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Middle school close-up: Nava Learning Academy has nowhere to go but up

Sarah Favot | December 13, 2016

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Dr. Julian Nava Learning Academy. (Courtesy:

When Principals Maria Ozaeta and Anita Maxon interviewed prospective teachers this summer for the Dr. Julian Nava Learning Academy, the one question they repeatedly asked themselves was: Does this teacher have a heart?

The pilot school campus has had challenges in the last couple of years, teacher turnover being one. They hired 11 brand new teachers to the profession this year. In 2014, 19 teachers were new.

“When you go ahead and you teach a group of students that requires so much more than the academics, it’s really hard to find a teacher that’s going to be all heart,” Ozaeta said. “The heart to be able to understand, to invest the time to learn about the trauma.”

Traumas for Nava kids include gang violence, shootings and deportations.

Maxon is the principal of Nava’s School of Arts and Culture. Ozaeta is the principal of the School of Business and Technology. Both schools are on the same campus in the Central-Alameda neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Ranking data compiled by the California Charter Schools Association show that the School of Arts and Culture is among the lowest-performing middle schools in the district. It was at the lowest ranking in an overall measure based on students’ scores on state standardized tests known as Smarter Balanced Assessments. It was also at the lowest ranking as compared to schools with similar demographics.

Read the full story on middle school rankings

The School of Business and Technology received the lowest rank overall based on standardized test data but fared better when it was compared to schools with similar demographics, ranking 4 out of 10. (10 is the highest rank.)

The pilot school campus opened in 2011 under Public School Choice 2.0. Each school enrolls about 500 students.

A pilot school is a network of schools that are formed through a charter written by teachers. They have autonomy over budget, staffing, governance, curriculum and assessment and the school calendar.

Maxon said Nava has used its autonomy to create a two-week spring break. Students and staff are off for one week, and the second week is used to provide academic interventions for students before the end of the school year.

Maxon became principal in 2014 after the founding principal left with some other teachers to open a Nava high school. She previously taught sixth and seventh grade. She said teacher turnover has been an issue in recent years.

The School of Arts and Culture’s poverty rate is 72 percent, according to district data. Ninety-five percent of the students are Hispanic, 4 percent are African-American and 1 percent are white, according to 2015-16 California Department of Education data. About 26 percent of students are English learners.


Veronica Vega is Nava’s instructional coach.

Nava’s instructional coach Veronica Vega was recently named a distinguished educator by the district. She told the school board the school’s English-learner redesignation rate is about 44 percent.

School board member Richard Vladovic called Vega a “miracle maker.”

While a teacher’s ability to teach curriculum is important in any classroom, Ozaeta and Maxon said at Nava Learning Academy, a teacher’s ability to connect with his or her student and be a trustworthy adult for their kids is just as important, if not more. The school has a social-emotional team that provides wraparound services to students who are in need.

Ozaeta said she grew up 10 minutes away from the school and that many teachers are also from the neighborhood and are an example to their students of “breaking the cycle.”

Maxon refers to her students as “my babies.”

She has not given up hope that despite all the challenges her students face in their lives away from school, they can achieve high standardized test scores.

“I know our numbers don’t look good. But I know that they’re going to go up. It hurt when I saw it myself, but from here on we’re going to be moving on up.”

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