Learning in the Real World

Our School

City High School is in the heart of downtown Tucson in what used to be the town’s oldest and most famous dress shop. It’s a unique location for a school, with everyone from dressed-up lawyers to hungry homeless people passing by on the sidewalk every day. We even have a neon sign in our storefront window, like all of the other businesses along our street.

Our school is new. It opened two years ago in September 2004 with 85 ninth and tenth graders. Now we’re in our third year, and for the first time we have all four grades and over 140 kids. City High School is small and friendly. Everybody knows each other. Our students come from all over Tucson with lots of different backgrounds. It’s not like other schools that are based on one area of town and can be really segregated.

Our school is special because it does so much to connect us with the community. We go on lots of field trips. We work with community partners. We have City Works classes. We even have our own garden. Every week we have a whole school meeting and guest speakers come and talk with us about cool programs we can get involved in.

Most schools are pretty good about teaching the basics like math and writing, but very few really teach teens how to apply all those skills and facts in the real world. At City High School, our learning goes beyond textbooks and tests. It’s not always easy, but we learn a lot.

Our Experiences
There is much we could say about what we do at City High School, but time and space are limited, so we decided to share just a few experiences that stand out in our minds. We hope that other students and teachers get inspired to try out ideas like these in their own schools. By the way, all of us mention “City Works” in our blurbs below. In case you’re wondering, that is the name of our school’s service-learning program. In addition to their regular core classes and electives, students are required to take City Works classes, which meet for a long block period every Wednesday.

In my City Works class last year, we had an intercambio with students from a high school in Nogales, Mexico. We took a few trips to Nogales, which is an hour away, and the students from Nogales came north to Tucson to visit us. We used a combination of Spanish and English to communicate, and it was fun to get to know the other kids and teach each other things. I understood some of what they were saying, but I’m not used to their Spanish. Together we all worked on different projects related to restoration of the Santa Cruz River. One time we dug holes to plant trees along the riverbank. Another time we built a greenhouse to grow seedlings, so that others could eventually put more plants by the river. We did a “now and then” project, comparing the Santa Cruz River from today to 100 years ago. We researched old photos at the Arizona Historical Society of the river and the way it used to look, and then we went up “A” Mountain and tried to take pictures of the exact same area as the old photos. We learned that there were big changes over the past 100 years. There used to be a lot more trees, and now there are a lot more houses. People’s attitudes have changed too. Today people think of the river as just a “dry wash” instead of a running river and don’t really respect it. They throw trash and other stuff in there and they really shouldn’t. I learned that we all need to help the environment.

Throughout my freshmen year last year, I was involved in many activities out in the community, and they were all really cool. In City Works, I was part of a group that helped to recreate a garden that was previously vandalized and burnt down. We did a lot of manual labor. We dug swales to help catch rainwater for the trees. We planted beans, lettuce, melons, sunflowers, and other Arizona native plants. Now the garden is doing much better, and more students are keeping it going this year. They’re hoping to grow enough food to sell at the local farmers market. In March, as part of our studies in science class, the whole ninth grade went to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. We stayed for four days at the Center for Ecological Study of Deserts and Oceans. We learned about marine biology, and observed beach life and tides. The trip was amazing, with 40 kids and a bunch of teachers staying together overnight. We learned a lot and had a ton of fun. Currently, I am in a City Works class called Science in the City. We’re taking a go-kart and making it run with an alternative fuel. Next semester, we’ll present the final project to fourth graders and their parents to help educate them on alternative fuels and how they can help with the issues of pollution and oil shortages.

My personal experiences in City Works have been nothing but educational. My first year, I took a City Works class focused on health and nutrition. For one of our big projects, the class prepared a lunch for the entire school. We were in charge of the whole thing. We had to plan a full and healthy meal to include fewer than 800 calories. We did the shopping, cooking, and serving. We created menus with nutritional information as a way of teaching our whole school about what we had learned. In that class, we also had workout sessions at the downtown YMCA facility. That might not seem like community service, but we were learning good habits for how to get and stay fit for life. We tried involving our parents in lots of the activities too, so that they could learn what we were learning. This year, I am in a City Works called Along the Border. This class is dealing with what else: the controversial issue of the US-Mexico border. I am learning the pros and cons and different sides of the immigration issue. The class has just started, so I don’t know yet where it will take me, but I know from my past experiences in City Works that I’ll learn a lot about what’s happening in the real world and that the class will make me and the other students be more active in our community.

All three of us are representatives on the Student Voice Committee, which is our school’s student government group. We have a few things in common: we like to be very busy and involved in activities, we were all born in December, and obviously, we all live in Tucson. On the other hand, our lives are pretty different from one another. We live in different neighborhoods and went to different schools before. If we didn’t go to City High School, we probably wouldn’t know each other.

City High School
Part of the Tucson Small School Project, City High School is a small public charter school preparing its inaugural class for high school graduation in the spring of 2007. Guided by place-based learning and the CES Common Principles, City High School partners with a variety of local organizations to offer its City Works curriculum.

Ilyssa Buffalo: I am sixteen years old, and I am a junior. I like to volunteer in my community. My mom and I do a lot of walks to raise money and awareness for major health issues, like AIDS, cancer, and diabetes. My freshman year, I went to a big school and didn’t do as well. It was hard to get one-on-one help from the teachers and the classes were too big, so I switched to City High at the beginning of tenth grade.

Vicki Kahn: I am fourteen years old. I have been at this school since my freshman year, and I plan on graduating from City High. I live in the northwest part of town. I like coming downtown to school, where everything is more diverse and interesting. I was born in Hawaii and dream about moving back there one day.

Ashleigh Read: I am sixteen years old and have lived in Tucson my whole life. I have attended City High School for three years, since it first started, and each year I have seen how the teachers and students have made it better and better. I work hard in my classes, and I am planning to be a lawyer when I grow up.