Irvington High School, Fremont, CA – February 19, 2021 via video

by George J Elbaum

Irvington High School has an enrollment of 2294 students and Great School overall rating of 8/10 and 10/10 in Academics based on its students’ test scores: Math proficiency of 73% vs. CA State average of 40% and English proficiency of 75% vs. CA State avg of 51%.  College readiness rating is therefore 84% vs CA avg of 64%.  Irvington’s demographics are 71% Asian, 11% White, 9% Hispanic, 5% Filipino and 4% all others.  Its students learning English are 6% and 17% are from low-income families.  Because Irvington is a Service-Learning school, embedded in its coursework is the mandate that students apply what they have learned in the form of service to the community.  The school thus requires its students a minimum of 40 hours of service learning and community service to graduate.

Irvington has an admirable emphasis on social issues and how to advocate for change built into its curriculum in that all students must complete 3 special benchmark projects: one at the 9th grade level called Change Project, one at the 10th grade level called World Issues Project, and one at the 12th grade level called QUEST.  The benchmarks are long-term projects that allow students to demonstrate progress toward or mastery of the four School-Wide Outcomes: Communication, Critical Thinking, Personal Responsibility, and Social Responsibility.  Benchmarks are intended to be consistently evaluated, real life assessment projects which provide students, parents, and teachers information about student achievement across a range of important lifelong learning skills.

9th graders complete a Change project in which they work in teams of three to four to make a positive change regarding an environmental problem that they identify in the local community. During this 6-month service project they volunteer at a local organization, write 3 drafts of a research report, and create a PowerPoint presentation to present near the end of the school year to their peers and teachers.

10th graders undertake a World Issues project in which student teams of four are assigned a global issue. After covering an issue’s background as a team, students complete the rest of the project individually. The first half of the year is devoted to understanding and describing the issue, and the second half is proposing ways to fix the problem. Each student must research the issue, write two papers on their topic, and participate in two discussions on the assigned topic. These topics can be lack of access to clean water, refugee crises, terrorism, child labor, climate change, infectious diseases, and inequality for women.

12th graders undertake QUEST, a five-component project designed and completed by all Irvington seniors to graduate.  The student starts with a “Question” associated with “providing benefits to the community.” Through “Understanding,” an answer to the Question develops through research, reading, writing, and hands-on activities. Students must then find a professional to act as their consultant and guide them through their experience.  Each student and his or her consultant then create an “Experience” plan addressing the Question. Through “Service,” the student designs and implements an activity to share his or her new knowledge with the greater community such that it serves a real need.  Students document their findings throughout the year, presenting their Question with background information, research, and hands-on experience on their QUEST. Finally, at the “Testimony,” the student presents his or her entire QUEST experience to a panel consisting of staff, parents and experienced community members.

My presentation was to 50+ 10th grade students who reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, and will next study the history of the Holocaust in their world history classes.  Today’s session was arranged and organized by Cheryl Cook-Kallio and supported by Nicole Marsella-Jensen, both long time teachers at Irvington.  Cheryl and I were recently connected by a mutual friend, Jack Weinstein, who had introduced me to many schools in the East Bay before retiring as the director of Bay Area’s chapter of Facing History and Ourselves.

Notes from students

The week after my Zoom talk at Irvington High School I received from teacher Cheryl Cook-Kallio containing notes from a couple dozen students who attended my talk.  As has been our custom for years, after dinner my wife Mimi read aloud each of the notes and we highlighted the thoughtful and sensitive  statements that resonated with us, which are shown below.   Thank you!

  • What I find inspirational is how after going through the darkest of days, you survived and valued your life to the fullest
  • Your story helps me see what people in hiding had to go through and how lucky you must have been to live. Overall thanks to you I can understand the holocaust much better. This is one for the books.
  • When you talked about your admission into MIT it was very inspirational. MIT has always been one of my dream schools and hearing your story gave me reassurance that hard work truly does pay off.
  • I was very moved by how you were able to overcome the experiences during the time and live to be able to tell your story even now, as some people wouldn’t be able to share their story for their whole lifetime.
  • It also caught my attention when you talked about your goal and the career you wanted to take because it’s very inspirational how you worked hard on your grades and was able to go to the school you wanted to go to.
  • I think it was so important for you to speak with our generation because hopefully knowledge like this will stop history from repeating itself.
  • Another thing that surprised me was the fact that you were silent for over 65 years. If you had continued to stay silent, we would have never been able to hear your story. For that, I thank you, as without your story we wouldn’t know what people (like your mother) did just to keep their loved ones safe and away from the Holocaust’s concentration camps. 
  • Your story motivated me to not take anything for granted, whether it is a bowl of soup or a roof upon my head.
  • I found it interesting when you described how your mother, an attorney, was clever and changed her appearance, changed your and her names, and found safe refuge for you during the Holocaust. This is what my family would call “street smart”. 
  • I especially enjoyed how just a smile at a ss guard set you free and how you could have had a much different experience just from a few small actions.
  • You said there were a lot of families you went into and I really liked this part because it let me know that even if there is a lot of bad, there will always be good. I liked this also because it lets me know that sometimes ignorance is bliss, because of the time you were just eating and did not know who was coming or what was going on, so you did not feel too much pressure. 
  • It made me get a new perspective on life that I should be more grateful for the things I have and my own life, because people like you Mr. Elbaum had a harsh time growing up, and I’m blessed I don’t have to go through the same things.
  • I understand that it can be hard to share personal stories, but your words will stick with every single person you tell it to.
  • I learned a different perspective than usual, and it made me really happy because it had a happy ending. Usually when we hear stories around the holocaust we tend to think of travesty and things the mind cannot even imagine. It was really nice to hear a different story and I am very glad that you slowly opened up to letting the world know about your journey!

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