Local view: Duluth East puts emphasis on making students feel good
When I was a student teacher at San Fernando High School in California, I wasn't exposed to the greaser image of a Lou Diamond Phillips-type portraying Ritchie Valens. I dealt with ninth- through 11th-graders who would come zombie-like to class w...
When I was a student teacher at San Fernando High School in California, I wasn't exposed to the greaser image of a Lou Diamond Phillips-type portraying Ritchie Valens. I dealt with ninth- through 11th-graders who would come zombie-like to class with a possible inkling of becoming engaged in my history lesson and excited only when I discussed World War I artillery.
Coming to Duluth East as an AmeriCorps volunteer some 2,000 miles north in my father's hometown after 13 years in the Sun Belt has been a culture shock in more than one way. The thing that surprises me most about Duluth East is that it's the unprecedented feel-good school. There are posters everywhere encouraging students in sports, academics or school events. You don't need a smile from another student to feel upbeat; there are hand-painted signs everywhere for that. Even in the girls' locker room downstairs there's a poster of Eleanor Roosevelt next to the mirror: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent," it reads.
If I was a slightly obese child standing next to a tall, thin cheerleader, I would not even have the possibility of thinking bad thoughts about myself at East. The school gives off a vibe of the Summer of Love from some 1969 throwback movie. I mean, who could actually fail at this school?
New hand-created mini posters appear daily on lockers to cheer students on by name for the sporting event they are playing that day. With so much salutation, a student could be left to believe the only alternative to success is a milder version of superior. Of course, I did pass an obscure poster in the English corridor that read, "Even if you try and fail it is better than succeeding by cheating."
The longitude and latitude of the poster psychology at Duluth East High School is enough to cover every psychological hang-up a student might face during any given day. There are even posters offering an anonymous texting service should anyone be feeling depressed.
As an AmeriCorps volunteer working in the tutor room, I can say I couldn't be happier with my decision to relocate to my father's hometown of Duluth. I have a ninth-grader who also came here from the San Fernando Valley. There, test standards were surprisingly high, but the students seemed zoned out in their crumped-up, red-dyed hairdos; Freddie Mercury undertones; and gauges, or orifice earrings, the size of soda cans.
I have to admire a school like East where the executive board, the ones responsible for generating all the student posters, is so dedicated. Committee members were at the school every day from Aug. 15 to Sept. 6, preparing the corridors with the school colors, red and gray, to uplift every student who would be traveling down the halls.
The seniors also created a Hound Pack Committee to indoctrinate freshmen to the new school. Each Hound Pack leader had about 10 students to show around and to offer pointers. Each group created colorful hats to theme their group on the day before school.
My own son came home from East feeling like he belonged to something. That positive impression started before he even stepped his big toe through the front door on his first day.
If every part of America could experience this, high school could be a culture to be welcomed instead of dreaded.
After working in a probation school in Pacoima, Calif., where kids turned off the lights and threw full cans of open sodas at substitute teachers, I can say I have reached the edge of paradise on Lake Superior. The purely pine tree and aqua environment parallels a reflection of the happiness Duluth students embrace. I hope my son falls into that prism where the reflection of the water lights the city and the visual stimulation is an everyday thing, not an occasional compliment.
Jane Hoffman is an AmeriCorps volunteer working at Duluth East High School.