“The school is run democratically. Students are teachers, and teachers are students, and there’s a lot that we learn from one another. That approach, one of humility, allows us to grow, reflect and innovate. We leave the ego at the door and stay open to new ideas.”
Paul Hirsch, Principal of STEM Academy of Hollywood, and three of his best friends who are teachers there — Esther Dabagyan, Jason Doerr, and Tamara Cogan — started the school in 2009. Paul became Principal in the 2012 – 2013 school year, leading the turnaround in the graduation rate from the early years of just over 50% to now more than 90%.
“I grew up here in Los Angeles and went to LAUSD schools. My Dad went to LAUSD schools. My grandfather graduated from LAUSD — from LA High back in 1929. So we’ve been here a long time. I think I was a little hyperactive when I was younger. It was hard to focus. I had a tutor who changed my life. He sat me down, made me focus, and taught me how to write a 5-paragraph essay. It really just taught me how to think; how to organize my thoughts. I’m forever indebted to him. It’s part of why I became an educator: I just want to be able to do that for other kids.
We are a STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) Pilot school. It’s a democratically run school with distributive leadership. The Pilot school started with myself and a team of teachers including Esther Dabagyan, Jason Doerr, and Tamara Cogan. We came together and applied for this autonomy and really started our own school. I think that’s one of my biggest accomplishments. And it’s not mine. It’s something I share with my three best friends, our stakeholders and the community.
Before YPI came, our class sizes were in the 40s. We had very limited access to computers. We had one counselor for 450 kids. We were just incredibly under resourced. We didn’t have what the kids deserved. And it was hard to be the leader and look kids in the eye and say, ‘We’re going to help you. We’re going to take care of you,’ and then look back at what little we had to support them. It was tough. And that’s why when YPI came in and brought the resources that we enjoy now, it helped me personally, emotionally. It was really hard to want to help and not be able to.
When I first met Dixon Slingerland [President & CEO, YPI] and Iris Zuñiga [Executive Vice President, YPI] they organized a dinner right across the street at our local Italian restaurant and brought all of us local principals together. Someone needed to do that and it was good that they did. They asked me, ‘What’s going on in your school?’ And I said, ‘It’s hard to be a STEM school without any computers.’ And then two days later, a van rolls up and they’re putting computers into our College Center. Those computers still sit right here in our College Center. They’re the ones the kids use to fill out their applications for colleges.
That was my intro to YPI. After that, it became clear that they would be incredible partners. Together we came up with a lot of innovative ways to support students including: ACT and SAT prep strategies, tutoring, targeted interventions; and creating pipelines between elementary, middle school and high school. They’re excellent collaborators and thought partners and they have access to the resources schools need to build capacity.
In the past four years, the school has really turned around. When the campus first opened up, there were fights every day. The graduation rate was in the 50s. There was a lot of alcohol and drug use. We were combing through our budgets looking for funding for security guards.
Today, the money we were spending on security guards is being used for lab equipment. We’re purchasing spectrophotometers and gel-electrophoresis. Our medical students are looking at DNA in the same way that modern laboratories do with an electrical current shot through gel in a way that stretches apart DNA for observation.
While the school was being built, a survey was conducted in the neighborhood around what kind of school the families wanted. Some wanted an arts school; others wanted a business school. But overwhelmingly, families were asking for a STEM school. We were created out of demand from the neighborhood.
In the first few years after opening, we studied the report cards, and saw an overwhelming number of “Ds” and “Fs.” But we also saw another pattern: There were a significant number of “Bs” and “As” in our medical and engineering classes. The kids really liked those classes and did well in them. We started adding more medical and engineering classes and then we vertically aligned them, so students would take an intro class in 9th grade and build those skills in their 10th, 11th and 12th grades.
Almost immediately, the behavior problems started to decrease and academic achievement in those classes increased. But the kids were still struggling in our core classes, so we tied Math skills and English skills to those medical classes and engineering classes, and developed multidisciplinary projects. We leveraged engagement to get academic achievement. With every move — every one of those moves — the behavior issues fell away, the violence, the drug abuse, the suspensions. We haven’t had a fight in four years. No suspensions. No drug use on campus. What we saw first hand is that when students are engaged, their potential is unlocked.
YPI helped us with teacher trainings; they helped us with student support. They helped us believe in ourselves and together, we built the capacity to deliver the education all students deserve. I think it’s YPI’s “all hands on deck” approach that made this possible.
At the beginning, we couldn’t even get kids to apply to colleges. This year, 10% of our senior class is going to UCLA! Another 40 kids are off to UCs and every single senior created a post secondary plan. The promise is being kept.
The school is run democratically. Students are teachers, and teachers are students, and there’s a lot that we learn from one another. That approach, one of humility, allows us to grow, reflect and innovative. We leave the ego at the door and stay open to new ideas.
I always tell the STEM freshmen: You are surrounded by people who care about you. You’re surrounded by opportunity and support. There are so many resources here for you. Let’s take it one step at a time.”