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By Susan Philips

What makes a good school? I posed this question to seven former high school students in their mid-20s from urban, rural and suburban schools in California. This was prior to the current pandemic, and while distance learning has multiple challenges, I believe students’ answers would stay much the same.

What I discovered is that despite their economic and social differences, students had a remarkable consensus on the question.

A good school, students said, is a safe place where they can develop supportive relationships with adults, especially their teachers. They also brought up the importance of inspiring and passionate teachers, electives, and extracurricular activities, but they believed that establishing meaningful connections with adults is the key to a good school.

They spoke about wanting to be “seen,” acknowledged and cared for.

“I believe a good school is having teachers who see the potential in every child,” said Jackelyn Valladares, a graduate of John Marshall High (JMHS) in Los Angeles and the first in her family to go to college. “Mr. Price at Dayton Heights Elementary School realized that I was struggling in English, but he knew that I was a hard worker and that I listened to all his instructions. He took extra time with me after school to review so he was sure that I understood what was going on. He told me, ‘You are a very bright person. You can do a lot.’”

“Reducing class size has the potential to fundamentally transform our schools from places where students feel anonymous to ones where they feel recognized for who they are and what they offer.”

Added Carly Liang, a graduate of Diamond High School in Walnut Valley, “My physics teacher never presented herself as the almighty teacher. She would share her experiences. She inspired us. She gave us confidence.”

Daniel Gonzalez, a graduate of JMHS and first in his family to go to college, said, “I like to be acknowledged as smart. When I am slacking off and a teacher tells me, ‘I expected more from you,’ that’s always a wake-up call, and I will turn things around. This shows me that they recognize my abilities. Some students need a push.”

While all students need to be acknowledged, the need for a “push” is especially important for students who come from urban communities. “I grew up in a community where there was a lot of trouble on the streets. There was a lot of peer pressure,” said Jorge Rodriquez, who now teaches at JMHS, his alma mater. “Kids get stuck there, and that changes them. When kids get to school in the morning, they need to feel safe and secure and know they are about to enter a school that cares about them and their education.”

What can we do to make sure that we reach the students who need pushing? What kinds of reforms should we pursue? One thing is sure: High-stakes testing, teacher accountability and standards are not the answer.

What is the answer? Class size reduction is the only way to ensure that every child gets the attention they need. Despite the efforts of teachers, there is no way they can reach 40 or 50 students in a classroom. The students were clear on this point. As Gonzalez said, “When teachers have smaller classes, they can get to know students at a different level. The smaller the class, the more you feel valued. My opinion, my answers, my participation is important to the class. In a large class, the same five kids always answer. Whether I answer or not doesn’t matter because I’m just one of many. Knowing that you matter is important.”

The good news is that teachers across the country are striking and bargaining for smaller classes. Reducing class size is expensive, but this reform has the potential to fundamentally transform our schools from places where students feel anonymous to ones where they feel recognized for who they are and what they offer. That’s what students tell us, and isn’t that the goal of public education?

Susan Philips, former middle school teacher and UTLA member, directs CollegePath LA at John Marshall High School.