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Social Study

By Cynthia Lee, Photos by Dave Lauridsen

Published Jan 1, 2010 9:14 AM

Opportunity has a new address: the UCLA Community School, operated by the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and one of 10 pilot schools created by the Los Angeles Unified School District. This unique experiment in K-12 education is bringing top-quality, even extraordinary, education to kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

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It's a neighborhood like many others in the elaborate patchwork quilt that is Los Angeles. In this particular "patch," Spanish, and sometimes Korean, are what you're likely to hear in the supermarkets and on the sidewalks where mothers push strollers in front of the site of the former Ambassador Hotel.

Although many in this neighborhood are still unaware of it, a cross-town presence has recently settled into a new, brightly painted, two-story building on a site that is known in the vernacular of the Los Angeles Unified School District as Central Los Angeles Learning Center No. 1.

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The former Ambassador Hotel reborn as the front of UCLA-CS.

Although it's not yet common knowledge to many residents, this is where UCLA, in partnership with the LAUSD and community groups, has chosen to make a stand against conditions that have held back generations of children raised here from achieving educational and economic success.

The UCLA Community School (UCLA-CS), one of two new K-5 pilot schools that opened on this site on Sept. 9 with about 350 children, is where committed LAUSD teachers and university experts, primarily from the university's highly ranked Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, will use the transformative power of education to lift the prospects of these children and, with it, the hopes of this entire neighborhood for a better life.

Next year, UCLA-CS, the first LAUSD school with which UCLA is a formal partner, will grow to a K-12 school, enabling students here to complete their entire primary and secondary education in one school.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for both UCLA and LAUSD to bring big resources, knowledge and energy to the table to provide excellent education to some children in communities that need it the most," says GSE&IS Dean Aimee Dorr.

At a recent celebration where mariachi musicians played and civic leaders lined up on the dais to recall the years-long battle by the school district and community activists to acquire the site over the likes of Donald Trump and Wal-Mart, Chancellor Gene Block told residents that UCLA has a responsibility as a public university to share its enormous expertise with them.

"We want to see more students from this community qualifying for admission to UCLA after high school," he said, as residents cheered. "We're looking to enroll engineers, doctors, teachers — and perhaps a quarterback and center if we can find them," he noted, to gleeful laughter from the crowd. "They can begin their formal education right here. We want to make certain that students that graduate here are UC-eligible — and eligible for the very best colleges in this nation."

Culture and Curricula

UCLA-CS takes the form of a pilot school, currently the only pilot school in the district that's connected to a university. It enjoys the same autonomy as charter schools to design curricula, control its own budget, make decisions on staffing and professional development, to put the power in the classroom in the hands of teachers and local administrators. But unlike charters, all the teachers of a pilot school are full-fledged members of UTLA, the teachers' union.

Get an inside glimpse at the UCLA Community School.

Because of its unique status as a pilot school, all 15 of the UCLA-CS teachers have been handpicked for their teaching skills, their fluency in two or even three languages — English and Spanish or Korean — and, most of all, their belief that the children in this community, and others like it, have a fundamental right to a high-quality education, one that embraces their home cultures. Most of them have honed their teaching skills at UCLA's teaching resource Center X, where they obtained master's degrees and teaching credentials in its Teacher Education Program.

"The fact that we were able to handpick these teachers, whose thinking is very much in line with the school's vision, is something that's very unique," says Georgia Ann Lazo Ed.M. '04, principal and an alumna of UCLA's Principal Leadership Institute, also a Center X program. "The common thread connecting these teachers is that they all have a very strong vision of social justice, and they know how to deliver culturally relevant and responsive instruction."

And the kids immediately respond to that passion. Although the UCLA-CS had been in session for just a few months, it has already started to make a difference for 9-year-old Alesa Menor, says her mother, Maria Relosa. "This school is opening big doors for our kids. And it's really exciting to see," she said. "At her old school, she used to be a little shy, a little timid. But the other day she surprised me — she said she's going to run for [school] president! She's not afraid anymore."

Anything is Possible

The lesson that these children can do anything — even choreograph dance moves — was reinforced recently in the school's brightly painted multipurpose room where 20 students met dancers from the urban Latin dance group, Contra-Tiempo, and Meryl Friedman, who leads UCLA Live's effort to bring the performing arts to L.A. public schools through the Design for Sharing program.

It was the first of 15 workshops the students would have with these dancers and arts educators. What starts out as a game evolves into exercises in creative writing, voice and movement, blended "with the notion of working together as a team," explains Friedman, whose outreach activities are supported by donations and grants.

The week before, students took a field trip to UCLA where many got their first glimpse of the campus to which their school is linked. Sitting in the audience at Royce Hall with 1,400 other LAUSD students, they saw dynamic dance performances by Contra-Tiempo, which includes graduates from UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures.

"That was so exciting," says Yun Junz Park, a parent who volunteered to accompany her children and their classmates to Westwood. "Now the kids really want to learn to do the salsa. All day, their bodies were like elastic bands!"

But today, 20 kids stand shyly in a circle as Contra-Tiempo dancer and workshop leader Cesar Garfiaz asks them to say their name "in a nice, loud voice" and then do a movement "nice and loud with your body." As each child says her or his name and adds a movement, the group memorizes the gestures, which grow from timid shoulder shrugs to bold pirouettes and wild lunges. When every child has added a movement, the children repeat the sequence of movements, leaving out the names, until all 20 are performing what is now an improvisational dance in sync. Hands and legs flying, they swoop, spin, shrug and laugh to a lively salsa beat that Garfiaz has added.

"Awesome!" he proclaims. "You just created a dance! How was that, guys?" Smiling, the children look pleased — and a bit awed — at what they have done.

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.

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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."