more help and guidance.”
Finally, the addition of classes like Statistics Application and Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) to the pathway polarized many students, including those who otherwise gave the pathway high marks. Pollak, an avid thespian, could not reschedule his seventh-period theater class to make room for Stats Application. “The addition of Stats App was a huge problem for me,” Pollak said. “It felt like I had signed a contract, and now the terms of the contract had changed and was no longer valid.”
This change in vision left a bad taste in Pollak’s mouth and alongside other factors, caused him to drop the program. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in. A lot of things changed. There were a lot of times in which I felt the learning I wanted to have, I wasn’t really having. We weren’t really learning a lot in class and that was an issue,” Pollak said. Ponte also took issue with the addition of classes saying the addition of AAR was “not helpful at all” and “just an additional stressor.”
Looking forward, the Social Justice Pathway plans on making a couple reforms. “We want to streamline and increase the opportunity for student exhibitions for the parent community, the school community, the student community as well as the Palo Alto community,” said Angell. “Based on some networking with other schools who have similar programs, we want to improve the way that we provide narrative feedback to students.”
From the students’ perspective, looking back at the risk they took in joining a new pathway three years ago, almost all the seniors interviewed by The Campanile expressed that they would make the same choice were they given a second shot at high school.
The project-based learning helped foster a creative atmosphere within the classrooms and additionally gave students a broader perspective beyond the classroom.
“I think that SJP has taught me a lot about how I work, and how I work best.”
“Being able to work individually, in groups and as a cohort have taught me the importance of your classmates and how your setting affects your work. I think that the pathway is a great thing for students who want to do something different from normal classes that each grade takes and if they also just want to learn about social justice and creating change in communities. You also are able to get to know your fellow students better than normal classrooms.”
The question remains: are pathways the future of education or passing fancy? For many at Paly, the answer is clear.