Throughout his life, Sidney Thompson has seen students turn to gang violence because they were not given the tools to succeed by their educators.
Thompson now has two goals: to recruit teachers to a UCLA graduate program specializing in underserved youth and to rewrite the way algebra is taught in schools – both to give all students a fair shot at academic success.
Thompson, 83, remembers his experiences growing up as he goes about his daily work volunteering for the UCLA Principal Leadership Institute, trying to recruit teachers from urban schools to train as administrators and building a team of teachers to change the way algebra is taught in schools.
The UCLA Principal Leadership Institute is a master’s degree program in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies that trains primary education teachers to become administrators in underserved urban schools.
Because he and others were pushed aside while growing up, Thompson has dedicated himself, for more than four decades, to teaching local administrators that every student is valuable.
Belmont High School in Los Angeles in the 1940s, Thompson felt that he and
other students weren’t getting the support they needed, especially
since teachers and adults did not expect them to succeed. Though he was high-achieving, his counselor encouraged him to go straight to
work instead of the United States Naval Academy, which he had his heart
set on and was planning on attending.
“The counselor told me, ‘Why go to the academy? Get a job to get money now.’ My dad almost had a fit,” Thompson said. “Those are the kinds of thoughts and thinking people had then. You had to overcome that and maintain what you thought was best for you.”
He said that he still studied hard and thinks that a major blockade today for students’ getting to college is algebra and that the students are discouraged from taking advanced classes if they do not immediately show natural talent.
“Students had never even been given the opportunity (to excel) because they were afraid of (algebra) and the counselors were going along with it,” Thompson said. “We’re talking about educating kids but we’re going to allow them to avoid a subject because it’s tough.”
Thompson said that when he goes out on recruiting trips for the Principal Leadership Institute around Los Angeles, he takes time to reach out to math teachers to build a team that will draft a proposal to overwrite the system. Though Thompson will not draft a proposal himself, he has started searching for educators to join him as he rethinks the approach to mathematics in schools.
“I think algebra is a hurdle and a fence to college admissions and some people are afraid of it. … (Schools) say you either get it or you don’t, which is not correct in my mind,” Thompson said.
Thompson said the divide schools place between students who excel in math and those who do not directly relates to the students who will be successful in the future and those who will be forced into lesser paying jobs or onto the streets.
Recruiting allows him to observe math teachers and see the cracks in the school system, Thompson said, and as a recruiter of teachers to the Principal Leadership Institute, he advocates for the program and its role in shaping underserved students‘ futures.
“We find teachers who are dedicated to making a difference in urban schools,” said Nancy Parachini, director of the Principal Leadership Institute and member of the UCLA Principals’ Center. “Leading for justice doesn’t mean that the (administrator) is the end-all authority; it means creating equity and access for all.”
Though Thompson retired as a paid mentor from the program in 2012, he has vowed to work as long as his legs allow him to walk, still making frequent recruitment trips to various schools in both the Compton and Los Angeles Unified School Districts. He said he always remembers he is working to better the lives of the students who aren’t given a fair chance to prove themselves.
“Kids who came out of the projects become student body presidents (in high school) and go on to places like (UCLA),” Thompson said. “Despite all their hardships, somebody believed in them and showed them the way and they were receptive.”
Before his career at UCLA, Thompson worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District for 41 years. He said his first teaching experiences as a math teacher at Pacoima Middle School in the San Fernando Valley brought back his memories as a youth in the city school system.
Thompson later became the first black superintendent for the district in 1992. He then came to the UCLA Center X, which houses the Principal Leadership Institute, in 2000.
“Right when I started (in LAUSD) I saw the same kinds of problems my schools had,” Thompson said. “The bottom of the social totem pole in this country are minorities who know the street, don’t see options and don’t see another way to go.”
Students would first come into his math class and assume the roles that they thought they needed to fill – either being exceptional at math or giving up, Thompson said. But he advanced the middle school class as a whole to the point that it was taking on high school-level math before the end of the year.
As a mentor for the Principal Leadership Institute, Thompson reminded his students of their roles as educators, said Soraya Drew, a teacher who went through the Principal Leadership Institute in 2010.
Drew said Thompson wouldn’t just mentor the teachers about the importance of addressing the needs of all students in their future schools.
“We had to pick different focus groups and express how, at a school, we can meet (the needs of) everyone in that group,” Drew said.
Thompson said he is positive about the future of the city’s education system if students are not left behind in school at a young age.
“We too often act as if there is no hope – that the younger people coming up just don’t care. But that’s not true,” Thompson said. “There is an incredible amount of talent out there and if we leave that talent alone and don’t dictate it, listen to them and encourage them to be far-thinking, where we weren’t successful before, they will be.”