Center for the Transformation of Schools: Experts Gather at UCLA to “Reimagine Education”

New center at UCLA launched with national discussion on improvements to public education including meeting the emotional and social needs of underserved students.

As founder and co-director of the newly established Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA, Pedro Noguera encourages education scholars and experts to shift from often misunderstood ideas of school reform in favor of changing schools from the perspective of the whole student. At a national conference at UCLA in November, he exhorted his colleagues to “recognize that you can’t separate the academic needs of a child from the social and emotional needs.”

“That’s the reason why we founded this Center for the Transformation of Schools,” said Professor Noguera to an audience of stakeholders in education from throughout the teaching profession and academia on Nov. 9 at Carnesale Commons. “Transformation, not reform… An approach that focuses on the conditions for teaching and learning. An approach that sees the whole child – health, nutrition, and the arts – as well as stimulating and inspiring academics. It’s possible if we reimagine what we’re doing and we rethink our approaches. Instead of focusing on competition and pressure, we focus on collaboration and learning from each other.”

Joseph Bishop, co-director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools, welcomed Sir Ken Robinson, education expert and author, to UCLA.

Noguera and Joseph Bishop, co-director of CTS, convened the daylong event, featuring panels on school and public policies, the impact of diversity and poverty on education, and holistic and successful solutions in schools. The panels were moderated by UCLA Professor of Education John Rogers, Claudio Sanchez of NPR, and Jonathan Raymond, president of the Stuart Foundation.

Special presentations and talks were delivered by Julian Lucas, a UC alumnus; Bryonn Bain, UCLA professor of African American Studies, activist, and spoken word artist; the Honorable Joyce Elliott, former U.S. Senator; Sir Ken Robinson, international educational consultant and author; and Alice Waters, founding chef of Chez Panisse and The Edible Schoolyard Project. Wasserman Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Scott Waugh, UCLA’s Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, extended their words of welcome. Leyda Garcia, principal of UCLA Community School, took part in a panel discussion on “Looking Ahead: Reimagine Schools and School Systems.”

Senator Joyce Elliott of the Arkansas Senate, shared her perspectives on local, state, and national policy that holistically supports children, schools, and communities.

Professor Bain spoke about the school-to-prison pipeline and the “dehumanizing” effects of being behind bars. He shared historical background of how slaves were rewarded for informing on each other, and said that the institutional practices that continue to pit students of color against each other for their own survival, must be stopped.

“We still have practices that silence young folks, that set [them] up for incarceration [and] the 21st Century plantation,” said Bain. “So, we need to be aware of these practices. The way we can move towards that is by thinking about how we can reimagine these spaces, thinking about schools as political spaces where we’re either supporting what has happened in the past or moving towards a new vision of what should be.”

Professor Noguera, who is a UCLA Distinguished Professor and serves as faculty director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools, pointed out that economic inequity is at the root of many challenges in public education. He said that schools in more affluent communities are held accountable to their students and families, and that even impoverished communities can improve their schools through more teamwork among teachers, parents, and administrators.

“The achievement gap is nothing more than an educational manifestation of inequality,” he said. “But we haven’t addressed inequality and we have almost refused to acknowledge that poverty is an educational issue, not because poor kids can’t learn.

“There is absolutely no evidence that poverty is a learning disability but there’s a lot of evidence that when you ignore the needs of a child – when you know that child is hungry, when you know that child has no stable place to live – it is very hard to imagine that child would be successful and thrive. That’s part of what’s got to change. We’ve got to [figure out] which schools are struggling: the kids with the greatest needs.”

Pedro Noguera, co-director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA, and Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Noguera criticized popular notions of school reform, and said that there is always the lookout for “a gimmick, a fad, something new, a technique we could use to make the schools better … and it never seems to work.” He said that the focus needs to move away from competition and achievement to collaboration and improvement.

“We want agency – agency that starts with critical thinking [and] recognizes that it also needs to be collective… what we do together,” said Noguera. “Too often, we reform to schools, to educators. We are much more likely to consult with a businessman or a CEO or an attorney than we are to consult with educators who have done the work well when we think about how to improve our schools. We live in a country where those who know the least have the most say about education. Those who know the most have no say at all.”

Jose Luis Navarro, principal of Social Justice Humanitas High School in San Fernando, took part in a panel on psychological trauma and stress, poverty, injustice, inadequate resources with Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, president of the National Educational Association; Dr. Sheryl Kataoka, UCLA Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; and Alberto Retana, president and CEO, Community Coalition. He noted that his school – made up of 91 percent Title One students, is ion proximity to the territories of two rival gangs, and has 50 percent of students’ fathers who only completed a third grade education – graduated 98 percent of students with A-G requirements completed, and the fourth highest school in LAUSD in getting its students to college.

Bryonn Bain, UCLA professor of African American Studies, poet, and activist, spoke on “Schools That Liberate Young People.”

“I learned that it can be done,” said Navarro, who is an alumnus of the UCLA Principal Leadership Institute at Center X.  “My job ends at 4:30 – then I start my work.

“When you don’t teach values, you’re simply discovering talent but not developing it,” he said. “We need to treat [students’ disciplinary issues], not punish them. If we punish them, we increase the school-to-prison pipeline. We need more counselors, not more deans. Saying that LAUSD or anybody else is dysfunctional is not true. Schools get the results that they are designed to get. Help is not coming from the outside. It’s up to us.”

Dr. Kataoka said that “a strength-based approach” is needed to avoid reinforcing the stigma of student trauma being perceived by schools as a disability. She said that an entire school needs to work together to support its students who suffer trauma that affects their educational outcomes.

“It starts with our educators and administrators, but it also starts with the janitors, and our other staff,” she said. The [staff member] in the office, understanding about traumatic stress, how it impacts students and not making judgements on students in terms of their reasons for acting out, but fully understanding the whole child.

“We are seeing transformation in the classrooms we are going into now, with a school social worker providing curriculum to all students that talking about emotions and learning communication skills are important for all students,” said Kataoka. “These kinds of classroom interventions are teaching our teachers how to recognize emotional well-being. When students are struggling, understanding the impact of traumatic stress on our students, is huge, and having a caring adult that they can go to when they need more services is critical.”

Waters created a luncheon based on cuisines from India and the Silk Road, and instructed the guests in a communal exercise to help serve their tables. She and Professor Noguera shared a conversation on her establishment of the iconic Chez Panisse and her nonprofit, The Edible Schoolyard Project, which is in 55,000 schools across the nation. Their discussion examined the need to reintroduce the ideas of eating together, the act of growing and cooking food as a complement to school curriculum, and ending hunger in America’s schools.

Wasserman Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco welcomed chef and activist Alice Waters, who prepared lunch and spoke on the need to stop hunger in schools, teach children how to share and learn through food.

“Food is about … offering – I hesitate to say – love,” said Waters. “But it really is. We have to use food as a way of gathering people. When you cook something, when you give it to someone else, they respond to that, especially when it tastes good.

Waters noted that students in Edible Schoolyard programs are more likely to make healthy choices when they are involved in the growing and preparation of their food. She said that the fast food culture of the last 50 years has been detrimental to more than physical wellbeing.

“Every time we eat fast food, we eat the values,” she said. “Time is money, more is better. Advertising confers value. Cooking is drudgery. Farming is drudgery. We just lost our human values, we just gave up the time that we used to spend eating. And now, it’s something so serious.

“We have to learn in school that the things that are worth it, take time. We all need to learn how to cook again … to engage our children in this very meaningful and important way.”


To see video clips of “Reimagine Education,” and to learn more about the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA, visit this link.


Above: Pedro Noguera, UCLA Distinguished Professor of Education, has established the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA.

Photo by Todd Cheney, UCLA