Opinion + Voices

Opinion: It takes a true school community for immigrant students to be successful

The results at UCLA Community School show that openness, creativity and resources can help lead these students to college

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UCLA Community School
UCLA

UCLA Community School

Karen Hunter Quartz is director of research for the UCLA Community School, a public K-12 small school that opened in 2009 within the Los Angeles Unified School District. Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco is dean and a distinguished professor of education at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. This op-ed appeared in the Huffington Post.

Today, Bryan, Sabrina and Kevin committed to a 4-year college. Bryan started his English-learning journey in 8th grade, after moving from Mexico to Los Angeles. He formed a posse of friends, and together they learned what it meant to achieve in their new land. Sabrina's mother is Mexican and her father is Asian. While caring for her four siblings, Sabrina too figured out how to excel. And Kevin, while moving from foster home to home, transformed from a struggling 9th grader into a straight A Senior. What they all have in common is a strong school community of peers and adults who have committed to their futures.

Strong school communities hold the key to establishing a college-going culture, especially for immigrant students. It is in the company of others that students learn what it means to belong, to engage, to achieve. Research on newcomer students' experience in urban schools too often reveals a lack of solidarity and cohesion. In many schools, only a handful of immigrant students can name a teacher as someone they would go to with a problem; even fewer can identify a teacher who was proud of them.

The reform refrain to personalize learning seems obvious enough, yet, in 1984, when education reformer Ted Sizer launched the national Coalition of Essential Schools, "know students well" was a radical reform principle. At the time, large "shopping mall" high schools were being "restructured" and a national movement to create new small schools was underway. The first wave of these new schools - such as Central Park East, Urban Academy, El Puente, and others -were intentional communities and served a high proportion of economically disadvantaged and immigrant students. No two schools were alike, on purpose. The idea, reminiscent of Jane Addams' Hull House, was to create powerful public schools rooted in the strengths and needs of local communities.

We work at a powerful K-12 public school located in Pico Union/Koreatown — a "port of entry" community in central Los Angeles for immigrants from Central America, Mexico, Korea, and many other regions. The diversity, economy, and fabric of this community announce the future of the American experience. Bryan, Sabrina and Kevin were members of our inaugural 9th grade class in 2010. Since then, they have developed strong relationships with their teachers and peers, walked their siblings to class in the lower grades, and learned to communicate academically in their home language as well as English. Overall, more than half of the Senior class - 44 students - was admitted to a four-year college (including 20 to a UC campus) and almost all other students are planning to attend a 2-year institution. Bryan is heading to Cal Poly Pomona, Sabrina will travel up north to UC Berkeley, and Kevin is off to Cal State Northridge. For their classmates heading to community college, we are working on ways to support their journey and help them transfer to a four-year college.

Recognizing that each student's journey is unique has served us well. We have resisted the movement to "theme" our school with an industry sector. Instead, we strive to support a multiplicity of career interests through an exploratory seminar series culminating in a Senior Internship. This is the challenging work of personalization and community building. It requires openness, creativity, and resources. Our teachers lead seminars based on their own passions, further advancing the idea that our community is intentional and based on the strengths of its members.

But make no mistake; this is hard yet imperative work.

Strong communities advance a common good that is collectively redefined and sustained. When parents ask hard questions, most recently concerning the research base for the Lower School's multi-age classrooms, our principal engages and revisits the value of this learning structure. Our Shared Governance Board takes on meaty issues such as whether to use our public funds for a full-time college counselor or to reduce class size. Agendas are trilingual, translations are in the moment, and debate is lively and often exhausting. This is democratic schooling a la Pico Union/Koreatown.

By working together with parents, students, teachers, researchers, and like-minded philanthropic partners we're confident that we'll reach the true north of excellence, engagement and equity. We have learned firsthand about the value and potential of authentic partnerships across communities in our ever more diverse and unequal city schools.

And Bryan, Sabrina and Kevin have learned more than how to get into a good college. They have learned to be self-directed and autonomous while also deeply committed to the common good. They have learned to value many voices, in many languages, from many countries. And they have learned that an entire community is committed to their future.

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