Seizing the Moment to Transform Education

By Marisa Saunders and Karen Hunter Quartz

Back to School Artwork by Miguel, Ms. Gallardo’s Den 1 Class

The back-to-school challenge is enormous: re-engage students and families in learning online, during a pandemic, amid uprisings for racial justice. That’s why community schools have  started up this month with a singular focus on the well-being of students and families. Across community schools, teams of educators have been meeting all summer to develop new structures, practices, partnerships, and curricula—seizing the moment to make learning truly community-based, responsive to students’ histories and identities, and grounded in the strengths and needs of students and families.

Even before COVID-19 closed the doors to our schools, community schools recognized the need to establish new learning spaces that could help students thrive, bring joy to learning and showcase their brilliance. The pandemic and the collective fight for racial justice revitalized and prioritized these efforts. At the UCLA Community School, lead teachers like Beth Trinchero and Ayuri Terada, zoomed weekly during the summer to craft a professional learning series for their colleagues aimed to ignite the work. Lead teachers sought new frameworks that connected to the school’s core beliefs—that individuals learn best as members of a community that value their participation, in learning environments that are respectful, antiracist and inclusive, and when language and culture are viewed as central to learning and development. For four days, lead teachers engaged their colleagues in abolitionist teaching and healing-centered frameworks using community circles and intimate breakouts where teachers explored their own identities and beliefs—necessary exercises to begin the hard work of realizing a new future. 

With the understanding that shepherding a new future requires new curricula, UCLA Community School teachers identified broad themes across each grade level meant to foreground student voice and build community through affirming pedagogical strategies. This year, for example, middle schoolers are engaged in interdisciplinary units of study that begin with questions of identity, colorism, Black Lives Matter, and will culminate with a focus on community health and well-being. In high school, 9th graders are working on interdisciplinary units focused on “systems.” In their English class, students are writing about their communities and influence. While developing important writing skills such as characterization, dialogue and setting description, they are also using critical “heart skills” such as sharing who they are with others, and bringing their emotional self to their learning. In social studies, 9th grade students are exploring how their identities have been shaped by society and are responding to essential questions such as: “Why is our world the way it is today?” “How did we get here?” and, “How do we change it?” A final “social action project” will ask students to teach Los Angeles history to younger students from an indigenous, decolonial perspective. This learning is reinforced in students 9th grade advisory, where students are engaged in further developing their “sense of self.” Tenth graders will engage in interdisciplinary work focused on “boundaries,” 11th graders will explore “social movements,” and 12th graders will learn about “transformation.” 

Finding new ways to connect with students and families also forms part of a new future. As inspiring and engaging as these new units of study are, meaningful learning can only take place when schools are seen as a place of refuge and safety, and where deep and trusting relationships are built. Accordingly, since schools reopened, advisory teachers have been engaged in one-on-one conversations with families and have developed activities aimed to build trust across classroom members—reimaging advisory as a space where students can share their full selves. 

Community schools also recognize that new voices must lead the way towards a new future. Educators at Mann UCLA Community School have partnered with educators at UCLA Community School to strategize how to more deeply root antiracism in school practices  with students and families. Throughout the summer, Mann UCLA social studies teacher, Marcus Van, and UCLA researcher, Ung-Sang Lee, along with over 20 other UCLA Community School stakeholders, have been convening the Anti-Racist Committee (ARC) weekly via zoom. In addition to teachers and UCLA partners, ARC participants include students, families, and community members. Exploring topics such as student activism, community and parent involvement, instruction, and restorative practices, the group aims to learn from each other and contribute to an action plan that will ultimately shape the learning experiences and outcomes of students. In its short time, the work of ARC has been recognized as an important influence on Mann’s future. At its summer retreat, as Mann educators and administrators made plans for a new academic year, student and parent ARC representatives shared their school and community experiences, advocated for anti-racist practices at the school, and proposed a strong push to expand student and family voice in the school’s anti-racism work.

Community schools across Los Angeles Unified have been engaged in similar efforts. At Social Justice Humanitas Academy at Cesar Chavez, a member of the UCLA Consortium of Community Schools, the Instructional Leadership Team met through the summer to strengthen their delivery of interdisciplinary project-based learning—a core element of their community school strategy. Lead teachers contemplated how to better connect this strategy to students’ current experiences and struggles in light of COVID-19 and the fight for racial justice while actively preparing them to shape their life beyond high school. Using an abolitionist teaching framework, teachers at Social Justice Humanitas are envisioning a new school year that will bring greater meaning to students’ learning experiences. Likewise, at Humanitas Academy for Art and Technology (HAAT) at Esteban Torres High School, teachers are integrating healing-centered strategies within their classroom practice and curricula. Through healing-centered strategies, HAAT teachers aim to support collective well-being and provide students with the opportunity to participate in “practices of possibility” that enable students to dream and imagine a hopeful future, to reflect critically on the inequities that lead to the traumas experienced by the community, and to take actions that address these inequities.

Community schools are seizing this moment to abolish old practices and structures that have perpetuated inequalities for too long. Community school educators are meeting the challenge, demonstrating courage and their belief in a future where all students can thrive, where learning is community-based and responsive to the assets of students and families, and schools are spaces of justice and care.