New murals at Playa Del Rey Elementary celebrate community engagement and academic success

By Gary Walker

The public service organization City Year mustered an army of 80 workers last week to paint several new murals on the Playa Del Rey
Elementary School campus
Photos by Maria Martin

For a school that was on the brink of closure seven years ago, Playa Del Rey Elementary School has become a phoenix rising from the ashes of budget cuts and declining enrollment. As resource specialist teacher Melanie Mack puts it, “We’ve redefined who we were, what we were and become a school for academic success.”

Those aren’t just words. The K-5 LAUSD school just north of Playa Vista has not only boosted its enrollment, but also established a much more engaged parent support system while picking up numerous state academic awards.

On Nov. 16, the Centinela Boulevard adjacent campus got a sprucing up befitting its new energy. More than 80 employees of City Year, a service organization that taps AmeriCorps graduates to assist LAUSD schools, built outdoor benches, spruced up the playground’s pavilion and painted outdoor murals depicting Dr. Seuss characters and inspiration quotes by the likes of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and former President Barack Obama.

As the murals took shape, Playa Del Rey Elementary Principal Valencia Blue looked on happily at students jumping, running and laughing in the playground while as teachers and parent volunteers readied themselves for their next class. Blue hopes the beautification measures will help the school put its best foot forward during Dec. 8 and Jan. 18 school tours for parents of prospective students.

“This school is a neighborhood community school that has been in this community for decades. I have teachers whose children have gone to this school and who attended this school as students. We took it upon ourselves to turn it around,” Blue said.

She credits an upbeat faculty and the determination of committed parents with saving the school when, back in 2009, LAUSD considered closing Playa Del Rey Elementary and other low-attended schools in the face of a nearly $400-million budget deficit.

“I saw this wonderful motivation and encouragement in our teachers’ eyes. They said, ‘We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep the school open,’” recalled Blue, who arrived at Playa Del Rey Elementary in 2010.

Under Blue’s guidance, the school began offering more rigorous scholastic programing, including a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program and coding classes. She also began actively recruiting families and making regular visits to local companies, neighborhood groups and the Del Rey Neighborhood Council.

Results came quickly. Playa Del Rey Elementary won California Department of Education Title I Academic Achievement Awards in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and in 2014 it was recognized as a California Distinguished School.

Past Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Eric DeSobe, a former LAUSD teacher, said the parental commitment to save the school impressed him.

“Families rallied together when budget cuts placed the school and cherished programs at risk, and they sought out grant opportunities through the Del Rey Neighborhood Council and other avenues to make sure students always received instruction and experience they deserved,” DeSobe said. “They also saw the school as a neighbor to the surrounding single-family homes and worked hard to make sure they created a physical space that was beautiful and inviting.”

Blue recognizes there is constant competition for students from Playa Vista Elementary School and the neighboring Culver City Unified School District, but she’s confident the school’s resurrection will be long-lasting.

“With all of the new development and new charters around us, we’re still thriving,” she said.