Underserved L.A. schools showing resilience -- and replicable models -- despite significant obstacles

Xochitl Avellan believes that education is a pillar of the American dream. Her vantage point on the topic is unique.

"I'm an immigrant," Avellan said. "I came to the United States when I was 13. I came running away from the revolutionary war in Nicaragua. When you are actually in another country, you have a vision of what the American dream is. I think the American dream is education."

Because of that viewpoint, Avellan has spent two decades working in education as both an administrator and teacher. She currently works for Green Dot, a network of schools providing a high quality education while serving as an incubator for innovative ideas in underserved communities. 

Steven Almazan, special education teacher at KIPP Sol in East Los Angeles, is also bringing a fresh approach to the middle school level, which has proven successful with impressive results from the 2015 Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exam.

How to recreate it at other schools

Where do these successes come from? What makes a great school in Los Angeles? According to Avellan and Almazan, there are a variety of factors that have led to their schools’ successes.

"(The school's success) starts with the human capital we have on staff," Almazan said. "The school has done an amazing job of recruiting talent and it’s talent that reflects the neighborhood."

Blended learning is another major factor Almazan attributes to success. This is a teaching technique that customizes students’ work to their individual skill level. They do it with laptops — each student has one.

"Being able to differentiate our instruction and activities the students work on so specifically has been supported through the technology we use," Almazan said.

Both Avellan and Almazan place a significant emphasis on reading. Students are expected to read at least 35 pages a night as part of their homework and school begins each morning with a 30-minute period during which all students read books at their reading level.

In both the KIPP and Green Dot networks, parental involvement is key. The relationship between parents and teachers is one that needs to be built on trust, at every school. 

"You have to show them, not just with words, but your actions speak louder than words," said Avellan, who worked as both a principal and assistant principal at Green Dot Public Schools prior to assuming her current position. “Building that relationship is about having a community event with your parents and reaching out to them and really getting to know them as individuals and as families. This was the beauty of being a principal; you have to go in and be in commune with our families. And that's the way that they are going to get to know you and trust you. To be able to walk the extra 10,000 miles barefoot for them." 

Getting the buy-in from students and parents leads to academic results. It's Avellan's hope that a change in the quality of education in underserved communities will be the foundation on which a larger cultural change is built.

"It is my vision and hope that just as we are putting into our communities, we see the communities we serve transform," she said. "Our students are going to become professionals and they are going to come back to those same communities and give back."

—Brendan Murphy for Great Public Schools Now

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