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Can Teacher Power Save Schools?

Educators prepare to lead dozens of Los Angeles schools this fall.


By Alain Jehlen

They’re not hanging an “under new management” sign on Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, but they could.

At Jefferson and dozens of other Los Angeles schools, faculty-led committees have been given the authority to make big decisions about how to run the school.

This experiment was set in motion last February when the LA school board voted to adopt plans submitted by educator-led teams at 29 schools in low-income, high-minority areas of the city.

The board had put 36 schools out to bid, inviting proposals from charter school operators and other organizations. The smart money was on charter operators to snag most of them. But United Teachers Los Angeles (a joint affiliate of NEA and the American Federation of Teachers) helped educators at the schools team up with parents and administrators to write their own proposals. And the school board accepted 29 of them.

Jefferson's plan includes splitting into five autonomous mini-schools sharing one campus. Each school will make its own decisions about school culture and how to spend its money. Mini-school councils will choose their principals and when there are openings for new faculty, they’ll select them.

The really hard part starts now. As educators roll up their sleeves and start making the changes, here’s a look at two Jefferson High School leaders and some of their students:

Social studies teacher Nicolle Fefferman

Nicolle Fefferman, the UTLA chapter chair, moved all the way from Connecticut to teach at this high school. She grew up in LA, but was in her first year teaching in New Haven when she read in a newspaper about a student riot at Jefferson. She decided right then to come home. “I wanted to be a part of fixing the problems of our schools in low-income communities of color,” she says. “I figured I’d get in, work hard, and join up with like-minded people to make positive changes.”

So she did.

And when UTLA offered assistance to Jefferson teachers if they wanted to write their own proposal for the school, Fefferman grabbed it. “We knew we’d have to scrape together the time and scramble to teach and still have our families. We’d have to move, move, move and come up with something good, good, good!”

Fefferman led a team of about 25—15 teachers and 10 administrators and parents—in developing the proposal. They read, visited other schools, they put in nights and weekends, and wrote a plan focused on strengthening bonds between teachers and students.

When the school board announced its surprise decision, Fefferman was excited, proud—and exhausted. “I’m so tired!” she said. “But now we have to start the work. We can’t just talk any more. This is it!”

And all the while, she kept teaching. One day last spring, she divided her students into groups to write radio scripts about being caught in a natural disaster. Three freshmen girls came up with this plot line: They and their friends are having a party to celebrate one girl’s wonderful news. Suddenly a tornado sweeps down on their house, uproots a tree, and kills them all.

Tornadoes are rare in Southern California, but the great news they were celebrating before the storm struck was based on reality: One of their classmates had gotten pregnant.

“Babies are valued, and it’s accepted that girls will get pregnant young,” explained Fefferman later. That’s one of the challenges she faces in helping her students succeed in school and the job market.

But Fefferman’s not interested in making excuses for Jefferson’s low test scores and high drop-out rate. “Our school is a failing school. What we’re doing isn’t working. That’s unacceptable,” she says to a colleague over lunch.

Last May, UTLA organized a weekend workshop for leaders at the 29 schools to help get each school ready for launch.

Fefferman didn’t go. She spent her Saturday morning helping one of her star students, a senior girl she’d known since ninth grade, go to college. The girl had been admitted to UCLA and Berkeley but isn’t eligible for government scholarships or loans because she’s undocumented. So Fefferman drove her to the airport for a quick trip to Berkeley (paid for with Fefferman’s husband’s frequent flyer miles) to interview for a private organization scholarship.

It worked: The girl got the scholarship, and several more that she scrounged on her own. This fall, as Fefferman helps Jefferson turn a fresh page, her student will start a new life as a Berkeley freshman.

Art teacher Luis Garcia

Art teacher Luis Garcia is a graduate of Jefferson High, and he was not a big fan of the school when he was there. “One thing I felt was missing was teacher support,” he says. “I’m not saying none of them cared—half of them did, and that half kept me going.”

One teacher who cared about Garcia was his science teacher and volleyball coach. “He wasn’t from our culture. He was Middle Eastern. But he tried to learn our language. He got to know us. And he inspired me to come back,” says Garcia.

“I recall Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, ‘Be the change you want to see.’ I want to be that change at Jefferson High School.”

Here’s his approach: “I need to learn from my students first, before they can learn from me. If I don’t know what they’re going through, how am I going to get through to them?”

Garcia, who teaches art, is close to many of his students. Hernan Cortez is a senior he has worked with for three years. “He completely changed my mentality,” says Cortez. “At first, I just wanted a career that would make me wealthy, but being in his class helped me see that helping others can really pay off.” Cortez is headed for college to study civil engineering, and then come back to help his community.

Garcia has high hopes for the new Jefferson High School. “There will be a more personal relationship not only with students, but also parents, because we won’t be under the control of a bureaucratic system,” he says. “It will be up to the school and the home. I believe that will change the culture.”