A Bore No More : Humanities Classes Designed for ‘Community’ of Teachers, Students Draw Rave Reviews


Longtime art history teacher Neil Anstead knew he had a hard sell on his hands when he was picked to launch a special high school program emphasizing the humanities.

He had been hearing the bad rap for years: irrelevant stuff about Ancient Greece and Rome, an elitist pursuit for upper-middle-class white students. But Anstead, who holds degrees in economics and music and who remembers Western Civilization as his favorite college course, welcomed his new assignment as a chance to “build a dream.”

The blueprint Anstead sketched for the Cleveland Humanities Magnet High School in Reseda--a plan he typed out during a week of long nights in his study at home in the spring of 1981--later became the basis for a larger, widely praised program under way on a growing number of Los Angeles Unified School District campuses.

The Humanitas program, a composite of Anstead’s own experiences and a “bundle of influences” and ideas from fellow teachers, also has drawn the attention of several nonprofit foundations working to improve education in school districts across the nation. Its directors and teachers are being invited with increasing frequency to share their success stories at education conferences.


“We have found that this program can work at any school, in any area--not just in the suburbs and not just at the magnets,” said Judy Johnson, program director for the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a consortium of business leaders that provides money to try out ways to reform the public schools. “We’ve had success with a very diverse group of kids. In some schools, half of the kids are ones who had already failed before getting into Humanitas.”

The Los Angeles Educational Partnership launched Humanitas in eight Los Angeles high schools in 1986, drawing on grants from private foundations and using Cleveland’s program as its model. Now in its fifth year, the project operates in 29 of the district’s 49 comprehensive high schools and involves 180 teachers and about 3,500 students, including some who are just learning English and some who seemed likely to drop out of high school.

At the heart of Humanitas are small teams of teachers who volunteer to work long hours together, creating interdisciplinary curricula aimed at making lessons relevant to students’ daily lives. The approach creates small “communities” of teachers and students, providing a more personal, supportive environment for youngsters at very little added cost to the district.

The themes--including the American Dream: From Rags to Riches; Women, Race and Social Protest, and the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism--are vehicles for coordinated instruction in English, social studies, art and sometimes science or math.


Although the courses meet state and district curriculum requirements, many teachers chuck textbooks in favor of novels, biographies or writings in politics and philosophy, and substitute for standard classroom fare materials they pull together themselves.

Extensive writing assignments are an integral part of the program, as is student interaction.

Humanitas students, recruited with the help of school counselors, have many of the same classmates throughout high school, while their teachers share ideas and notes on their progress, lending hard-to-find continuity and intimacy to crowded urban campuses.

A recent UCLA study showed Humanitas students have pulled ahead of their peers or improved their school performance in many ways, from better attendance to heightened writing skills to somewhat higher grades and markedly more positive attitudes toward school.

In a survey of seven Humanitas schools in the spring of 1990, researchers found that Humanitas students said more than others that they enjoyed school, took college entrance exams and felt their teachers cared about them. Vast majorities of Humanitas students said the program had encouraged them to attend college (74%), helped them understand the world better (87%), improved their writing (81%) and reading (79%) and expanded their options for the future (67%).

At Jefferson, where only about one-third of the students are U.S. citizens and most of their families are poor and uneducated, researchers found dramatic differences between Humanitas students and others. They came to school 91% of the time, while overall attendance for the school averages 76%. Some 19% of Humanitas students met University of California course requirements, compared with 2% of other students; 69% took the SAT, compared with 30% of others, and 65% applied to four-year colleges, while only 11% of their classmates did.

Despite the increased workload and tougher demands, fewer than 3% of students dropped out of Humanitas, according to the study by researchers at the Center for the Study of Evaluation at UCLA’S Graduate School of Education.

That doesn’t surprise Anstead, who is both academic director of the Humanitas program for Los Angeles Educational Partnership and coordinator of the Cleveland magnet program.


“For years we have sold kids short . . . they are capable of so much more,” he said.

While sharing the same basic principles, Humanitas projects vary widely from campus to campus, allowing the teaching teams--usually three to four faculty members per grade level at each school--to shape them to reflect their own strengths and the students’ particular needs and interests.

* At Wilson High on the Eastside, 12th-grade Humanitas students use Los Angeles as their means of studying literature, government, history and cinema. After teaming up with a video artist in 1989, Wilson students’ “exploration” of the much-maligned Los Angeles River resulted in a mixed-media exhibit at Cal State Los Angeles.

* That same year at Westchester High, Humanitas students in the ninth grade took on a neighborhood controversy--the mammoth Playa Vista development project planned near Marina del Rey. After hearing a guest speaker present plans for the project, the students were told to come up with their own development proposals, then write an essay and deliver an oral presentation defending their ideas against attacks.

* At Carson High, 12th graders got combined lessons in economics and world literature by reading Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and producing ways to market the novel in contemporary society.

Despite the extra work required of teachers, few leave the program. And only one high school has dropped out in five years. The UCLA study found high satisfaction among participating teachers.

Dan Isaacs, the district’s assistant superintendent, senior high schools division, said his visits to all the Humanitas schools have left him an “enthusiastic supporter.” He said that after hearing from youngsters, he is convinced “that they are enjoying school. These are classes in which they may work harder than ever before, but they look forward to them, and we find they are benefiting . . . across the board,” Isaacs said.

Educational partnership officials believe that the program’s ability to bring about lasting, substantive reform in the classroom turns primarily on opportunities for teachers to work together and get exposure to new ideas and procedures.


The educational partnership provides almost $730,000 annually for the program, including “teacher centers” at Cleveland and Jefferson, which provide training and support for faculty members interested in joining Humanitas. It also pays for two-week “summer academy” sessions to help design and refine course content, and organizes sessions with university faculty and attendance at cultural events.

It also gives each participating school $1,000 a year to spend on enrichment programs. The district covers the cost of $1,100 stipends or extra planning time for lead teachers at each school, as well as buses for field trips.

Partnership officials said they kept costs as low as possible to improve the financially strapped school district’s chances of continuing the program when the private grant expires in a year.

Connie Wolf, a research associate with the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped fund Humanitas and 13 other humanities and arts education programs around the nation, said the Los Angeles project is beginning to turn heads.

“The Los Angeles project has created a sense that things can change and that enthusiastic teachers (given the appropriate resources) can be the agent for change,” Wolf said.

“They are demonstrating that all children can learn and, given the opportunity to have a rigorous academic program, do perform and get excited about learning,” Wolf added. “That will have tremendous effects on the rest of their lives, and it is thrilling to watch.”