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It Happened One Day—A Diverse High School Succeeds


When I went to high school in California, I had no idea what went into the whole system that brought virtual toddlers into their late teens.  As the first post in this September education series made clear, schools serve to introduce children to their culture in ways both intended, and also highly unintended.  The first post demonstrated we learned much less than was hoped by the powers that be, and much more than was in mind.  In particular, as the second post noted, we learn “[social] alienation from the factory model of Western education,” where factories eschew enjoyment in favor of efficiency.  The second post then “shares how public high school students discovered enjoyment of science, engineering, and technology through a hands-on team learning project.”

[Edit note: in the paragraph starting “I grew up in,” explained how major tax and spend votes for schools in the 1970s differed from the 1960s.   In the paragraph starting “The key systemic element,” re-wrote ranch student lessons learned.  In the paragraph starting “Machines and learning rules,” inserted the term “interpersonally,” added two  comparative links in the last sentence to a very differently structured teen learning environment, and modified the section title within which that paragraph appears.]

Today my post explores what contextual whole-system lessons might be learned by looking at my own experience through 1965 at a socially, ethnically, and economically diverse high school in a semi-rural area.  Interestingly, the date is part of the picture.

Context—A Moment in Time

I grew up in Santa Barbara County in Santa Maria, in Santa Barbara itself, and in the rural and semi-rural Santa Ynez Valley’s Danish-heritage tourist and commercial town of Solvang.  This was during the rebound growth filling the 25 years following the end of World War II in 1945.  This came before the hang-over that settled on California in the 10 years after 1970.  The hang-over grew in the mixed reaction to the Vietnam war and the draft during the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, which also fed into the vulnerability felt by the public from the 1973 gas shock and the 1979 oil crisis.  Vietnam, the draft, and the energy events ran directly into our lives, compounding the cash cost to our parents of public schools and universities.  Although local parents apparently believed they got value received in 1965, see the compelling February 2009 Dartmouth College analysis indicating a 1976 court ruling to equalize statewide “school spending and property tax bases” drove California voters in 1978 against local property taxes because the 1976 ruling would mean some local tax revenues would go for statewide school spending, not all for local schools.

At this point, you probably won’t be stunned to hear I was in the high school Class of 1965.  There really was a place like that.  Vietnam and the draft only got really big in the summer of 1965, so this story of growing up through high school came just before all that.  You could say we lived in a bubble where we could focus on being kids and teens while our parents lived in a growing economy.  Global problems seemed far away even as we learned to huddle under our desks in case of nuclear attack.  In the Santa Ynez Valley, we had this sense of being in our own safe place even though Vandenberg Air Force Base existed some 31 miles to the west of Solvang to test launch Minuteman and Titan ICBMs.  VAFB was big, technical, and administrative.  A number of parents worked at VAFB.  Even so, we began to relax a bit after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, but that was before Vietnam and the oil stuff mentioned above.

The Cuban thing kind of brought us together because even our high school basketball coach, a tall, austere, effective man who taught a formal and thorough biology class, took the event very seriously, and we felt that.  Then the coming together came into focus even more sharply in late November 1963 when our math teacher, who ran a light but tight ship to bring us algebra, geometry, and some calculus, even as he told about being a student and football player at our high school some years prior, brought a TV into class so we could watch the news reports of Kennedy being shot and buried.

We made up the work later for Cuba and Kennedy, but there was no question about the value of diverting time to observe extraordinary events.  OK, our chemistry teacher had us keep our eyes on the lab work, but likely he did so to avoid accidents, in addition to his real passion for the subject.  Of the English teachers, one had two majors and two minors and also taught French and Latin, and US and Western European history, one taught us the Greek alphabet and had us writing haiku and short stories and publishing a poetry booklet, and one had us doing skits to analyze plays.  One of the good poets was also a big player on the football team.  All the English teachers assigned papers throughout the year and urged us to connect words with our reactions to our reading and to events in and around our lives.

The school wasn’t open about everything.  One teacher got in trouble for growing a trim beard and assigning Catcher in the Rye.  On the other hand, another teacher listened seriously to student views on both sides of the 1964 Goldwater-LBJ elections and gave respectful space to student discussions without voicing his own views.  Students noticed and appreciated the attention that man gave for students to discover and share ideas.

The students who were the best impromptu public speakers were the 4-H boys and girls.  The 4-H kids had to learn to speak concisely for two or three minutes in live auctions to present the animals they’d raised in the high school’s well-respected Agriculture program.  It’s a telling point that “4-H” stands for head, heart, hands, and health.  In a similar low-key vein, the long-time, much liked wood shop teacher was a descendant of the man for whom Stockton, CA was named.  It was that kind of place, entirely unselfconsciously.

We expected to live in the world.  We did not have much direct experience with personal trauma and doubt.  Life was assumed to be lived going forward.  It was a specific and possibly unique moment in the nation’s life, that business of being in school to 1965.

So—How Did It Work?

Altogether, a number of graduates went on to college degrees, and a number didn’t.  So how did it come to pass that we had teachers for that range of work in a semi-rural high school in a mostly agricultural and small-town tourism place, with VAFB offering high-tech and administrative work on the side?

A bit of background.  To look at the teachers we had, it helps to see that California’s schools use a system of unified school districts.  Unified school districts and their union high schools refer to jurisdictions where the public schools are administered together in a geographic area, including elementary schools and secondary schools (middle school and high school).  The Santa Ynez Valley Union High School (SYVUHS) was the four-year high school fed by the primary (K-8) schools in the SYVUHS district, itself a creature of the Santa Barbara County Education Office in California’s school system.  If this looks like a lot of structure, it was and still is.  A primary school map by HS area connects the layers across Santa Barbara County’s primary and secondary schools.

A few other factors come into play.  The Santa Ynez Valley and the SYVUHS included a number of very different people sharing the land, including long-time ranchers and farmers, a high-end guest ranch operation, retail and restaurant and bakery and supply store owners, the ranch hands, employees, Farm Bureau and insurance offices, the Chumash Reservation, and Mexican families who had lived there since long before the California Republic and the State of California.  The 1960s came well ahead of the Chumash setting up their casino, so that story is outside today’s inquiry.

The key systemic element driving the SYVUHS was the core desire of the area’s tax-paying adults that their children would darn well get good educations.  The ranchers and farmers knew it took real knowledge to run a ranch.  The Danes in Solvang believed that education was part of an adult identity.  The Mexicans wanted more out of life than service work and being ranch hands.  And each of these groups brought their own sense of cultural competence and skill.  For example, the Chumash knew their own culture’s life, as the Danes did theirs.  The Mexican families included leather workers celebrated throughout the state’s active horse community for their excellent tack (e.g., saddle making).  The ranch kids (boys and girls alike) got their hands on modern farm methods in the shop and Ag classes—and I suspect their skill in connecting physical work with observation and interpretation were factors that made them good friends as well as valuable contributors in academic courses.  It wasn’t one of the academic graduates in later years who uncovered a federally precedent-setting livestock weigh-in fraud.  It was one of our rancher classmates.

All that being said, it’s important not to over-emphasize the social mix.  The Chumash and Mexicans were a small part of the majority white student body.  Like most schools, there were cool cliques for athletes, drinkers, pushers of boundaries, and their friends, and then a few others who hung out together and perhaps aimed more directly at college prep courses.  Like many schools, sports definitely energized both SYVUHS and its regional community with football, basketball (strong), baseball, wrestling, tennis, and track.  For the school’s size, SYVUHS had some of the state’s best girls track coaches and runners.  We liked it—SYVUHS girls track was an all-state contender.

That brings us to other systemic elements energizing the school.  In addition to cliques, cultural and economic diversity, and adult community interest in education and sports, the girls had as much athletic prowess on display as the boys.  That shared physical element added a subtle gender performance balance to the student mix.  Also, the small size of the four-year student body (about 400 overall, some 100 per graduating class at that time) ensured that students really did know a lot of the whole school population – certainly their own graduating class.  That’s a basic social connector element.

Why Did It Work?

So as asked earlier, what kind of possible contextual whole-system lessons can be learned by looking back at that semi-rural high school experience running to 1965?

I’d assert that learning is a social act.  It’s tough to pull off learning as a social act with machines or non-organic rules as the mediator between and among teachers, students, and the physical and psychological energy of other students.  Machine-like scenarios include applying rigid (non-exploratory) rules to social acts.  However, making dynamic distinctions might illustrate where social and machine resources jointly can be constructive to processes that take place over time.

Machines and learning rules certainly added value where the subject matter involved keeping up with current work in a field – where the learning builds on prior knowledge and also does not depend on active interaction with other people in interpersonally attentive give-and-take.  Machines and learning rules also can contribute visual or structured information to topics where the subject matter is best seen whole before being analyzed in detail.  For example, in social sciences the physical energy of anecdotal (experiential) delivery and sharing, including machine or rule-mediated sharing, can contribute importantly to the self-exploration of inductively seen patterns of thought.  However, to complete drawing testable assertions from inductively seen patterns, students need to be able directly to share and critique their inductive processes.  The constructively critical sharing within the learning process is a non-machine, non-rigid, exploratory social experience.

Social-historical Whole-system Drivers

Looking back, the region-wide social-historical framing and taxpayer support are key contextual whole-system drivers behind the institutional success of diverse cultures productively sharing their learning in one wide-area high school for one semi-rural California “Class of 1965.”  The social, financial, and historical context of SYVUHS to 1965 enabled funded, engaged teachers to model effective learning for engaged students.  Social learning is inductive (seeing, sensing, and critiquing patterns), and analytic rule-mediated learning is deductive (drawing conclusions from “facts”).  The social, unscripted, non-machine element is the act of working together to design hypotheses to test conclusions against predictions about likely further patterns to be seen and assessed.  That whole inductive-deductive loop in its diverse social context enables a broad view of scientific method.  I’m thinking that social loop has been the human way forward for 250,000 years, and was active at SYVUHS.

Next up: Tom Bigda-Peyton discusses his experiences and lessons learned as the headmaster of a small private school.


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