Los Angeles Teachers Create Choice Group for Students

Published January 1, 2009

Sara Hernandez, a first-year teacher at a public school in Los Angeles, realized three of her students could excel at private schools, where they would receive a more-comprehensive curriculum and a more-rigorous college preparatory experience.

So last year she banded together with other teachers at Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School to create the Independent Schools Support System of Los Angeles (ISSSLA), which sends bright students from the school to challenging private high schools in the city with the help of scholarships.

The three students were placed in private schools, where they are now excelling and making friends. Although Hernandez has since left to attend law school, other Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. teachers are continuing and expanding ISSSLA.

“I think it’s just availability of another opportunity, an exposure to a different type of school and a different atmosphere,” said Stephanie Carter, ISSSLA spokesperson and student advisor. “Of course, all the teachers involved are strong believers in public school. But people can go beyond what’s in front of them.

“This is another resource,” Carter continued. “It’s just an expanded opportunity. It’s not that the thing that’s in front of them is bad. We don’t feel that at all. We just want to expand it.”

Union Opposition

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA)—the union the teachers belong to—said while he admired the teachers’ spirit, he could not agree with the work they are doing. Teacher unions, without exception, oppose most forms of school choice, and none more so than scholarship or voucher programs sending students to private or religious schools.

“I think the students would be better served if they worked with UTLA to create the programs at the school,” Duffy said. “If they had, we wouldn’t just be helping a handful of students now. We’d be helping hundreds of students at Cochran. We’d love the opportunity to bring better education to a public school in a neighborhood that can definitely use it with a staff that’s highly motivated.”

Duffy said he has never received a call from Cochran teachers complaining about the curriculum or saying their students are not sufficiently challenged in school.

Nevertheless, ISSSLA is expanding, with six teachers currently working with five children this year. They help the best students by tutoring them for standardized and entry-level prep school tests, helping them and their families fill out applications, and finding them scholarships.

Assisting Minorities

ISSSLA partnered with the Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs (ISAMA), an association of 48 independent schools in Los Angeles that strives to increase diversity on campuses.

“In a city as diverse as Los Angeles, there’s obviously no shortage of talent in students of color,” said ISAMA Executive Director Manasa Tangalin. “We help find those kids, identify those kids, and assist them and their families throughout the application process.”

ISAMA runs a nearly all-encompassing program to help minority children. All its member schools share a single application to simplify the process for parents. ISAMA also submits applicants’ grades and test scores to the schools of their choice, helps the family apply for financial aid, and educates parents about the differences between private schools.

Staff consider the schools’ distance from the family’s home and parents’ workplaces, helping them find transportation if necessary, and calculate an education plan feasible for the child.

“It’s like putting a giant jigsaw puzzle together,” Tangalin said.

Benefiting Children, Schools

The children placed in the private schools benefit from the rigorous curricula, classes in arts and humanities, and college preparation. In exchange, they enrich the private schools with their presence, adding a perspective that would otherwise be lost, Tangalin said.

Previous ISAMA students say they graduated ready and excited to go to college, Tangalin explained.

“I think students in independent schools get an incredible amount of doors opened for them,” Tangalin said. “Our kids get what they’re capable of doing, and they go off, and they’re successful. They do really well.”

Growth Chart

Carter said the teachers in her group devote much time and energy outside the classroom to help their students, but it’s an extension of what they do every day. All feel the extra work is worth it, she said.

“This is something we all want to be involved in for years to come,” Carter said.

The ISSSLA teachers are working to grow and extend the program beyond Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School to other area schools, hoping to provide assistance and advice to other students in the near future.

“You start small and you work your way up,” Carter said, “but we can definitely see the potential.”


Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.