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Now College Bound: How Teach For America Helped Turn Around My High School
When I was hired four years ago to lead Manual Arts High School in Southern Los Angeles, it had a long history of failing to educate students. It seemed like more teens dropped out of our school than graduated and went to a four-year college.
But today Manual Arts High School is moving in a new direction. We have one of the highest attendance rates in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and our four-year college-acceptance rate has doubled in the past three years.
This turnaround could not have happened without a network of more than 50 community partners providing over 200 wrap-around services. One of our key partners is Teach For America–Los Angeles.
Manual Arts High School is operated by LA’s Promise, a nonprofit organization that is working to radically shift the education, wellness, and social outcomes of youths in our community. When I joined the school’s leadership team in 2011, I understood that it was essential for our teachers to embody the school’s new mission and vision.
We were looking for qualified applicants who possessed both the belief that all students can achieve and the pedagogical training to engage students in meaningful 21st-century learning. This search led us to several universities as well as Teach for America–Los Angeles to recruit teacher candidates.
After interviewing several candidates from Teach For America–Los Angeles, it was apparent that these were educators who aspired to work in the inner city and who recognized the unbounded potential in our kids. We hired 12 Los Angeles corps members to teach science and special education, including some who came from neighborhoods and families like those we serve.
These new teachers embodied a growth mindset. They worked to improve their practice each day they stepped into the classroom and embraced the school-wide focus required to prepare students for college and careers. Their contributions helped change the trajectory of our school. We made huge jumps in the Academic Performance Index as well as the California High School Exit Examination. Most important, we heard students speak positively about their interactions with Teach For America–Los Angeles teachers.
Beyond being strong instructors and student advocates, our school’s corps members embraced opportunities to work with teens outside of the classroom. Many of them became athletic coaches, club sponsors, and mentors. We had one notable corps member, Alyssa Tison, who led the Manual Arts High School debate team to place in several debate tournaments throughout California.
When I think back to that first year as principal, I remember administrators and veteran teachers sharing concerns that Teach For America–Los Angeles corps members would only commit to two-year contracts. We had worries about sustainability.
However, I found that over half the corps members we hired were natural educators and exceeded their two-year commitments. We’ve continued to hire new teachers from Teach For America while alumni like Camille Hommeyer, Stephanie Kuo, and Derek Ochi have taken on leadership roles within the school as department chair, lead teachers, and coordinators. Even those who have left our school for other teaching jobs or careers made a difference. Teachers with growth mindsets influence students and colleagues alike, and help establish the school culture you need to succeed.
Manual Arts High School is fast becoming a school where students and parents have high expectations for learning today and are creating more opportunities for tomorrow. Teach For America–Los Angeles helped make that turnaround possible.