A Conversation with Principal Leyda Garcia, UCLA Community School

A Conversation with Principal Leyda Garcia, UCLA Community School
May 17, 2021 Delia Reid

A Conversation with Principal Leyda Garcia, UCLA Community School


Marisa Saunders, Associate Director for Research at the UCLA Center for Community Schooling, a Stuart Foundation grantee, recently talked with Principal Leyda Garcia of the UCLA Community School about the culture and structures she and her staff have put in place to redesign and reimagine the role of school with equity at the center. Examples range from bilingual classrooms to equity-based approaches to grading; from extended access to mental health services to deep partnerships with families and community-based organizations; to the creation of a data system to keep track of students and monitor their wellbeing and progress.  Here they talk about the establishment of a Student Advisory Board – a model of youth participatory action research that put students in the driver’s seat to inform real-time decisions.


Q: What prompted the establishment of the Student Advisory Board club this year? 

A: Its establishment is the direct result of a youth participatory action research project with immigrant origin youth, and unaccompanied youth [that I conducted]. One of the findings that came from that work is that students experience school in a way none of the rest of us do. We, as the adults, might try to design things, work with students, and look for feedback from students, but students are the only group that really know what it feels like, and can speak to what schooling is like at our school. By working with immigrant origin youth, I could see through their eyes and experiences what we have designed and created, like bilingual classrooms in our dual language program, and see what it meant to newcomer students. As a team, we felt that we should be asking students how it is that they’re experiencing school, and then using that knowledge to inform decisions–to be in this constant dialogue with students. Sometimes it’s hard to do this in each class, so we thought having something much more systemic would be important. 


Q: What was your vision for this new space? 

A: [We wanted to create] a formal space for students to really share what they were experiencing in our school. I wanted to make sure that I was coming to it with an open mind, and that I was really listening to the students. I was going to be the student, with a sort of epistemology and ontology driving this. I would be facilitating, and providing what I have learned in terms of my research but this would be their space and we would be [their] colleagues. When you engage in something like this, you realize the strengths that everybody is bringing based on the position you hold in the system and it democratizes the space and equalizes everyone’s role—you have something to contribute because of where you are in this system with students playing the most important role because they are the ones who are experiencing this.


Q: To what extent was its establishment prompted by COVID-19 and schools closing for in-person learning?

A: I think we all realized how important having a space like this was going to be in the middle of a pandemic. We had a couple of teachers who had already surveyed their own students but these were very local, classroom-based efforts, rather than a whole school effort to share back with the school community. So, it was very timely. Having this space informed some of the conversations and professional development we had with teachers, especially in the secondary school around grading and what students were telling us was helpful or not in the middle of a pandemic. 


Q: Students in Advisory Board have surveyed students, teachers, then they engaged in in-depth focus groups. What prompted these research-based activities?  

A: It was the students who saw it. [They felt] we should find out how students were experiencing the pandemic and online learning and thought that one way to do this might be to create a survey….They’ve all experienced surveys because in our school there are data collection cycles throughout the year, and in a normal year, students will do at least one or two surveys regarding the school and how we’re doing. 

I was impressed by how open they were to the learning. It was their idea for surveys to be bilingual. We talked about scales. Like, “We want a 1 to 10 [scale],” and [I asked], “Why do you want that?” Which prompted these really good discussions about what that means when you collect data. For me it was a matter of letting them decide what would help to draw really good and rich answers from their peers, and providing them with some guidance. I wasn’t sure where it was going but it was their survey, their experiences and their peers. Once all of the data started coming in, it was great to be able to share certain skills with them like formulas in Excel. That learning was really exciting for them, for me, for everybody. We were supporting each other. You saw students naturally start to sort in a particular way, and play around with the data. That openness has been really powerful. I think that human beings learn by extending their knowledge and then using it and applying it. And then it’s very open source, right? One student decided he was going to create a “job aid” to share with the rest of us so that we wouldn’t forget how to do certain calculations the next time. 

Students have evolved through these actions—refining their skills as researchers and refining their comfort with thinking of themselves as that. I didn’t anticipate the power of learning in this way. I didn’t want to make it too constricted, you know like, “Here’s this framework.” Instead of imposing something by [assigning] reading, or looking at a manual, I felt allowing [the learning] to be revealed was important. 


Q: To what extent do you think that these activities and the learning that it has generated have influenced the broader school community?

A: The findings from the initial student survey were very moving for teachers. It aligned with what teachers were already sensing, and affirmed things that they thought. It also showed us that other things that we thought were so amazing and helpful weren’t as helpful for students. It helped to push the leadership team to say, “Okay, we need to do some professional development and some sessions and provide support to colleagues around grading, and what students are experiencing, and to say it through student voices.” Students came to a professional development, shared with teachers and facilitated groups by grade level. It was great to witness that dialogue between students and teachers and teachers genuinely asking, “When you see that from your peers, what does that mean to you?” And, “What else might be helpful?” That was powerful. We’ve had students come to talk [to us] about bigger things, like some community things but this was about instruction, their craft, and students were providing direct feedback as to what might be helpful, especially in this pandemic, and what might not be helpful, and how students are experiencing virtual learning. That was powerful to witness—a dialogue about instruction, about connection, in a virtual world. 


Q: Do you think that as a result of the dialogue, some shifts have occurred?

A: Yes, I think so. I think it helped teachers realize that students were also grappling with a lot of issues in the virtual space and a lot of learning and technology. And that [students] were also very appreciative of what some teachers were already doing in terms of flexibility with deadlines, tutoring, the additional support, the understanding that for some students, it was even harder to ask for help in this new environment. When we read teachers’ feedback forms that they filled out after the PD, they highlighted that engaging with students and hearing [directly] from them, and seeing the data was making them rethink some practices and say, “Oh, I’m glad these things that I’ve tried are working and I now need to continue to really engage with students.” That was the other piece. For many teachers, they were now really interested in dialoguing in this way with their classes. I think it also enhanced the one-on-one [meetings] teachers had [with students] and deepened that connection that we tried to establish since the beginning of the school year.


Q: Based on what students in Student Advisory Board learned, what are your thoughts about how students at UCLA Community School, in general, are engaged in their learning this year?

A: Much like with the adults, variance is the name of the game this year. That’s been evident from the beginning. People always say if you ask 10 people a question, you will get 10 different answers. I like that everybody is seeing it through their own lens and through their own experience. It is clear, more than ever, that we bring our whole selves to every space. And we are filtering every experience, every interaction through our whole selves, which means [learning is] individual. To me, the question is, what’s the collective? And, as a school, how can you really look at that collective in terms of learning and teaching? If there’s so much variance, than what is the thread that connects us all? And how do we strengthen that? What are the shared [experiences] that you want to see happen? We need to keep thinking about the collective experiences we have and how we reflect on those experiences, to better understand them, but also to gain more insight about who we are and about each other. That’s the power of the variance—to understand that I have to remain even more open-minded about who you are, about how I come to the space, and how you’re coming to it. If that’s the lesson we take from this, that would be really powerful for our school, but also for the future. As we speak of equity, or social justice, or college access, we have to remember that we’re all defining that differently, informed by who we are. But the more we discuss it and share it and see the connections, I think the better, and the richer the narrative. That’s what we learned. The differences are beautiful. I find that the lesson is so rich and nuanced. How do we use that to advance as a community and to care for each other and to keep learning?


Q: What have you learned alongside your students in Student Advisory? 

A: For one, I have so much appreciation for how students are making sense of the world and how they’re processing things through their own experience. I [have learned] how much grace they offer to the adults in their lives, to teachers, how open they are to thinking, “I see you trying.” Teachers are trying to really humanize the experience and listen. Students do the same. And I’ve learned that you can almost learn to count that, to really measure it. It’s really palpable through these actions and projects. That’s been powerful for me. Seeing the brilliance of students, and the natural research tendencies they have is also an important lesson. Young people tend to be so inquisitive, and they want to know things, and they want to figure things out. And sometimes I think in schools, we tend to be too formulaic. We offer that formula before they’ve even tried to make sense of it. Our brains look for patterns, they look for things that make sense. Seeing that in action has been powerful. It made me rethink schooling in general. How often are we doing that for students? Opening these spaces and allowing [learning] to be much more organic rather than so prescriptive in nature? I’ve learned about the power of young people to express [themselves]. I don’t think we give them enough credit for their opinions, and for the experiences they have that are very real and authentic. [Understanding] that could really help us improve how we’re working with them.

Maybe it’s not as hard as we think to engage young people in research and in informing what and how we do things.