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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Students Learn to Make a Difference

When parents and educators pulled together to start this East Oakland school, their mission wasn't just to reinvigorate education; it was to change lives. Read the article.
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Students Learn to Make a Difference (Transcript)

Keiko Suda: Today we're going to start our study of nuclear weapons and atoms and chemistry by giving a little context to why some of this science-y stuff is important to study about.

Narrator: A bold experiment in education is under way at ASCEND School in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California.

Keiko Suda: So, I'd like you to write down your feelings and facts that you have as you look at each of these photos.

Hae-Sin Kim: Quality education is a curriculum that pushes kids. It's not making them feel safe or comfortable all the time or successful. It's supposed to be frustrating. It's supposed to make kids really think. It's supposed to push them out of their comfort zone, give them new experiences, ask questions, find answers to their questions. Understand that, like, life is not an answer. Life is a question.

Keiko Suda: I think that some people would say that seventh-graders shouldn't be looking at these images and that they're too young, and I don't agree with that. I think that you look at the video games that our third-graders are playing and they're just as graphic. The first day that I was here, one of my brand-new students came in to me during lunch time, and he was like, "Keiko, have you ever seen anybody get killed?" And I said, "Well, in fact, I have seen somebody, you know, get shot." And he's like, "Yeah, I've seen 11 people get shot," and so our kids are really dealing with some very heavy issues in their lives.

Narrator: Heavy issues like violence, overcrowding, low test scores and low expectations led parents in this East Oakland community to demand something better for their kids.

Emma Paulino: This about the child's future, and we the parents need to learn that we can make a difference just by getting involved at the school, so I think that's so important for parents to understand that we're not going to let other people decide for our kids.

Narrator: With help from the nonprofit Oakland community organizations, a group of parents lobbied the school board to create a new K-through-eighth-grade school for 200 students. One of five new schools to open in the fall of 2001, ASCEND stands for A School Cultivating Excellence Nurturing Diversity.

Hae-Sin Kim: We're actually out to reform the public school system, and I think that we've definitely taken a step in the right direction.

Narrator: One key to the reformation effort is the concept of expeditionary learning, a teaching method that encourages students to dig deeply into a single subject.

Keiko Suda: So that's not absolutely set in stone.

Narrator: Twice a year, students work with their teachers to come up with a question or area of inquiry that they will pursue for the next several months. They integrate math, science and English studies and, with the help of local artists, express themselves in artwork, dance, video, drama and music. [ girl singing ] The process of deep inquiry into a single subject is the same, whether it's seventh-graders studying the war or first-graders focusing on frogs.

That green dot is called a spiracle.

Keiko Suda: If you study something really deeply, you become very invested in it, so what you're seeing, even with the frogs in the first grade, is tremendous investment. Kids really, really care about frogs. It wouldn't have been as deep if they'd studied frogs for two days and lizards for two days.

It's just a frog that we made that sticks out its tongue. A lot of people wanted a tongue, but they didn't have to get a tongue, but I did.

Narrator: For their science class, ASCEND's seventh-graders explored the impact of AIDS.

Can you believe this arrogance? They think they can stop us. Nothing can stop us.

Keiko Suda: Our question was: How does AIDS affect us physically and socially? We read stories of teenagers who had HIV. We learned about the immune system. We went and we visited a house where HIV-positive people live.

And it's for people who have HIV/AIDS who are homeless.

Keiko Suda: And so the students got a chance to meet about five people who were living with AIDS and they got to hear their stories. And then we started making the movie. So we actually filmed the whole movie in a week. One group went through and was like, "Where are we going to shoot these scenes? How are we going to contact these people? So the kids were actually part of the logistical organizing, and they really got into it.

Do you really think I'm scared of your pathetic immune system?

Keiko Suda: It was really exciting for me to see how they could really learn science in the context of a really important issue.

You're crazy. I'll never help you.

Oh, yes, you will. You see, you're going to be my host. I will enter you and hijack your nucleus.

Narrator: After studying AIDS, the seventh-graders dedicated their second semester to the study of the war in Iraq.

Elena Aguilar: At the end of our last semester, which ended in January, I gave the students a survey asking them what topics and themes in history they wanted to study more about, and the results were that the kids wanted to study about Islam. They wanted to study about the Middle East and they wanted to study about war, and in order to do that, the kids immediately realized, "We need to hear multiple voices, and one of those voices we want to hear are Iraqi people and Iraqi children." And so we had e-mail pen pals in Baghdad.

My name is Jolis. We are people who love peace. We won't accept occupation. We say no to war, yes to peace.

Dear Joanna, I was so excited to hear from you. I really don't want this war, because it is pretty harmful.

What do they want? Our oil? It's not theirs, after all.

Elena Aguilar: We're about to march in there. They're doing this massive buildup, and you sense the tension building, and we're getting it firsthand. I mean, this is a primary source. It's a brilliant way for these children to learn about Iraq.

Anyway, I felt better when I knew that someone really cares over there.

President George W. Bush: My fellow citizens, this hour American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

Elena Aguilar: When the war started, right away they started asking questions that were -- sort of came out naturally. Well, you know, we're seeing all of this coverage, but where are stories about children? What about our pen pals? Are they okay? These anonymous lights in the sky, but what are those bombs hitting? Are they hitting my friend?

They gathered at Market and Powell this morning around 9:00 A.M. holding pictures of Iraqi children. Today they say their march was about expressing their feelings and it's not an antiwar march.

Elena Aguilar: I said it's not black and white when you're talking with kids. They have complex emotions. They're confused. They're sad. They're frustrated, and they feel disempowered, because they feel like people don't listen to children. And they are worried about their friends.

Sarita Allen: I think that we shouldn't have this war, because Iraq already is kind of war in a way, and it's, like, 50 percent of the people there are children, so basically more children are getting bombed than parents.

Huber Trenado: The march was really cool, because it was silent. It was with the posters, and then this man came up to us, saying, "Get back to your country. Why are you over here marching? You're not even from this nation." And I felt really bad, because this is actually my nation and it made me feel, like, intimidated, but then I believed they're just saying that so the young kids will feel scared and not come out and speak out what they feel.

Narrator: The seventh-graders' peaceful protest caught the attention of news media around the world, from CNN to NBC's "Today Show."

Soledad O'Brien: Huber, are you concerned about your friends?

Huber Trenado: If they're dead, it's really sad, so I don't know what to do. I feel really confused.

Soledad O'Brien: Some of the response was not positive for the antiwar protest. In fact, there were many adults who said they felt like the students were being used as pawns for the adults. Do you think that that's the case? How would you respond to those people?

Carina Soto: Those people are wrong, because we all have a mind of our own. If they want to believe that our teacher was forcing us to do that, they didn't. Some students refused to go, but I really wanted to go, because I really wanted to get my voice out.

Soledad O'Brien: All right. Well, Carina, thank you for joining us.

Narrator: Having become the subject of media coverage themselves, the students gained new insights as they studied how the war was being covered in print and on TV.

Elena Aguilar: I have a list of questions here. Not all of them apply to every photo, but in this photo, who do you identify with and who do you feel empathy for?

The Iraqi civilian.

Elena Aguilar: The Iraqi civilian? What other kinds of things do you think you might think?

Well, I realize this: It's like if you look at this picture you feel sorry for the soldiers, and that kind of makes you want to support the war, but then if you look at this picture, you feel sorry for the Iraqis, and that makes you think that the war isn't necessary.

Narrator: At the end of the semester, the seventh-graders held an evening class teach-in for their parents about the war. For the parents, it was a chance to discover how much their children had learned about the war and to get new information on the subject.

We've been studying this a really long time, and they don't have the education like we have. They just learned a whole lot.

Hae-Sin Kim: Academically, we're starting to see what difference these schools can make. Our Stanford 9 test scores just came out across all the schools, and our school, as well as the other small schools, showed dramatic gains.

Narrator: The last stop on the seventh-grade expedition was Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, where the class recorded a CD of peace songs, hoping to send the proceeds from their sales to their pen pals in Iraq.

Elena Aguilar: The beginning of the war, we started working with our musician, Sara, on singing songs of peace, and as we started singing them, it was such a relief in the middle of all this misery to be able to sing and create something beautiful and express our feelings in that way.

Hae-Sin Kim: I think there's a switch in all of us, you know, something that turns you on to suddenly not only, like, learning, but just your own thinking. I feel like our seventh-graders have become thinkers now. The switch is on. They're thinking of themselves as change-makers, as people who have voices, who have power, who can articulate, who are respected. They just made this huge leap. Suddenly they are deep, critical, reflective, powerful thinkers, and I think this curriculum turned the switch on.

Elena Aguilar: I look at a few of my kids and I say, "He would have dropped out. Any other school, by now he would be out. This one would never be singing like this in front of all his peers." They're learning stuff that they're going to remember for their lives. They are so motivated. These kids are going to go to college. That's why I'm a teacher, and I couldn't be a teacher anywhere else, because it doesn't happen like that elsewhere. You know, what I envisioned and what I hoped would happen here is happening, and it makes it all worth it.

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Leigh Iacobucci
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Roberta Furger


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Brian Cardello
  • Ken Ellis
  • Leigh Iacobucci
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Jerry Neuman
  • Lewis Block


  • Kris Welch


  • Ed Bogas

Additional Footage Courtesy of:

  • KGO-TV / ABC7
  • Oakland Community Organizations
  • Keiko Suda

Editor's Note: Former principal Hae-Sin Kim moved on from the ASCEND School in 2004 to spend several years working with the Oakland Unified School District's New School Development Group. She recently left the district to found urbanED Solutions, a nonprofit education consulting organization.

ASCEND teacher Elena Aguilar moved on to become an instructional coach -- and an blogger. (Read her occasional blog posts about where these students are now, including this one.) ASCEND is still growing and going strong, with Principal Larissa Adam at the helm.

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