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Teaching Profession Opinion

Cage-Busting the Way to the Social Justice Humanitas Academy

By Rick Hess — March 26, 2015 3 min read
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The Cage-Busting Teacher will officially launch in a few weeks, and I’m starting to get out and talk about what it means for teachers to help forge schools and systems where they can do their best work. Naturally enough, people want examples of what I have in mind and what this looks like. Well, the book is filled with lots of ‘em, but today let me point to one that offers a clean, capsulized illustration of what it means for teachers to break out of stifling routines in order to create the schools that they aspire to teach in.

“Any new teacher will feel trapped within their four walls,” reflects Jeff Austin, a high school economics and government teacher at Social Justice Humanitas Academy, “and that’s okay to start. You have to develop that part first.” Over time, though, Austin and his colleagues have learned to escape those walls in order to do their best work. Austin started teaching in the suburbs. When he moved to Los Angeles, he says, he got “a quick slap in the face.” No matter how well he taught his students for one hour a day, Austin says that he realized he could do his very best and still not make a real difference for too many kids. A few years before Austin arrived as a twelfth grade teacher, a couple of tenth grade colleagues started to brainstorm and coordinate their curriculum, modeling their efforts on the “small learning communities concept.” A few eleventh grade teachers liked what they saw and wanted in.

Austin and his colleagues eventually approached the principal, armed with improved student achievement and discipline data, asking if they could rework classroom placement to ensure continuity for students in the program. Austin says, “We said, ‘How about we just give you our matrix and all you have to do is plug it in? We’re not asking you to create it—we’ll create it.’ The more we brought solutions, the more people just said, ‘Okay.’ Why would that principal stop us? We were literally taking work out of her hands. We were improving graduation rates and test scores, without her having to do anything.”

Within three years, they had a self-contained school-within-a-school for grades 10 through 12 in social studies, art, and English. Seeking to expand further and incorporate all subjects, they asked the principal for the authority to hire math and science teachers to teach within their collaborative. The principal said it was okay with her, so they went to the superintendent. Leading with their achievement, graduation, and college acceptance data, they asked for clearance to work directly with HR. The superintendent agreed.

Within a few years, they had a full high school within a school, covering all subjects for grades 9 through 12. At that point, Los Angeles launched a new “pilot school” initiative that offered autonomy to approved schools. Austin and his colleagues thought about applying, discussed it with the superintendent, and then, says Austin, “kind of let him think that he convinced us not to do it.” In return, they got laptop carts, a copy machine, science equipment, and new space.

The next year, they decided to apply for pilot status. Austin says, “We were teaching and staying after school until 8 p.m. to work on the proposal. It was tiring but energizing too. The L.A. Education Partnership gave us some office space. We were there Thanksgiving week, just writing and editing.” Because the process involved a vote of community members, parents, and students, they held dozens of community meetings. There were four spots for eleven applicants. Austin’s Social Justice Humanitas Academy snagged one.

Since the launch, Austin says, the challenge has been exercising the promised autonomy. “They let us believe we’d run the principal interview process,” he says, and then the district gave them a list of candidates. Austin says a district HR official told them, “‘I’ll need to be at the interview and I need to ask these questions.’ We told him, ‘This is a teacher-led school. You’re welcome to attend, but this is our interview.’ The HR director totally, completely backed down. It was crazy.”

After year one, smiles Austin, “We got our state test results back and we were the highest-scoring public high school in Los Angeles.” Three years on, in 2014, Social Justice Humanitas Academy was graduating 97 percent of its students and boasting the highest student attendance rates in the district. Austin and his colleagues remade the world in which they worked. The payoff for their hard work wasn’t a plaque or more work; it was a school where they could walk in the door every day and be the teachers they always wanted to be.

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