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Two students are being disruptive in English class, so teacher Diane Wilson asks them to step into the hallway.

“What’s going on?” she asks. The students blame each other. She listens for a few minutes, tells them to work out their differences, and after a bit everyone returns to the classroom.

She shares later that the students decided to take positive action and cease behavior that was putting them on the verge of failing her class.

“They decided to change where they sit, so they could take control of their work habits instead of ‘playing the victim’ of circumstance,” Wilson says. “They are beginning to take ownership of their learning. Both students have made conscious gains in their attention to detail and in their writing.”

In other schools, these students might have been sent to the principal’s office or detention. But at the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in the San Fernando Valley, teachers believe in treating behavior rather than punishment. Wilson, for example, goes directly to the heart of the matter to figure out what is getting in the way of student learning. “It could be something as simple as boredom or as complex as hunger or instability at home. I let students know I am on their side and we can build a solution together.”

Focus on the whole child

As the name implies, the Social Justice Humanitas Academy, a public high school currently with 526 students, takes a different approach in how staff and students treat one another.

“Some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around it, but at our school social justice isn’t a class or a program — it’s a value related to everything we do and a way of seeing things,” explains Jose Luis Navarro, the school’s founding teacher and principal.

Social justice provides everyone access to the same opportunities. There’s full inclusion of students with disabilities in every class, and no “tracking,” so honors students and regular students sit together, with equal access to curriculum and content. The assumption is that all students are going to college.

“Our school is founded on high expectations, and we are pushing students very hard to do things they have never done before.”
— Jael Reboh, UTLA

Students are treated like young adults. That means they are not just told how to behave, but why. For example, students were informed that toilets had expensive cartridges, and that if they broke them, money used to replace them could not be spent on things students need and want. After this explanation, vandalism ceased, says lead teacher Jeff Austin, one of many United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) members on site.

Staff use the book series The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, which addresses how educators can help build strong bonds with students to foster success.

“Staff may ‘adopt’ students who are on academic probation and work closely with these students to ensure they don’t fall through the cracks and they get the support and services they need,” says math teacher Kathleen Francisco-Flores. “I enjoy the culture and relationships we establish.”

A peer-mentoring program offers struggling students extra support not only academically but also socially. Students who miss tests or assignments get second chances. There is a daily student advisory period — and office hours for staff — who often assist with filling out college and financial aid forms.

“Our school is founded on high expectations, and we are pushing students very hard to do things they have never done before,” says English and philosophy teacher Jael Reboh. “So we have to support them academically and emotionally. We talk to them about their hopes and dreams.”

The student population is low-income and mostly Latino, and many take advantage of a visiting mobile medical health clinic, along with dental, vision and mental health specialists who have partnerships with the school to provide student services.

Restorative justice practices are making a difference, says counselor Ozzie Lastre.

“Here, kids have opportunities to correct their mistakes as opposed to being punished with detention or litter pickup. For example, students who say offensive things have to write letters of apology for being rude so they understand how their behavior affects others. We try to reinforce the idea that choices we make impact not just us — but other people as well. It’s made our students more compassionate and empathetic.”

Humanitas has a 91 percent graduation rate and a 90 percent completion rate for “a-g” courses — both rates surpassing those of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). That’s remarkable, considering that the school does not give D’s. Last year the school had only two suspensions.

“They expect a lot from us,” says Mario Cruz, adding that teachers have come to his house and knocked on his door when they were concerned about him. “It’s an amazing school. They care a lot about you. They give you lots of opportunities to succeed in school — and in life.”

“We’re always here for one another,” says student Jessica Jimenez. “Students don’t judge each other about what they look like or where they come from.”

Social justice for teachers

Teachers are responsible for their own professional development and lead workshops for one another. They have two prep periods and collaborate with their grade-level team and department weekly. Turnover is low because staff want to stay, says Navarro, who became principal because teachers asked him to.

Decisions are reached by consensus within the Instructional Leadership Team, which is open to all teachers. Unlike voting, there are no winners and losers. If someone holds five fingers up, it means complete agreement, while three fingers means being somewhat on board, and a fist means “no way.” Gradually, ideas morph into something everyone can live with, hopefully.

“I appreciate teaching in a space where teacher expertise is validated and where I am encouraged to grow in so many ways.” — SAMANTHA SIEGELER, UTLA

“I love that decisions are teacher-led and that my voice matters when it comes to the direction of our math department, school policy and hiring,” says Francisco-­Flores.

The school, in fact, was created by teachers. English and ELD instructor Samantha Siegeler was excited to be part of the design team six years ago for this pilot school. LAUSD Pilot Schools are a network of public schools that have autonomy over budget, staffing, governance, curriculum, assessment and the school calendar, allowing greater flexibility to best meet students’ needs. They were created to be models of educational innovation, serving as research and development sites for effective urban schools.

“I appreciate teaching in a space where teacher expertise is validated and where I am encouraged to grow in so many ways,” says Siegeler. “For us, social justice is our how in addition to our why. It’s about doing everything we can to bridge the opportunity gap in this high-poverty, high-crime area where low graduation rates are the norm.”

Curriculum more relevant

With curriculum and behavior viewed through a social justice lens, students are inspired to become activists. They have participated in demonstrations and marches, and worked on school projects to improve their community and voice their political opinions.

“This year I learned about the three I’s of oppression,” says Wilson. “It’s institutional, interpersonal and individual. I embedded this philosophy into my teaching of Always Running by Luis Rodriguez, so students were ingesting the novel through community issues that transcended the book’s narrative. When Mr. Rodriguez came to speak, ninth-graders asked complex questions based upon their deep understanding of his story through systemic levels of oppression.”

Social studies teacher Sasha Guzman infuses social justice into lessons to provide perspective.

“When we were learning geography, we did geopolitical mapping. We went on buses and did a ‘toxic tour’ based on the output of the factories in the area. Kids can become empowered, and they can become agents of change, when they learn about issues that are important to them.”

A Model Community School

Six years ago, eight high school educators in San Fernando believed that they had a more effective way of teaching the population of largely Hispanic, low-­income students. They wrote a proposal and submitted it to the local school board. The board agreed, and the Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA) opened in 2011.

In 2015, SJHA won a National Community Schools Award for Excellence from the Coalition for Community Schools. The award recognized its extraordinary spike in graduation rates — to 94 percent from 83 percent the previous year. Teacher-led SJHA is now considered a national model for community schools, which emphasize student and community engagement and work with outside partners to provide health, social and other services to students and their families.

A February 2016 report, “Transforming Struggling Schools Into Thriving Schools,” by the coalition along with the Center for Popular Democracy and the Southern Education Foundation, highlights SJHA in recommending six strategies that schools can use to transform themselves:

1. Curricula that are engaging, culturally relevant and challenging.

2. An emphasis on high-quality teaching, not on high-stakes testing.

3. Wrap-around supports and opportunities such as health care and social and emotional services that support academics.

4. Positive discipline practices, such as restorative justice and social and emotional learning supports.

5. Authentic parent and community engagement, so the full community actively participates in planning and decision-making.

6. Inclusive school leadership who are committed to making the community school strategy integral to the school’s mandate and functioning.

Here’s a video about SJHA’s beginnings.

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