Change agent: Jennifer (Coughlin) Epps ’94

Jennifer (Coughlin) Epps ’94
Jenn Epps ’94, assistant chief achievement officer and founding teacher at Synergy Academies, is at the forefront of efforts to transform K–12 education in South Los Angeles.

Jenn Epps went looking for a new job. She ended up finding her calling.

Epps was working as a marketing manager for a California telecommunications company when, after receiving one too many customer complaints about “lines going through the Lifetime channel,” she asked herself, “Is this really what I want to do with my life?”

She enrolled in a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) program that offered the chance to begin teaching while she worked on getting credentialed. “I didn’t know if I’d be any good at teaching, but it sounded like something ‘more,’” Epps said.

Despite her inexperience, she was placed in a school in Watts, a neighborhood long plaguedby gang violence and poverty. “From that very first class of third-graders I had—who needed so much and were so far behind, but whom I knew I could do something for—I just had an instant love for the job,” she explained.

Not all of her fellow teachers shared her passion, she noticed. “I realized if we all weren’t working [equally] hard, then we weren’t going to change these kids’ lives.”

When she was invited to become a founding teacher of Synergy Charter Academy, in 2004, she accepted not because she was an advocate for charter schools, but because she saw in the other teachers—all former LAUSD educators—the same passion she had for changing lives.

“It was an unbelievable feeling being in a group of people who had the same ideas about what these kids needed, and what we needed to do to make sure they had better options in life,” Epps said.

According to Epps, Synergy’s founders believe that every student is capable of academic success, regardless of the socioeconomic or cultural barriers that might seemingly stand in the way. They opened their school in an area of South Los Angeles where standardized test scores were among the worst in the state. Within four years, Synergy’s students were testing near the top 10th percentile statewide.

One major reason for that success was Epps, who in 2007 was named California Charter School Teacher of the Year. In 2008, she became the school’s principal, and this past spring her school was named the Best Urban Elementary School in America by the National Center for Urban School Transformation.

In July, Epps was appointed assistant chief achievement officer for Synergy Academies, which now serves over 1,300 students in grades K–12 in three schools. (She’ll take over as chief in January.) Epps oversees each school’s principal, providing guidance on curriculum design and classroom management. Synergy’s schools, which focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), are co-located with traditional LAUSD schools in underserved areas of Los Angeles—a unique arrangement that allows educators from all of the schools to collaborate on best practices to maximize student success.

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