Students in the Diploma Plus program at Charlestown High School recently participated in an interdisciplinary week of study called “Ecological Systems: Scrutinizing the War on Drugs.” Students looked at the effects of substance abuse, imprisonment, and poverty on individuals, neighborhoods, cities, and America as a whole.
Students asked deep questions about the ramifications of certain social policies and laws, and they studied the ways we understand addiction both scientifically and culturally.
“There was a lot of debate this week,” Charlestown resident and Diploma Plus student Priscilla Chiu said. “We talked about all the ways drugs affect people.”
One topic Chiu learned about was the prison system, especially the financial costs related to incarceration.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “It costs more to imprison someone for a year than it does for a year of college tuition.”
This fact was personally meaningful to Chiu, who will be graduating from Charlestown High School in June and attending Endicott College in the fall.
This interdisciplinary week used an ecological systems framework to look at the drug war—analyzing the largest level (the “macrosystem”) down to the smallest level (the individual). The book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander and the documentary, "The House I Live In," provided the intellectual foundation.
“We wanted to look at the war on drugs as it applies to our students and the communities they live in,” environmental science teacher Tommy Hayes said.
During his classes, students learned about the science of addiction, namely how foreign chemicals interact with the brain and about the deleterious neurological effects of drug use—topics of high interest to students.
Hayes, along with the entire Diploma Plus staff, helped organize the event by designing the curriculum and inviting community members, professors, and doctors in as guest presenters. Funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation made this programming possible.
There were a lot of big takeaways from Diploma Plus students.
“It’s like every individual is affected by the war on drugs,” 19-year-old Paul Holmes said. “Even if they believe in it or not, even if they know people who do drugs or not. We’re all a part of this war.”
Diploma Plus is a special program at Charlestown High School designed for students who have been academically off-track. In this program, students are provided with smaller class sizes and additional support. The Diploma Plus structure allows for creativity in the classroom and for the exploration of politically and socially relevant fields of study.
“We have a great time,” said Mike Cermak, a professor of sociology at Boston College who works with Diploma Plus through this Green Dragons Martial Arts program. “Diploma Plus is an amazing place.”
Each day of this interdisciplinary week began and ended with talking circles where students and staff shared their thoughts about what they were learning. These talking circles provide a chance for personal and communal reflection.
“This isn’t to condone the personal use of drugs,” Director of Diploma Plus Sung-Joon Pai said. “This is to help understand drug use within a larger context—family, community, country, world.”
By using the ecological systems framework, which was developed by noted Russian-American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, students see the connections between drug use and other issues like housing, education, jobs, crime, and family. Students are able to analyze the structure of the world they live in.
This is important when considering what role education should play in the lives of students. Is education just a pathway to college, a degree, and a job? Or should it serve a more fundamental role in students’ lives—allowing them to understand the world they live in and showing them how to change that world for the better.
Teddy Soares is a new student in Diploma Plus. He has been out of high school for more than a year and has struggled academically in the past.
“This has just been a great week for me,” Soares said. “I feel lucky to be here.”