Addressing Inequality

A Cholla High class uses scientific methods to learn about the social environment they live in

In a portable classroom situated on a remote corner of a high school campus, a revolution is underway.

Students at Cholla High Magnet School are breaking new ground by using advanced research methods to effect social change. In its second year at the school, the Social Justice Education Project serves as a model for actively engaging students in their own education.

"The goal of the project is for SJEP students to use their research as a vehicle for action that will address the inequalities that students of color experience in public schools," states the introduction to Listen and Learn, a publication produced by students at the end of the study's first year. "With students leading the way and conducting the study, SJEP provides the rare opportunity for student voices and ideas to enter the official dialogue on school policy and reform."

The publication goes on to describe research methodology, offer a review of the college-level literature the students read, present results and offer recommendations for change.

As the result of a process involving dialogue, personal reflection and questionnaires, students and project coordinators chose four topics on which to focus their efforts: media representation of students of color; stereotypes of students within schools; critical thinking vs. passivity in education; and loss of culture for students of color. The class divided itself into four groups, with each taking responsibility for researching one topic.

In addition to Listen and Learn, students scripted, shot, edited and produced Questions for Answers, a documentary focusing on the educational, environmental, housing and other resources unavailable to southside students that are commonplace for their northside counterparts. The DVD offers visual evidence of the obstacles to social, economic and academic advancement that southside students face.

This year's class, which doubled in size to approximately 30 students, opted to look at media representation again, but this time by focusing on the negative effects of the media on youth and women of color. Other groups are examining poverty; verbal abuse and racism in the family; and the effects of a negative environment on student motivation.

Outside the classroom, the students use college-level techniques to observe, write field notes, interview subjects and draw conclusions. Twice weekly, the high school seniors take on the role of graduate students by bringing the results of their research to class for discussion and critical examination in a seminar-like atmosphere.

Besides offering a unique educational experience, the SJEP impacts the students outside the classroom. By incorporating what they've learned into their personal lives, the students acquire skills and perspectives enabling them to successfully navigate roadblocks to achievement.

Kim Dominguez, 20, is one of several students who graduated last year and found her life transformed as a result of participation in the project. Dominguez, who continues with the SJEP as a part-time assistant as she attends Pima Community College, says she took the class because she was drawn to the material.

"Before I took this class, it was kind of like running a race without a map. This class helped me learn how to channel my anger. You're given a map where you can see the obstacles.

"I didn't feel part of my education, but in this class, I felt connected," Dominguez continues. "We got to participate in our education and be involved in decision making. I saw that one person can affect the lives of others."

Zenia Rodriguez, 17, a member of this year's class, echoes that sentiment. "I learned that as youth, we can make changes by our positive attitude," she says. Rodriguez serves as Cholla senior-class president.

It is evident that students are making changes. Jaime Torres, 18, realizing his own culpability in yelling at his younger brothers, and says he stopped the behavior.

Members of the media study group, Luis Valdez, 18, and Sandra Ruiz, 17, have learned to actively observe and bring a critical perspective to news outlets, magazines, the Internet and even MTV.

"On MTV, rock music videos dehumanize women," Ruiz says.

Neither student had kind words for the media. "The media controls everything we do," says Valdez, adding, "We should try to observe things more critically. They're trying to tell you what to think, what to eat, how to dress."

Elijah Sutherland, 17, and a member of the poverty study group, says he took the class because he wanted something more active than the usual course. "Poverty is a bigger problem than people recognize. They may not like to see that it could happen in America. You never see politicians talking about it, because they don't want to admit it could happen to people--not in America," he says.

Another senior, Vinny Ortega, 17, notes, "The class opened my eyes to a lot of different things. Many high school kids have blinders on. This class made me aware of how people are, why people act the way they do. I believe I can make a change, and this class provides an opportunity."

The SJEP is the brainchild of Julio Cammarota, UA assistant professor with the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, as well as the UA's Mexican American Studies and Research Center. Cammarota, who earned a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in social and cultural studies in education, had the project in mind before setting foot on the UA campus several years ago.

"I talked about doing this when I interviewed for the university," says Cammarota. "I had met Tom Scarborough (then principal at Cholla) who introduced me to Auggie Romero. Auggie said, 'OK, let's do it.'"

Romero, director of Mexican American/raza studies for Tucson Unified School District; Larry Lopez, social studies teacher at Cholla; Cammarota; and UA graduate students began their collaboration in January 2003. The objective was to employ the unique approach of placing students in leadership positions where they, rather than credentialed "experts," would design and implement the research.

The singular nature of a project that meets state standards for the social science curriculum, while incorporating significant critical theory and inquiry, has drawn the attention of several professional organizations and academics from across the country. Members of last year's class made presentations at several annual meetings, including the American Education Research Association, where they received a standing ovation. Listen and Learn and Questions for Answers are in use in ethnic studies, sociology and anthropology classes at several universities.

In an e-mail to Cammarota, Barbara Cohen, acting chair of the literacy studies department at Hofstra University, expressed high praise for the AERA presentation. "It was the most inspiring and informative presentation I have seen anywhere in quite a while," she wrote. "I was so impressed with the way in which you invited the students to become researchers who can make a difference in their community as well as in their own lives."

The project has been less well received at home. With the exception of a commitment to continue the SJEP, none of the student recommendations have been implemented by TUSD. This doesn't surprise Cammarota.

"Our societal perspective of young people is they have nothing to offer," he says. "We're horrible about allowing young people to participate in the democratic process but make policy that affects them without their input."

Despite Dominguez's persistent efforts, neither of the daily newspapers expressed an interest in covering the project. This lack of attention reinforces a conclusion from last year's media group: Misrepresentation of people of color is rampant.

"When the media reports on fights, crime, and other bad events, most of the time it ends up focusing on blacks or Mexicans," the students wrote, noting that positive coverage is primarily reserved for Anglos.

Despite the obstacles, Cammarota is optimistic. "What's encouraging is we're constantly proven right. If we give young people the opportunity to have a stake in their own lives, to have their views heard, they will rise to the occasion, be motivated by opportunity, want to be educated and want to participate."

Students involved in SJEP bear out his observations, often finding their lives changed in unexpected ways. Veronica Trujillo, 18, was contemplating leaving school before her involvement in the project last year. Instead, she says, "After a while, I couldn't wait to go to school." Though she never planned to attend college, she is currently in the process of applying to Pima.

According to Cammarota, Nate Camacho made his way through school uninvolved and largely ignored by his teachers. After working on the project's documentary, Camacho developed an interest in film and is currently involved in constructing a Web site for the SJEP.

A partnership between the UA and TUSD, the project is funded by the Annie E. Casey and VisionMark foundations, TUSD's Mexican American/raza studies department, the university's Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology and the Mexican American Studies and Research Center.