Opinion: After I got shot, my school did nothing to save me from failure. I’m fixing that
Christian Martinez | July 27, 2023
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This article has been produced in partnership between LA School Report’s parent company, The 74, and the XQ Institute.
I never heard the shot, but the impact of the bullet that struck my leg just below the knee has reverberated throughout my life. As I laid on the ground of my East Oakland neighborhood, next to the bike I had been riding to high school, the first thing I heard was the sound of my screams. I was 16, victim to a random drive-by shooting. When I returned to school six weeks later, there were no words of encouragement or comfort, just the silence of a school system that chose not to care or value undocumented teens like me.
I came to the United States from Uruapan, Michoacán, Mexico in 1999. I dropped out of high school three different times, and in 2009 I finished high school at an adult program in San Leandro. I know firsthand how, whenever the school system loudly slams a door, it drowns out the hopeful inner voice that all young people have. In my case, that voice was muted for a long time until, two years later, I saw an opening at an East Oakland elementary school for an attendance clerk. People around me at the time were either janitors, construction workers, or making illegal sales on the streets. I wanted to change the narrative. I walked in, applied, and got the job.
I went back to a school building — the type of place that had failed me — for a few reasons. First and foremost, I’d always wanted to be an educator. But those dreams were quashed when I found out that I was undocumented, and access to higher education was difficult and expensive for someone like me. It was also in part an act of resistance to challenge the status quo and disrupt a system that didn’t work for me. And, I wanted to make my mom proud.
At the elementary school, the energetic buzz and laughter of students who looked like me sparked a determination to become the adult I never had at school. I worked as an office manager, yard supervisor, parent liaison, translator, after-school coordinator, and paraeducator. Eventually, in 2017, I co-founded Latitude High School in Oakland and became dean of students. Every day, I choose to hear my students’ voices and ensure that the world does, too.
Many of the friends I grew up with felt tensions between school and “the real world.” Some of us needed to earn money for our families, many were bored, and most of us couldn’t see how what we did every day in high school would help us when we got out. There is a misconception that students growing up in poverty don’t think about their future. The opposite is true. Unlike young people with more advantages, we can’t just trust that there’s a backup plan to guarantee that everything works out.
Latitude High School is about 14 blocks from the street where I was shot as a child. We are a four-minute bike ride from Fruitvale Station, where Oscar Grant was shot and killed by the police. Students of color make up 94% of our school, and the majority are growing up in poverty. We’re only a 30-minute drive from the global headquarters of some of the world’s largest tech companies, but for most students in Oakland, those opportunities will remain distant and out of reach unless their schools build intentional pathways.
Read more about how to build trusting relationships with students at your school in The XQ Xtra — a newsletter for educators that comes out twice a month. Sign up here.
That pathway to student success begins with a sense of belonging. Caring and trusting relationships aren’t, contrary to popular belief, the icing on the cake of academic rigor. They are the main ingredients, which is why Latitude partners with the XQ Institute. Caring, trusting relationships is one of six research-backed XQ Design Principles for successful schools. Our students thrive when they have adults who know them, believe and trust in their ability to learn and create the safety where students can discover their identity. This type of environment results from intentional choices in our school’s structures and curriculum — like our focus on integrating community issues and culture into coursework.
When I was shot, my school offered no support because of decisions adults made long before that moment. They may not have predicted that specific trauma, but I was a young person growing up in a neighborhood wracked by violence, living with my brother and without either of my parents. A school that saw me and cared about my future would have been ready to support me instead of letting me drop out. As students build their paths, we are responsible for looking around the corner, anticipating where the road will get rough for them.
As educators, we can help students overcome challenges by intentionally using our space and time. For example, we know the college application process is tough for many students and families. In response, we at Latitude dedicated the time and people to guide and support students at every step of the way, from having highly personal conversations about their choices to ensuring that they submit their applications on time.
Our country asks schools to do a lot these days, but the load can be lighter by planning for what our students need and want, not just what the system requires us to do. At Latitude, these conversations and choices led to every one of 2022-2023’s 12th graders being accepted into at least one two-year or four-year college.
At Latitude, we emphasize place-based learning by tapping into the assets of the Bay Area, including our local Oakland community. This approach to learning has a dual impact. Our students recognize the unique value of their cultures and communities while immersed in meaningful learning that will prepare them for their lives after high school. In 2021, I taught a senior course on entrepreneurship. Each student applied core academic skills to develop a concept for a clothing brand they later marketed and sold at a community pop-up event. Experiences like this have taught us that learning must take place in the real world for students to remain motivated to succeed.
Ensuring workplace experiences and internships are student-centered by matching them to students’ passions and aspirations is essential. It is just as crucial that student workplace experiences work hand in hand with what students learn in the classroom. The real magic happens when each lesson, project, and workplace activity builds on each other to develop skills and a sense of self-worth. Our students must constantly evaluate what they can afford to give their time and attention to. That’s why 100% of Latitude’s class of 2023 completed at least one internship.
Our students can choose between multiple internship opportunities, from university research to aeronautics. We also have partners in construction and the building trades. Sometimes schools, with the best intentions, get so caught up in encouraging students to dream about a good career that it creates too narrow a definition of success. As a result, some students can’t see themselves fitting into that type of success. In every industry, there are good jobs and jobs that trap people in cycles of poverty. Our community partnerships are vital in providing students with the options and agency to choose their path. We are responsible for building partnerships that provide enough range of experiences so all of our students’ paths bend toward success.
I went through high school feeling isolated and abandoned. It wasn’t just at a single school. The entire education system made decisions that failed me. Now, I’m on my way to earning my bachelor’s degree, and hope to pursue a Ph.D. in education. Looking back at when I first applied for that role as an attendance clerk, it was the beginning of me redefining “success.”
I am fortunate every day to be part of a team of adults who make decisions that provide students with a sense of belonging and the learning experiences that will prepare them for success. I know that millions of students throughout the country feel the way I did at their age. I also know that millions of adults in communities across the country want better for their young people. If we can change high school, we can change the entire education system and give our students a path to the lives they deserve.
Do you want to learn more about how to rethink high school? The XQ Xtra is a newsletter for educators that comes out twice a month. Sign up here.
Christian Martinez is a community innovator and co-founder of Latitude High School in Oakland, California, who is driven by a mission to redefine success and uplift marginalized communities.