The Geology of School Reform: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles (Part 1)

Many readers have visited the majestic Grand Canyon. It is an unforgettable sight.




What is obvious to visitors are the strata, geological layers of different shades of red, beige, and brown, that reveal plant and animal life that lived eons ago.





OK, Larry, I get the strata part giving a glimpse of past life in layers piled atop one another. What’s the connection to school reform?

Every district, every school in the U.S. has historical layers of reform piled atop one another although the time frame is far less than an eon. A case in point is the Social Justice Humanitas Academy located within Los Angeles Unified School District. Consider the following official information about the school.

Our mission is to achieve social justice through the development of the complete individual. In doing so, we increase our students’ social capital and their humanity while creating a school worthy of our own children.

According to the website, that mission is the school’s vision of what it aspires to:

A school’s vision is its inspiration, articulating the dreams and hopes for the school community. At Social Justice Humanitas Academy, our vision is: We will achieve self-actualization [original bold-faced]. The concept of self-actualization comes from Abraham Maslow, a leader in humanistic psychology, who understood a good life to be one in which an individual maximized their potential to become the very best version of who they are.

Directly below the mission statement is the following graphic.


While the above statement is general, the mission for the 9th grade entering class in 2018 is more specific:

Our mission is to provide a loving transition into young adulthood by:
-Providing relevant, authentic and rigorous instruction,
-Further developing academic, social skills and self worth,
-Fostering a growth mindset and self-efficacy,
-And prioritizing parent engagement and community activism.
As a result, students will self-actualize.

These mission statements act as a guide to all decision making” for a school that opened in 2011 on a new campus. Consider the school’s demographics and academic profile then and now.

Since SJHA opened its demographics have stayed consistent. SJHA has 513 students (2019) enrolled in 9th through 12th grades. On race and ethnicity (2015), 95 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent African American and one percent each for Caucasian and Native American. Of that number 12 percent were English Learners. Special education students were 10 percent of enrollment. And 88 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch (the poverty measure for LAUSD schools).

And some of the academic results were sufficiently eye-catching to attract media attention (see below).

* Graduations rates increased between 2011 to 2015 from 83 to 94 percent. Both exceed LAUSD and state rates of graduation.

*Ninety-six percent of students have an individual graduation plan.

*Seventy-five percent of students passed all college required courses.

*Suspensions sunk to 0.2 percent in 2014.

*Six Advanced Placement courses are offered (English language, English literature, analytic geometry/pre-calculus, macroeconomics, Spanish language, Spanish Literature)

Yet much work remains to be done in boosting academic achievement.

Consider that in 2018, 25 percent of 11th grade students tested proficient in math (state average  is 39 percent) and 64 percent did so in English (state average is 56 percent).

The school’s demographic profile has remained fairly constant since its re-location into the new building housing Cesar Chavez Academies. Academically there have been improvements and much work remaining, given the mission statements noted above.

But a school is not an island. District changes spilled over SJHA prior to its becoming an Academy and in the subsequent decade after it re-located in 2011 to become one of the four academies in the Cesar Chavez complex. LAUSD reforms going back to the early 1980s are as visible as strata in the Grand Canyon in SJHA.

The strata of SJHA

To fully appreciate this LAUSD school (neither a charter nor a magnet but a pilot school) is to dig into its history.

First layer: Humanitas 1980s-1990s.

In 1986, four Los Angeles foundations, the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP) and LAUSD launched an interdisciplinary high school program combining literature and history, science, and art and other combination of subjects to engage students in conceptual and critical thinking skills, writing, and other learning activities around themes that cut across disciplines. The program sought to engage both the minds and hearts of teenagers. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1991:

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.

By 1991, Humanitas enrolled 3,500 students including English Language learners and potential dropouts in 29 of 49 LAUSD comprehensive high schools.

A decade later at Sylmar High School in Northeast San Fernando Valley where mostly poor and Latino youth attended, a group of teachers designed a Humanitas program for a small number of students that slowly expanded.  As Jose Navarro, one of the founding teachers, put it:  Our job is to make these four walls magic… the reality is that education starts way before they enter my room. So we need this collaborative environment and not just on campus. It has to be in the community. (See 12 minute YouTube called “The New School” about how these Sylmar teachers teach in their Humanitas program and then decided to propose a separate school in a newly built high school nearby).

Another founding teacher, Jeff Austin, described the growth of the program within Sylmar to become a school-within-a-school and then the Humanitas teachers’ decision to start an entirely separate, free-standing school outside of the large high school.

This movement towards more started in 2000 when three teachers came together to start the Multimedia Academy at Sylmar High School. These teachers wanted to develop engaging interdisciplinary lessons to better support their students. By 2006, this group grew to become the Humanitas Academy, one of several Small Learning Communities at Sylmar. Humanitas included three teams that brought together a history teacher, an English teacher, and an art teacher working with students in grades 10-12.

We had incredible success with students who faced challenges in a community overrun by poverty, gangs, crime, and low expectations. We were doing a lot right. Our test scores were the highest in the school, our mentor program became a model schoolwide, and we introduced student-led conferences. Our students were getting accepted to universities. But it still wasn’t enough.

So we began to push our school to let us do more. Many pushed back. Some teachers said that we only worked with the best students. District officials had little confidence that we could build something better than their policies. Even some of our own students said that we were asking too much. In response, we did something that, at the time, was rare for teachers in Los Angeles—we stepped outside of our school buildings and began to search for solutions.

We networked with other Humanitas schools through the Los Angeles Education Partnership, developing our own benchmark assessments. Soon after, we were given exemption from district assessments by the superintendent. At every turn, when we brought solutions, people moved out of our way.

But our journey toward designing a better learning experience for our students had plenty of speed bumps. The further we pushed, the more we encountered people who didn’t think a group of teachers could do all this. In 2009, we began to seek more independence, and we first learned about the pilot school model—a small school led by teachers who have autonomy over many of the school’s operations. To get there, we would have to battle union politics, district policy, and a paradigm in which teachers didn’t call the shots.

A year later, we joined forces with a group of like-minded 9th grade teachers, and Humanitas became a full 9-12 grade small learning community. We were given permission by the principal to interview and hire our own math and Physics teachers, and we created our own master schedule. The school set aside special space for us and even remodeled a classroom so our students could stay in that room for science classes.

For the first time, our students had only Humanitas teachers. This meant that when students left my classroom, I knew it was to learn with another teacher who offered the same level of engaging and rigorous instruction. It also meant that I working as part of a dedicated community fostering a positive learning experience.

The Humanitas program in LAUSD is the first layer of reform. It took root in Sylmar in the early aughts. As Humanitas became a school-within-a-school, the teachers wanted independence. In LAUSD as charters and magnets expanded and parental choice became the bumper sticker, the District adopted the Pilot School idea (initially in Boston) which extended even more autonomy to teachers and principals. And the Pilot School phase is the second stratum of school reform that helped shape the Social Justice Humanitas Academy.

I take up that stratum in Part 2.








Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies

4 responses to “The Geology of School Reform: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles (Part 1)

  1. Gerald Heverly

    Early in my career a colleague told me you could go into the English dept storage room and literally see the layers of programs that had swept through the school over the past decades.

    • larrycuban

      Very nice image. Jerry. And vivid also. Brings back memories when I taught history and would go into the social studies bookroom and find texts dating back to…I won’t give dates. Thanks for comment.

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