Paul White is a self-contained alternative high school teacher for the Los Angeles County Office of Education (CA). He has been interviewed by “People” magazine and CBS because he has found a way to transform the lives of children who others believed had no future -- not just by teaching academic subjects, but also moral values, responsibility, respect, truth and love. In addition, he shares insights from the Bible that have helped him provide structure and requirements for these at-risk students that support their academic and personal growth and success, which he attributes to God.
How did you decide to start your own school?
I came to L.A. County schools in ’98 after having started up and run an elementary charter school in San Luis Obispo for 18 months. I started at L.A.’s worst school -- 2 assaults the first 2 days, etc. I turned around this “worst” school (a 3-classroom operation like the one I’m now in) in a matter of weeks. My contract was not renewed, however; I was not tenured yet. I fought it successfully with the help of much support from agencies and individuals who’d witnessed the transformation. I heard a new site would soon be available, and I came up with a comprehensive plan for helping high-risk kids (or any kid) succeed based on many years of experience and many programs. After a lot of battles, a partner and I were given the new site to implement our plan, and the result is what we have today.
What’s your alternative school like?
It’s a year-round school for kids (I have about 20 at a time) for whom the traditional education system hasn’t worked. Sometimes they just don’t want to go to school. Some are lost on a campus with 3-4000 kids. Sometimes it’s drugs, alcohol, or family issues. Sometimes they’ve been thrown out of school for fighting, dealing or using drugs, or being involved in gangs. That’s how they happen to come to my school. Typically, schools like mine are filled with kids who are forced to be there -- almost exclusively probationers and expellees. Our school’s program has become so strong and successful that currently, every child we have chooses to be here. We take students on a first-come/first-served basis, and usually have a modest waiting list. I like teaching at my school because, in a lot of cases, these are kids where the home environment hasn’t been able to deal with them, but they are often really capable kids who can be very successful with the right structure.
How are you providing structure that supports the students’ growth and success?
Kids are comfortable when they know the structure and boundaries, so there are basic minimum rules that leave the kids clear in their own minds. Some are procedural rules -- showing up on time, daily attendance with no excuses, etc. We also require students to enroll in a college or vocational ed. class every semester. Students 16 years and over are required to have paid part-time employment and put 25% of their earnings in a savings account. For students under 16, this same requirement can be taken care of by having a job of their choice if they can find it (with the same savings requirement), or a second class, or weekly volunteer community service. On top of these requirements, all students regularly participate in voluntary community service projects as a whole group during the school day, which I supervise -- going to senior citizens’ homes, helping at homeless shelters, paying support to three foster children, doing neighborhood clean-up projects, etc. We also require mandatory drug testing. So, they’re expected to be honest and tell me if they’re using. If they are “dirty,” we set a period of time in which they need to test clean. If they fail to test clean at this point, we tell them, “We love you, but you can’t come back until you’re clean.” When it comes to moral issues, the boundaries are fixed. As long as they’re staying within the boundaries, there are all kinds of freedoms. There’s a definition of the Ten Commandments that I really like: “They are protective fences around bottomless pits.” So it is with our rules: they are protective fences around the kids.
Are your rules based on the Ten Commandments?
Absolutely, as I think most all rules are. The students have to tell the truth, treat each other with respect, have respect towards their parents, be pure in their relationships with boys and girls. This doesn’t mean we live in an ascetic, monk-like community. We have a wonderfully happy, fun, and loving environment precisely because we honor the rules that society needs to survive.
Speaking of their parents, do you expect or require their involvement?
They must show up for 1-hour parent meetings once a month. We get this commitment when the students enroll. If there is an emergency, someone else from the family has to come to represent the child. Those are the terms. We tell our parents that in regards to preparing their children for a productive future, we can do it with them, but we can’t do it for them. To try to straighten the kids up and dis-empower the parents would be a horrible mistake. The parents aren’t the bad guys. A strong functioning parent is the best ally a school’s got.
How’s the response to your program?
The response we’re seeing now is the best we’ve ever seen; the results are “awesome,” as the students say. Many kids come in with long-standing addictions and go clean and sober on the spot, and it lasts. There are kids who literally see growth (based on objective standardized tests) of 4-6 years in a 12-month period. Our record is 7 years’ growth in 1 year. Most of our children are diagnosed with a variety of learning disabilities, come in with a 3rd or 4th grade reading level, and end up equaling or surpassing their peers, who attend traditional schools. Our kids take community college classes and AP classes. We get parent after parent literally lined up at my door telling me how their children have changed like “pow.” And this is sometimes after I’ve had them only for 6 or 7 days.
To what do you attribute the transformative power at your school?
Completely to God! I’ve seen too many things to have any doubt left. When I see child after child, literally hundreds over the years, walk in damaged and walk out whole, it would defy logic for a person to say there’s not a presence, power, law, or principle at work that’s causing the transformation. It would be totally misplacing the credit to explain my school’s success as, “Earnest teacher dedicates long hours to help troubled kids.” Rather, it’s, “Smart teacher realizes that of his own he can accomplish little or nothing, turns to existing principle, and applies God’s laws to problems.” God’s laws are spiritual laws, the absolute truth revealed in the Bible -- the allness of God, the infinite goodness of God, the unerring intelligence of God, and therefore, the manifestation of these laws without exception in man (that’s all of us) and the universe.
Can you share some specific experiences you’ve had where students have turned around?
There are many. But one I will never forget is the story of a leader of the largest gang in the school. He had been incarcerated for two years by the time he was 15, which is when he became my student. We really liked each other, and there was mutual respect. But he was not changing his ways, and he committed another more serious crime. When he went to trial, I was asked to write a letter commenting on behaviors that I had observed in the classroom. I had to say that yes, he was still part of the gang, and yes, his behavior was still negative. The letter was part of the body of evidence that was used to send him to prison for 3 years. You would’ve thought our relationship would have ended, but I wrote to him, sent him money to buy new tennis shoes and little stuff. He was a shot-caller and ran his gang from inside the prison. Then I lost track of him for a couple of years. About a year ago, I got a call from him telling me he was out, off of parole, married to a sweet girl, and had a house. They came to dinner, and as I began to say grace before the meal, I got choked up. I looked at him through my tears, saying that I never thought I’d live to see this day, but I was thankful I had. So here’s this 15-year-old thug who had become a responsible adult.
How or why do you think he changed?
Prior to becoming my student, most adults in his life had simply refused to confront him about his self-destructive behaviors. He also told me that I had been like a dad to him. His own family had been gang-involved. He respected the fact that while I personally liked him, I had always been willing and able to enforce with him the fact that polite, respectful behavior must come first. We talked about right and wrong. You’re never going to have any happiness or peace as long as you keep doing what’s wrong. As long as you think 7 x 8 = 54, you’re never going to get the right answer. We accept that there are absolutes in math and science, even though technically, those areas have some exceptions. So why do we question that there are absolutes with morals? These ideas had not always been lived out in his life, but they had stayed in his heart. I think that gradually, he started to tire of the old way and started to develop a willingness to consider a new way. That’s often how it happens -- it has to get bad enough to make a person consider an alternative. Sometimes, you almost have to be in a crucible situation. False pride doesn’t go down without fighting for its life. Often the biggest blessings come from the most humbling, crushing, overpowering experiences.
But not all people rise from crucible situations. What do you think is needed to experience the blessings?
There’s a poem by Samuel Johnson, part of which is: “I praise Thee, Lord, for blessings sent / To break the dream of human power; / For now, my shallow cistern spent, / I find Thy font and thirst no more.” Our feeble personal sense of what we’ve done and who we are needs to be shattered with an absolute humility that says, “Father, I have nothing but what you give me, and I am grateful for that abundance. To the degree I turn away from you, I lose sight of the only good there really is; and to the degree that I turn to you, I can do all things -- ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’” (Phil. 4:13). It’s a humanly difficult combination -- having total confidence and at the same time having total humility. It’s about allowing God to express Himself through us: “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37).
It sounds like inspiration from the Bible has been crucial to your success as a teacher.
I think that the Bible is the foundation of any effective teaching. What are we really looking for? Heaven -- perfect, unbroken harmony in school, with our children, in the world. Jesus gives the example of how we can best find that heaven when he brings a little child forward and says, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3, 4). When we become like a child, we’ll find that perfection is not off in the future but is right “at hand” (Mark 1:15) and right “within” us (Luke 17:21). On those days when we don’t feel like we’re in the kingdom of heaven, what do we do? Do we go back to being 5 years old, or do we have the absolute built-in humility that a little child has? If we want to find that heavenly sense of things in our teaching or our homes, we have to humble ourselves totally, as Samuel did when he heard God calling his name and replied, “Speak; for thy servant heareth” (I Sam. 3:10). If we humble ourselves and listen, we hear God speaking to us, telling us what we need to know, directing our paths. There’s a wonderful passage in the Bible: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (II Chron. 7:14). This is what we need to do as teachers, parents, salesmen, contractors: we need to humble ourselves. When we do, our own limited, personal, willful sense of things, accurate or not, yields to the unerring divine sense of intelligence and love that never fails us. If there’s one thing we do that’s successful at our school it’s realizing that truth and love are synonymous.
Can you explain more about that idea -- that truth and love are synonymous?
An effective school or home understands that if children aren’t getting both truth and love, then they’re really not getting either one. Right now, we as a society, as parents, and as educators are generally defaulting to a humanly mistaken sense of love: we overindulge children with entertainment and food; confuse them by giving them no consequences for their wrong-doings; don’t provide enough (or any!) opportunities for them to learn selfless service to others; and teach or enforce no firm moral standards. But being truthful and saying, “This is wrong,” is really the only way you can have genuine love, separating itself out from its opposite. Truth is what separates, what keeps love pure, what keeps love from slipping into selfishness and self-indulgence. And love keeps truth from slipping into harshness, anger, self-righteousness, and ultimately hatred. The 3 simple words that describe our program are “truth and love.” We have high levels of attainment in our school because of an unyielding commitment to truth. We enjoy this effort, have patience with each other in this endeavor, and have a family feel to our program because of our insistence on doing things with love. You need them both.