WALGROVE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL Principal Olivia Adams, with Venice resident and Friends of Walgrove member Michael “Rock” Stenger. Photo by Betsy Goldman

Venice has a fourth elementary school that is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Walgrove Avenue Elementary School serves Venice students who live east of Lincoln Boulevard, with Mar Vista boundaries of Bundy Drive/Centinela Avenue to the east, Navy Street/Airport Avenue to the north and an irregular border to the south winding its way from Centinela to Lincoln along and near Palms Boulevard.
Principal Olivia Adams is in her second year at the school and is happy to be there for more than one reason. Most of her career has been at schools in other parts of the city. Adams, who lives in Mar Vista with young children, says she was commuting 20 miles a day and wanted to be part of her community.
“When I was at another school I did my job and needed to come home,” she says. Now she can be at Walgrove Elementary for evening and weekend events and even bring the children with her.
“I do it because it gives me pleasure to be part of the community,” she says. “Yes, it’s my job and livelihood, but it’s so much more than that and I couldn’t keep doing a job with this level of intensity if I didn’t receive a lot of pleasure from it.”
Adams didn’t always plan on being a teacher. While studying for a degree in design, she realized that she didn’t have a competitive personality, which she believes is necessary for that line of work, and that she preferred to work collaboratively. Teaching seemed a better choice.  She also didn’t plan to be an administrator. It was her mentor, Michele Bennett at Westwood Charter, whom Adams said made a tremendous impact on her and inspired her to try to have that kind of impact on others.
The student body of approximately 360 students is a diverse population. There are neighborhood children who walk to school, children who are bused in from a closed 98th Street campus near Los Angeles International Airport and children whose parents drive them from other parts of the city. A higher than average number of students has special needs and there are five self-contained special education classrooms.
“That contributes to the amazing diversity of the school and it’s something that I would never change,” says Adams.
Initially Adams tried not to make too many changes. As a new administrator she felt it was important to learn about the culture in the school instead of trying to impose anything herself, but found that there are teachers and parents who share similar visions of what a school should be.
“It has to be that collaborative effort,” she says. “Teachers can’t do it without the help of parents. Parents can’t do it without the help of teachers. I can’t do it without the help of both of those groups – and they need my help.”
Some of the changes were already underway when Adams arrived at the school. The staff and parents had collaborated in looking at ways to approach education a bit differently. A Studio Lab was developed as an opportunity for students to strengthen and enhance their academic skills while interacting with materials.
A saying from Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher known for his epistemological (study of the origin, nature and limits of human knowledge) studies with children, that “children construct their intelligence and understanding of the world by interacting with materials, people and ideas” reinforces this concept, Adams said. The experience provides the possibility for students to experience all manner of hands-on learning. They may draw to learn about an object, they may paint, construct with three-dimensional materials, or conduct science experiments – using materials and mediums to help make their thought processes visible.
Last year, the school implemented an enrichment program that was conceived by differentiation teacher Lynn Webster. Each teacher shows a subject about which they are passionate. Topics have included cats, history of surfing, recorders (the instrument) and sea life. Upper class students are assigned as journalists to write about what they have learned.
It is these types of on campus resources that Adams feels sets the school apart from others. “I think what the staff and community needed was somebody who was willing to come in and say ‘Yes, I support that. Let’s try.’ If it doesn’t work we’ll go back and rethink it from our mistakes but we can’t just do things the exact same way we’ve been doing them and expect that we are going to achieve.”
She has a lot of ideas for the future but is not prepared to talk about them right now. “I feel strongly that it has to be a collaboration with the community,” she says. “For me to speak about what I would love in the future, it takes them out of the equation.”
One project that the principal is willing to promote right now is the greening of the Walgrove campus. A number of bungalows were recently removed leaving 25,000 square feet of asphalt. Parent and nearby resident, Emiko Kuwata, is spearheading a group of parents planning to turn the barren space into a native garden and an outdoor classroom. Part of the idea is to create a joint use agreement so the community will have access too. The goal has been challenging because funding is needed for it to become a reality.
Funding is always a challenge and this was recognized early on by neighbors and parents. Nearby Venice resident Michael “Rock” Stenger has been a volunteer at the school for 15 years. Originally there were five members of the Walgrove Booster Club and he remembers that they raised about $15,000. Last year they raised $160,000 and the club notes that every penny is needed. The booster club 2011-12 budget is $174,500.
Monies go towards differentiation and computer support provider, instructional aides, lunch and recess supervisors, the studio program, physical education program, arts program, Shakespeare Club program and many more important necessities for the students.
Information, friendsofwalgrove.com.