Getting to Teacher Ownership Home

Ownership at the STEM Academy of Hollywood at Bernstein High School

The STEM Academy of Hollywood at Bernstein High School is a Linked Learning pathway within the Los Angeles Promise Neighborhoods (LAPN). In 2014-2015, STEM served approximately 560 students in grades 9 through 12. In that same school year, 82 percent of STEM’s students identified as Latino, 12 percent were identified as English learners, and 66 percent were identified as socioeconomically disadvantaged. In 2014–2015, 80 percent of students who had entered the school four years earlier graduated, and 58 percent of those students who graduated successfully completed the A-G course sequence required for eligibility to California’s public four-year colleges.

STEM was established as a pilot school in 20101 and received Linked Learning certification in 2013-2014. Students attending STEM must choose between the engineering or biomedical career pathway as entering ninth graders and take courses throughout their four years with their pathway peers. According to STEM’s mission, in addition to a strong core instructional program, the school is committed to providing enrichment activities “designed to expand student learning opportunities and to support their cognitive, social, emotional, moral and physical development.”2

During our visit to STEM, we experienced the vibrant feeling that results from teachers having enough time to teach, to lead, and to be heard. The college counselor – funded through the Promise Neighborhoods initiative – works directly with teachers to fill the hallways and classrooms with college materials, timelines, and information. The college center at this small school literally spills into the hallways with a prominent poster announcing a countdown until college applications are due. Students’ handmade posters, plastered up and down the hallway, display individual college and career goals alongside information for universities of interest. In interviews, teachers talked about identifying the gap between the school’s goal of preparing every student for college and career and each student’s status. This personalized learning approach is simultaneously unique to individual students as well as understood as a collective challenge across the school. The teachers regularly create committees and programs to develop solutions for specific challenges and then work across departments to integrate academic, emotional, and social support for the students.

Teacher’s sense of ownership influences students’ sense of ownership. At the end of the school day when we visited, students streamed into the center of campus instead of away. As a class filled the quad to complete the final tests of their semester’s project – using science and power tools to perfect wooden catapults that tower more than ten feet tall – other students stopped to watch. In awe, one student who tested his catapult earlier in the day said, “Wow! Theirs goes so much farther than ours.” Her friend replied, “You know the smartest people figure out how to use the best ideas. Let’s add a few more feet to ours before we launch tomorrow.” The sense of efficacy students have to improve their work reflects the same confidence, constant questioning, and efficacy modeled by their teachers.

Critical Teacher Agency at Social Justice Humanitas

The hallways of Social Justice Humanitas (SJH) at Cesar Chavez Learning Academies are a reflection of the teaching and learning that takes place across the school. The building is colorful and filled with positive and supportive messages from extraordinary leaders who serve as a constant reminder of the meaning of social justice.

SJH is a community school situated within the Los Angeles Promise Neighborhoods boundary and was approved as an autonomous pilot school in 2011 as part of the Public School Choice process.3 In 2014-2015, SJH served 506 students in grades 9 to 12. In that year, 95 percent of students served were Latino, 11 percent were identified as English learners, and 85 percent were identified as socioeconomically disadvantaged. In the same year, SJH graduated 90 percent of those students who had started at SJH four years earlier, and of those who graduated, 78 percent successfully completed the A-G course sequence.

As a community school, teachers and administrators at SJH acknowledge that they do not and cannot do this work alone – but by connecting students with a range of community partners, students can receive the resources and support they need to achieve their best. As one administrator shared, “More goes into education than what happens in my classroom, so let’s engage the community. . . . We only have them for six hours, so the other eighteen [hours] – let’s engage that.”

Being a community school also means contributing to and shaping the community. Indeed, SJH is a site of resistance where critical consciousness raising and collective critical action are part of the daily experiences of teachers, students, and staff. Education at SJH aims to be emancipatory by focusing on the humanity of students and challenging schools as sites of social reproduction. Teachers focus on equipping students with the tools they need to gain a critical understanding of and navigate the world, empowering students to identify their ability to influence their surroundings. In discussing the school’s vision, the principal shared that it has always been about serving the student and ensuring they serve the needs of others:

Increasing our students’ humanity, increasing their social capital... navigating the system [that is] not designed for Brown and Black faces, the social capital aspect, the humanity aspect. . . . When you get power, what are you going to do with it?

SJH emphasizes that students, staff, and teachers evolve and grow together and encourages collaborative practices that allow for a critical co-construction of knowledge and a structure that encourages collective leadership. Teachers have agency to make a range of decisions, shape the school’s vision and purpose, and create an environment where all voices matter. At SJH we observed an agency that aims to transform the classroom to create liberatory practices and work in solidarity with students to combat structures of domination that may exist outside the school walls – a culture that fosters critical teacher agency. Teachers use their agency to set an agenda that results in students who think critically about their world and who seek out ways to transform it for the better.

Becoming Linked Learning at the Los Angeles School of Global Studies

Global Studies is a small school of 370 students located on the site of the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, just west of downtown Los Angeles. In 2014-2015, 97 percent of the student population was identified as Latino, 22 percent as English learners, and 97 percent as socio-economically disadvantaged. In that year, 73 percent of students who had started school four years earlier graduated, and of those students who graduated, 54 percent successfully completed the A-G course sequence required for entry into California’s public four-year universities.

The school complex is located within the LAUSD’s Belmont Zone of Choice, which offers eighth-graders within a particular geographic region the option of choosing from seventeen small schools, pilot schools, and small learning communities. Global Studies opened in 2006, to ninth- and tenth-graders only, and by 2008-2009 grew to serve students in grades 9 through 12. Global Studies opened as a member of the New Tech Network, a nationwide alliance of more than sixty schools. The New Tech model is centered on project-based learning and a collaborative culture that encourages students to work and learn together to develop problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills, and the twenty-first-century skills needed to succeed in a rapidly changing economy. To achieve these goals, the staff works collaboratively to develop engaging cross-curricular projects and through team teaching, when possible. In 2010, when LAUSD adopted Linked Learning as its primary high school reform strategy, Global Studies’ focus on project-based learning made it a perfect candidate for Linked Learning implementation. In 2012, Global Studies received Linked Learning certification.

Teachers at Global Studies discussed how they prioritized and owned project-based learning and student engagement. For example, one teacher shared:

I think that [our purpose] is something we are continuously rethinking. I’ve been here for seven years and the language around it has changed a lot, but I would say number one [priority] is student engagement; teachers not being the center of the traditional classroom. . . . Increasing student voice and participation and choice in what they are doing and creating authentic learning environments when realistic and possible.

Students’ engagement in their learning was apparent during classroom observations. In one classroom, co-taught by a social science teacher and an English teacher, students moved from one group project to another as the teachers provided clear and direct instructions. Students began class in a literature circle, where each small group worked together to identify important topics in the week’s reading. Everyone in the group got a chance to share, and then the teacher suggested a “whip-a-round.” Students within each group assumed an important role, and each student knew the responsibilities associated with the role (although they were posted on each table, just in case). One teacher asked the class how much time they would need to accomplish the activity, and she set a timer accordingly. One teacher roamed the room, taking note of students’ conversations, while the other began to work one-on-one with a student. When time was up, the teacher described the meaningful and productive conversations/interactions that she witnessed.


1 See for a description of the pilot school network within the LAUSD and for an outline of the history of education reforms in Los Angeles.

2 See

3 See for a description of the pilot school network within the LAUSD and for an outline of the history of education reforms in Los Angeles.