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TED Talks Education

Pearl Arredondo: My story, from gangland daughter to star teacher

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Pearl Arredondo grew up in East Los Angeles, the daughter of a high-ranking gang member who was in and out of jail. Many teachers wrote her off as having a problem with authority. Now a teacher herself, she’s creating a different kind of school and telling students her story so that they know it's okay if sometimes homework isn’t the first thing on their minds.

- Teacher
Pearl Arredondo helped establish a pilot middle school that teaches students to be good communicators in the 21st century. Full bio

So I grew up in East Los Angeles,
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not even realizing I was poor.
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My dad was a high-ranking gang member who ran the streets.
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Everyone knew who I was,
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so I thought I was a pretty big deal, and I was protected,
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and even though my dad spent most of my life
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in and out of jail,
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I had an amazing mom who was just fiercely independent.
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She worked at the local high school
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as a secretary in the dean's office,
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so she got to see all the kids that got thrown out of class,
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for whatever reason, who were waiting to be disciplined.
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Man, her office was packed.
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So, see, kids like us, we have a lot of things to deal with
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outside of school,
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and sometimes we're just not ready to focus.
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But that doesn't mean that we can't.
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It just takes a little bit more.
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Like, I remember one day I found my dad
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convulsing, foaming at the mouth,
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OD-ing on the bathroom floor.
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Really, do you think that doing my homework that night
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was at the top of my priority list?
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Not so much.
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But I really needed a support network,
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a group of people who were going to help me
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make sure that I wasn't going to be
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a victim of my own circumstance,
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that they were going to push me
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beyond what I even thought I could do.
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I needed teachers, in the classroom, every day,
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who were going to say, "You can move beyond that."
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And unfortunately, the local junior high
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was not going to offer that.
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It was gang-infested, huge teacher turnover rate.
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So my mom said, "You're going on a bus
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an hour and a half away from where we live every day."
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So for the next two years, that's what I did.
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I took a school bus to the fancy side of town.
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And eventually, I ended up at a school
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where there was a mixture.
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There were some people who were really gang-affiliated,
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and then there were those of us
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really trying to make it to high school.
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Well, trying to stay out of trouble was a little unavoidable.
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You had to survive.
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You just had to do things sometimes.
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So there were a lot of teachers who were like,
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"She's never going to make it.
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She has an issue with authority.
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She's not going to go anywhere."
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Some teachers completely wrote me off as a lost cause.
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But then, they were very surprised
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when I graduated from high school.
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I was accepted to Pepperdine University,
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and I came back to the same school that I attended
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to be a special ed assistant.
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And then I told them, "I want to be a teacher."
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And boy, they were like, "What? Why?
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Why would you want to do that?"
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So I began my teaching career
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at the exact same middle school that I attended,
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and I really wanted to try to save more kids
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who were just like me.
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And so every year, I share my background with my kids,
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because they need to know that everyone has a story,
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everyone has a struggle,
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and everyone needs help along the way.
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And I am going to be their help along the way.
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So as a rookie teacher, I created opportunity.
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I had a kid one day come into my class
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having been stabbed the night before.
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I was like, "You need to go to a hospital,
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the school nurse, something."
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He's like, "No, Miss, I'm not going.
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I need to be in class because I need to graduate."
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So he knew that I was not going to let him be a victim
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of his circumstance,
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but we were going to push forward and keep moving on.
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And this idea of creating a safe haven for our kids
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and getting to know exactly what they're going through,
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getting to know their families -- I wanted that,
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but I couldn't do it in a school with 1,600 kids,
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and teachers turning over year after year after year.
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How do you get to build those relationships?
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So we created a new school.
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And we created
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the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media.
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And we made sure that we were still attached
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to our school district for funding, for support.
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But with that, we were going to gain freedom:
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freedom to hire the teachers
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that we knew were going to be effective;
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freedom to control the curriculum
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so that we're not doing lesson 1.2 on page five, no;
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and freedom to control a budget,
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to spend money where it matters,
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not how a district or a state says you have to do it.
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We wanted those freedoms.
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But now, shifting an entire paradigm,
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it hasn't been an easy journey, nor is it even complete.
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But we had to do it.
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Our community deserved a new way of doing things.
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And as the very first pilot middle school
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in all of Los Angeles Unified School District,
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you better believe there was some opposition.
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And it was out of fear --
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fear of, well, what if they get it wrong?
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Yeah, what if we get it wrong?
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But what if we get it right?
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And we did.
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So even though teachers were against it
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because we employ one-year contracts --
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you can't teach, or you don't want to teach,
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you don't get to be at my school with my kids.
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(Applause)
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So in our third year, how did we do it?
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Well, we're making school worth coming to every day.
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We make our kids feel like they matter to us.
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We make our curriculum rigorous and relevant to them,
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and they use all the technology that they're used to.
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Laptops, computers, tablets -- you name it, they have it.
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Animation, software, moviemaking software, they have it all.
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And because we connect it to what they're doing —
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For example, they made public service announcements
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for the Cancer Society.
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These were played in the local trolley system.
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Teaching elements of persuasion,
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it doesn't get any more real than that.
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Our state test scores have gone up
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more than 80 points since we've become our own school.
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But it's taken all stakeholders, working together --
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teachers and principals on one-year contracts,
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working over and above and beyond their contract hours
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without compensation.
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And it takes a school board member
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who is going to lobby for you and say,
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"Know, the district is trying to impose this,
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but you have the freedom to do otherwise."
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And it takes an active parent center
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who is not only there, showing a presence every day,
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but who is part of our governance,
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making decisions for their kids, our kids.
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Because why should our students have to go
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so far away from where they live?
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They deserve a quality school in their neighborhood,
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a school that they can be proud to say they attend,
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and a school that the community can be proud of as well,
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and they need teachers to fight for them every day
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and empower them to move beyond their circumstances.
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Because it's time that kids like me
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stop being the exception, and we become the norm.
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Thank you.
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(Applause)
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Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Pearl Arredondo - Teacher
Pearl Arredondo helped establish a pilot middle school that teaches students to be good communicators in the 21st century.

Why you should listen

Pearl Arredondo grew up in the impoverished East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. She was raised by a single-mother, a long time Los Angeles Unified School District office secretary, who saw firsthand the challenges facing students in public schools. To ensure that she got the best education in the district, Arredondo was bussed to schools almost an hour away from home.

Arredondo graduated and moved on to Pepperdine University, where she received both a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in Education and Instructional Leadership. She was the first in her family to graduate from college and began her teaching career at San Fernando Middle School (SFMS) -- the very middle school she attended eight years prior.

At SFMS, she embraced the mission of enhancing educational opportunities for historically underserved students. To do so, she launched the school’s Multimedia Academy, which serviced 350 low-income students. After three successful years, the Multimedia Academy faculty decided it was time to make a full split and become a separate school. In 2010, she helped lead an ambitious reform agenda, through a pilot reform model, that focused on technology development, improving outcomes for children and strengthening families. The team founded San Fernando Institute for Applied Media (SFiAM), the first pilot school established in the Los Angeles Unified School District at the middle school level.

Arredondo is passionate about increasing student access to technology and closing the digital divide, and is a tireless advocate for technology-based curriculum that prepare students to enter a global economy. Her goal is to make SFiAM a model of educational reform.

Currently, Arredondo is pursuing a Master of Science in Educational Administration and is a 2013 National Board Certified Teacher candidate. She is also part of the 2013 Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship and serves as the Vice President of SFiAM’s Governing Council. She is featured in the short documentary film TEACHED Vol.1: “The Blame Game,” and is a role model for young Latinas seeking to make a difference in their communities.

More profile about the speaker
Pearl Arredondo | Speaker | TED.com