Leading With Social Justice and Humanity: Jose Luis Navarro

Just Talk - Voices of Education and Justice

In this week’s Just Talk, John Rogers sits down with Jose Luis Navarro, the principal of Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA). SJHA is a pilot high school located at the far northern edge of the Los Angeles Unified School District.   Mr. Navarro and a group of teachers founded SJHA in 2011 with the aim of “achieving social justice through the development of the complete individual.”


John Rogers: Jose, how would you describe your school to someone who has never been here before?

Jose Luis Navarro: I would like to use a lot of flowery poetic language, but let me instead use data. Yesterday, we were told at our principal’s meeting that our graduation rate was 94.3 percent. In our local district, one other school just outpaced us at 95.1 percent. As principals were being congratulated for their improvements, I kept thinking that there are actually other significant numbers, and the one I always look at is A-G completion. I know my A-G completion rate is 90 percent. That’s what I want–congruence. Some schools that have graduation rates in the 90s have A-G completion rates in the 30s. I wrote my superintendent yesterday about this and said we need to stop talking about just the graduation rate. If the graduation rate blinds us to social justice issues, we are going to trip over this low bar. The difference between A-G completion and graduation is the achievement gap. One school I know of has a 61 percent achievement gap. Our school has a 3 to 4 percent gap. So, I would tell someone that we’re closing the achievement gap, and we’re building a college-going culture.

Why is the A-G graduation rate a social justice issue for you?

I think it gives people choices. I teach economics and I believe, economically speaking, wealth is a quantity of quality choices. I think my students deserve to have as many choices as possible, instead of choices being made for them, either because of the color of their skin or where they’re from. I also think that the more people are exposed to, they tend to be more understanding. I want my kids to continue to learn and the way I see it, college is the easiest answer. And, to get to college, students need to be educated with high expectations. One way we maintained high expectations in the past was by not even having a grade of D.

In other words, you didn’t use to give a D grade, you only gave the grades A, B, C, and F.

And it’s amazing how many kids, when it’s not an option, will actually make it. It’s not an option to fail that kid. You have to get them to pass.

How did you make it not an option?

That’s the hard part. This is where we are and this is our desired state. We have to look at our values, and I do that with my staff every year. To be clear, that’s not because I made it a top down decision; I simply presented a case, and now it’s a policy that is agreed to by all. I never thought I’d agree with George W. Bush, but I did when he said that our nation must end “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Also, structurally, it’s a small school. Teachers get the message: these 38 kids that are failing your math class right now? They’ll be right back in your math class next year, with your other workload. So, figure out a way to get them to pass, but without giving out grades. The teachers know my values and I know theirs, so we feel like together we can figure this out. It’s an adaptive issue—it’s not a technical fix. I can’t just say, “Use this textbook and all our failures go away.”

The failures aren’t going away simply because teachers are not giving those grades—they’re going away because students are producing a different quality of work.

Right, because it’s demanded of them. Home visits, office hours, moving to standards-based grading, that is brilliant to watch in action. We moved in that direction.

And how do you make sure that all students develop valuable skills and understandings?

It’s about focusing around a set of shared values. We’re all going to read, and to teach argument and teach empathy. We’re going to teach perseverance. Teachers have autonomy over what that looks like, but there are values we share as a school. We write our elect to work agreement and we list our values on the first page. We value a growth mindset. Before teachers sign it, I make sure they’re signing on to these specific things; if they believe in them, then we can develop relational trust, and when that classroom door shuts I know that no matter what they’re teaching, they’re heading towards those values. My own dilemma of leadership was how to go about doing that, and it was really much simpler than I thought. It was a matter of asking teachers, “What is your moral imperative?” If they don’t see whatever that is being worked out in our agreement, then I ask, “What do you need?”

You articulated how teachers come to embrace a certain moral imperative at the core of their work. To what extent do students also come to embrace a moral imperative when they’re at school?

I believe by teachers modeling it, we hold counsel all the time. Simply by talking. I think it is an essential skill. Right now, we’re seeing kids who are getting their financial aid packages, but they don’t know how to call a college and talk to a stranger. They don’t know how to speak up for themselves, much less speak up for somebody else. So, we talk and model this all the time. We constantly ask people questions and by designing lessons around values, whether it’s the seven habits of highly effective teens or whatever it is, we’re constantly trying to focus conversation around values. To get to an understanding of the “why” we do what we do, we ask students “why.” We want to make being smart, or being a public intellectual, a good thing, so we’ve created a culture around that. We post the honor roll everywhere, but we also honor good acts, so even the term “honor” takes a different meaning. We do a lot of student-based assessments; we give the kids a survey about their love languages that is meant to assess their multiple intelligences, and they get the idea that the simple fact that we’re asking them these questions means that we care. They see that and they’re like, “Oh, these things actually matter.”

They feel that the educators at this school care about them as human beings.

What I’ve noticed when I’m talking about restorative justice is that kids don’t mind breaking school rules, and they don’t even mind breaking the law. But they don’t want to break our hearts, so if we can establish a culture based on strong relationships and foster them, then we’ve got it.

A couple years ago, this school won a national award from the National Coalition of Community Schools as an exemplar of community schooling. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be a community school? Alongside strong relationships, what else about this school defines it as a community school?

Thinking restoratively, a community school isn’t a program so much as it’s a lens. When students have to be disciplined I tell them, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be forgiven, but there’s going to be consequences. I want the best for you and that means holding you accountable, but I’m not going to kick you out. You’re going to have to put in some work, but we’re going to work this out.” And they’re just floored.

As a community school principal, I’m thinking like that, and you can see it where I bring in resources and how I spend my budget. I have three counselors for 520 students, where comparable high schools around here have a ratio of 680 kids to one counselor. I don’t have a dean. I believe in treating, not punishing. Right now, one of my counselors is looking for a treatment center for a student and collecting pamphlets. We look for community resources to tap into, and there are assets everywhere. Our students do an asset map of their community precisely so they understand where these things are. We have a mobile clinic that shows up every Wednesday because there were a lot of teen pregnancies in this area. Something as simple as glasses—an optometrist showed up to do an eye check, and 90 out of 520 kids needed glasses. After the test, they were provided with nice looking glasses. We have a dentist who shows up, two or three times a year. Mental health is a big one. We’re doing a lot of work with trauma and around ACES, or Adverse Childhood Experiences. We use it simply as a measurement, not as gospel; but when a student walks in your office, if they are carrying five or six traumatic experiences with them, we want to be prepared to help them.

As a school, what can you do when students come to you and have experienced multiple forms of trauma?

The first thing we can do is to choose love. We listen and we have empathy. Instead of, “Why are you late?” it’s “What kept you from being on time?” Oh my gosh, that just transforms the conversation. I gave the ACES test to my staff, and it was amazing to see the results—many of them had four or more of these ACES. One had ten. I took the test myself, and I sometimes give the test to students one on one just to get some context of who I’m talking to, to better gauge what resources I need to bring in from the community. On November 2nd of last year, I was sitting in this big hall at Cal State, Dominguez Hills and they had us do a poll on our phone and I put in how many ACES I had. I was one of three people in the room of 500 that had eight ACES. It really hit me how lucky I’ve been to make it this far, but for my students, I can’t depend on luck to get them this far, so I’ve got to use my community resources to leverage as much as possible.

Do you talk with your students about the experiences you’ve had so that they have a sense of their own horizon of possibility?

Yeah, and I share this with the parents too. I talk to them about when I was in middle school and my friend and I were packing milk cartons full of sand and throwing them over this big ivy fence and hitting cars. The dean caught us and instead of punishing me, he sat me down in his class, made me sober up, and I watched him teach all day long. Mr. McHarg. He made me want to be a teacher. After that experience, I told everyone I knew, “I didn’t realize the power a teacher has.”

You’re passing that on now.

I share it with the students and then I turn around and give the same speech to their parents. I tell them, “This is what I told the students today,” and I gave them a little bit of my history. It’s a tremendous response when you make yourself that vulnerable. I think it helps build a lot of relational trust. I often talk about my own kids and what I hope their principal does for their students. Sometimes that’s a hug, sometimes it’s not. Mostly I hope that they follow their values and their heart and not a handbook. I tell them, “I guarantee I’ll do that for your kids. I need the same from you.” It’s afforded me a certain moral authority so I can turn to a parent and say, “I need more from you. Stop saying you can’t get them off their cell phone. It’s not their cell phone, it’s your cell phone. Now take it away from them because you’re going to blame them for failing the class that you’re not making them study for. You need to take some responsibility in this.” I’ve been able to say things like that to parents, or to 700 parents at a time. I did about a month ago. I thought they were going to start throwing stuff, but I needed to say what I had to say, and they applauded me for it. So, making myself that vulnerable has really paid dividends for me. That’s something that I really recommend any new principal—make yourself vulnerable to your staff, your teachers, your students, and trust that they need that and they won’t abuse it. Nobody’s going to throw it in your face.

The assembly you were talking about on November 2nd occurred the week of the presidential election; now, we’re almost 100 days into this new administration that has put forward policies and rhetoric that have stoked fears in many communities, and particularly immigrant communities in Los Angeles. How has your school been affected?

Well, the day after the election, I was absolutely stunned and I walked around to each one of my classrooms. I gave a handout to my teachers that basically said we need to not give in to fear. We need to choose love. I went around to each class and I said, “I don’t want you to walk out. I am also angry. Every one of your teachers … I don’t know one teacher that’s not angry, and I hope I’m not making them feel uncomfortable for speaking to their political preferences, but I want to address the anger and hurt and fear that people are feeling, not the politics.” Every class I went to—we have 19 classrooms and I went around to each one—there were kids crying, mainly because of the deportation issue. I said, “I get that. But if anything, this election has shown the importance of an education.” I told them, “I believe that many of the people in our community don’t feel safe. They’re scared of terrorists, immigrants, losing their job. They couldn’t think rationally without prejudice.” I was thinking about Tyrone Howard’s work and said to them, “We need to be the counter-narrative. There’s a proactive aspect to this. We cannot be what they fear.”

A few weeks later, we had a student die. He got washed away in a really bad rainstorm and his body was found a couple days later. He was at the campus right next door, but his cousin’s over here. The reason I bring this up is I knew his cousin, so I went right to her and she was just a mess. I asked my teachers to read something and have counseling available. Some teachers felt like, “Oh, it’s not important,” so I said to them, “Do it. I don’t do top down. This needs to be done.” When I went to the second floor to find his cousin during this one brief time period, there were probably 20 kids in the hallway sitting on the floor and crying. Each one of my counselors was with a group, I was with a group, my assistant principal was with a group. We’re sitting there talking, and most of it didn’t have to do with this young man’s death; really, it had to do with all this pent up fear and anxiety and oddly enough, the election came up. In reactions to this boy’s body being found, the election came up. So it was interesting again to see the effect of different types of trauma. We don’t really understand the stress of racism, or the trauma it puts on the body. We also talked about the trauma of poverty, and the trauma that comes from lacking social capital, when you don’t have anyone to go to.

And then this vulnerability is deepened further for those students and families who lack legal status.

The kids are scared. Recently, there was filming right next door to our campus at the swap meet, and there were a lot of white vans there. There’s filming there all the time, and I see it because I’m out front every morning. Parents were doing U-turns as they were trying to drop their kids off. I was getting calls on my cell phone, kids were walking up to me… one came up and asked me, “Mr. Navarro, is that ICE? Is that ICE? I can’t come to school.” I said, “That’s not ICE. They’re filming a movie. You can call your mom. It’s okay.” While I was outside, my secretaries had 20 phone calls about that. They were just filming a movie.

Our advisory night was a couple weeks later, after the election, and I told the parents, “I need you to trust me. School is safe place. I will not let them do anything.” My secretary and I talked about what would happen if ICE comes in. I’m not going to let them take a kid. We have certain things set up, and a checklist of who to call if I get arrested for not allowing ICE in. I told my wife as well. But our attendance just took a hit. I told the parents on advisory night, “I can’t teach your kids if they’re not here,” and I literally put up the revenue we’ve lost since the election. I just said, “I need you to support this school, and if your kids don’t come to school, we’re not going to have a school in a very real way.”

You’ve made this personal pledge to protect the students. What other ways have you or your staff responded to the very real anxiety that’s out there?

Our Assistant Principal [Marike Anderson-Aguilar] happens to have some friends who are immigration lawyers, and they were very responsive. About a dozen immigration lawyers came here to inform any students who wanted information. We offered this to the parents as well and I think it helps them feel like they have somebody they can come to. For our students and their families, just knowing they can come to me or any one of my staff members is an act of solidarity, and that’s all we can do really. I mean, I feel incredibly helpless about all this at times, but it’s important for me to be out in front of the school and be visible. For the past number of days I wasn’t able to be out in front of the school, and I felt it and my kids felt it. They said that. I made sure I was out there today. I’m shaking hands, high fiving everybody as they’re coming in.

Why is that important?

I think right now, just being able to say “Good morning” to students gives me credibility. It feels good, but mostly it helps the students know that we want them to be here and not somewhere else. It’s important for me because it takes me out of the silo and breaks down any borders between me and the students and their families.

I know your school prides itself on developing humanistic Habits of Mind and ways of being. What does that look like in the age of Trump?

The week after the election, I went to see Bernie Sanders speak. I’m unaffiliated politically, but I really wanted to hear what he had to say. I needed something. He said, “I keep hearing people saying, ‘I don’t know anybody who voted for Trump. How did this guy win?’ But you know what? People did vote for him, and you don’t know anybody on the other side. That’s the problem.” We de-friend people that disagree with us. There is no humanity in this. Every week I send out a challenge for my community to do something. This week, it was to talk to a stranger. Usually, these challenges are to write a note, or make a list of all the people you love and tell them why you love them. I read something by a Stanford professor who said that there are eight skills every 18 year old should have, and one is, they should be able to talk to strangers. We spend our whole life telling our kids not to talk to strangers, and now they can’t.

Both of my history teachers in 10th and 11th grade are covering the Holocaust, and they’re drawing connections between what’s going on today and the contributions of minorities during World War II, as well as the art of the Harlem Renaissance. If we don’t directly make those connections, we’re missing a real opportunity. There are so many amazing examples today of why we need to be educated, we hardly have to look for relevance. I mean, there are mathematicians getting kicked out of this country because they’re immigrants, and so much of what we know as “math” actually comes from Islam. There is so much that we need to mine, but ultimately, it’s about having kids understand the value of empathy, and the value of trying to understand rather than judge.

In our school, we have a structure of mentors—everybody mentors somebody and every mentor has a mentor, so the whole school has somebody watching each other’s back. That mechanism creates a sense of being my brother’s keeper. Kids don’t know what to call it, and so they call it “family.” I was talking to a guy who’s making a short film about our school this morning, and he said, “The one thing that keeps coming up when I interview these kids is ‘family.'” At this school, I wanted to create something I never had. Not just a school, but a family.

I’ve been asking other folks in this moment, when there is a lot of anger and a lot of concern, what keeps you hopeful?

It’s just the little things, the little things. The kids at this school are three blocks away from the projects and they’re doing what they should be doing because they’re being met with high expectations and high levels of support. Expectations without support is just hard, whereas high expectations with support is rigor.

One of our teachers has been fighting for two words to be put in the official mission statement for Ethnic Studies: to teach empathy and healing. Both were taken out because the committee felt that we don’t know how to teach empathy, and we’re not doctors, so we don’t heal. This big bureaucracy that’s promoting a sort of justice doesn’t understand about teaching empathy, but when we close ranks we do it at our school site. The district is saying that we don’t have to teach empathy, yet we are. It gives me hope.

Because the bureaucracy cannot enact relationships—people enact relationships.

Right. I see these one to one things happening and I feel very hopeful. These kids can’t walk into a fight they’re not prepared for, and they can’t be scared of it. These kids really rise to it. I see them-

You see them embracing their liberation.

And I see them defying their own fear. We recently participated in the Teacher Powered Schools Conference at UCLA, and we invited our alumni to come. At one of the breakout sessions, one of our alumni who’s now at UCLA—his mother had him when she was just 13 or 14 years old, he’s the first in his family to go to college—he just said, “It’s hard to be a Latino,” and he dropped his head and started crying. I said, “Would anyone mind if we just held this space?” And we sat there for six minutes, all of us, together in silence. The student gathered himself and said, “I feel like my family doesn’t want to be here, and UCLA doesn’t want me to be here. I don’t belong, so I’m going to have to forge my place. It’s not going to be given to me.” That he had that realization at such a young age—it blew me away.

That realization might not have emerged, had you not paused and opened up that space.

We’re creating space for our students to be angry about the things they should be angry about, and if they don’t know what to say, we help give them the words.

Is that your theory of change in these precarious times?

This school exists in the face of a bureaucracy that doesn’t want it to exist, not because they don’t like us, but because we don’t fit. Political activism is showing up every day. It has to be ongoing: showing up and defying the odds every day in the face of so much apathy. And, given the current administration, it means embracing immigrants and becoming a sanctuary. I have to do it for my teachers, they have to do it for the students. And when we do it for the students, we realize they actually give it back to us. The students want us to be successful. I tell teachers: “Show up ready to go, make yourself vulnerable, and these kids will be rooting for you. You’ll make a mistake and they’ll forgive it. They want you to be successful because you’re a human being, so present yourself as such.”

Because you’re family.




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