What We Can All Learn from ‘The Bad Kids’

Who are “The Bad Kids”? Well, they aren’t really bad kids at all, but, to mainstream society, they certainly appear that way. They’re tardy to class and turn in assignments late—if at all. They talk back to teachers or sleep through lessons and sometimes they stop coming to class altogether. Often their absence goes unnoticed or no one cares enough to find out why.

“There isn’t a community anywhere that doesn’t have students who suffer from depression and/or anxiety or have a drug addiction or have been touched by drug addiction or alcoholism in their family or from some form of abuse or self-hatred or suicidal tendencies,” said, Vonda Viland, principal of Black Rock Continuation High School in Yucca Valley, California.

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Principal Vonda Viland talks with student Lee Bridges about the importance of not dropping out. Photo courtesy of PBS.

The alternative high school is the subject of a new “Independent Lens” documentary, “The Bad Kids.” In it, we meet some students living in an impoverished Mojave Desert community. These kids have been labeled “bad” but often because of circumstances beyond their control.

Black Rock Continuation High School is a place for students who are too far behind to graduate in a traditional educational setting. The school runs a combination program: Learning is partially directed, similar to traditional learning environments. But Black Rock also offers a program in which each student works individually at his or her own pace on assignments.

“That’s very empowering for the students, ” Viland said. “To put them in charge and say, ‘You know, you only have to be in school as long as it takes you to finish the required curriculum,’ that really motivates them to work hard. So kids who haven’t done well in the traditional school system come over here and flourish because they are in charge.”

“The Bad Kids,” gives us an intimate look into the lives of these students. We get a glimpse into their everyday trials and tribulations and can’t help but root for them along the way. While students Jennifer, Joey and Lee might be the ones getting an education, Viland said she believes these “bad kids” can teach all of us a thing or two.

Their resiliency. Their compassion. They give more than most people because they know what it’s like to be kicked around and so they are really, truly one of our nation’s biggest untapped resources.”

Viland has worked in education for decades and started Black Rock in 2012 when two continuation schools in the area merged. In the film, we see her up at 3:30 a.m. and jumping rope before heading into school to knock out paperwork so she can spend as much time as possible doing her favorite aspect of the job: working with the students.

“They are our future,” she said. “We need to invest our energies and our time to help all kids. They are either going to be a drain on society or we are going to help them move forward. We have to make that commitment.”

Rewire wanted to learn more about the woman leading the charge at Black Rock. Viland talked about what’s next for the Black Rock kids and why we should all care about our nation’s at-risk high school students.

Rewire: Why did you decide to get into education?

Vonda Viland: I was quite fortunate. I had a college professor who pulled me out of class and said, “You’re a born teacher. You need to go into the classroom.” Being young and impressionable I said, “Okay!” and never looked back.

Rewire: What kind of resources and training do the staff at Black Rock get to help them navigate the different needs of each individual student?

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Student Jennifer Coffield hangs out with her niece. Photo courtesy of PBS.

VV: Unfortunately, because of our rural location, we do not have a lot of outside resources. For example, our nearest homeless shelter is 90 miles away. Getting counselors or anyone in here to assist us is just not possible at most times. In extreme cases, I am able to get someone to come and help with a student. Primarily, it’s just us. I’ve had mental health providers come in and do training with our teachers but it’s primarily just us brainstorming and working together and caring. The teachers meet daily, I meet with them once a week and we just talk about every student and what we can do to help them. We support each other because it is a very emotionally draining job. Not a day goes by where… we’re not dealing with a crisis of one form or another.

We’re very lucky to have a staff that is very committed to the students and who work very well together so that when the majority of us with a student are at our wits end (and) we can’t get through to this kid, there’s always one (teacher or staff member) who will say, “Well, what if we try this?” Or “You know, we haven’t tried that yet.” Or “Let me take that kid in my room for the day.” Somebody will step up and we try to find a solution.

Rewire: Speaking of emotionally draining, how do you stay positive and upbeat?

VV: Everyday is a new beginning. I really, truly, honestly believe that. My whole philosophy in education is in the power of positive. I don’t believe that punishments teach anything. I believe that punishments only punish. And if we really want to make a difference in kids’ lives the only way to that is to make a positive connection. So, you reach inside to find that positivity… (and) it creates a cycle where your energy makes a positive difference in someone else, who then gives you a hug or tells you that they appreciate you which then recreates your positive energy and you’re just creating that cycle.

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Probation officer Adolfo Mediano talks to student Joey McGee about his attendance at school. Photo courtesy of PBS.

I also really believe in work hard, play hard. I’m very insistent that I get my staff out of here every single day at a decent time, that they need to go home. They need to have outside interests. They need to be with their families. I’m the same way. I go hiking every day to get out into nature and fill my cup up because if we don’t take care of ourselves and we don’t fill our own cups up then we can’t be of use to the students.

Rewire: How many students are at Black Rock at a given time? How many students have graduated?

VV: There are 120 students at the school on a daily basis. Once one graduates, we bring in a new student, so it’s a constant cycle of bringing in new students. (It can be) a tiring juggling act with the staff because we’re constantly trying to help the students who are here with their personal issues and with their academic issues and then we’re trying to welcome and acclimate new students at the same time.

Between 80 and 96 students have graduated from Black Rock every year since I’ve been here. Our dropout rate is about 3 percent, which is well under the national average and the state average. I think most places are running around 15 percent and we look at drop out rates rather than graduation rates because we don’t give the kids a graduation date.

Rewire: What’s your biggest hope for the graduates of Black Rock?

VV: That they see their potential and that they learn that they can’t let systems or society get in their way of reaching that potential. So many of our students have had generational poverty in their lives. Their families. The families before. And the families before that. I really try to work hard with them to teach them that they can break the cycle. You don’t have to be held back by your life circumstances.

Rewire: From what you know, does our country need more schools like Black Rock? Do you believe there is a shortage of schools like Black Rock?

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Students Lee Bridges and Layla Schneider walk with their baby toward a bus stop in Twentynine Palms, CA. Photo courtesy of PBS.

VV: There’s a huge need for programs like Black Rock. There isn’t a community anywhere that doesn’t have students who suffer from depression or anxiety or have a drug addiction or just touched by drug addiction or alcoholism in their family or from some form of abuse or self-hatred, suicidal tendencies. The kids are crying out for help and if we don’t start listening to them, the problem is just going to continue to escalate. And the reality is we’re either going to spend the money or the time on them as kids to help them create a better future or we’re going to spend the time and the money later on in life with social services or correctional institutions.

Rewire: How do we make more people like you?

VV: I like two things about the film that I hope stick out.

One is: I’m not unique. There are a lot of educators out there who give their heart and soul to kids. If you ask anybody who has been somewhat successful in their life, “Was there a teacher who connected with you?” you’re going to hear, “Yeah, so and so” and they’re going to tell you great stories about a teacher who cared.

The other thing is that’s it’s not a heroes journey. It’s not that you can fix all the problems. You see in the movie that we don’t and some of the kids that we care the most about we just aren’t able to meet their needs at that point in time.

Rewire: What would you say is the best part of your job?

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Student Jennifer Coffield pushes her niece on the swings. Photo courtesy of PBS.

VV: Oh! The kids! I come in to get rid of the paperwork in the morning. I hate district meetings. I hate all the politicking and all that stuff, but, you know, since I’ve come to the continuation school, I have not had a day where I haven’t gotten at least one hug from a kid with a “thank you” and you really see the difference that you can make in their lives.

Rewire: Of all the challenges you face on a regular basis, what would you say is the toughest part of your work at Black Rock?

VV: Battling that generational poverty and to try to give the kids hope that you can better your life. You’re going to have to jump through some hoops that you don’t want to but that you have to play some of society’s games in order to forward yourself.

After they leave here, we work really hard to get them on to the next level. This year already, we have 38 of our students who we have helped with the enrollment process, the assessment process, the financial aid process and are all enrolled at our community college so they know it’s all done. As soon as they are done (at Black Rock), they are immediately transferring over there. I also work really closely with the military trying to get some of the kids just out of dodge.
Rewire: Why should all of us care about at-risk high school students?

VV: Because they are our future. We need to invest our energies and our time to help all kids. They are either going to be a drain on society or we are going to help them move forward. We have to make that commitment. I have written a book called “Lessons from the Bad Kids,” and, in that, I talk about all the things that we just as humans beings, not just educators, can learn from these kids. Their resiliency. Their compassion. They give more than most people because they know what it’s like to be kicked around and so, they are really, truly, one of our nation’s biggest untapped resources.

“The Bad Kids” premieres on “Independent Lens” on Monday, March 20. Check your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times, or watch online at PBS.org.

Maribel Lopez

Maribel is a lifelong public media fan and as director of Rewire, oversees the site’s strategy and operations. When she isn’t catching up on the latest digital publishing trends, she enjoys traveling, flamenco dancing and going on adventures with her doggos.