Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School at UCLA has a rich history of providing experimental teaching to students lucky enough to secure a spot at its wooded Westwood campus.
Now, the quasi-private, quasi-public-laboratory school is embarking on a mission to make its research-based programs more widely available by opening satellite campuses in low-income communities. Targeting South Los Angeles and the Pico-Union district near downtown, school leaders say they can more directly attack the educational challenges posed by poverty, lack of English fluency and achievement gaps on the part of racial and ethnic minorities.
The campuses would also add to an expanding array of educational choices, including charter and magnet schools open to families seeking remedies to low test scores, high drop-out rates and inadequate college readiness.
The 125-year-old Seeds school hopes to throw its multilingual programs, team teaching and technology-rich instruction into the mix. But it faces challenges in transferring a program that has thrived on the UCLA campus to communities where crime, decaying housing and social dysfunction pose significant roadblocks to learning. Local school districts and unions may also resent the prospect of an upstart taking their students and teachers.
But educators at UES, as it is known, are intent on becoming major players in the education debate.
“We are entering a crowded field, crowded with people who want to help but not crowded with people who have concrete answers that provide clear evidence of what would work,” said Principal Jim Kennedy, who took over in July. “We’re a major research university in Los Angeles and we need to be deeply engaged in that conversation.”
The school, an arm of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is not bound by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires rigorous standardized testing. Some testing is done for research and comparison and the school aligns its curriculum with state standards. Its students are high-performing: Sixth-graders scored in the 80th percentile in reading and the 79th in math compared with other sixth-graders across the country. Fifth-graders scored in the 85th percentile in reading and the 87th in math.
To give validity to research projects, the student body mirrors the state’s racial, ethnic, gender and socioeconomic demographics.
The Westwood campus -- which charges $11,650 in tuition -- is in high demand, with 600 applications this year for 40 preschool openings and a handful of spots in other grades. More than half of its graduating sixth-graders move on to some of the area’s leading private schools, and less than one-third attend public middle schools.
After its founding in 1882 at the site now occupied by the downtown public library, the school moved several times before finding a permanent home on the UCLA campus in 1947. Several of its buildings were designed by architect Richard Neutra.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, UCLA considered moving the campus to Santa Monica and turning it into a charter school, but parents vigorously fought to maintain the school’s status and location.
The campus -- bisected by Stone Canyon Creek -- sprawls across several acres and includes groves of eucalyptus, oaks and redwoods, student playgrounds and picnic areas. The classrooms include walls of windows.
The school offers a progressive curriculum in which its 435 students -- ages 4 to 12 -- learn at their own pace. Textbooks are rarely used; instead, students choose literature and other books from baskets in every classroom. On any given day, a neuroscience professor might bring along a brain on a visit to a classroom of 9- and 10-year-olds.
On a recent day, the 12-year-olds in Scott Smith’s social studies class used the Internet for a lesson, linking to a site projected on a large screen that showed Chinese scroll paintings. In the darkened room, some students sprawled on the floor.
“How many years did it take this guy to make this?” one boy asked. “They call this the Mona Lisa of Chinese painting,” Smith responded.
Planning for the community classrooms is still in the early stages, but each school would accommodate 60 to 80 students and be organized like the Westwood campus, which eschews grades and groups students by age. Children from the community, ages 4 to 14, would be given priority for enrollment, with any extra spots assigned to students at random. Ultimately, the schools would each enroll about 200 students and offer support services and extended day care for families.
The schools will be funded entirely through private donations, said Kennedy, which won’t affect the fees for students attending the Westwood campus. The new schools will charge tuition but also probably provide more partial or full financial aid for students.
Though the first new campus is not expected to open until September 2009, administrators this spring will begin hiring teachers -- many from the targeted communities -- to give them experience in their disciplines. Educators also plan to reach out to nearby public schools, providing them with teacher training and program support.
Not everyone is convinced of the need for a new educational model.
Joshua Pechthalt, a vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said he welcomed innovation but that if given the freedom, public schools can improve on their own.
“The effort to transform public education is going to happen within the public education arena,” Pechthalt said. “Our contention is that if everybody stayed in the game and began to work together in a united way to make those changes, we’d get there a lot sooner.”
Pechthalt said he doubted that the most skilled teachers would give up the lifetime benefits they’ve earned in public schools. (Seeds teachers are organized through UCLA’s lecturers’ union.)
Priscilla Wohlstetter, a professor of educational governance at USC, said new alternatives and more collaboration between schools will benefit everyone.
“It’s the right kind of school to scale up because it’s got a good track record,” Wohlstetter said. “The idea of partnerships has taken off across the country in places like Chicago and Philadelphia, but Los Angeles has been slow to come to that realization.”
Kennedy conceded there may be initial misgivings that the new campuses will draw talent away from public schools. He is setting up talks with Los Angeles Unified officials, including local district superintendents, on how the schools can work together.
“We share common goals,” Kennedy said. “We’re there to be partners and I envision working together. We’re not competitors.”
The community classrooms have broad support from families and teachers, said Christopher Knight, an investment firm manager whose 12-year-old son attends UES and whose oldest son graduated three years ago.
“What Jim has pointed out to parents is that the addition of community-based classrooms is not going to detract from the quality of education here, and because of our research function it can only benefit,” said Knight, who also heads the school’s board of advisors. “This will be a great opportunity to show people what UES does.”
The initiative is only one of the new ideas being developed by Kennedy, an energetic reformer who previously ran L.A. Unified’s Magnolia Elementary School near downtown. He’s also been principal at a San Fernando Valley math and science magnet school, supervised elementary math programs for L.A. Unified and taught math and research methods to teachers at Cal State Northridge. Kennedy holds a doctorate in educational leadership from UCLA and had hired several teachers from UCLA’s teacher education program at Magnolia.
The Seeds schools provide all of the challenges of improving education for low-income families that he relished at Magnolia, but with more flexibility for him to implement his ideas on a wider scale, Kennedy said.
“I’m like a fish out of water in some ways,” he said, “but very anxious to start making a difference.”