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STEM Academy Case Study

Voices from the field: How a partnership between a local school and university teacher education program supported the development of social justice educators

Jamie Gravell
Jarod Kawasaki

For the past 10 years, the Inspiring Minds Through a Professional Alliance of Community Teachers (IMPACT) teacher residency program, has been in partnership with STEM Academy in Hollywood. The teachers at STEM Academy exemplify the “professional alliance of community teachers” embodied in the residency program  This case study provides insight into how the alliance of administrators, teacher education faculty, mentor teachers, IMPACT teacher education program alumni and program faculty advisors worked together to prepare and sustain social justice educators. The dialogue below represents multiple voices within this alliance speaking to their role at the school and in preparing new social justice educators though the IMPACT teacher residency program.

Three key members of the STEM Academy / IMPACT team lent their voices to this case study. Esther is a former STEM Academy science teacher and co-founder of the school. She also served as a mentor for five cohorts of IMPACT student teachers.  Currently, she serves as an instructional coach for STEM Academy supporting teaching and learning throughout the school. Paul is the STEM Academy principal. He has served in this role for since the inception of the school. He completed his clear administrative credential in the UCLA Principal Leadership Institute and has hired eight UCLA IMPACT/Teacher Education Program graduates for the STEM Academy math and science departments. Imelda was a secondary science and math Faculty Advisor for the entire ten years of the IMPACT program. She worked closely with STEM Academy student teachers and their mentors supporting them both in understanding and enacting the social justice teaching and learning.

What follows are excerpts from separate interviews that we conducted with Esther, Paul and Imelda.  The same interview questions were used, so we have organized selected excerpts to simulate a conversation between the interviewer and the three of them. The conversation centers on the partnership between UCLA IMPACT and STEM Academy and how this partnership was productive for supporting pre-service teacher learning. Some of the interview excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.


We know there is a passionate and diverse team that makes up the staff at STEM academy. It is really a special place. How would you describe the mission and vision of the school?

Esther: Our official mission is to instill a love of science, through contextualized learning. So, in some ways that’s really specific, right, like do we have to like science? Are you really going to make everybody love science? But in my head, science is just a stand in word for critical thinking, because to me, in the end, that’s what science is, it’s critically evaluating information. So, if I can instill a love of critical thought, I have totally done my job, because I can’t imagine in what situation you could place a human being in, where that wouldn’t be important…

Paul: The mission and the vision is to really instill a love of scientific inquiry and that’s at the center of everything we do. We think college readiness and career readiness already exist; the potential is in every kid but the key to unlocking that potential is through engagement. So, when you get kids doing hands-on activities and they’re working in groups and collaborating, when they’re challenged by real world issues, the potential is unlocked because they’re truly engaged in their work.  I think that’s always been sort of the center. It’s to instill a love of scientific inquiry.

Imelda: The principal has told me this is a democratic school. The teachers are the ones who run it. So, there’s a real ownership there by the teachers. They feel highly invested in the school. For example, the teachers are really trying to link or connect what’s happening in math to what’s happening in science. There’s some cross curricular planning there. And it takes time.  The principal has said, that teachers need and are given common planning time because our goal is to come up with certain amount of an integrated lessons. It’s really important for them.


But I heard you say some other aspects too, of this issue of students and their feeling of empowerment and self-direction. Is that part of the vision and mission as well?

Esther: Critical thought in a vacuum is not very meaningful, so thinking about the fact that students are, through no control of their own, dropped into situations where they don’t have much agency. It is something that’s very prevalent in all schools, in all societies, and it’s also something that they’re very used to, they’re used to having no agency. It’s a fact of life for them. And it shouldn’t be that way, and it’s something you notice much more in communities of color. It’s something you notice much more in certain socio-economic areas, and that’s not okay. It’s not okay that there are two different realities for our kids, and for our adults, frankly, so if you really want to educate kids, you have to empower them. So, if you place learning in a contextualized environment, that means what you’re teaching them, how you’re teaching them to critically think, has to be relevant and apply to their lives.

Imelda: Just take for example the physical environment. The walls of the school are filled with student pictures, of them engaging in their research, in their work, student work. There’s a wall every spring where they put up where their students are going in college. It communicates that you’re welcome here. This is a place, if you want to be an engineer, or go into medicine, you’re welcome here. The teachers know the students, like they know who they are. They call them out. They work with them. If they’re short on credit they could plead their case, like why, and figure out ways to help navigate them getting their credits. The seniors have their portfolio defense where they get to tell stories of where they came from. It reminds me so much of the IMPACT master’s inquiry project, because the seniors are all working on their own piece! During the defense, they invited me to go up and talk to them and ask about their research questions and how they’re researching it.


What were the benefits of having IMPACT at your school?

Paul: Our relationship with UCLA IMPACT has been nothing short of transformative. If you look at our math department and science department, they are directly impacted by IMPACT in that there’s a commitment to social justice, there’s a commitment to equity and access, and there is a commitment to the shifts in Common Core standards. The leadership that’s come out of those two departments from the IMPACT graduates, really has changed who we are. It’s the style that they bring to the classroom. It is so inquiry based. It’s so sort of open ended and it gives students a chance to really experiment and take chances and feel safe along the way. I can’t think of a program that has had more impact on who we are as a STEM school. The IMPACT program and their teachers that have become part of our family.

Esther: The fact that IMPACT student teachers were, for lack of a better word, growing up at STEM, through their teacher education, and at that time we were still growing as a school, and we were hiring almost every year. And what that resulted in is this infusion of teachers who had essentially co-created STEM, because they learned how to be teachers at STEM and they also injected their own learning in our school. I can’t imagine what the school would have been without the influence of IMPACT. It really did shape what was happening in the classroom. I mean, half of our science department, is IMPACT. And they have been here for more than five years, and they are the rocks, like some of them have less experience than some of the other more experienced teachers, and they are the driving force, the organizing force, behind their departments, their projects. They take leadership roles. They’re really organized. They’re compassionate with their students. They have all of the qualities that you would expect out of a seasoned instructor, without any of the cynicism, which is amazing.

Imelda: Well I think what I noticed about STEM and the principal is that they welcome the student teachers, they become part of the staff. The principal gives them an ID and a parking space. He really welcomes and embraces them. He engages them in conversation. They aren’t treated as strangers or visitors in this space, they are part of the STEM community. And he does that through those concrete actions, like oh conversation with them, and the parking space, and you know, the badge. I mean they could seem like oh those are nominal, but they actually mean a lot. They symbolize you’re a part of this community.


Why do you think the residency program so beneficial to developing student teachers?

Esther: I think adequate preparation is more than taking the right courses. I think it’s living the life of an instructor, at a location where you feel you can co-create meaning for yourself, about your own career path, and that’s what a residency program allows you to do. An IMPACT student wasn’t just placed with me or with us, from like September to May, which is very typical, they were here in the summer, which was amazing, and went through summer institute professional development with us. And they were here after school for professional development. They were here for tutoring for students, so they were functioning, essentially, as a full-time teacher. They were getting used to all of the procedures, that I think experienced teachers take for granted, something as simple as signing in and out, or using the copy machine, can be huge stressors for a first year instructor, who is just trying to get a lesson together and get control of their classroom.

Paul: One of our really favorite things about this residency model is that the vast majority of student teachers that have been here have gotten hired by us. And it’s a year-long interview where you really get to find out who they are, and they get to find out who we are.

Esther: The people doing the matching take the time to meet all the mentors and all the mentees, and they just, they think about who we would be while placed in a specific site, or with a specific person. That’s done with much greater care, and I think results in better relationships between mentor and mentee, which is really the number one thing you need to make this a successful experience. If that relationship between the student teacher and the mentor teacher isn’t something that works, then the student teaching experience isn’t very meaningful for either one.

Paul: And these guys [IMPACT student teachers] are dreamers, they just kind of live outside the box and there’s always new changes. These students are pre-loaded with all the newest apps, the collaboration app, the dreamer app, the social justice app, they already come pre-loaded with all that stuff. IMPACT has had a huge impact on our school.

Esther: I liken it to like a language immersion class. So, if you go somewhere, and you live with a family, in a foreign country, and you are forced to speak the language and eat the food and all of that. You’re not going walk away from that going, I still don’t know if I can speak the language. I don’t care how much pedagogy and instruction you learn in the classes you are taking, if you’re not living in it, if you’re not walking in the shoes, you’re never going to really understand what that’s like, and that’s what the residency programs do. They give you an honest look, while also educating you.


The ongoing critique of university based teacher education programs is that they are disconnected and not in touch with the needs of the local schools, communities, and families, especially those in low-income communities of color—How do you see this type of partnership between a local school and university teacher education program as beneficial for preparing teachers to meet the challenges of teaching and working in urban public schools? What is the future of these type of partnerships?

Esther: There’s the relationship building, and the way IMPACT challenges both a mentor teacher and a student teacher, and how you encourage both of their educational growth, is really important, because that is how you get better educators. You have to do both ends of the work, you have to educate the mentor, and you have to educate the student teacher. If you don’t do both, that relationship really falls flat on its face, and you can’t get the results you need.

Imelda: I think there’s a lot to learn from each other and it should be an exchange rather than a talk to. For example, with mastery-based grading, I don’t know very much about it, but STEM, they helped me engage with it more. And vice versa. They’ll ask me for some research, or we’ll have a conversation about research and other teaching practices. These partnerships should mutually inform each other. So that I’m taking a listening stance and learning from them just as much as them learning from us.