The soft-spoken 18-year-old boy in a buttoned-down blue oxford cloth shirt tells me that when he was fifteen, he was taken away from his mother and put into a foster care facility. Up until then, Ramon* been hanging around with tough kids, doing drugs and feeling like he had no future; suddenly, he was at a new school, Cesar Chavez Social Justice Academy in San Fernando, where he found himself alone, far from his friends. In the evenings after school, he’d go for long walks by himself, thinking about what would happen to him. Having seen his mother spiral out of control on drugs, he knew that he couldn’t continue the life he’d been living without ending up an addict. But what could he choose? What other future was there?
“Mr. Navarro says that if you aim at nothing, that’s exactly what you’ll achieve,” Ramon tells me. Mr. Navarro is the principal of his school, the person he says inspired him to change his life. With a transcript full of terrible grades from his previous school and his old life, Ramon has faced an exhausting battle to get himself back on track. “Mr. Navarro says ‘this, too, shall pass,’” Ramon says, a statement that he repeats to himself when times get hard, reminding himself that Mr. Navarro has told him of his own similar struggles. Now, Ramon is a mentor to other kids, telling them his story and encouraging them not to give up. He will graduate in June and plans to attend community college.
He is the fifth student I’ve met in the last two hours who has told me that Mr. Navarro changed his life.
I’m at Cesar Chavez Social Justice Academy because I volunteered to be part of their mock interview day for seniors; students come in with resumes and do a 20-minute interview with a professional, then are graded on their career readiness. Along with nine other adults, I sit at a table and ask students the standard questions about their lives and ambitions. The whole day, made possible by the school’s collaboration with Los Angeles Educational Partnership, an organization I’ll describe in more detail next week, is a testimony to how much can be accomplished when events like this are outsourced to other community organizations rather than handed off to teachers who don’t have time to put together anything on this scale.
I’ll remember that. But what I’ll really remember is that when I ask students to name the person who inspires them most, they all name Mr. Navarro, the principal of the school. Mr. Navarro, they say, believes in them. Mr. Navarro knows them personally and will take them aside if they’re having a bad day and talk to them. One very shy girl tells me that she’s inspired by the times Mr. Navarro pops into her classroom and talks to all the kids about how important it is that they go to college. She now has a 4.0 GPA and is headed for UC Irvine or Berkeley.
I don’t know Mr. Navarro, though I’ll certainly try to meet him soon. But when people talk about the importance of leadership, these kids are living testimony to the way that a leader’s values and mission can influence an entire community.
Demographically, Cesar Chavez Social Justice is similar to many LAUSD schools in low-income communities: 94% Latino/a, 80% socioeconomically disadvantaged, 38% English Language Learners. Anecdotally, the kids I interview all tell me that for various reasons their parents were not able to finish high school because they had to work. Some have single mothers; one girl lives with her stepfather because her mother was deported two years ago. (“This, too, shall pass,” she tells me, stoic.)
All are now headed for college.
After the interviews, I’m filled with wonder. Hitting google, I find that Jose Navarro was recently profiled in a book called Growing Into Equity: Professional Learning and Personalization in High-Achieving Schools. In a recent interview on Boston’s Public Radio station, he talks about the way he sees at-risk kids. “We know in education there are individualized programs, say for kids with special needs. You say expand that to any student who’s at risk. And by the way, what do you call those students? Well, we call them VIPs because that’s – they’re the most important people. And we sit in a circle when we meet with them, the student, the parent, the counselor, all their teachers and the principal, and we start by saying one positive thing about that student. Then and also now the change that we would like to see. And it’s a paradigm shift because I think a lot of my parents were used to coming to school and just having the teachers and principal tee off on them or never talk to the principal. And it’s just a shift that, you know, your grades are a symptom. They’re not the problem,” he says (for the whole interview, click here).
In the interview, he talks about the importance of lowering class size so teachers can have individual relationships with their students, and urges discouraged teachers to have faith in themselves and their students. “You have a tremendous amount of power,” he says. “Use it.”
As I mentioned, I’ve never met the guy. And there are a lot of people out there in the education world saying a lot of beautiful things that may or may not be possible.
All I see today at these interviews are the results of Mr. Navarro’s philosophy—student after student bearing witness to the difference one person can make.
*as always, students names have been changed.