Documenting the decline and fall

George Shirley

Photo By Larry Dalton

After years of trying to make a film about his own success in turning low-performing high-school students into college graduates, former teacher George Shirley (pictured at right) and his movie-making partners have turned their camera lenses on Sacramento High School. They plan to use hundreds of interviews with teachers, students and administrators to build a snapshot of Sacramento’s oldest high school as it prepares for closure in June and a new rebirth in September under a charter with St. Hope Corp. (See “The miseducation of Sac High,” SN&R Cover, February 6.)

Tell me how you decided to do a documentary on the closing of Sac High.

Well, we did it reluctantly because no one else was doing it. Truly, we have our plates full with some other projects. I’m a teacher and a lawyer, but when it hit in January is when I really first started paying attention to it. This is the second-oldest public school west of the Mississippi—incredible history. And it just hit me. … This is going to be gone. About a month ago—because we have the cameras, we have the editing equipment, we have the ability to do this—we just started doing interviews with people. We would like the kids themselves to capture on film these last few weeks. We’re going to follow it through until the last kid walks across and gets the last diploma on June 9.

What have the kids been telling you?

We’ve talked to very few kids. We’ve been interviewing older people who live in the community—87-year-old graduates of Sac High, heads of law firms, working guys, retired people, all kinds of people—to get their memories of what it was like. The kids we have talked to are very upset because they don’t know what’s going to happen to them next year. Nobody’s really sure what that student-body population is going to be. It’s a very diverse student body. It’s amazing. That’s one of the reasons I’m interested. Every single issue in education is there. This wouldn’t have happened if the new testing standards hadn’t come in and this wasn’t considered an unproductive school, or whatever the term is. I mean, you’ve got racism on various levels. And that’s a subtle thing, but we’ve been hearing it.

Are we giving up on public education?

I don’t know what’s going to happen to St. Hope, but I think the decisions that will determine whether they make it or not are being made right now. Can they turn the test scores around? Does that matter? I’m very passionate about this. The school I taught at, Alisal High School in Salinas, our test scores were so low. [The students] went to Harvard and Princeton and Yale, Columbia. The [Scholastic Assessment Test], the [Educational Testing Service] and this new standardized scoring … whatever else it is, it does not represent the ability of kids like I taught in Salinas. I am very cynical about this test-based result here at Sacramento High because that’s really what brought this down, and I hope we can show that. I don’t think it’s fair. I just believe that kids like this, if they’re given a chance, can succeed. My group of 92 students, all one high school, proved it. I’m very passionate about this testing nonsense. I know there are kids in this school, right now, that are going to get lost forever. God knows what’s going to happen to the ones that get shipped to [Hiram W. Johnson High School] or whatever.

How much access has St. Hope offered you so far?

We’ve had meetings with them. I can understand, first of all, the legal issues. The personnel decisions to me are the critical things. What kinds of teachers are you going to hire? Are you going to get a crazy like me? And I do crazy things in the classroom. I’ll take off all my clothes and jump into a vat of hot peanut butter. I’ll stand up on top of the desk and sing to them if I ever lose contact with a single kid. I used to do “let’s pretend.” Let’s pretend you’re going up to a school with eastern prep-school kids and Jesuit High School kids—and they’re actually going to know some of this. You’re going to have to pretend. Let’s pretend we’ve heard of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Let’s pretend we’ve heard of Spengler’s Decline of the West. I would summarize it for them and synthesize it. I’m a very animated person. I’m a very good teacher. … I’m getting far afield. Legally, [St. Hope’s] personnel decisions are, of course, protected. I don’t expect to get access. But a lot of it we could get: the kind of people they’re looking for. Are they going by the book? It’s a charter school. They can do whatever they damned well please.

What has been your impression of Kevin Johnson and his crew?

I haven’t met with Kevin. The crew, they’re very nice. They’re very formal and very, very protective of what they are about to do.