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Hope in a hostile school environment

How a small high school for at-risk students is turning lives around
Lou Pepe directed the film The Bad Kids, which looks at how the teachers and staff at Black Rock High School confront crippling generational poverty, and create small victories for the students who have often lost any sense of hope for their future.
Lou Pepe directed the film The Bad Kids, which looks at how the teachers and staff at Black Rock High School confront crippling generational poverty, and create small victories for the students who have often lost any sense of hope for their future.

Every school district has that “last stop school” where the so-called “bad kids” end up. In California’s Morongo USD that school is Black Rock High School, remotely situated in the Mojave Desert.

The school serves a population of students who are often struggling academically and living in households with poverty, drug use and neglect.

A new film called The Bad Kids looks at how the teachers and staff at this school confront crippling generational poverty, and create small victories for the students who have often lost any sense of hope for their future. The film’s director, Lou Pepe, says the schools that at-risk students go to—or are sent to—are often punitive environments.

“Black Rock doesn’t take that attitude,” he says. “The school is not run on a fear of punishment. The school is run on a desire to be praised for accomplishment.”

How did you discover Black Rock High School?

My partner Keith and I had been doing “best practice” films, made in an observational documentary style. We were looking for everyday public school teachers who were doing great things with limited resources.

Our contact in the district said, “I have this school I want you to see. It’s a hidden gem in our district. It’s the school where all of the kids who can’t succeed at the regular high school go. There are a lot of teen parents there, there are a lot of kids dealing with substance abuse, sexual abuse, homelessness and neglect.”

And as she’s saying this, we’re thinking, “Yeah, I don’t know about that.” She said, “Trust me.”

When you see the school in the film, you see it’s not the environment you expect with pregnant kids and the juvenile detention kids. We were taken aback. We realized our initial resistance comes from our associations with who at-risk youth are. We thought, that’s our film. There’s something special there.

It’s shocking to hear so many of the kids say their father is in jail or they don’t know where their mother is. It’s hard for the viewer not to make assumptions about what these kids are really like.

We do make assumptions about them. We see the kid who’s aggressive and has a short temper and is fighting.

Then when you talk to the kids themselves or you talk to their teachers who know about their lives, you realize how many of the problems that these young people manifest are in response to really vulnerable situations that they’re in—really difficult problems that they’re facing as young people that most of us didn’t have to face as young people, and that most of us wouldn’t have the strength to face as adults.

There’s no magic curriculum at the school, there’s no special software at the school that solves its problems. There’s nothing like that.

It’s all about a more elemental human interaction—one that is easily lost unless we stop and think about how we incorporate empathy and listening and acknowledgement into our education environments.

The traditional grade measurement system doesn’t apply to schools like Black Rock. Why not?

Because it leads to a false expectation that public education is going to solve problems that are caused by generational poverty. The family structures that these young people come from are not family structures that are conducive to creating successful young people.

This is what public school teachers who deal with this segment of the student population are confronting. Black Rock High School has a way of dealing with it. It has an approach, it has a philosophy.

One thing that stood out to us was that teachers and staff model a type of familial interaction that we realized a lot of these kids don’t get from their biological families.

It does come across that the teachers and staff are almost like family to these students.

They look after the kids in that way. The principal, Vonda Viland, refers to it as a “nag and nurture” approach. And you realize, “Oh right, that’s what my parents did for me. They were very loving and nurturing and positive and enthusiastic, but they also called me on all the things I was doing that could sabotage my chances for success.”

Human empathy doesn’t cost money. That is the role that the teachers play at Black Rock High School. But one thing about the school that we need to support in public education is a lower student-to-teacher ratio. Black Rock, which only has 120 students, is small enough that all the teachers know everything about every student.

This allows them to be patient with the student. And the teachers are a team of people keeping tabs on the students.

Give me an example of how that works.

Every day after school the teachers all sit down for their lunch period—but it’s their joint prep period—where one of them will say, “This kid today was just so mean and nasty and angry.” And then the other teacher will say, “Oh, he and his mother got evicted last night. That’s why he’s behaving that way.”

And then you see this group of adults— in making themselves aware of everything that any given student is dealing with—are looking out for them.

One of the beautiful things about Black Rock High School is that the behavior is modeled by the teachers, but the students also learn how to look out for each other.

Do the students see Black Rock as their last chance?

They’re hyperaware of what they’ve been through, and incredibly, emotionally generous about not wanting other people to go through it. Some of them talk about wanting to be sexual abuse counselors. One girl told me about her career aspiration of being a cosmetologist, and I asked why she was interested in that.

She said, “I know how I feel when I have my hair done or my nails done. And if all I do is spend my day giving that feeling to at least one person in the world, then that would be a career that would make me really happy.”

This is a girl you see walking down the street, and she’s pregnant and you judge her without knowing anything about her. You think, “She must not be very intelligent if she’s putting her life in those circumstances at a young age.”

Those are the judgments that these kids are submitted to. Yet when you talk to her as a person, you think, “Oh my gosh, you are a more selfless and generous person than I am.”

There’s an intriguing scene where Principal Viland is disciplining a girl after a fight, and she says, “I was you 40 years ago.”

We intentionally don’t give you too much of Vonda’s background because the few things that we let you and the audience hear are the important things. Vonda Viland understands the bad kids because she was somebody who was labeled a bad kid, growing up in rural Minnesota.

We look at her now and say, “Oh wow, that woman’s got it together. She’s up at 3:30 a.m., she exercises, she goes to school, she works so hard, she’s tireless, she’s devoted, she cares, she’s genuine, she’s earnest with them.”

What we don’t think about is the fact that she was somebody we could have written off. She says, “Yeah I was the kid who always spoke back to the teachers. I was the kid who would get in fights. I was the kid who was dealing with my parents getting divorced and I was angry.”

Yet different people in her life didn’t give up on her and now what she does with herself and with that life experience is something hugely positive.

Can Black Rock’s success be replicated?

Yes. One key is that the school is run on a partial credit system. It’s the thing that makes all the difference for the students’ success. The student earns credit by the work. For every lesson, chapter, essay or whatever, there is a credit value assigned to it, and you have to earn 220 credits.

The students are able to see at any given moment—yesterday you earned .7 credits, today you earned 1.3 credits. The constant ability to track progress is the huge motivator, and they track it as a group. Everybody sees how much everybody else is earning.

People think, “If we could just clone Vonda Viland, all our problems would be solved.” But she will say she’s not the only one. There are lots of educators who are like her who need to be supported and fostered. Not every teacher is the right teacher to work with these kids.

There’s an idea about public education that a teacher should be able to just do it all. Well, no. There’s lots of different teachers with lots of different skills and strengths. We need to foster teachers in their respective strengths and we need to find the right teachers to work with at-risk youth.


Tim Goral is senior editor.