from Neon Tommy|USC Annenberg School of Communications & Journalism | Mary Slosson/Executive Producer - http://bit.ly/f0TRzM
San Pedro High teacher Steve Gebhart (Photo Mary Slosson)
January 6, 2011 - At least once a week, Maria walks into her 8:00 a.m. Honors English class at San Pedro High School drunk. She rarely smiles, and her sad eyes belie the fact that her angst is caused by more than teenage insecurities.
Under the guidance of English teacher Steve Gebhart, she writes poetry that details the pressures of her home life. She resents her single mother, whom she writes hates her and can’t wait for her to leave their home.
Another student, Sofia, reveals a similarly tortured family background in her poetry for Gebhart’s class. She writes about her father, who was addicted to heroin and incarcerated. At the end of her poem, she reveals that he is now dead.
Welcome to San Pedro High School.
Ranked three out of 10 – with one being the worst – by the state of California with an Academic Performance Index (API) of 675, the school sits on a hill overlooking the heavily industrial Port of Los Angeles, and draws many students from dockworker families.
The neighborhood surrounding the school is split down the middle by Gaffey Street, which runs parallel to the port. Uphill, above Gaffey, the neighborhood is squarely middle class. However, as one descends downhill below Gaffey and towards to port, drugs, crime, and poverty mix to create a struggling neighborhood with troubled students.
Over 50 percent of the student body comes from an unstable background, including homeless students, students with abusive parents, and students with absent or incarcerated parents. Drug use in the neighborhood is pervasive.
“There’s a real diversity of socio-economics in San Pedro,” said Gebhart. “Its really unique because there are a lot of economically middle class families that are not educationally middle class because of the port and the docks.”
The dockworkers “make three times as much money as I do, so what am I going to offer them educationally if they can make it without the education?” wonders Gebhart. “There’s a real diversity of people at this school, and the confluence of all those different influences impact my classroom.”
Steve Gebhart knows the Los Angeles public school system. Born and raised in Gardena, he attended Gardena High School and, after a stint as an engineer for what is now Northrop Grumman, returned to Gardena High to teach 11 years ago.
Six years ago he moved to San Pedro and began teaching English, Humanities, and Journalism at San Pedro High.
“Its so nice living in the community in which I teach,” said Gebhart. “I see my kids all over the place and it gives a whole different perspective, both that I have of them and that they have of me.”
Gebhart has a charismatic persona that endears him with his students. He is bespectacled and balding, but with the sporty physique of an athlete that is vaguely reminiscent of blogger Andrew Sullivan. He has an assortment of tattoos on his arms, including one that his students particularly like which reads, “knowledge is power.”
His presence – in the hallways, in the classroom, in the community – is gregarious and compassionate. Between classes, he stands in the hallways and cracks jokes with students as they make their way to class. On Friday nights, he brings his wife and kids to the high school football games. For him, teaching is a mission that goes beyond just being an instructor in the classroom. Instead, he tries to be a positive role model to his students, demonstrating through his own life the importance of being a well-rounded individual.
Gebhart is part of a young, new generation of public education advocates who choose to be teachers, turning down other, far more lucrative careers in order to try to make a difference in the classroom.
Like many teachers in this new, idealistic generation, Gebhart is not waiting for superman and is anti-charter school. He is a vocal advocate for the public education system. His four children either went through or are currently going through Los Angeles’ urban public schools.
“If the parents’ goal for their child is to really make them a citizen, a real member of their community, then public schools are the best way to do that,” said Gebhart. “That is the real way to expose them to reality, to expose them to different experiences and people. Here at this school, we’ve got kids of all races, all socioeconomic classes.”
While public education is the bedrock of society, it is admittedly coming under criticism for struggling, especially in the state of California.
In the perfect illustration of his advocacy, Gebhart came to my interview with him armed with articles, including a recent one by George Skelton in the Los Angeles Times arguing that California’s public elementary and high schools are “pretty good, given all the problems of funding a diversity.”
San Pedro High is 70 percent Hispanic and draws from an area with a significant percentage of English language learners. Despite these challenges to test performance, numbers across LAUSD are improving.
Education consultant John Mockler – who authored the education finance law Proposition 98 – notes that, over the past seven years, the number of Latino students who scored proficient or advanced in reading doubled from 20 to 40 percent. In math, the number of Latinos who scored in the top two ranks jumped from 23 to 39 percent over the same time period, an increase of 70 percent.
But if the schools are to continue to improve, Gebhart believes that all parties involved, from teachers and parents all the way up to politicians and educational reformers, need to start cooperating.
“The untold story [of schools] is the interrelationship between the community, the school, the teachers, and the bureaucracy – and the impact each has on the other,” said Gebhart. “They’ve almost got an oppositional, rather than supportive, relationship.”
Increasing standardized testing requirements are hindering real learning and fail to properly summarize the accomplishments of students, according to Gebhart.
“There are so many below the surface factors that are not being considered in overall student lives,” he said. “If Maria felt better about her mom, she wouldn’t be drinking. Or if Sofia’s dad hadn’t been a heroin addict. They’re not able to perform at their peak ability.”
Standardized testing and teacher evaluations fail to accommodate for such circumstances, which are sadly not uncommon in Los Angeles’ urban schools.
The teacher is but one element in the complex maze of parties invested in the success of public education. “The current dialogue only puts the blame – and therefore the solution – in my lap. And I’m doing everything I can,” says Gebhart.
The fruits of his labor are undeniable. His students rave about the positive influence he has in their lives.
At the end of each year, students in his English and Humanities courses write a personal poem and share it with the class. To establish trust among his students, Gebhart shares a personal story of his own. Last year, he told his students about the challenges of raising his son with his ex-wife.
In return for his show of trust, students like Maria and Sofia share with not only him, but also their peers, intimate poems that detail their own triumphs and struggles.
“A lot of kids feel like they can open up to him because he does the same thing to us,” said student Eric Gallegos. “He definitely provides support for us not only as a teacher but also as a friend and counselor.”
“He's definitely my favorite teacher,” said fellow student Jennifer Robles. “When I had him for English, I was not good at writing at all. Then when we would do essays on books we would read, he would help me with writings standards and all of the sudden I got really good."
Robles is now taking Gebhart’s Journalism course because of her positive experience in his English class last year. Another student, Gabriella Herrera, also enrolled in Gebhart’s Journalism course after taking English with him.
“He's a great teacher, he's an awesome teacher,” said Herrera. “He works with you, learns your strengths and your weaknesses, and works with you to improve upon them.”
The testimony of Gebhart’s students shines, providing a positive example of what education done right can accomplish.
The challenges of the underfunded, overcrowded public education system are immense. As a heated debate about the benefits of alternative systems like charter schools and magnet schools rages around him, Steve Gebhart spends each day in the classroom, trying to make a difference in the halls of San Pedro High.
In his classroom and in those of the teachers around him, nobody is waiting for superman to save public education in America. Instead, a committed group of fallible humans are connecting with students on a personal level, trying their best to teach the next generation how to be responsible citizens in a complicated world.
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(Maria and Sofia are not real names, which have been changed to protect the student’s identities.)
smf: I’m not sure what an executive producer of a digital publication does. In the film industry, the executive producer is the person who oversees the production logistics and monetary aspects of a film (been there/done that) – it is not a creative title!