This is the eighth year that I have photographed the Melrose Leadership Academy dual immersion kindergarten students. I have photographed every kindergarten class since MLA introduced the Spanish bilingual program. My daughter was in the first class; my son started two years later. I have also photographed other activities, often as the Historian. (See the MLA Collection of Galleries.)
MLA is an OUSD district school. We have created something special in a place where failure is expected. If I did not have my pictures, I would question whether we ever built the school. Some days, I still wonder if I am hallucinating.
One of my mentors, Jim McNay, recently sent me an article about long-term projects from the Magnum Photo Agency site. The authors provide “Five lessons in developing and sustaining a long-term photographic project.” The first lesson: have a mission statement. Why is this story important?
My goals have changed during the eight years, but my reasons have remained consistent. When I started the project, I was aware that I lived in a neighborhood where white families fled to the Oakland hills for “better schools.” My Oakland neighbors, especially those who looked like me, had been practicing school choice for decades.
We chose segregation.
White people “sorta” loved Oakland’s diversity, especially the part that allowed us to sort ourselves into “good schools.” We studied diversity, but did not practice it. We think we are different than Trump and DeVos, because we vote differently. We segregate similarly. We choose schools similarly.
Obviously, I am not a genius. I thought that I was documenting the future. I hoped that my pictures would change people’s perceptions once the school demonstrated it was successful. I thought that my pictures would provide evidence. I was naive.
Last month I discussed diversity and school segregation with my ten year old son. He had a better explanation than I found in my eight years of pictures.
“We can have a diverse city, but it doesn’t mean we celebrate diversity.”
In a district known for ineffective leadership, MLA has excelled, in part because the district forgot about us. The school has become a community hub. Our teachers are leaders. We have a dynamic after-school program. During the first few years, we wondered if the school would survive. We changed sites after the third year of the bilingual program. Now there is a waiting list as well as a third kindergarten class (and a transitional kindergarten).
If Oakland valued diversity, I imagine that schools like ours would receive awards and recognition regularly. Instead, the same types of school are honored. The same “achievements” are measured.
Each year when I photograph the kindergarten students, I try to create something unique. This year it has rained often, so I photographed the students after a rainy morning. I also encouraged the students to collaborate. It is important that young people participate in creating their stories… their very important stories. We discuss light and color. Students take pictures of me. We discuss how pictures tell stories and influence people.
This might be my last year taking pictures at the school. The images may stand as anthropological evidence more than advocacy. Future researchers will discover a time when the impossible was created. (2017 MLA Kindergarten Photos)
For more thoughts, visit my other site at www.morethankids.com