I grew up in California’s East San Francisco Bay Area, a diverse region which inevitably came with it’s own complex set of socioeconomic trends and tensions. I attended El Cerrito High, a mid-sized public school located in a semi-urban neighborhood just a few blocks removed from the small collection of shops and restaurants that make up downtown El Cerrito. Bordered by the stereotypically lower-income city of Richmond (with a median annual household income of around $44,000) and upper-middle class city of Kensington (with a median annual household income of around $140,000), El Cerrito High drew students from all three communities. This created a diverse student body representing a range of different backgrounds and experiences.
My school district, West Contra Costa Unified (WCCUSD), is ranked among the lowest-performing in California. Just like Chicago Public Schools, WCCUSD faces corruption, mismanagement of funds, and a rising tide of charter schools drawing resources away from public institutions. Below average SAT scores, a student counselor ratio of 550: 1, and lack of air conditioning in many of the buildings aligned El Cerrito High with other under-resourced public schools in the district. However, while I was peripherally aware of these issues at the time, they are not the things that defined my high school experience.
When I think back on my high school experience, it’s not the persistent lack of paper towels in the bathroom or the outdated textbooks that immediately come to mind. I think about my favorite teachers, who worked tirelessly during class, lunchtime, and after school hours to introduce us to new ideas and push us to think critically. I think about the flourishing programs that I got to be a part of, like Band, Speech and Debate, and Queer-Straight Alliance. And most of all, I feel nostalgia for the strong sense of community and pride that existed at my school. El Cerrito High School is a place where alumni return to become teachers and administrators, where parents volunteer their time to coach club sports, and where all sorts of community members gather to watch the homecoming parade. I always felt that people were invested in the school, its history, and its community. And that made all the difference.
My high school was far from perfect. In many ways, the school was unable to remedy the race and class divisions existing in its feeder communities. For example, there was a visibly higher concentration of high-income white students populating the honors and AP track classes. But there were also many efforts, from administration, teachers, parents, and students to address equity issues. Our School Activities Fund organization worked to provide support for extracurricular activities so that students from all backgrounds could participate, and our student health center hosted discussions and restorative justice circles to address topics such as the harms of a white supremacy mindset or homophobic language. My school was a place where we could address these issues instead of avoiding them, even if we couldn’t always fix them.
My experience represents the advantages of the public school system, as well as the challenges that the system is currently facing. I can honestly say that overall, I loved my public high school and am grateful for the opportunities that it offered me. Sure, the college application process and transition to higher level academia might have been easier coming from an elite, private institution. My education would probably have benefited from the resources and supports available in more affluent areas. But even without many of these resources, El Cerrito High managed to give me the tools I needed to scrape by as a first year at the University of Chicago (even if I had to play some catch-up). And perhaps more importantly, it allowed me to access a legacy of loyal community commitment and support, and to share the halls with the same people who live in and represent the El Cerrito community in all its diversity.
That’s why I share Generation All’s vision: strong neighborhood high schools for a stronger Chicago. At the center of the Gen All philosophy is the neighborhood public high school as a vital community pillar, an experience that I lived and loved.