October 10, 2017

On supporting school culture and our Dreamers

Yvette Fraga 10th- and 11th-grade Social Studies teacher

In this interview with Outreach Director Matthew Raymond, Yvette shares advice on how to improve school culture and the need to support Dreamers.

Matthew Raymond (MR): You’ve just finished your tenth year of teaching. What inspires you to stay in the classroom and persist each year?

Yvette Fraga (YF): I come from a long line of public servants (teachers, nurses, etc.) and teaching has been my life’s dream. I’ve wanted to be an educator since I was in the third grade, when I realized the kind of impact that teachers have on how students feel about themselves as learners and as individuals. Now that I am an adult and politically engaged, I see that, more than ever, there is a need for teachers who understand systemic inequities and how they impact students. I have a moral obligation as a teacher of social sciences to foster the same type of engagement and sense of civic duty in my students. The need for my students to be critical and conscious consumers of information when they leave me every June is what drives my urgent sense of duty in my classroom every day.

MR: What would you say has been your biggest achievement or highlight as a teacher?

YF: My biggest highlights have been the individual success stories of my students. It is the handful of students who were struggling with issues far greater than school who connected with me and came to me for help and guidance. Seeing those students succeed and move beyond high school, watching them grow into happy and well-adjusted adults--those stories are what I consider my greatest accomplishments.

MR: Your school was recognized last year for its work on improving school culture, and you run an academy this year centered around that topic. Can you tell me more about that work and why you are so passionate about it?

YF: My school site has had several changes in leadership in the eight years that I have been employed here. With each new administrator, the school found itself in transition. The uncertainty and inconsistency in leadership created a culture of disengagement and low morale for both teachers and students. Our culture work last year was centered around improving morale and engagement with an initial focus on faculty and staff.

I am passionate about culture work because culture is everything. Dr. Pedro Noguera, a distinguished UCLA professor, noted in a lecture here on our campus that one will never find a high-performing school that has low morale among its students or teachers. Low levels of morale and engagement tend to drive away great teachers, lead to low academic performance, and discourage the community from sending its children to the school. A positive school climate and culture often have the opposite effect.

Additionally, students of color from low income households and the schools that serve them are already fighting an uphill battle against societal forces of systemic social injustice. As a school, we may not be able to change all of those systems, but school culture is under the scope of our control.

We owe it to our students and ourselves to be intentional about how we build positive school climate and culture.

MR: What advice would you have for teachers on how they can make safe and inclusive schools a priority at their school or district?

YF: The very first piece of advice for teachers is finding allies at your school. Build a team of diverse faculty and staff who also see a need for the work at your site and, as a team, connect with different organizations, such as the Parent Teacher Association, the Teachers’ Union, and the Student Body Leadership. Grassroots advocacy is powerful.

It’s also important to collect and analyze data disaggregated by subgroups. Data that points to disparities is hard to deny. The team should spend the majority of the time researching strategies to end disparities while resisting the urge to find quick solutions. Most likely, what appears to be the issue is a symptom of a deeper problem.  

Lastly, and most importantly, is self-care. Engaging in this work, navigating school structures, having courageous conversations on top of work duties-- is stressful. It is easy to be consumed with all of the negative. Maintaining a work-life balance and checking in with oneself is of the utmost importance to preserving social-emotional health.  

MR: Lastly, how do you think rescinding DACA will impact your school and your students?

YF: What I have found is that because most schools do not collect or disseminate information about documentation, undocumented students and their needs are often invisible and unaddressed. As educators, we don’t know who our undocumented students are unless they feel safe enough to disclose that information. Before DACA, I saw students with so much potential putting off higher education and later revealing that they couldn’t attend college because of their status and a lack of resources.

DACA has given our Dreamers an opportunity to come into the light and be visible.

They feel legitimized and empowered to advocate for themselves. They have been working, getting internships, attending top-tier universities, receiving financial aid, and contributing to society. I fear that without a comprehensive replacement for DACA, our Dreamers will fall back into the shadows or stop attending school due to fear and distrust of the school system.  

To learn more about E4E’s school climate policy recommendations, read our teacher-written policy paper “The Equity Movement.”


Yvette Fraga

Yvette Fraga teaches 10th- and 11th-grade Social Studies at Gardena Senior High, and has been teaching for ten years. She also serves on Gardena’s Culture Academy to improve the experiences of both staff and teachers.