Teacher Finds Success With Students Despite Widely Reported Racial Tensions

Once regarded as an excellent institution, Ulysses S. Grant High's reputation has deteriorated in recent years. (Photo by Reut Cohen)

While many teachers complain about ill behavior of students, often linked to racial and ethnic tensions, one teacher in the San Fernando Valley has consistently proven to be a positive force in the classroom.

A little over two decades ago, Ulysses S. Grant High School was regarded as an excellent public institution. Since the 1990s the school’s reputation has drastically changed, largely due to ethnic tensions between Armenian and Hispanic students. These tensions have often resulted in gang violence or riots that are, invariably, picked up by local news stations.

In March 2005, one of the biggest fights on campus erupted into a full-blown riot involving over 200 students. In 2008, an Armenian remembrance event turned nasty when tensions again erupted due to a squabble between a couple of students of Armenian and Hispanic ethnic backgrounds, putting the school in “lockdown” mode.

Alumni from the school say they remember such ethnic tensions between Armenians and Hispanics existing in the early 90s. One of the first incidents of violence culminated in two stabbings and a shooting just outside the campus’ gates at the start of the academic year in 1994.

Peer mediation has slightly alleviated the situation, helping to connect fragmented communities at Grant High School. Yet much of the understanding and acceptance between students usually begins in the classroom.

“I don’t have a problem with behavior, I don’t know if it’s my personality,” said Barbara Novinger, an instructor at the school who has been at the campus since 1986.

Barbara Novinger began teaching at Ulysses S. Grant High in 1986. (Photo by Reut Cohen)

Novinger remarked that a disconnect between students and teachers exists, but said it is the teacher’s job to reach out to their students.

With large class sizes and with some teachers at Grant having over 50 students in a classroom during one class period, the educational system is often likened to a machine in which teachers attempt to effectively lecture rowdy students and prepare them for standardized exams.

“It’s like a factory, you’re moving people through…. I try to humanize [teaching] as best as I can,” explained Novinger.

As some students confessed, it’s much easier for the teachers to pop a film into the VCR than figure out how to control a room filled with resentful teenagers.

But Novinger, who is among the most beloved and recognized teachers by her former students, has no problem controlling either Advanced Placement or ESL classes.

Her secret? Empathy.

“When they don’t turn the work in, I care. When they’re absent, I care. I try and notice when they get their haircut, when they get a new outfit or some groovy shoes on. It’s the little things that make the kids realize that you really do care about them and you’re not just there to make a buck.”

Novinger’s began teaching at Ulysses S. Grant High in 1986. Her fluency in Spanish allowed her to teach ESL World History before venturing into her own field of psychology in which she has a degree from Occidental College. She continues to teach ESL which, she says, is a rewarding endeavor.

“I have a kid in my World History, ESL, who lives with a group of gangsters. His whole family, they are all involved in gangs. He comes to class maybe once every two weeks. But I don’t yell at him, I don’t scream at him, I don’t make him feel bad,” she said, noting that while the student will not pass the class, teaching through humiliation is a terrible tactic.

The demographics in the last two decades have shifted at the high school, with many first and second-generation immigrant students from different backgrounds making up the campus community.

Novinger says she loves the vibrancy at Grant and claims that the differences makes the school the very definition of what being “American” is all about.

“That has to be your attitude when you’re a teacher in L.A,” she said. “You’re getting students from all kinds of backgrounds.”

Beyond empathy, Novinger has been one of the most successful teachers in preparing her students for exams such as the Advanced Placement.

While some characterized Novinger’s teaching style as amusing, including her use of mnemonic devices and games, her tactics to prepare students for high-stake exams work well.

“The teaching style and techniques were effective and made the material interesting and easy to remember,” said Ivan Mendoza, a former student who is currently a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. “She used psychology to teach psychology. She is definitely a teacher who cares about teaching the material to the students and treats people in the classroom with respect.”

Novinger has had pass rates as high as 80 percent on the Advanced Placement exam—and, perhaps most rewarding for her, she teaches students from all sorts of backgrounds, proving that beyond the ethnic and language boundaries students can succeed in education. In recent years, she has taught at least two sections of Advanced Placement Psychology per year. Plenty of students sign up for her class, with each AP section having well over 30 students.

Ultimately, Novinger argues teaching is about the student. She tries not to let the bureaucracy of the Los Angeles Unified School District affect her teaching, though she argues many decisions, such as cutting school time and adding “staff development days” which take away from class time, have been insupportable.

She also questions the number of administrators on the campus, which include six assistant principles.

“Right now we have more administrators than we’ve ever had and less students than we’ve ever had. There are not enough teachers, clerks, custodians, security,” said Novinger. “There are way too many administrators who are earning way too much money. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for the district to just say every high school should just have a maximum of three assistant principles,” she contended.

While API scores are often a source of contention for many schools, Grant has made some modest gains. Novinger argues the exams are often unfair and filled with confusing questions students cannot answer even if they are familiar with the material. However, she has done her best to make do with the LAUSD standards.

“I am very pleased with the way we’ve been performing. We’ve been making gains every single year,” said Novinger.

Novinger’s goal, largely attributed to her family, many of whom were teachers, is to make learning exciting and to make students feel respected. Her former students, many of whom were from underprivileged households, feel she was the best teacher Grant had to offer.

“I would definitely say she had an impact on students,” said Natalie Warrick, a scholarship student who went to UC Berkeley following high school. “She made people interested in psychology by making the subject applicable to students’ lives. Everyone loved Ms. Novinger.”

While she’s been nominated for and won several awards, she says having her former students nominate her for teaching awards is far more rewarding than trophies and placards.

“I want my students to feel loved and supported,” she said.

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