Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s term “super-connectors,” those people who know everyone and can hook you up with whatever you need? I’ve just met the education version in L.A. And I think they may be onto something.
“You’ve got to go deep into the ground and not assume anything about people,” says Ellen Pais, CEO of L.A. Education Partnership, a 30-year old non-profit whose stated mission is to “work as a collaborative partner in high-poverty communities to foster great schools that support the personal and academic success of children.” In other words, they build a network that connects students and families to the resources they need so that kids can stay in school and succeed.
I’m sitting in Ellen’s office at a window overlooking nearby downtown L.A., along with Lara Kain, senior director of their partner schools division, and they’re telling me about a program so utterly unlike the instant-results, test-score-driven, “we don’t have time to wait” philosophy of the Ed Reform world that I’m almost disoriented. A program that’s existed for 30 years? That seems to exist under the radar of almost everyone I know, including people who know a lot about education? That has grown…slowly?
LEAP started as a non-profit dedicated to leadership training based on first-hand experience and observation of specific communities, their systems and their overall health, based on principles that include self-discovery, group interaction and community participation—principles that sound very much like what Valerie Braimah talked about when she used the metaphor of an ecosystem as she described her sense of what was really going on in schools.
Inspired by the 1983 book A Nation At Risk, the seminal text outlining educational inequity in America, LAEP began as a response to the lack of civic participation in public schools. Many of their staff had attended overcrowded, inadequately funded schools and wanted to find a model that would create a new paradigm. “Our initial thought was how do we help teachers,” Ellen says. At first, they provided grants, but quickly realized that “grants don’t help education if they’re just for teachers.”
First, they developed a Humanitas program, a project-based model in which teachers collaborated to create an interdisciplinary curriculum. “Wow,” I tell Ellen and Lara as I think of Jennifer Macon, whom I’ve been observing as she teaches a rich and demanding curriculum. “That sounds so much like Cleveland Magnet”
They look at me as if I’m nuts. “Cleveland Magnet is one of our schools,” they tell me. Cleveland, it turns out, inspired their Humanitas program and continues to be the professional development model for their participating schools.
Right! Now it all makes sense…I have the uncanny feeling Freud described when suddenly I see that my small experience is actually part of something larger, something that has another meaning—although, of course in this case, significantly less sinister.
But the Humanitas was only a jumping-off point for the organization. In 1989, they began working with principals at charter schools and enrichment programs in Pacoima, a low-income community in the Valley. There, they found that in a crime-ridden community, a strong curriculum wasn’t enough. “We’re sitting down with a principal and she’s crying because she can’t address all the issues that are happening, the drug dealers across the street, the gangbangers that are recruiting down the block. We started a project to bring everybody together. We thought about, what are the obstacles?”
The program they developed sounds not unlike Geoffrey Canada’s Promise Academy model, which involves creating “wraparound” services for a community centered around a school and has now inspired Race to the Top to commit a significant amount of funding to pilot programs in other cities, including Los Angeles, where an organization called Youth Policy Institute will work with schools in Pacoima, Hollywood and East L.A. (though not South L.A. or Watts, which has been a sore point for many.)
But LAEP’s model has significant differences from YPI’s. While YPI is creating new services for students and putting them in place on or near campuses, LAEP instead hires a community coordinator who works at a school site and first listens to students, teachers and parents to learn what services are needed. After that, the coordinator connects the school with existing organizations in the neighborhood based on need and continues to make sure the two are in continual communication to make sure programs are well-attended and are giving students and families what they need.
Their community based model is now in place on 16 schools across 9 campuses in Los Angeles, mostly LAUSD “pilot” schools, small autonomous schools led by teachers that are part of the district and not charters, though they’ve recently partnered with Washington Prep and Fremont High, two LAUSD schools in South Los Angeles that are consistently on the list of LAUSD’s priority list of lowest-performing schools; in the five years that LAEP has partnered with Fremont, scores have risen and school culture, in Lara’s words, is now “almost warm and fuzzy.”
LAEP partner schools generally outperform LAUSD schools in test scores and graduation rates, but Ellen and Lara are clear that though they value outcomes, they are there to provide an opportunity for schools, not to demand specific results. “It doesn’t happen overnight,” says Ellen. “It takes time. We ask a community, where do you want to be in five years?” Their holistic school evaluation model includes quality instruction, but also parent partners, personal growth opportunities for student and resources and support for the cognitive and non-cognitive needs of children in poverty.
“Accountability isn’t about test scores,” says Ellen. “We look at all the elements. We look at low-fidelity implementation and high-fidelity implementation, but not everybody is going to prioritize the same things. We’re not here to do this. We’re here to help you build infrastructures so you can do this. The goal is for us to step back.”
Talking to them is exhilarating—everything they’re saying is what I’ve felt intuitively for so many years, but in a test-driven world, I’d really begun to think I was crazy, or if not crazy, then hopelessly sentimental. They connect me with community coordinators at Fremont and at Cesar Chavez Social Justice Academy in San Fernando, way out in the Valley. How does this program really look on the ground? What will it look like at Fremont, only a few miles from my former school? I feel like I’m getting closer to the truth behind a mystery, the mystery of what really makes up an education. I can’t wait.