School & District Management Opinion

Bold Innovations Emerging at L.A. Unified’s Teacher-Powered Schools

By Contributing Blogger — November 11, 2014 7 min read
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Math teachers at UCLA Community School, a Pilot School within the Los Angeles Unified School District, collaborate on their professional learning plans. (From the left, around the table: Maria Nakis, Rebekah Kang, Joel Vaca, Andre Chen-Feng, and Jorge Rios.)

Photo: Kim Farris-Berg

By Kim Farris-Berg and Kristoffer Kohl

L.A. Unified’s teacher-powered Pilot Schools are empowering teachers to reimagine possibilities for teaching and learning. These teachers and their supporters—not pilot school autonomy agreements alone—are the source of innovative school designs and cultures.

So the question is: what are teachers doing with these opportunities?

In Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots we found that teachers who have authority to make the decisions influencing school success create cultures consistent with the characteristics of high-performing organizations.

Digging into some California-focused work with the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), we found that teachers at L.A. Unified’s Social Justice Humanitas Academy (9-12) and UCLA Community School (K-12) do just that by establishing collaborative leadership cultures driven by shared purpose, functioning as learners, taking risks to try creative new things, assessing performance, and establishing close ties with the community to learn about its needs. Here’s a small sample of their innovative practices:

1) Bold Elect to Work agreements that ensure teacher quality. When teachers in these schools determine their annual work agreements, they actually require themselves to participate in professional development over the summer, longer work hours, and activities that engage students and their families. Teacher teams also clearly establish that they have collective responsibility for the management of the school. Among the teams’ responsibilities is doing what is necessary to ensure exemplary teaching practice throughout the community.

Both teams at these schools also took their work agreements a step further: by mandating personalized learning plans for each teacher with specific, measurable goals aligned with the California Teaching Standards or National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. SJHA teachers even require themselves to become Nationally Board Certified or start the process by their fifth year of teaching, setting a very high bar for teacher quality and professional development.

Co-lead Teacher Samantha Siegeler says, “We had a lot of dialogue about how we would make the time [for National Board Certification], but in the end decided that it is important to ensure teacher quality. Also, the certification gets our veteran teachers a $15,000 pay raise without affecting our discretionary funding.” [The salary increase for National Board certified teachers is part of the teacher’s contract and applies district-wide.]

2) Highly personalized, culturally relevant learning environments. UCLA Community School students have individualized learning plans that build on their strengths and engage them in actively learning about their interests. The school offers a dual-language immersion program in Spanish/English and Korean/English, consistent with the languages students speak at home.

Teachers also offer culturally relevant pedagogy and help students retain their native language, introducing English when it is academically appropriate. Almost all the teachers are bilingual or trilingual. They value and reinforce the importance of students’ culture because, for many, it is also their own. Two teachers teach baile folklórico (folkloric dance) because they were already accomplished in it— the dance was part of their cultural background.

At SJHA, teachers design thematic units across disciplines so students see subjects as a unified and organic whole rather than compartmentalized individual pursuits. When we visited, students were learning about the original 13 colonies in American History class while reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in their literature course. Last year, the entire eleventh grade prepared a project-based learning event around The Great Gatsby, with debates, readings, drama, dancing, and more--all representative of their classroom investigations of the Roaring Twenties.

Every SJHA student has an individual personalized education plan, and every staff member--including principals and front office personnel--steps in to “adopt” three high-risk students who need additional support in achieving their plan. To help teachers better align instruction to students’ strengths, and to help students learn how to use their strengths to succeed, staff members are trained to assess students’ multiple intelligences and developmental assets and communicate them to the instructional team.

Jeff Austin, Co-lead Teacher at SJHA, says, “Working with students in this way, graduation ceremonies bring us the best high ever. We know them. We know their story, and the horrible circumstances they’ve overcome, with our help, to get that diploma.”

3) Collaborating for the good of the whole school—not just a classroom. With a strong sense of accountability for the success of the entire school, teachers in these two schools collaborate for the good of the whole. They work together to make school management decisions and continuously improve students’ learning experiences.

When we visited UCLA Community School, for example, the entire math department was taking a pre-planned collaboration day to invent new ways for students to journal their learning—no small feat in a subject not traditionally associated with daily composition.

Teacher teams at these schools also find innovative ways to build collaboration into their structures. For example, SJHA teachers collaborate in horizontal, grade-level teams to develop their interdisciplinary curriculum and in vertical, subject-alike teams to create a coherent approach to skill building. They created hybrid positions allowing teachers to lead school-wide supports without leaving the classroom using funding allocated from the Local Control Funding Formula.

4) Measuring student and school success in innovative ways. UCLA Community School teachers feel strongly that their students’ scores on conventional state and district assessments aren’t an accurate reflection of what the students know and are able to do. Conventional assessments don’t account for cultural differences and certainly don’t consider that UCLA Community School students learn academic language in their home languages in the early grades, slowly integrating English beginning in second grade.

So UCLA Community School teachers took the opportunity to work in partnership with UCLA to create, test, and refine assessment processes and tools that reflect how their students are learning, and that consider students’ cultural backgrounds. Karen Hunter Quartz, Director of Research at Center X and UCLA Community School, says, “Our teachers embrace the potential to capture student learning using measures that reflect the particular aims of our new school design. If schooling is no longer a one-size-fits-all enterprise, then the data we collect in schools must follow suit.” Theirs is a tremendous undertaking, as they are among the first teacher-powered schools to begin articulating the process required to effectively manage assessment at the school level.

Teachers at SJHA use students’ scores from state and district tests to determine what the school needs to adjust in order to improve student learning. When math scores dropped by five percent in one year, teachers integrated math subjects for students in every grade. SJHA students responded better to an integrated approach rather than the more conventional approach where students take subjects like Algebra and Geometry one at a time. Decisions like this have made SJHA one of the top-performing schools in LAUSD (excluding magnet and charter schools). The teachers have engaged their high-needs student population despite tremendous barriers, including being one of the least-resourced schools in the district prior to a recent bump from the district’s allocation of the Local Control Funding Formula.

These practices at SJHA and UCLA Community School only scratch the surface of the innovative approaches to teaching and learning happening in teacher-powered pilots across L.A. Unified. But no innovative journey comes without obstacles. We’ll report some of the challenges these schools have faced in our next post.

[Updated on 11/13/14 with corrections about the attributes of the teachers at UCLA Community School and to change the focus of students’ learning in their home language to academic language learning rather than all academic learning.]

Kim Farris-Berg and Kristoffer Kohl work with Center for Teaching Quality to elevate teachers’ bold ideas and expert practices. They are developing a cross-organizational network of teacher leaders in California in order to spread their ideas and best practices in a way that is fully integrated with the work of their districts. They wrote this post with research support from Amy Junge at Education Evolving.

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