Lesson Unplanned

In the first day of each semester, West High School teacher Alan Chimento hands his social studies students a twelve-page guide called "Activism 101." This is your world, it says. You can do something to change it. Now go out there and create your reality. The guide explains how to organize workshops, draft petitions, stage boycotts and launch letter-writing campaigns.

Some of Chimento's students are now putting these skills to work--to save their teacher's job.

Located off Speer Boulevard and 11th Avenue, West High has the lowest SAT scores and the one of the highest dropout rates in the city. Eight out of ten students are Hispanic; 61 percent qualify for the federal free-lunch program. But in the three years that he's taught there, Chimento has managed to bring more positive recognition to the school than it's had for decades.

In March 1998, four of his students flew to Washington, D.C., to testify before a congressional committee on tobacco legislation. As a result, Good Morning America paid a visit to his classroom. And this spring, his students led a well-publicized campus cleanup and planted 21 trees around the school grounds.

A Denver native, Chimento earned a teaching certificate at the age of 29 after working for his family's music-store business. He was inspired by his own social studies teacher at Gateway High School in Aurora, Tom Lincoln. "I had always been one of those students getting in trouble," says Chimento. "This teacher made a connection with me."

Chimento spent the next five years teaching the mostly middle-class black students at Montbello High School. In February 1996, when a Nation of Islam minister held a controversial boys-only assembly at Montbello, Chimento and several other teachers tried to march in with a group of girls, causing a stir. At the end of the academic year, the principal showed Chimento and two other popular teachers the door.

It took only one day of teaching at West to convince Chimento that the students in his American history class needed something more than conventional lectures and reading assignments. For one thing, his classroom didn't come with any textbooks; for another, the kids were bored and reluctant to speak out. Chimento cites dismal statistics about Hispanic kids in Denver: Of the thousands who enter kindergarten each year, only a few dozen are expected to go on to college. When he looks down the roster in his gradebook, he sadly traces the names of many students who've never showed up from day one.

But others have been electrified by Chimento's teaching. The only teacher at West who is formally trained in state-mandated standards for social studies, Chimento uses a hands-on curriculum known as "project-based teaching" that links class lessons to current events.

Chimento has brought thousands of dollars in grant money to the school and raised the funds for a classroom TV, a VCR and a dozen shelves of books--history books, reference books and novels that give a sense of American history, like The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick. His students are required to read two novels each semester. They have to participate in five civic activities, such as attending a rally, showing up at a city council or school-board meeting or volunteering.

"There are students who want to drop out or ditch all their other classes, but they come to Chimento's class," says sophomore Elsa Banuelos, who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and who aspires to someday be Denver's first Latina mayor. "There are not many teachers who make you want to learn. Now I'm learning about my culture on my own time. Usually after school, it's like, 'I want to go home and watch TV.' Now I want to go home and read books to learn about myself."

Annoyed by kids straggling in late to class after lunch period, Chimento started performing a different practical joke or silly gag each day in the first three minutes of classtime. Now hardly anyone comes in tardy, or they miss the shenanigan of the day.

Last fall Chimento's students published a polished voters' guide and registered 150 adults in their community to vote. When Hurricane Mitch devastated much of Central America, they raised $1,000 for the victims. After the shooting at Columbine High School, several students collected money for their far more affluent neighbors in Littleton.

During the 1997-98 school year, a project on the tobacco industry snowballed into a nine-month learning spree. Chimento loaned cameras to his students and told them to photograph cigarette billboards in their own neighborhoods. "When they realized how the youth market had been targeted, they were outraged," he says. Soon the students were researching tobacco laws, medical findings, the legislative process and how to lobby lawmakers. They visited elementary schools with a clever anti-smoking presentation and formed a group called T.A.K.E., or Tobacco Advertising Kills Everyday. By spring, several were on their way to the Denver City Council and the U.S. Congress to protest the glut of tobacco marketing aimed at kids.

"These kids are just so amazing," says Chimento. On the classroom bulletin board that he calls "our museum," he points to photos of his students with Vice President Al Gore and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu next to a hodgepodge of placards, campaign buttons and awards from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the Colorado Public Health Association and the Latin American Research and Service Agency. A timeline of World War II is written on the blackboard; a hot-pink sign advertises "Welcome to Chimentoville." Album covers from the 1970s--Frampton, Meat Loaf, Billy Joel, Blondie, Springsteen--border two-thirds of the room.

Teaching "is a craft, not a job," says Chimento, whom students address as "Mister." "Madison Avenue has figured these kids out. Hollywood has figured these kids out. But our schools haven't figured these kids out.

"I'll be the first to say I don't connect with every kid," says Chimento, who notes that a lot of "academically oriented" students prefer learning mainly from outlines and textbooks. "The kids who work best with me are the ones who are already disenfranchised with this system."

"Alan's a teacher who's able to empower kids who traditionally are not engaged in school--in a way that's really quite remarkable," says Nick Cutforth, an education professor at the University of Denver. When Cutforth invited the West High teacher to speak to a group of pre-service teachers, Chimento brought along four West students. The youths wowed the university class with their knowledge and poise. Cutforth paraphrases some of the journal entries the DU students made after the experience: "Teachers like Alan Chimento," said one, "are the reason I'm becoming a teacher."

Chimento admits that his style doesn't sit well with everyone, however. "I can be a pain in the ass to work with sometimes," he says. "But it's because I want results, not excuses."

In the fall of 1998, Chimento's students took on the condition of their school as a project, researching education funding and polling their teachers on how the facility could be improved.

The students at West walk through hallways painted decades ago in dismal greens and blues and lit by weak overhead lights. Teachers and writing classes are issued outdated computers, and the library has only ten Internet hookups for the school's 1,800 students. The cafeteria, which everyone shares during the same lunch hour, has only 440 seats. A sophomore pulls two worn textbooks from her locker; her Modern Biology book, she points out, is copyrighted 1989, and her American literature book is five years older than she is. "That sends out a message to students: 'You're not welcome here,'" says Chimento.

But when they took their complaints--complete with a slide show--to the January meeting of the Denver school board, the students were "cross-examined" about "who had written their speeches for them," Chimento recalls. An all-white group from East High also addressed the school board that night on gay-student rights but wasn't grilled in the same way, he says. Chimento told the school board that its attitude smacked of racism and was an insult to his students. The next day, principal Irene Martinez Jordan called Chimento into her office. "There's been friction all along," says Chimento, who admits he "takes on tough topics." In his meeting with Jordan, he made "concessions" and reached an agreement with her to tone down his act. It didn't help. Last week he was told that the school's personnel subcommittee--Jordan and three teachers--had decided he should leave.

Jordan says she can't comment on a "personnel issue" or on Chimento's work performance. "I choose to protect Mr. Chimento," she says.

Mark Stevens, spokesperson for Denver Public Schools, says the decision was made by the school, as is the norm, and was part of a "very fair process."

Now Chimento will join the "dance of the lemons," the pool of tenured DPS teachers looking for a home. Chimento doesn't know where he'll land; when he was transferred from Montbello, he was given his course assignments only one day before school started in the fall. "I've been a target in this district because I do speak up," says Chimento, adding that his transfer is a "message" to other teachers to keep their mouths shut. "I think they do a disservice to the students," he says. "They think equality is a bad thing for Denver public schools."

Many other teachers at West admire his gutsiness, says one who asked not to be named. "He often says things that many of us are thinking but didn't have the nerve to say." Chimento "has a way of making kids buy into projects and making them feel some ownership," adds Linda McCurdy, who has been at West since 1975. McCurdy was counting on Chimento to help her work with other teachers next year on a new curriculum. "I was very unhappy about the decision" to transfer Chimento, she says.

The students were also unhappy, but because of what Chimento had taught them, they "knew who to contact" among local school and government officials, McCurdy says. "These kids have been very self-directed--and that's not something that kids at this school usually have an opportunity to do." Without any prompting, the students mailed dozens of letters to local officials, drafted a petition for student signatures and last week met with a city councilmember. Twenty-five teachers have also signed their own letter protesting the transfer. "Some people say he puts ideas into our heads," says sophomore Endy Enrriquez, part of the campaign to keep Chimento. "They're not used to people speaking out and pointing out things that are wrong."

Now that he's received his marching orders, Chimento says it'll be tough to get through the rest of the semester. But it's impossible to tell from the lively discussion in his eighth-hour social issues class. Chimento begins by asking his seventeen students what they think about the day's headlines stating that 31 percent of Denver third-graders can't read at their grade level. The students are so eager to offer an opinion that they seem ready to burst. By the end of the class period, the group is already planning to reunite over summer vacation to visit the Capitol and speak with the governor about education issues. Half a dozen students say they'd like to volunteer in a summer reading program for grade-school kids; Chimento promises to get them names and contact numbers.

During class, one sophomore theorizes that Denver reading scores land in the basement because "it's hard for kids when your mom doesn't care and your dad works all the time." Another says that her mother, a West grad, actually turns to her kids when she needs help with a word or a math problem. One sophomore blames the way kids are shuttled from school to school. "Between second and eighth grade, I went to seven different schools," she says.

"You're going to have to stop moving around," Chimento tells her with a grin, "because we need you here.


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