Can Teacher Power Save Schools?
Los Angeles is betting the answer is ‘Yes!’
By Alain Jehlen
Across the country, NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign is helping educators take the initiative to turn around schools in trouble. One of the most dramatic cases is Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. There, and in dozens of other LA schools, faculty-led councils have been given authority to make the big decisions.
This experiment was set in motion last February when the LA school board voted to adopt plans submitted by educator-led teams for 29 schools in low-income, high-minority areas of the city.
The board had put 36 schools out to bid, inviting proposals from outside organizations. The smart money was on charter operators to snag most of them. But United Teachers Los Angeles helped educators team up with parents and administrators to write their own proposals. Twenty-nine were accepted.
Jefferson’s plan includes splitting into five autonomous mini-schools, each run by a council with power to choose its principal, spend its budget, and decide key policies.
Here are two of those who are leading the change:
UTLA chapter chair Nicolle Fefferman.
Photos by Alain Jehlen
Social studies teacher Nicolle Fefferman
Nicolle Fefferman, the UTLA chapter chair, grew up in LA, but was teaching in New Haven, Connecticut, when she read about a student riot at Jefferson—and decided to come home. “I wanted to be a part of fixing the problems,” 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 to help Jefferson teachers write a proposal for their school, Fefferman jumped in. “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!”
She led a team of about 25. They read, visited schools, put in long hours, 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. This is it!”
Luis Garcia paints a mural of famous Jefferson High grads, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche.
Art teacher Luis Garcia
Luis Garcia graduated from Jefferson High, and he was not a fan of the school when he was there. “One thing missing was teacher support,” he says. “I’m not saying none of them cared—half of them did. That half kept me going.”
One who cared was Garcia’s science teacher and volleyball coach. “He wasn’t from our culture. He was Middle Eastern. But he tried to learn our language and get to know us. He inspired me to come back.”
Garcia’s approach to teaching: “I need to learn from my students 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 has high hopes for the new Jefferson High. “There will be a more personal relationship with students and parents, because we won’t be under the control of a bureaucratic system. It will be up to the school and the home. I believe that will change the culture.”