When a strip club's opening sparked fierce protests in this residential community, teacher Gregory Salcido used it to introduce his El Rancho High School history classes to the Bill of Rights.
When it was time to cover World War II, Mr. Salcido drew parallels between the rise of the Nazi party and the discontent that led to gang violence that killed a former student of his just a week before.
And when Salcido ran for Congress against a two-term incumbent in the Democratic primary race last month, his students got a first-hand look at the electoral process in the United States.
"They couldn't understand why I didn't win," he says. So he walked them through districting principles and the difference between primary and general elections.
Salcido salts his history classes with discussions about current events and community issues. He punctuates his sentences with "man" and "cool," and he never lets his students forget that he's one of them, a Pico Rivera boy who 15 years ago walked the same halls they do.
"It needs to be relevant to their lives, or it doesn't stick," says Salcido, who has taught history at his alma mater for six years.
Salcido is equally determined to challenge his students to think for themselves. That's why he says he doesn't hold back on relaying his own views on everything from war ("not a cool thing") to strip clubs. ("I don't want a strip club here as much as the next person, but they have a constitutional right to exist and the kids need to know that.")
Still, his off-textbook views have provoked more than one call from irate parents. "I've been in the principal's office a few times," Salcido admits. Julie Ellis, the school principal in question, confirms the visits but says there is little acrimony involved. "He's somewhat overzealous about his causes and beliefs, but he's willing to move off a position if an argument persuades him, and that's probably what I respect most about him."
Salcido's passion is what makes him an effective teacher, Ms. Ellis adds. "He is extremely proud of having been a product of El Rancho High and as such is a great role model for kids."
That passion led him to encourage his students to give something back to their community. A Pico Rivera City Council member for three years, Salcido took his turn as mayor this month.
One of his priorities during the year-long term is to bring more commerce to this working-class Latino community just east of Los Angeles. Between classes, Salcido meets with representatives from Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and fires off letters to brand-name book and music retailers, touting Pico Rivera's higher-than-average home ownership rate and fast-growing population of 65,000.
"I send them the numbers and say, 'Check this out. This is raw data. What are you waiting for?' " he says.
For now, Salcido calls a neighboring town to order books for his students that aren't available in the school library. His sophomores are reading "Rain of Gold," Victor Villaseñor's acclaimed 1991 saga about his family's immigration to southern California from Mexico.
"A lot of these kids aren't exposed to reading. For them to read, it has to be a story that talks to them, he says. Unlike Salcido, whose grandparents immigrated here from Torreon, Mexico, almost a century ago, El Rancho students are more likely to be first- or second-generation Americans who speak English and Spanish interchangeably.
It wasn't long ago that Salcido favored tossing a football over picking up a book. He credits his father, a steelworker who reads several newspapers a day, for his 1996 graduation from nearby Whittier College, alma mater of former President Richard Nixon.
"My father came home from work dirty and tired, and if I wasn't doing my homework, he'd get mad," he says. "He would always tell me: 'Don't use your body, use your brain.' "
With a history degree in hand, Salcido knew he wanted to teach and he knew there was only one place he wanted to do it. El Rancho hired him a few months after graduation.
He married a fellow El Rancho High graduate and settled into a house three blocks from the high school. His run for Congress was grass roots all the way a $30,000 campaign with family members passing out flyers and "Salcido for Congress" T-shirts (a hot-ticket item around El Rancho's campus in the days before the election). He won a respectable 36 percent of the vote against incumbent Grace Napolitano and says he'll probably try again in 2004. He sums up his political platform in the same straightforward way he teaches: "This community created me, and now I want to take a bigger role in it ... give me a shot."
Salcido has instilled that sense of community devotion in many of his students, says El Rancho High graduate Alex Santana, now a second-year political science major at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
"All my life I had heard people tell me to study hard and do well and I would be rewarded with a better lifestyle than the one I had in Pico Rivera," Mr. Santana says. "[They] had given me the attitude that by going off to Notre Dame I was gaining the opportunity to escape from where I am from. Mr. Salcido was the first person to challenge that."
Instead, Santana says, "he taught me to embrace my community for what it is and what it could be."
I'm a firm believer in the classics like "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Hamlet" and they get that in English class. What I try do is get them reading and talking about a book that I would consider more relevant to their lives as California high school students in 2002."
You can't just say, 'this is my teaching style, take it or leave it.' If I have to be Bozo the Clown to get them to learn, I'll be Bozo the Clown."
I rarely use textbooks. They don't need to see a picture of [German Chancellor] Baron von Bismarck to learn about history."