An Educational Partnership For At-Risk Youth
By Vanessa Serpas
Eunice Nuval sits hovered over the projector. She’s making edits to a monologue written by Jackie, her seventeen-year-old student at San Francisco’s Downtown High School. Far from the typical high school experience, Mrs. Nuval—as she’s known in the classroom—spends much of her time with students reviewing their monologues and plays for their final exhibition at the end of the semester.
Downtown High, or DHS, is unlike traditional comprehensive high schools in the Bay Area. It is a continuation school for students who have fallen off track in the standard-curriculum high school setting and are referred by the city’s School District to more personalized programs offered by DHS.
Ben, an eighteen-year-old student who was transferred to DHS from Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School says, “I like Downtown better than Wallenberg because I get more support and one-on-one help.”
Unlike Ben, seventeen-year-old Jose, wishes he was still at his previous high school, Galileo Academy of Science and Technology. “I miss being there because my mom wanted to see me graduate from there.”
With a project-based curriculum that connects their hands-on experiences to the “real world,” DHS allows the students to pick a project they are most interested in for the semester.
“Ideally, every subject is integrated around the project theme,” says Robert Ayala, a teacher at DHS. While he has been able to integrate most subjects around the project he is co-teaching, he is still working on integrating mathematics, which at the moment, he teaches as a separate course.
Projects at DHS range from topics like Physics Reflected In Social Movements also known as PRISM, which studies how ideas in social history and physics can be comparable, to Acting For Critical Thought, also known as ACT, which, this semester, focuses on the diasporas in migrant communities through playwriting and stage performance.
Nuval and Ayala run ACT, the theater project she established two years ago in partnership with Elizabeth Brodersen, the first Director of Education at the American Conservatory Theater. Brodersen recalls that only two months after being appointed director, “Eunice called me and said I’m a teacher at Downtown High School, we want to establish a theater project and would you be our partner, and I said sure!”
With the help of Brodersen, Nuval is able to take her students to the Conservatory, located at 415 Geary St., every week for acting workshops with company member and teaching artist, Nick Gabriel.
In the workshops, the students attempt to perfect their stage performance for plays and monologues. Through direction and much repetition, Gabriel works alongside the students to help them out of their shell to create a memorable performance at the exhibition.
“We’re gonna keep doing this if it kills me and you,” says Gabriel jokingly to the class. Over and over again he demonstrates exaggerated performance movements and voice projection that the students need to copy. While this results in giggles from the students, he provides great examples for them to imitate, so as to captivate their audience at the show.
In addition to the weekly acting workshops, Nuval has also generated a partnership with 826 Valencia, a literacy initiative located in San Francisco’s Mission District. Each week, tutors from 826 Valencia work with students to develop their writing skills and answer any questions they may have about the monologues or plays they have created.
When the students are not at the Conservatory, or with the tutors, they are diligently working with Nuval and Ayala grinding away at their work in preparation for the exhibition. Through prompts and daily classroom exercises, Nuval is constantly pushing her students to reach their potential.
Nuval’s ultimate goal for her students—which she feels is being accomplished—is “for their voices to be heard, their stories to be told and to take their experiential learning outside of the school.”
While the exhibition is currently not open to the public because of auditorium space limitations, Brodersen hopes a larger space will soon be available for public attendance.