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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: In Classrooms: Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Part 5)

Brenda Arias teaches chemistry first period of the day—from 8:30 to 10:21. First period of the day is longer than other classes that run about an hour and a half). This is her fifth year at Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA). While she taught physics the first four years, she is now teaching chemistry.  (Earlier posts about SJHA are hereherehere, and here.)

The 31 students—the largest class I have observed at SJHA–are mostly 10th graders. They are having breakfast at the beginning of the first period of the day. Two students had gone to the cafeteria and brought back milk, juice, cereal, and egg sandwiches to class. Students picked what they wanted and they spread out among lab tables to eat and talk. This occurs every morning across the school.

After breakfast, students toss trash in a can and pick up Chromebooks to take back to their lab tables. All tables holding 2-3 students face the white board and teacher desk—also a lab table. As Arias takes roll, I look around the room and see the “Habits of Mind” and “Common Core Mathematical Practice Standards,” college banners and the obligatory Periodic Elements chart for a chemistry room. A teacher aide is in the room because there are a half-dozen students with disabilities that will need help with the lesson. He circulates and talks to particular students about the tasks they have to work on.

Arias tells class what’s due today and during the week. “I need you to look at me,” she says. “I need you to focus.” Most of the class will be taking a 20-minute practice test for a later exam that will improve their low scores the first time they took the test. All of the practice questions and answers are loaded on the Chromebook and students begin working. Some students work with partners and others in small groups or alone at different tables. A nearby student shows me the questions and correct answers on her screen as Arias walks around the room checking students’ work and answering questions. I scan the class and see everyone clicking away on their devices.

Arias then asks class to close Chromebooks and return to their seats. She tells class that they must have the practice test completed by Thursday or “you get….” She pauses and a number of students say: “a zero.”

She then segues to next part of lesson. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going over 4.3 homework. Log on to 4.3 and we will go over 7, 10, and 11 because I made mistakes and want to correct them.” A loud hum arises in class. Arias says, “Everyone calm down. If you didn’t do homework, what will you get?” Class responds: “A zero.” Students also know that teacher gives them three chances to do homework correctly. The number the teacher calls (4.3) out corresponds to a text chapter on gases and solids accompanied by worksheets, eventual homework assignments.

She goes over the incorrect answers on the whiteboard at front of the room and asks class to correct them. On one of the corrections about the temperature of a gas compared to a solid, she says, “My knucklehead move was the wrong answer.” She says, “I’m sorry. Everyone makes mistakes.”

Teacher asks students to pair up and make corrections. As they do, they are completing homework on the Chromebook. The students I observed in the class pay attention to what the teacher said and respond to her requests. I saw no students who rested their heads in the crooks of their arms on desks, students playing with devices, or whispered, sustained conversations among the 10th graders. I left the chemistry class after an hour there to go to another lesson.


Since Social Justice Humanitas Academy opened in 2011, its student enrollments have stayed consistent. SJHA has 513 students (2019) enrolled in 9th through 12th grades. On race and ethnicity (2015), 95 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent African American and one percent each for Caucasian and Native American. Of that number 12 percent were English Learners. Special education students were 10 percent of enrollment. And 88 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch (the poverty measure for LAUSD schools).

And some of the academic results were sufficiently eye-catching to attract media attention.

* Graduations rates increased between 2011 and 2015 from 83 to 94 percent. Both exceed LAUSD and state rates of graduation.

*Ninety-six percent of students have an individual graduation plan.

*Seventy-five percent of students passed all college required courses.

*Suspensions sunk to 0.2 percent in 2014.

*Six Advanced Placement courses are offered (English language, English literature, analytic geometry/pre-calculus, macroeconomics, Spanish language, Spanish Literature). 

While tests scores in reading and math fall above and below state averages, overall, the school’s record in graduation and college attendance and its social activism, community participation, and teacher-powered decision-making have made it a candidate for awards. In 2019, SJHA received the Gold Recognition award for being a School of Opportunity from the National Education Center for Policy.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...