Classrooms innovate to compete in the ever-evolving Westside education marketplace

By Gary Walker

Students work on a “maker project” at The Incubator School in Westchester. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Students work on a “maker project” at The
Incubator School in Westchester. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

The days of a school offering just the basics — reading, writing and arithmetic — seem to be going the way of the abacus.

Attracting students has become more of a free-market exercise, with competition for enrollment from charter and private schools prompting many traditional public schools to offer specialized curriculums that stand out in the education marketplace.

This student-as-consumer dynamic is becoming especially prominent among Westside schools, where charter school attendance is high.

There are more than 4,000 students enrolled at nine LAUSD charter schools in the 90045 (Westchester), 90291 (Venice) and 90066 (Mar Vista / Del Rey) zip codes, according to school district records.

As charters continue to gain traction, LAUSD has responded with hybrid public/charter models known as pilot schools, magnet schools that specialize in a particular area of study, and language immersion programs in which students divide their time between speaking English and a second language. Even traditional neighborhood schools are beginning to emphasize certain disciplines.

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westside schools, acknowledged that the face of education is changing and sees his district as a testing ground for new educational approaches.

“I’m supportive of any district reform or any type of mode that will keep folks in LAUSD,” said Zimmer, who represents schools in Westchester, Venice, Mar Vista and Del Rey. “I’m very supportive of teacher-led models, including pilot schools.”

Annette Gonzalez, the chief academic officer for the nonprofit charter school group Green Dot Public Schools, said she does not view the new educational models as rivals.

“We don’t see ourselves as competing with other schools. I think what we offer is choice and opportunity. Now, instead of the only choice being the traditional school, parents have the option to choose the educational setting that will best serve their child,” Gonzalez said.

“Every school seems to have different programs that are attracting families, whether they are geared towards the arts or science or pilot schools. To have so many opportunities, we think this is an exciting time,” she said.

School choice doesn’t always go smoothly, however. With more and more charters leasing empty classrooms on traditional LAUSD campuses — a practice referred to as co-location — tensions and rivalries sometimes mount, as was the case with the co-location of Citizens of the World Charter School at Stoner Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista.

“Choice sometimes is in direct conflict with dedication of resources to build strong neighborhood schools, so you have to make sure that you don’t so strongly distort your worldview that you lose sight of that,” Zimmer said. “The idea that choice has risen to the same level of protection as quality or access [to education] is a misadjustment to an antiquated system of no choice.”

But to some degree, Westside public schools are also turning the school choice dynamic into an asset.

The Incubator School

Sujata Bhatt loved being a teacher, but she longed to teach at a school that would allow her to experiment with new and creative learning techniques.

“The world is changing, and it’s time to take some risks and explore new possibilities,” Bhatt said during a local education event two years ago.

It was around that time that Bhatt, a former Grand View Boulevard Elementary School teacher, got her wish. In March 2013, LAUSD officials approved her petition to create a pilot school that would teach middle school students the basics of launching their own businesses.

The Incubator School, located within the Westchester Enriched Science Magnet campus (formerly Westchester High School), began its second academic year in August.

The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade school now counts 116 students — double its enrollment last year.

“We’ll definitely need more classrooms next year. We hope to continue to expand,” Bhatt said.

Pilot schools offer teachers and administrators the same freedoms as charter schools in terms of school governance, hiring and curriculum — some charter opponents would call it lack of accountability — but remain under direct LAUSD control.

They tend to zero in on a particular theme, as is the case with The Incubator School’s focus on creating young entrepreneurs.

Bhatt said the school’s emphasis on molding innovators and business leaders matches well with the continuing migration of high-tech companies to the Westside communities, especially Playa Vista and Venice.

The Incubator School had initially been slated to open at Venice High School but met with vehement protests by a group of parents and teachers. LAUSD instead found classrooms for Bhatt at the then-newly opened Playa Vista Elementary School before the move to Westchester last year. Bhatt hopes to someday move her school closer to Venice’s techie crowd.

“Our goal would be to be near startups because we are an entrepreneurial school. Our goal has always been to be in the Venice-Mar Vista area,” she said.

John Fischer, a Mar Vista resident who serves on The Incubator School’s governance committee, said the pilot school was a good fit for his seventh-grade son after an admittedly rough fifth-grade year at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School.

“The concept of a school that embraces technology as well as motivating students to be self-starters attracted me,” Fischer said. “Being at The Incubator School has helped him regain the love of learning again.”

Bhatt believes our rapidly changing economy requires educators to embrace new ways of learning.

“The most important thing for us is instilling the ability to self-educate, because the world is changing so rapidly and it is critical to teach students how to be self-starters,” she said.

Open Magnet Charter School

L.A. Unified’s first magnet campus, Open Magnet Charter School in Westchester is one of only a few LAUSD schools that is still affiliated with the district but has autonomy over its instructional methods.

“A Community of Respect” is the K-5 school’s motto, and Open Magnet coordinator Peggy Lew frequently mentioned it during a recent visit.

“That community of respect weaves all throughout our school, including our students, teachers, administrators and support staff,” said Lew, a 12-year veteran of the campus.

While Lew pointed to the usual ingredients for success — parental involvement, a safe learning environment — she says what makes Open Magnet unique is its innovative approach to teaching.

Open Magnet teachers write their own curriculum and teach in pairs within large, double-sized classrooms that allow students to move freely from one room to another throughout the class period. They teach in two-grade “clusters” — kindergarten and first, second and third, and fourth with fifth.

“[The teachers] bring in their own passion and their own interests to create a theme together, and then you have a team environment where you not only have your ideas but your partner’s as well,” said Lew. “It’s like a teacher’s nirvana.”

Students don’t always work at their desks; they can often be found reading in pairs or in groups on a rug, with one of the teachers or aides roving from room to room to assist students working on school projects.

This teaching flexibility is part of the school’s charter, which Lew said allows Open Magnet to keep its unorthodox and innovative instructional philosophy in place.

Denise Benjamin and Jessica Stewart teach 48 third- and fourth-graders, collaborating daily on instruction.

“It’s a continuous bouncing of ideas off each other throughout the day,” said Stewart, a former LAUSD teacher now in her second year at Open Magnet.

But with that freedom also comes responsibility.

“Kids who can’t handle that freedom have assigned seats. But for the kids who have been here since kindergarten, they know this is how school is here,” said Benjamin, who has taught at Open Magnet for 23 years. “I’ve found that when you respect them and teach them to respect you and others, that goes a lot farther than when you’re in lockstep with them all the time. They can really flourish and grow and have these skills that you need in the 21st century, like communication and independence. But you have to give them the freedom to experience these things because it’s not innate.”

Stewart says coming from a more regimented style of teaching to the more flexible method at Open Magnet has been a big transition.

“I find the freedom to be much more natural than being in a classroom where everyone is sitting at a desk all day long. Here the kids have different options of where they want to sit and it’s much more warm and comfortable. There’s this constant ebb and flow. It’s like the classroom itself is a living, breathing thing,” Stewart said.

Open Magnet Charter School students recently held an “object parade” in which students designed objects of different shapes and sizes that were connected to stage performances about the California Gold Rush. They are now planning to build a plan for a “city of the future,” complete with a municipal government structure, currency and elections.

Teri Haywood, a member of the school’s governing council, has a daughter who graduated from Open Magnet last year and another in the fifth grade.

“It was an extraordinary experience all around, not just academically but what they do here socially,” she said. “I also love the multi-age classrooms that expose my kids to what I feel are accelerated learning principles.”

Haywood’s older daughter has transitioned well to her middle school, the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.

“It’s kind of hard for you to measure how they’ll do in a traditional environment coming from a school like this, but she’s getting straight As,” Haywood said.

Playa Vista Elementary School

Talk about the right place at the right time. Opened in 2012 to serve an increasingly tech-centric community, Playa Vista Elementary School is structured as a traditional neighborhood public school but offers students a specialized Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum.

“The role of education is shifting. The jobs of the 21st century are going to require critical thinking and problem solving,” Principal Rebecca Johnson said. “We’re trying to prepare our students for those jobs, and we really don’t know what they will look like.”

Special partnerships with Loyola Marymount University’s school of education and its college of science and engineering influence the curriculum and bring student teachers to the campus to lead hands-on engineering projects. Last week students worked in groups to design gravel-based water filtration systems that demonstrated the natural groundwater absorption process of the nearby Ballona Wetlands.

The school also takes advantage of its proximity to nature to “get the kids out of the classroom and into the community,” Johnson said. Students, parents and school staff recently worked with the nonprofit Friends of the Ballona Wetlands to remove invasive plants from the state preserve.

“Science is integrated into lesson plans and students engage in hands-on learning through our state-of-the-art science lab and outdoor classroom at the adjacent Discovery Park,” said Julie Hoang, past president of the Friends of Playa Vista School fundraising group.

“My son’s first-grade class recently studied the moon phases. They charted how shadows are created at different times of the day by outlining their shadows on the sidewalk in chalk. They studied vocabulary words related to the moon phases, and at night journaled observations of the moon including its position in the sky,” said Hoang, a Playa Vista resident. “My son was so engaged in this unit because of the integration of all subjects into this science lesson. He couldn’t wait for it to get dark so he could journal his observations.”

Dual Language Immersion

Dual language immersion programs — in which students work across subjects to attain fluency in English and a second language — have proven a popular specialized instruction program for LAUSD, particularly among Westside families.

The Mandarin Chinese immersion program at Broadway Elementary School in Venice and the Spanish immersion program at Grandview Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista are among the district’s most successful language immersion initiatives.

Zimmer has talked about creating what he calls a “language pipeline” in these schools — a consistent K-12 progression that both continues and builds on the language immersion curriculum as students make their way toward high school graduation.

“We have the opportunity to capitalize on the diversity of this community and make the commitment, as a school community — as a Los Angeles community — to say your child can come through our Venice system and be multilingual and multicultural at a level that, upon graduation from Venice High School, they would have the choice to study wherever they wanted,” Zimmer said.

Students seeking to continue through the language pipeline can transition from Grand View or Broadway — which also offers a Spanish immersion program that’s now in its second year — to Mark Twain Middle School, the second leg of the proposed pipeline. Mark Twain’s world languages magnet already includes programs in French, Korean, Spanish and Mandarin, and LAUSD officials are planning to move Broadway’s Mandarin immersion program to the Mark Twain campus next school year.

Mark Twain Principal Rex Patton expects a greater influx of Spanish immersion students from Grandview in the fall to bolster his middle school’s fledgling Spanish immersion program.

“There have been smaller classes in the past, but this year is supposed to be some of the biggest classes yet — 30 or 40 students,” Patton said. “I think we should get the majority of those students.”

For now the pipeline ends at Mark Twain, however, as no language immersion programs are in place at Venice High School. Patton said LAUSD should consider hiring a director of language immersion programs to oversee the kind of pipeline Zimmer envisions.

“It seems like we’re trying to do all of these things but we don’t have the foundation in place to do them,” Patton said.

Grand View Principal Alfredo Ortiz, head of LAUSD’s longest-running Spanish immersion initiative, also supports Zimmer’s pipeline idea.

“Ultimately we want to create children who are bilingual and who can compete in the 21st century,” Ortiz said. “It seems that we have done this in a haphazard way in the past. Establishing a true language pipeline would assure our students a better quality of life, and we need the whole community to rally around these programs,” Ortiz added.

They already have a fan in Sarah Auerswald, founder of the Mar Vista Mom website and mother of two boys who attend ed Grand View.

“The dual language program exposed them to a whole different world than they would have ever seen,” she said of her sons. “Speaking another language is not just a courtesy. In this day and age, it is critical.”

Broadway Principal Susan Wang has been in charge of the popular Mandarin Chinese program for five years.

“I think [interest in the program] has to do with China having a powerful place in the world, a growing place,” Wang said. “And there’s a lot of what I call ‘heritage’ people in Los Angeles, who may have been here for several generations without being able to speak the language. But now they’re realizing they want their children to be able to speak the language and that it will give their children more choices.”