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Social Study


By Cynthia Lee, Photos by Dave Lauridsen

Published Jan 1, 2010 9:14 AM

Bring in the Bruins

Shortly, other staff, faculty and students will come streaming out of Westwood, bringing with them arts education programs, tutoring and classroom assistance. Already, there are more than 20 UCLA volunteers signed up to help in the classrooms and on the playground. UCLA family medicine physicians and others are talking about plans for a health clinic and wellness center to serve the community.

Check out UCLA's Early Care and Education program, which provides a head-start for some of our youngest Bruins.

Upstairs in the school building, teacher Mario Perez '88, Ed.M. '91, Ed.D. '99 quietly promotes a sense of order and productivity in his classroom, where 20 children rotate in and out of learning activities at different stations throughout the room. "It's a little like running a three-ring circus," he says without breaking a sweat.

As in some private schools where teachers are able to teach at a child's pace rather than in structured grade levels, the community school is organized into multi-age dens. Perez is the lead teacher for Den 2 (Grades 2-3) and mentor to four other teachers in his den. He will stay with this same class for two years to forge a strong, supportive learning group.

Karen Hunter Quartz Ph.D. '94, Center X's director of research and communications, who helped guide the creation of the community school, explains. "The multi-age dens allow teachers to get to know their students' strengths and needs as learners. It's about the learning, not the teaching. You support the learning where children are developmentally."

The Language of Learning

As with most of the classes in Den 2, approximately 70 percent of Perez's instruction and interaction with the children is in Spanish, with the rest in English. Only one class in Den 2 is in English with support for Korean-language speakers. Under the school's balanced biliteracy program, students begin in Den 1 learning primarily in Spanish first — it is the first language for most. As they advance to other dens, the proportion will change until classes at the fourth- and fifth-grade levels (Den 3) will be instructed half in English and half in Spanish or Korean. By the time they reach high school, students will be completely biliterate or even triliterate — in English, Spanish and perhaps Korean.

For parents in this largely immigrant community, having their children speak English, Spanish and perhaps Korean has great appeal, especially if their children are to succeed in a multicultural world.


Time for jumprope during recess on the cheerfully colored UCLA-CS playground.

UCLA-CS, Perez contends, "is a beacon of hope, hope for student achievement, for the possibility of what can happen here, for what it can show other communities. This isn't just an education that can be afforded only to the affluent. This is an education that's possible for everyone in our society."

To make it work, teachers spend long hours discussing and planning out their lessons with colleagues. They develop math and science programs using learning projects that cross disciplines and span broader concepts, giving students a chance to problem-solve. They look into the daily lives of their students for cues to make learning interesting and relevant to them, like a math lesson that incorporates soccer.

"It's about bringing their culture into their learning and into their school experience," says teacher Stella Lee '98, who speaks all three languages but teaches and converses in Spanish for her Den 1 class.

"This is a dream job for me," adds Perez, who was a faculty adviser in the Teacher Education Program supervising student teachers before he decided to return to the classroom. "It's an opportunity to bring everything I believe about education together with my own passion for working with students in a nurturing place."

Growing up in a family that moved from Mexico to L.A. when he was little, Perez knows firsthand the disorientation of being dropped into a public school offering little support for a Spanish-speaking student. "I went from a person who loved school in Mexico to a person who got really sick every morning before going to school because I didn't like the environment. It was not a welcoming place."

That won't happen here, says Lazo, who was born in the Pico-Union area. "When I see children walk in the door, I see myself in some ways. When I see their parents, I see my parents and how they worked very, very hard to ensure that I received a quality education."