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A Conversation with: Rachel Hazlehurst

We talked with Camino Nuevo Charter Academy’s chief academic officer on how she and the Los Angeles-based charter school network collaborate to develop structures and processes that increase the level of excellence across the network’s schools.

Camino Nuevo Charter Academy was founded in 1999 by Pueblo Nuevo Development, a nonprofit community development corporation in the MacArthur Park neighborhood west of downtown Los Angeles. Several organizations and businesses grew out of this effort, including a thrift store, a worker-owned janitorial company, a non-profit community development corporation, a free clinic, and Camino Nuevo Charter Academy.

A Conversation With: Rachel HazelhurstHow does the history of Pueblo Nuevo Development and the organizations and businesses that came out of that effort inform how Camino approaches teaching and learning for students, and the relationships you have with families?

At Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, we remain committed to the promises made by our founder and the Pueblo Nuevo Development team when they started working with the MacArthur Park community in the 1990s. They started as a community organization, engaged in a variety of activities aimed at working with, not for, community members to improve the economic conditions of the neighborhood. So that idea of not doing something to people but working with them is the first principle that we continue to carry into our work. Today, as we always have, we are working with our students’ families to create opportunities for shared learning, dialogue, and reciprocal feedback.

When Pueblo Nuevo Development shifted their efforts to opening a charter school, it was because they heard countless stories of families who were unhappy with the district public school options in the neighborhood. Some of them were bussing their children miles away to attend schools in the neighboring suburbs. Many of them also struggled to communicate with their children at home because at school, all instruction was in English, while the home language was Spanish. The promise of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy was to address all of that, and that’s what we’re continuing to do today. We offer college-preparatory, enriching teaching and learning in the neighborhoods where our students live, and if families choose, they can enroll their children in one of our dual language programs where they can continue to develop their Spanish while also learning to speak, read, and write in English.

I would also add that our Ethnic Studies for All program is deeply connected to our founding story. We offer Ethnic Studies as both a single-subject course and as an integrated approach throughout our curricula. This is because we believe – as our founders did – that the education of our students should reflect both their lived experiences and the histories of their families. If a child isn’t brought up knowing the richness of their own traditions, of the heroic acts of their ancestors and their communities, how do we expect them to find meaning in the traditions and histories of people who are very unlike them? We do both with a ‘mirrors and windows’ approach that starts with students’ personal and family histories and branches out from there to other histories of empowerment in the face of oppression.

Turning to a question about adult learning in this context, how do those deep roots and investments in community impact how you plan and deliver professional learning for your educators?

We believe our educators must deeply know the students and their families in order to realize a vision for teaching and learning that stems from the very people we serve. They also must deeply know themselves. Our own identities as people are inextricably linked to how we show up every day in the classroom. Just like we can’t expect our students to get excited about other people’s stories if they don’t know their own, we can’t expect our educators to meaningfully engage in culturally responsive teaching if they are unsure of how their own identity has shaped who they are and where they’ve been. So all of this is integrated into our professional learning.

A couple of examples include entire days dedicated to Ethnic Studies workshops, where we’ve tapped into the expertise in our educator community to lead workshops on Ethnic Studies & Arts integration or Ethnic Studies in the TK-2 classroom, as well as brought in external practitioners like Dr. Allison Tintiangco-Cubales and Rita Kohli to help us more deeply understand the relationship between identity, teaching, and student engagement.

Over the past two years, we have also named ‘Bridging toward Belonging’ as a network priority. Although we are a place that prioritizes cultural responsiveness and anti-racism, we are not immune to the polarization around us today and the challenges to truly achieving belonging for all stakeholders in a diverse community. This has been integrated into our professional learning in a few ways. We kicked it off last year at our annual Success Conference with a keynote and workshop by one of the authors of the Bridging Differences Playbook, Scott Shigeoka. Since then, all of our schools have engaged in Bridging activities at the start of professional learning sessions. The goal of these activities is not just to connect on a surface level, but to really reflect on our own identities and perspectives and get better at sharing those with others in open dialogue. We are also becoming better listeners. All home office and school leaders, in addition to teachers, have engaged in multiple one-on-one conversations (or empathy interviews) with students, families, and colleagues. In professional learning spaces, we are then reflecting on the trends we’ve heard in those conversations and planning how to integrate them into our work in order to better serve our community.

How have the deep roots and investments in the community shaped you and your outlook on education personally and professionally? How does it hold you and other adults accountable?

I started with Camino Nuevo as a 22-year-old first-year teacher. I didn’t know much about teaching, and I certainly didn’t know anything about parenting. But my colleagues quickly taught me to invest in the relationships with the families of my students so that I could learn their perspectives. I became a better educator fast, both because of the high-quality professional learning at Camino Nuevo, but also because of the commitment to listening to and learning from students and their families. I engaged in home visits, I asked more questions than many would think is “polite,” and I did it all from a place of humility and deep curiosity about what drives, interests, and ultimately would best support my students. These initial conversations that I had with families – about their immigration stories, their current family dynamics, and their aspirations – continue to drive me today. We ultimately exist because we made a promise to the families of the Greater MacArthur Park area that we would do better than their existing neighborhood options. That is true in some ways, but not yet true in all ways, based on all metrics. And so until that is true, and we can sustain that excellence over time, I will continue to remind my colleagues of the promise we’ve made and hold us all accountable for getting there.

What would you identify as the most critical conditions for your educators and your context to show up in alignment with community-driven vision?

It starts with leadership that explicitly names community, belonging, and learning from stakeholders as priorities. We then need to hire educators who are mindset-aligned, and better yet, come from this community and communities like it. Once we have them in our doors, we then must provide professional learning that is infused with reflection as well as knowledge-building as it pertains to the role of identity and culture in the classroom. Parker Palmer writes that teachers must know themselves as deeply as they know their students, and as deeply as they know their content. Our professional learning must have time for all three. But that first one – getting to know yourself – and even the second – getting to know your students – will both fall flat if our educators are miserable and uncomfortable in our schools.

So some of the most important conditions are those that contribute to a positive school culture. Things like psychological safety, feeling that your perspectives and experiences are valued by your school leaders and colleagues, a sense of collective efficacy, which is in large part a shared vision, and a shared sense of accountability for making progress toward that vision. And then there’s joy. We work with kids! We have to intentionally cultivate joyful environments between adults so they will build similar environments with students and families.

So given that you have the enabling conditions for alignment, how are you getting educators in the door, and developing, growing, and retaining them over time?

I’m really excited about the intentional building blocks that we are putting in place to ensure that we can address the educator shortage head-on and not suffer the consequences of it quite so much in the future. We have made some big initial strides in addressing the educator shortage of this moment. In the last year, we’ve launched our own teacher residency program, Avance, in collaboration with a consortium of two other small charter networks in Los Angeles. Avance has an explicit mission of social justice and cultural responsiveness. Fourteen of Camino’s 15 residents came from within our schools, working in paraprofessional roles prior to becoming residents, and 90% of our residents are people of color. In order to ensure that kind of representation, we have to pay our residents a living wage, which we do. Our residents are employees and get paid as such, in addition to getting tuition reimbursement, thanks to investments from both the California Commission on Teaching Credentialing and our schools.

Another way that we’re offering opportunities and growth to our paraprofessionals, and hopefully encouraging them to become classroom teachers, is through our Expanded Learning programs. We have robust after-school academic intervention programming and full-time staff dedicated to developing that programming and providing professional learning to after-school educators. This means that many of our teachers’ assistants are getting on-the-job training in classroom culture and management, balanced math instruction, and English Language Development before they’ve even started a teacher credentialing program. Plus they are getting more hours of work – some of them have transitioned to full time with benefits – thanks to their participation in this program.

Those programs are helping us get new teachers in the doors, but we also need to think very strategically about the other end of the pipeline and what teachers might want to do next after five or seven years in the classroom. So we have multiple opportunities on that end of the pipeline as well. One opportunity involves being an Avance mentor, where they receive leadership training while staying committed to working in the classroom. Here, they receive a different kind of support because they no longer have to be the sole educator in front of students all day, but they’re now able to collaborate with another educator in the room, watch and give feedback to their residents, sometimes get to leave the room while their resident takes over for their own practice.

We separately have launched an Emerging Leaders program which is a program designed more for folks who are looking for formal leadership roles. So they are, for the most part, classroom teachers still, or in other leadership adjacent roles, and they’re receiving explicit adaptive and technical leadership development through a seminar and cohort-based model. They are building relationships with one another, getting to go on a trip next week to visit an excellent school in another state, really encouraging them and inspiring them about the sort of professional learning they can continue to expect from Camino Nuevo because we know that the equity-driven work that we’re trying to do is long range work. We can’t do it in a year with a brand-new teacher. We need folks to stay with us, and the only way that they’re going to do that is if teachers are inspired, cared for, and cultivated to stay with us for the journey.