When Sarah Diaz was a freshman at the Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, Calif., one of the nation’s first ‘green’ charter schools, she didn’t know much about conservation or social justice. But she soon had her family recycling, planting native plants and installing low-flow shower heads. She also learned about César Chávez, founder of the National Farmworkers Association, and the rights of migrant workers.
“They made us aware of things that were happening in our own community, which was a really great strategy,” she said. “It made me very passionate.”
Like 90 percent of the students at the school, located in a low-income neighborhood south of Los Angeles, Diaz went on to college. Today she is a Spanish teacher at the school.
“I couldn’t see myself teaching anywhere else,” she said. “Throughout high school, we were taught the importance of coming back to the community. They told us, ‘With all the education you obtain, you have to come back. These are the people who need your help the most.’”
The school, which has a study body that is 70 percent Latino, recently celebrated its 12th anniversary. ECHS officials have now opened a middle school, with plans for another next year, and boast that 30 schools across California have adopted their curriculum and approach to learning.
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ECHS is ranked in the top 3 percent of public highs schools by U.S. News & World Report and two years ago, narrowly missed having President Obama speak at their graduation ceremony; US Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis came instead.
Alison Suffet Diaz, the school’s founder and executive director, is a former lawyer who became inspired to go into teaching after she got involved in a law program that taught high school kids about their constitutional rights.
“I recognized through that process that getting kids engaged in problem solving and implementing solutions was the most meaningful part of the educational process,” she said. “It made them feel powerful and gave them motivation to succeed.”
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