Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 2)

Geological strata reveal historical periods of plant and animal life eons ago. Schools  birthed in reform unveil similar strata.

In Part 1, I recounted teacher-founders’ (Jose Navarro and Jeff Austin) creation story of Social Justice Humanitas Academy, a Los Angeles Unified District school located in the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley. These founders placed its origin initially at Sylmar High School where they and other teachers established a Humanitas school-within-a school, offspring of an interdisciplinary curricular reform sponsored by the Los Angeles Education Partnership. LAEP’s Humanitas innovation began in the mid-1980s and slowly spread through the 1990s across LAUSD high schools. Aimed at engaging low-income Latino and African American youth to take academic courses that would prepare them for college, the teacher-led Humanitas program at Sylmar High School gained traction with a growing number of students. The teacher founders who had designed and governed the school-within-a-school, however, wanted more autonomy. They wanted their own school.

Second stratum of reform in SJHA

At the district level, the Board of Education at this time sought to expand parental choice in those neighborhoods where predominately low-income minority children and youth attended low-performing local schools. The reform idea of giving parents more choices among LAUSD schools gained speed and political support. In 2009, the Board of Education approved a Public School Choice resolution to establish innovative and rigorous schools designed to turn around low-performing schools across the district. Teams of teachers, parents, community activists, and others drafted plans for new schools in each of four rounds that Public School Choice sponsored. The superintendent’s review team critiqued proposals. In many cases, proposers revised and re-submitted their plans.

At the same time, another LAUSD reform was underway called “Pilot Schools.” The two streams of reform converged as the teachers at Sylmar High School wanted a separate school and the autonomy that a “pilot school” had.

Copying Boston’s Pilot Schools that had extended to particular schools freedom in governance, budget, hiring personnel, and curriculum, LAUSD and the teacher union, UTLA, agreed to the stipulations laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Signed by both parties, LAUSD officials established Pilot Schools in 2007. The MOU put a cap of 10  pilot schools in the district.*

The MOU specifically allowed school site discretion (see here, pp. 11-23) in the following areas of decision-making. I have rephrased the autonomies that the MOU granted to pilot schools.

Staffing: Pilot Schools can select and replace their certificated staff to create a unified school community. In Pilot Schools, teachers can decide on the staffing pattern that creates the best learning environment for students. Pilot Schools can reassign teaching staff (into the District pool) that do not fulfill those needs. The LAUSD-UTLA Collective Bargaining Agreement as it pertains to reduction in force must be adhered to when hiring teachers.

 Budget: Pilot Schools receive resources through a per pupil dollar allocation depending on grade level. This lump sum per pupil budget permits the school to decide how to spend budgeted monies based on what programs and services that best meet their students’ needs. Students with special needs will receive additional dollars through categorical funding (i.e., English Language Learners).

 Curriculum and Assessment: Pilot Schools have the autonomy to re-structure their A-G curriculum [college admission requirements for the California university system], as long as they are equal in rigor to or better than the District’s in order to meet students’ learning needs. All Pilot Schools are held accountable to state and federally required tests yet these schools have flexibility to determine curriculum and assessment practices that will fully prepare students for state and federally mandated tests.

  • Schools have autonomy from central office curriculum mandates. They can choose what content to cover and how to cover it.
  • Promotion and graduation requirements are set by the school, although they must be equal to or tougher than District requirements.

All Pilot Schools are required to administer the state mandated tests. Pilot Schools can opt out of District-required tests as long as they have other tests in place that are equal  to District ones in tracking student progress. Pilot Schools are encouraged to adopt performance-based assessments such as portfolios and exhibitions.

 Professional Development: Pilot Schools have the freedom to determine the professional development in which faculty engage.

 Governance: Pilot Schools design their own governance structure with increased decision-making powers over budget approval, principal selection, and programs and policies, while being mindful of state requirements on school councils.

  • A Pilot School’s Governing School Council is responsible for principal selection, supervision, and evaluation with final approval by the local area superintendent. The Council sets school policies and approves the budget.
  • Pilot Schools can set their own policies that the school community feels will best help students to be successful. This includes policies such as promotion, graduation, discipline, and attendance as long as they are in alignment with state and federal laws, and consent decrees.

 School Calendar: Pilot Schools can modify school days and calendar years for both students and faculty in accordance with their principles and instructional program as permitted by their budget, and as long as they meet the state required daily and annual instructional minutes; and number of instructional days.

After the Board of Education had adopted Public School Choice in 2009, UTLA and other organizations lobbied the Board to raise the cap of 10 pilot schools by an additional 20  to allow greater parental and teacher involvement. By 2011, there were 32 (see here).*

In that year, the SJHA proposal entered the second round for Public School Choice and was now designated as a Pilot School. The LAUSD superintendent recommended the teacher-designed SJHA’s proposal and the Board of Education approved it (see YouTube video with teachers and students called “The New School 2012”).

In September of 2011, SJHA moved into the Cesar Chavez Academies campus in the city of San Fernando housing three other small schools and began their work with a mostly Latino population drawing from adjacent neighborhoods.

The Humanitas high school curriculum program, Pilot Schools, and Public School Choice were reform-embedded layers within LAUSD laid down over three decades from divergent streams of reform. Each district innovation was a tributary of a reform-filled river that twisted, turned, and meandered as years passed and as political coalitions, worried about low-performing schools in largely poor minority neighborhoods, sought solutions for under-resourced and poorly performing schools. At times these streams unintentionally converged. A group of high school teachers working with District and foundation officials initially at Sylmar High School becoming over time SJHA, a pilot school, at 1001 Arroya Avenue in the city of San Fernando.

But streams of reform in LAUSD running parallel to or pouring into a river of district change did not cease. Another tributary poured into SJHA and soon became another stratum of layered reform: community schools.

Third stratum of reform in SJHA

Community schools are both academic and neighborhood institutions that through partnering with other agencies offer after-school programs, health clinics, mental health staff, and parent support options becoming in the current phrase a school with “wraparound” services.

LAEP which has been involved with SJHA for years, funded a “community coordinator. Jennie Carey, shortly after SJHA became part of the Cesar Chavez Academy complex. Over the next few years, Carey, other agencies, and SJHA teachers built on existing parts of the program as well as initiating an array of services for students, teachers, and parents: restorative justice; focus on the “whole-child,”  interdisciplinary teaching; family engagement; broadened learning opportunities; and on-campus wraparound supports filling student and community needs, including physical and mental health, housing assistance and legal support. In addition, SJHA launched other programs:

*Teachers “adopt” students

Teachers take on added responsibility for following up on those students struggling academically and with family problems by meeting with them face-to-face and helping students cope with issues that get in the way of academic success.

One SJHA teacher said: “I know it works….” He describes one 9th grader who he has adopted this year and how he was able to overcome the obstacles in his way. “I push him to make better decisions, he promises to do so, then messes up, and I talk to him again. And again. And again. He’ll get there. I’ve seen my adopted kids do better in grades as well, but it’s funny because I rarely get a chance to celebrate their victory because by then it’s part of their DNA. They almost forget about who they were, and I usually try to forget so I can enjoy who they’ve become.”

*Summer Bridge

A three week program for ninth graders initially but now two weeks. These first year students get to know one another, become familiar with the mission adn curriculum of the school, and develop relationships with classmates and teachers. Developing a community prior to coming to school eases entry for those students into a brand new school.

In 2015, federal funds became available for community schools. That was also the year that SJHA was recognized by the national Coalition of Community Schools for excellence. LAUSD tapped those funds in 2017 and launched more community schools.

Thus, SJHA in of itself contains strata of district reform policies laid down by divergent streams of reform extending back to the 1980s. These strata are evident to the observing eye in 2019.  Piled atop of one another, SJHA is living proof of how district reforms layered one on top of another have to be analyzed to make sense of the school even before one enters a school’s hallways and classrooms.

Part 3 goes inside SJHA to observe how teachers were teaching in February 2019.


*According to an email from Jeff Austin (March 18, 2019) to me, teachers Navarro and Austin had been elected to the UTLA House of Representatives in order to participate in the voting for the expanded MOU.

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Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

One response to “Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 2)

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