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When Teachers Share a Vision, They Do Great Things

This is the fourth of a six-part conversation on how teachers can grow in their leadership capacities.


Jeff Austin

Teacher leadership is often about solving problems. But sometimes it's not so much that something is being done wrongit's that something isn't being done right.

At my previous school in Los Angeles, there were many good, even extraordinary, teachers. As we got to know our students, who were resilient, motivated, and hungry for something more, it became clear that we were doing a lot rightand still not enough.

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 Angeleswe 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.

That same year, we entered the LAUSD Public School Choice process and submitted a proposal to form a teacher-powered pilot school on a new campus only three miles away. We continued to teach classes during the day, and after school we presented to community members, wrote a 153-page proposal, and met with countless district officials. When the school day ended, our group would meet, sometimes until 8:00 at night, working to make our dream school a reality. Our design team spent the entire week of Thanksgiving in a conference room writing, revising, crying, drinking too much coffee, and forging an alliance around the students who were giving us their best every day in our classrooms.

Although our plan was criticized as eccentric, unrealistic, and unreasonable, in March 2011 we were awarded one of four schools that would become the Cesar E. Chavez Learning Academies. We spent the next five months hiring staff members, learning district budgeting, and wondering when we would get the keys.

In September 2011, we finally put our "eccentric and unrealistic" plan into action. Students who took the jump with us from Sylmar now walked down brand new tiled hallways that hosted the portraits of seniors paired with the colleges they attend. Teachers gathered to eat lunch not in an anger-filled space but in a school collaboration room where we make our decisions together—including teachers, the principal, counselors, parents, and students.

Today, our school has a 94 percent graduation rate, the highest student and teacher attendance in LAUSD, and the highest test scores for non-magnet, non-charter high schools in the district.

Our teacher-powered school is now a model for success in the district. Thanks to the district and union, our school was given a place to stand. Every day we continue to push for success, looking for allies in LAUSD and our union, and to leverage our students' resiliency to get them the tools and resources that they need.

And yet we still find ourselves needing to do more ... not because the rules order us to do so, but because we believe we can work together toward a shared vision to help our students succeed.

Jeff Austin is a teacher and Coordinator at the Social Justice Humanitas Academy, a teacher-powered pilot school in Los Angeles. He is a National Board-certified teacher, 2012-13 Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year, and a teacher-powered ambassador for the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative. You can read his tweets about education, politics, and soccer by following him on Twitter @MisterA and or email him at [email protected]

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