Jennifer Epps inspires inner-city students and teachers in Los Angeles to excel

Epps, the principal of Synergy Charter Academy in Los Angeles, has turned it into the 'best urban elementary school in the US.'

Stephanie Diani/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Jennifer Epps, principal of Synergy Charter Academy in Los Angeles, talks to a student about his homework on the playground.

As she takes a visiting journalist for a tour of the Quincy Jones Elementary School, Jennifer Epps is interrupted by a beaming fifth-grader, Janiyah Williams.

"Just to let you know, she is the best principal ever...," says Janiyah with a Cheshire Cat grin, detaching herself briefly from a gaggle of classmates who are hurrying off to recess.

"Why is that?" asks the journalist.

"She talks very well and knows everyone's name and has us do fun activities with the entire school...."

Out of the mouth of babes.

Although academics and educational pedagogues might come up with a more complex answer, it's just this kind of utter simplicity that is behind the phenomenal success of Jennifer Epps, the founding teacher, and now principal, of Synergy Charter Academy.

SCA shares this elementary school campus with Quincy Jones School but operates with its own funding and budget. Ms. Epps helped lead SCA to a national blue ribbon in 2010 – the highest honor a school can receive in the United States – from the US Department of Education. SCA also has been named the "best urban elementary school in the US" by the National Center for Urban School Transformation, and is the No. 1 school in California as ranked by the University of Southern California.

Epps keeps her desk at the back of the school's high-tech computer lab, easily accessible to parents and students. The big wooden counter in the school's administrative office that separates visitors from office desks is not for her, she says.

"I don't want to be on the other side of some barrier," Epps says. "For me, a key ingredient in educational success is availability and transparency – not making decisions from some ivory tower office somewhere."

Epps was the first choice of SCA cofounder Meg Palisoc, a former University of Southern California administrator who noticed that students who came from inner-city public schools were often not as academically prepared for college as their peers. When SCA opened in 2004, Ms. Palisoc recruited Epps to teach second and third grades. In 2007, Epps was named California's charter school teacher of the year. Since 2009 she has served as director/principal of SCA.

Her passion is to prove that inner-city children can outperform students from anywhere, despite the hurdles of poverty and claims of cultural inferiority.

Epps organizes, teaches, solves problems, and comes up with fresh ideas for the 14-or-so teachers here of Grades K through 5. "What Mrs. Epps has achieved is phenomenal because typically only 20 to 30 percent of students in this area score proficient or advanced in English language arts or math," Palisoc says. "In Mrs. Epps's class alone, 90 to 95 percent of all her students score proficient or advanced in all these areas."

People looking for Epps's philosophy in writing will be disappointed, although they may notice she uses the words "choice" and "choose" a lot. Those who have seen her at work say her success comes simply from the way she is.

"I have no time for teachers or people who want to make excuses for why their students aren't achieving," she says. "Yes, inner-city students have many challenges that we as educators have no control over – primary language, family income level, parental involvement, etc.

"However, if you choose to work with these students, you are taking on the challenges that come with it. You may have to work harder and longer to get success, but you are the adult, and you chose to work in the inner city.

"These kids did not choose to live here, or any of the other circumstances they find themselves in. I believe in my kids, and I believe in my teachers. I expect teachers to teach, students to learn, and parents to help out – all to the best of their ability."

Those high expectations have achieved results. "My daughter was not interested in reading," says parent Maria Amador in a YouTube video chronicling the choice of Epps as charter school teacher of the year. "And with Mrs. Epps she became more and more interested, up to the point where at the end of the year she was reading 190 words a minute."

Epps is a big believer in the ideas of Jaime Escalante, the Bolivian math teacher made famous by the 1982 popular movie "Stand and Deliver." He broke through long-entrenched attitudes that Hispanics couldn't understand advanced concepts such as high-level calculus.

All 18 of Mr. Escalante's students at a predominantly Hispanic inner-city high school previously known more for gangs than good grades passed the Advanced Placement calculus test, a grueling three-hour exam for college-bound students. Escalante's students passed with such flying colors that the Educational Testing Service, which administered the exam, said the results suggested that "copying occurred."

A cloud of suspicion hung over the school for six months until the class members retook the test under armed guard: All passed, some with perfect scores.

The episode speaks to Epps about the importance of expectation. Ninety-seven percent of Epps's students are also Hispanic. "Kids in my classroom can learn just as much as the kids in Beverly Hills. There shouldn't be an achievement gap," she says.

What makes Epps's story so inspiring is that she feels even an average teacher has the ability to become a great teacher, Palisoc says.

"I was very happy that Mrs. Epps was chosen teacher of the year because you see all these awards given to all these teachers who go out and do [things such as] Shakespeare in the Park and travel to dozens of countries and see the president with their kids," Palisoc says. "But what I think ... is great about Mrs. Epps is that she knows that your normal, everyday teacher can do extraordinary things in the classroom."

Escalante built a reputation as being not only a great teacher but a captivating and creative one as well. Epps has done the same – using aids such as water balloons to keep learning fun.

"High-performance schools are usually thought of by many as dull, boring places where students cram themselves full of memorized facts," Epps says. She says she's dedicated to the proposition that high achievers can be very well-rounded and vibrant people – not just the stereotype of someone with thick glasses and a calculator in his breast pocket.

Epps is not eager to talk about her success. She is more apt to point to her colleagues.

"I think I have surrounded myself by the very, very best," she says. "I am a big believer in hiring attitudes more than résumés. If you want to be a good teacher, and you believe that these kids can succeed..., then we can help you become a great teacher."

Another thing that is absolutely key for Epps is the ability to work with others.

"You don't have to be the best of friends," she says, "but ... the ability to have give and take with others and be able to resolve different points of view is huge. Kids can sense when the adults around them are not on the same page."

Epps decided to leave a career as a marketing manager for a telecommunications firm when, after receiving one too many customer complaints, she asked herself, "Is this really what I want to do with my life?" Today her attitude toward work and life might be summed up as "gratitude."

"I am very thankful for everything I have in my life and don't spend a lot of time worrying about what I do not have.

"I also believe that the vast majority of people are essentially good. Some people need someone else to point out the good in them in order for them to see it themselves.... They may need to be reminded of it at the end of a rough day.

"Positivity – as well as negativity – is contagious. I would rather be surrounded by positivity."

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