The five secrets that help this high-poverty school succeed

We should pay close attention to schools like Social Justice Humanitas Academy, where teachers are driving deeper learning.

I hate it when titles don’t deliver. But I have to confess: the “secrets” I’m about to share are not exactly secret. For years, researchers have identified similar strategies in top-performing nations where schools get powerful results.

But in the U.S., these approaches might as well be secrets—especially when it comes to how we educate students who live in our poorest zip codes. These young people are least likely to experience the deeper learning that can prepare them for the complex global economy (and also for responsible adulthood and citizenship in our democracy).

That’s why we should pay close attention to schools like Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA), which serves a high-poverty Los Angeles neighborhood dominated by two competing gangs.

One of 50 LA pilot schools approved in 2007 by the district and union, SJHA yields powerful student outcomes, including a 94 percent graduation rate, an astonishingly low suspension rate (.2 percent last year), and reports from students (more than 93 percent) and parents (95 percent) that school grounds are safe.

Here are five factors that matter in how SJHA facilitates deeper learning for students at risk:

First, SJHA is a teacher-powered school where classroom practitioners have secured autonomy to make decisions often assumed to be the province of administrators. Teachers set the school’s vision, determine the curriculum and assessments, approve the annual budget, select and evaluate the principal, and hold one another accountable for student learning through peer review. SJHA teachers collectively and annually write an Election-to-Work Agreement (EWA) for their site that outlines the school’s teaching and learning conditions, which are very different from those found in the district’s collective bargaining agreement with its unions.

For example, faculty members teach in teams and draw on Japanese Lesson Study to assess one another’s practice. Teachers require themselves to achieve National Board Certification or start the process by their fifth year of teaching, setting a very high bar for teacher quality and professional development. SJHA principal José Navarro, a National Board Certified Teacher and former California Teacher of the Year, teaches several classes a week and proudly describes himself as a servant leader.

Second, each student at SJHA has a personalized education plan. Every five weeks, teachers review a wide range of data—not just test scores—to craft strategies to support struggling students.

To help teachers better align instruction to students’ strengths, faculty members are selected and developed to assess young learners’ multiple intelligences and developmental assets. 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.” Every staff member steps in to “adopt” three high-risk students who need additional support in achieving their learning plans.

Teachers’ personalization of learning cultivates self-advocacy, which these young people recognize they will need for future success—particularly as first-generation college students. As one student put it, “It teaches you to be vulnerable and to let people in. Don’t be too prideful and say, ‘Oh yeah, I can handle my stuff, I’m good by myself.’ No. Now you realize you need help and you shouldn’t feel bad about that. . . . Don’t be self-defeating but do something about it by asking.”

Third, SJHA teachers work in horizontal, grade-level teams to design thematic units across disciplines so students see subjects as a unified and organic whole rather than compartmentalized pursuits. For example, students learn about the original 13 colonies in American History class while reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in their literature course. Recently, 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.

This interdisciplinary curriculum means that the school does not have to offer an array of isolated courses in English, social studies, science, and math. As a result, teachers teach about 80 students a day, including the all-important advisory period where they work with the same group for four years.

Fourth, professional learning at the school focuses on teachers’ collaboration to fine-tune their instructional practices. Teachers spend at least 2.5 hours a week in team-based professional learning, creating and refining interdisciplinary units, lessons, and assessments.

When math scores dropped by five percent, teachers worked together to integrate math subjects for students in every grade; thanks to the teacher-powered model, they had the curricular authority to make a quick shift in policy and practice. SJHA students responded better to this concept-focused approach than to taking algebra and geometry one course at a time. The school expects each teacher to conduct a peer review of a colleague’s teaching for at least four hours over the course of a year. In addition, teachers frequently and voluntarily sit in on each others’ classes to improve their practice.

Finally, fueled by the nontraditional leadership of the principal and teachers, SJHA partners with a number of organizations. For example, the Los Angeles Educational Partnership (LAEP) supports the school’s professional development efforts by helping its busy teachers lead subject-focused retreats, action research, and visits to other school sites that utilize the Humanitas interdisciplinary strategy. In addition, the school partners with the EduCare Foundation, a youth development organization that supports teachers in their efforts to develop close relationships with students. SJHA also partners with Youth Speak Collective, which helps SJHA teachers ensure all students have opportunities to improve their communities and develop leadership skills.

It’s time for SJHA’s secrets to become commonplace—and for policymakers to invest in these strategies for all students. In early March, a new CTQ report (commissioned by the Ford Foundation) will detail how teacher leadership can fuel deeper learning for all students. Join our email list to be notified of the release.

And watch this space next week for students’ perspectives on SJHA as well as my reflections on what limits the school’s ability to draw the full benefit from its smart strategies.

This account draws on the cogent analysis of my colleagues Kristoffer Kohl and Kim Farris-Berg, originally published in a series of blog posts on Education Week.