Mutual Benefits: The Community Schools Initiative in Los Angeles

The EvoLLLution | Mutual Benefits: The Community Schools Initiative in Los Angeles
By forming a collaborative partnership with the local school board, universities can develop K-12 community schools that support institutional goals of service learning and research while supporting the educational infrastructure of the local community.

Colleges and universities across the United States—especially public institutions with a mandate to provide local support and access—typically struggle to find ways to form strong, collaborative and mutually beneficial partnerships with their communities. However, at UCLA, they have developed a partnership with their local school district to launch sponsored community schools that expand access to high-quality K-12 public education while also providing a fertile space for research, service learning opportunities and more. In this interview, Karen Quartz reflects on what it took to get the community schools concept off the ground and shares her insights into how the partnership benefits both the community and the university.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did UCLA decide to begin its collaboration with the LA Unified School District (LAUSD)?

Karen Quartz (KQ): UCLA has collaborated with LAUSD for many years and in many ways to advance public K-12 education throughout Southern California. In fact, more than a century ago, Ernest Moore was the Superintendent of Schools in Los Angeles and then co-founded the state’s normal school to prepare teachers. In 1919, this teacher preparation school became UCLA, the Southern Branch of the University of California. The UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSE&IS) is now housed in Moore Hall and continues to prepare and advance the learning of practicing teachers in collaboration with LAUSD.

The collaboration to create a new school together began in 2006. At that time, new school development policies, from charter school laws to local autonomy initiatives, were intersecting with a larger civic responsibility movement in higher education to produce a new generation of university-partnered K-12 schools. Unlike the laboratory schools of previous generations, these public schools were being designed to disrupt persistent patterns of inequity and prepare low-income students of color to flourish in college.

For the University of California, the school provides a pipeline of students who are traditionally underrepresented across its nine campuses as well as the larger 23-campus California State University. The school is also a vibrant, urban site for advancing the university’s core mission of teaching, research and service.

Evo: What did it take from UCLA to launch the UCLA Community School?

KQ: In the spring of 2006, UCLA partnered with the LAUSD, the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), and the Belmont Education Collaborative (BEC)—a grassroots coalition of community-based organizations—to study the feasibility of creating a UCLA-partnered public school. The study group collected data on the growing number of university-partnered schools nationwide, reviewed relevant research on the costs and benefits of these schools, and encouraged university-wide deliberation about extending the mission of UCLA’s Lab School to serve K-12 students in an urban, public school context. In the summer of 2007, the study group recommended to the incoming UCLA Chancellor that the university respond to a request for proposals to create one of ten new Pilot Schools—small autonomous public schools that are locally governed based on an innovative agreement between the district and teachers’ union. The Pilot School movement in Los Angeles was a response to the growing number of charter schools throughout the district and the need to create professional flexibility and autonomy within the system. In support of this union-friendly, within-district reform initiative, UCLA proceeded with a K-12 school proposal and in October 2007 the Pilot School Steering Committee approved the creation of the UCLA Community School, to open in the fall of 2009.

The two-year planning process to open the new school was led by a Design Team and an Advisory Board. Both groups were chaired by members of the UCLA community, but were collaborative and included representatives from the school’s original partners—UCLA, LAUSD, UTLA, and BEC. Together these groups secured the school’s permanent facility at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools (RFK-CS) and helped establish a building council to coordinate the shared space with five other Pilot Schools. In February 2009, the school’s first principal was hired, followed by three elementary lead teachers. This distributed school leadership team hired the rest of the Lower School faculty in the spring of 2009 and worked throughout the summer with the Design Team and Advisory Board to establish a strong multi-age and dual-language instructional program for Kindergarten through 5th grade. At the same time, UCLA and LAUSD established a Memorandum of Understanding to formalize the partnership and legally secure the school’s future.

The Lower School opened in the fall of 2009 with 340 students and three multi-age Dens. The School Governing Council replaced the Advisory Board as the school’s main governing structure, and efforts continued to design an innovative Upper School instructional program, grounded in a strong advisory program as well as college-prep learning opportunities for students. In the spring of 2010, the secondary faculty was recruited and engaged with educators from UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies in the design and planning for the Upper School’s opening in the fall of 2010. An additional 500 students in grades 6 through 11 enrolled that fall, and by 2011 the school was fully enrolled with 1,000 K-12 students. The school’s rapid expansion from Kindergarten to 12th grade in 3 years—rare in new school development—was necessary given the overcrowded conditions and need to bus students out of the neighborhood. The opening of the UCLA Community School allowed students from 62 different feeder schools throughout Los Angeles to attend a neighborhood school.

In reflecting upon the start-up process, I think one key theme is “all hands on deck.” Partners had to come together in the spirit of collaboration to tackle whatever needed to get done. I’m reminded of GSE&IS Dean Aimee Dorr inflating playground balls the day before school opened in 2009. Later that fall, I remember Vice Chancellor Janina Montero volunteering to translate Spanish parent survey data into English so we could respond immediately to parent needs and interests. I also recall our founding principal Georgia Lazo working with the UCLA Newsroom to make a video about the school to get the word out across campus. Everyone reached beyond their job titles and descriptions to get the school launched.

Evo: Do you expect to launch more UCLA Community Schools?

KQ: Yes! In 2015, we started a planning process to open a second UCLA Community School in South Los Angeles, about seven miles away from the first site, which serves the central city neighborhoods of Koreatown and Pico Union. This decision to open a second site was based on UCLA’s longstanding commitment to engaging with urban communities to solve pressing social problems. In the case of South Los Angeles, one of the pressing problems is the community’s divestment from neighborhood public schools. Declining enrollment in this neighborhood is fueled by the growth of charter schools, leaving historic public school buildings struggling to remain open. One of these schools is Horace Mann Middle School. Founded in 1926, this school used to be the pillar in its community, serving over 1,000 students. Today, there are just over 300 students. A third of these students are in special education programs, 40 percent are in foster care, and many arrive at the doorstep after being turned away by other schools. The educational marketplace has skewed the enrollment in neighborhood schools like Mann—dealing them an unfair share of challenges. UCLA is joining with Mann in an attempt to level the playing field.

In the fall of 2017, the Horace Mann UCLA Community School will open, serving students in grades 6 through 9. The new school will grow a grade level each year and eventually serve students K-12. This new UCLA-LAUSD partnership is intended to provide bright futures for each and every student, while also enlivening our city’s commitment to solving the problems of poverty, violence, homelessness and racism.

Evo: What are some of the key differences in managing a K-12 school and managing a postsecondary division, especially when it comes to bureaucratic issues like student data security and hiring?

KQ: The university and the school district are distinct organizations, with unique structures, reward systems, and bureaucracies. Our partnership work constantly demands that we figure out ways to bring together these two worlds. For example, the school and the university are on different calendars and schedules. When we engage UCLA undergraduates as interns at the school, we have to figure out ways to bring them in mid-semester, when UCLA’s quarter starts up.

In terms of data, we have established data sharing and security agreements through the Memorandum of Understanding between UCLA and LAUSD. We are also the only LAUSD school to have its own research review committee. Whereas researchers typically have to secure approval from the central district to conduct research in schools, our MOU allows us to make these decisions locally, engaging LAUSD leaders on our review committee, not the other way around. This flexibility to conduct and manage research locally has been very important to our school culture and it has helped ensure that we have structures in place to support data and research use.

Hiring of school personnel is conducted at the school level as well. UCLA partners only participate in this process for the principal hiring and evaluation. Hiring of UCLA personnel that work at the school full time is conducted in collaboration.

Evo: How has UCLA benefitted from its partnership with LAUSD?

KQ: UCLA has benefitted from our partnership with LAUSD in many, many ways! The school is a signature community engagement program for the university. Each year, the school welcomes approximately 100 UCLA students, faculty, and staff who engage in a variety of ways—as student teachers, tutors, guest lecturers, researchers, and more. Essential to our vision, the UCLA Community School was created to be a Teaching School for UCLA, with a shared commitment to making practice public and modeling excellent teaching for the next generation of educators. In this way, the partnership with LAUSD is mutually beneficial: The school is a site of learning for UCLA students, and their engagement inspires the development of excellent mentor teachers and professional learning communities.

The school is also a UCLA site for service learning. From 2009 to 2016, 848 UCLA Bruins contributed 73,062 hours of service. Service learning is often tied to federal programs such as AmeriCorps or grants that individual faculty have secured. For example, one professor runs an after-school program that engages undergraduates interested in learning about teaching as a career.

Finally, the school is also an active site of research for the university. Over the past six years, the school has hosted 43 research studies, many of them in collaboration with educators at the school. Several dissertations have been conducted at the school and have led to substantial change and improvement. For example, a year-long ethnography of the challenges undocumented students face in their path to college is helping to inform the planning of a new Family Immigration Legal Clinic in partnership with the UCLA Law School. As this and other examples attest, the benefits of UCLA’s partnership with LAUSD go both ways and extend far into the community.

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Key Takeaways

  • The community schools project from UCLA serves as a great way to interact with and support their local community while providing a service learning and research site for the institution.
  • Getting the school launched required a tight collaboration between the university and the school district as well as full commitment from staff and faculty to make sure everything was in place.
  • Given the success of the first community school, UCLA is in the planning process to launch a second and bring this concept to a different part of their service area.
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