IRWINDALE (CBSLA.com) — Eighty female high school students from low-income, underserved schools in Los Angeles visited UCLA Tuesday for the first-ever “Empower Her: STEMDAY”.
The girls received hands-on exposure to research in science and technology, including launching a rocket and dissecting a human brain, and learned about career opportunities for women in a range of fields, from neuroscience to physics.
“Empower Her: STEMDAY”, which ran from 9 a.m. to noon, is a one-day event co-sponsored by the UCLA Brain Research Institute in hopes of inspiring young girls to pursue higher education and a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. It features 21 interactive informational stations manned by UCLA graduate students who were demonstrating basic concepts in human brain research, computer science, nanoscience, physics, environmental science and others.
Martina DeSalvo, a UCLA neuroscience graduate student, launched the program along with the Empower Her organization, which is a nonprofit focused on empowering women and girls.
“We really wanted to get these girls exposed to all of the sciences at a really early age, before they’ve come up with their own stereotypes of whether or not science is a girl thing,”STEMDAY organizer Martina DeSalvo said.
Organizers set of a goal of getting girls interested in possible careers in the field of science.
“If you look further at how many women are in the science work force, that’s down to twenty-four percent,” DeSalvo said. “So, we just see this gradual drop off in the sciences.”
One of the most remarkable scenes in Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 work of science journalism, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, happens about halfway through the book, in a smoky Baltimore kitchen. Skloot has been pursuing the reluctant Lacks family for about a year and has finally managed an introduction to Lawrence Lacks, the oldest son of Henrietta and Day Lacks. He cooks eggs and pork chops for Skloot and begins reminiscing about his mother, a strict, pretty woman who died of cervical cancer when he was a young teenager, but soon admits that, at 64, he barely remembers her at all. Instead of memories, photographs, and family anecdotes, he and his siblings have only the ominous stories of her stolen cells: that there are enough of them now to “cover the whole earth,” that they have cured diseases, that they will soon make it possible for humans to live to be 800 years old.
After ushering Skloot into the living room with her plate of food, Lawrence asks her to tell him what his mother’s cells (now known in biomedical research as the “HeLa immortal cell line”) “really did,” and Skloot asks him if he knows what a cell is. “Kinda,” he tells her. “Not really.” Skloot writes:
I tore a piece of paper from my notebook, drew a big circle with a small black dot inside, and explained what a cell was, then told him some of the things HeLa had done for science, and how far cell culture had come since.
Although their mother’s cells—taken without her knowledge during her cancer treatment in 1951—have indeed helped cure diseases and have made millions of dollars for biomedical supply companies, pharmaceutical companies, and research laboratories, the surviving members of the Lacks family still live in poverty, without reliable access to health insurance or proper medical care. Perhaps more significantly, they lack even the basic scientific information that would allow them to understand Henrietta’s legacy or make informed decisions about their own health. At Lawrence’s house, Skloot meets 84-year-old Day Lacks, Henrietta’s husband, who wears flip-flops in cold weather because he has gangrene in his feet; after his wife’s death and the re-emergence of her mysterious cells, he is afraid to let doctors treat him. Sonny, one of Henrietta’s other sons, refuses angioplasty for the same reason.
If American citizens are to have any chance of speaking truth to power, they will need to have a better handle on the truth part.
Skloot’s simple diagram, along with an article she shows him about a method of corneal transplantation developed through the study of his mother’s cells, has a profound effect on Lawrence. He is energized by the idea that his mother’s cells could help cure blindness, and he convinces other members of his family, including his father, his wife, and his sister, to talk to Skloot.
How is it possible that no one has ever told him how a cell works before? You could speculate that because Lawrence was educated during the time of Jim Crow segregation, he received poor instruction or that the economic and emotional pressure on his family after the death of Henrietta affected his educational attainment. You could consider the partial deafness, untreated until adulthood, that made it hard for Lawrence and his siblings to understand teachers, or the time Lawrence spent out of school, doing field labor. You could point to his environment, a low-income neighborhood in a poor city, where rumors of body snatching and unauthorized medical experimentation on African-Americans engendered suspicion of doctors and scientists. Certainly all of these details contributed to Lawrence’s abashed admission that he did not know what a cell was or how it functioned.
But it is also true that the public school system of the United States, the richest country in the world, still struggles to educate our citizens about science and to make that education relevant and present in their daily lives. How well we understand science affects almost every aspect of our personal and civic lives: our health, our reproductive choices, our understanding of the news, how and whether we vote, and our interaction with the environment. Many of the most important and contentious political issues of our time—climate change, hydraulic fracturing, offshore drilling—are also environmental and require an understanding of basic scientific principles that many of our poorest citizens lack. These same citizens will suffer from their lack of understanding: from water quality damaged by fracking, from mountaintop removal, from flooding caused by rising water levels. Poor people are disproportionately susceptible to poor health and more likely to be exposed to environmental or household pollutants. But for many of our poorest citizens, science education is largely ignored, especially in the foundational elementary and middle school years, as we favor the “basics” of reading and math through a testing and school accountability system that does not prepare our students for the significant social and environmental challenges to come.
* * *
I was a K–12 educator for 10 years, working in rural and urban public elementary, middle, and high schools in California; New York; Washington, D.C.; and North Carolina. No Child Left Behind, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002, was my constant professional companion, rating the schools where I taught as adequate or inadequate and allocating resources accordingly. This frequently maligned law identified the subjects I taught—English, reading, and writing—as among the most crucial (along with math), and I received additional support so that my students could be successful on the standardized tests that determined my schools’ yearly progress. My students received additional tutoring, materials, and time in class, and I was given pedagogical training and assistance from my principals with managing tough classes. Meanwhile, I observed science teachers and classrooms, particularly at the elementary and middle schools, receiving fewer materials and resources, and even less institutional support.
At the elementary school in Brooklyn where I taught first grade, science was a “special,” along with dance, art, and physical education. That meant that students were delivered by their homeroom teachers to the science teacher between one and three times a week for less than an hour each time. I remember that the science teacher, a patient but weary man from Jamaica, had little in the room to engage my 6-year-olds beyond laminated charts and posters on the wall: no microscopes, no plants, no homemade solar system models or fungus-crowded petri dishes. No fish tanks or worm bins or leaf specimens. Our principal liked a tidy classroom, and the science teacher’s was spotless. She also liked a quiet classroom, and although the kids never seemed especially rowdy to me, he bemoaned their fidgety lack of discipline: In Jamaica, he once told me, it was common for one teacher to control a class of 40 or 45 students.
What did they do in there? Worksheets, mostly, filled with labeled drawings, diagrams, and charts they could not read. Sometimes he performed an experiment, and they watched. Perhaps the best behaved were invited up to help him; most of them never left their seats.
At the time, it did not occur to me to be outraged, or to feel responsible for making up for their lost opportunities. My school was a Title I school; so many of my students qualified for free breakfast and lunch that everyone ate free, and the school day was long and often difficult. I was new to the classroom, my teaching philosophy strongly influenced by Earl Shorris’ Clemente Course in the Humanities, a program developed in the 1990s to provide university-level instruction in philosophy, art, logic, and poetry to poor adults in American cities. My students, poor children from Bedford-Stuyvesant, would achieve agency and power in their own, first-grade way: we’d read poetry, study Pablo Picasso and Jacob Lawrence, listen to jazz, write folk tales about our neighborhood.
Sometimes we planted seeds and bulbs in paper cups and left them to sprout on the windowsill, but mostly I didn’t worry about science. I was teaching them to read; I was working on their cultural literacy.
But science is cultural literacy, a fact that became apparent when a friend teaching in the same school told me about getting her fifth-graders ready for their statewide science test. Preparation was hurried, last-minute, cursory: Their scores would not be held against our Adequate Yearly Progress, after all. My friend, however, did not want her students to feel blindsided by the test, so she had photocopied some handouts and sample questions. “I was trying to explain photosynthesis,” she said, “and one of my kids asked me, ‘How does a plant make their food? Do they use a microwave?’ What do you say to that?”
The uncertain student had spent little of his elementary school time outside, had not taken field trips to any science museums. He had not gardened or designed experiments about sunlight and plant growth or even diagrammed a leaf. He had never looked at a plant cell under a microscope. His frame of reference for the world, and his relationship to it, was severely limited, but teachers and school administrators had worried instead about how well he could read and multiply.
I was reminded of something another friend, teaching first grade nearby, said she told one of her former students, a girl who’d ended the year woefully unprepared for the next year: “Tell your second-grade teacher I’m sorry.”
We have a lot to be sorry for—and a lot to worry about. Start with climate change, for a particularly fearsome example. Most climate scientists agree that, unless global carbon emissions are curtailed, we are headed for irreversible climate change: an increase of 2 degrees Celsius by 2040 and 4 degrees by 2070. A rise of 2 degrees would likely mean natural, economic, and social disaster—droughts, famines, floods, storms. A rise of 4 degrees would be catastrophic for human life across the globe.
However, the average American is more skeptical of the seriousness of global warming than he was in 1997.
Forty percent of Americans believe that global warming is not caused by human activity.
Sixteen percent believe global warming is “not that much of a threat” or “not a threat at all.”
Certainly the above examples of scientific illiteracy have much to do with our political climate, in which a belief in science is often pitted against a belief in God or the free market. But it is also true that without a proper foundation in science, which ideally begins before kindergarten, individuals are vulnerable to misunderstanding, the same kind that kept Day and Sonny Lacks from seeking treatment for life-threatening medical conditions. They are also easy targets for misinformation and manipulation, the forces behind our country’s increasing climate change skepticism.
Recently, the science classroom has re-emerged as a stage for political drama. In his campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry claimed that his state taught creationism and evolution side by side, because children were “smart enough to figure out which one is right.” (Aware that requiring the teaching of creationism was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, education officials in Texas scrambled to distance themselves from Perry’s claim.) In spring 2012, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill designed to protect teachers who allow their students to question and criticize “controversial” topics like evolution and climate change.
If American citizens are to have any chance of speaking truth to power, they will need to have a better handle on the truth part. They will need to be better educated, and the science classroom will have to be political—not in the partisan sense, but in the sense of the Greek word politikos: of, for, or relating to citizens. The science classroom will need to prepare them for engagement in our democratic society, to make choices that affect their lives and their communities.
So what does an ideal science classroom look like? You might ask Sandra Laursen, co-director of ethnography and evaluation at the University of Colorado–Boulder, a research unit devoted to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Laursen, a chemist by training, has spent years working as an outreach scientist, providing teacher-training workshops and developing materials with and for K–12 educators. “At all ages, the curriculum is built on well-scaffolded, in-depth, age-appropriate investigations, some of which take place outside,” Laursen says. “There is opportunity, increasing with age, for students to branch off to pursue their own interests, but the curriculum and the teacher continually return the intellectual discussion to a few central scientific concepts and the intellectual and social processes of science.” Laursen’s ideal classroom is equipped with supplies and materials that are maintained and replenished by the school: durable equipment like microscopes and lab glass, but also inexpensive consumables like pH strips, vinegar, toothpicks, and cotton balls. The teacher in Laursen’s ideal classroom participates frequently in collaborative, in-depth professional development that is specific to her science curriculum but also places it in the context of science education that takes place in earlier and later grades. (And she is paid for her time.)
This happens commonly at good private schools, which provide their students with highly qualified (though not necessarily certified) teachers; hands-on, inquiry-based learning; and opportunities for educational travel to places like the Galápagos Islands, where they can volunteer to help eradicate invasive plant species, monitor juvenile Galápagos tortoises, and watch the sunset from the pristine beaches of Tortuga Bay. Children from wealthy families are advantaged as science learners almost from birth: They have better nutrition, better health care, parents who take them to parks and museums and who are able to lead them through questions about their environment. They are more comfortable investigating this world, less hesitant about their place within it.
There are public schools, too, that demonstrate quality science learning, though the pressure to perform on state tests often edges out what we know to be the best practices. Perhaps an even greater challenge for many public schools, especially in our poorest communities, is overcoming the deficits of students who don’t get a firm grounding in science at home. The Environmental Charter Middle School (ECMS) in Inglewood, Calif., in its second year when I visited, provides rigorous, environmentally themed college-preparatory instruction to its students, a majority of whom are from minority, low-income families. In ECMS’s central courtyard, I heard the constant hum of traffic from the 405 freeway and the low, intermittent roar of planes landing at Los Angeles International Airport. But I also saw abundant evidence of student work and thinking that is tied to experiential science learning: terra-cotta container gardens planted with radishes, tomatoes, and peppers; vermicompost bins made from plastic storage containers; rain barrels catching and filtering runoff from the roof. In the seventh-grade courtyard, students were constructing an aquaponic greenhouse, measuring and cutting the wood framing with the assistance of their teachers.
Getting the students to this level has been hard work. According to Kami Cotler, principal of ECMS, many of her students arrive with what she calls “bathtub deficits. They haven’t spent enough time interacting with the physics of their environment.” Cotler and her teachers despaired after the school’s first big project—building paleolithic shelters after a unit on ancient civilizations—revealed that the students had little understanding of scale or measurement. But after almost two years of hands-on, experiential education, they are starting to improve. “When [the students] were reviewing the aquaponic greenhouse plans, they realized that there was a problem of scale, and they worked to fix it,” said Cotler. “That was major.”
ECMS has modeled many of its environmental practices after those of its sister school, Environmental Charter High School, which was founded in 2000. In both schools, the students are engaged by the process of learning about science in an environmental context, and they understand how each modification to their campus fits together. The plants are watered with rain collected in barrels and fertilized with worm casings. At the middle school, they eat the peppers and radishes in their salads at lunch; at the high school, they sell plant seedlings at the weekend farmers market. High school art students paint murals of vulnerable ocean creatures around storm drains, a reminder that even city streets are part of a watershed. Students report becoming environmental advocates at home, encouraging their families to compost or use canvas grocery bags; they understand that there is a direct connection between the things they learn in their biology or chemistry class and the quality of life in their community.
Environmental Charter High School
An ECHS student at the school’s solar-powered greenhouse.
Photo courtesy Marty Benson/Environmental Charter High School
All children deserve an education that allows them to make these kinds of connections, and every community deserves to have its citizens engaged in this way. But too often, when we think about the educational challenges facing poor children and the best way to address them, we focus on the things that are easiest to measure: how well a child reads by third grade, how accurately she solves math problems. In schools with the most at-risk students (and the highest level of testing pressure), science class becomes another opportunity to teach reading fluency or to practice computation. It is cut off from its vital content—why are we studying this?—and loses its opportunity to capture students’ attention, the way Lawrence Lacks’ attention was captured by understanding the impact of his mother’s cells.
“Whenever the nation becomes interested, for whatever reason, in alleviating the suffering of the poor, the method is always the same: training,” wrote Earl Shorris in 1997. Training, as he pointed out, focuses on the simplest, least cognitively demanding tasks, and prepares the trained for lives and careers that are less remunerative, less satisfying, and less politically influential than the lives and careers of the truly educated. Shorris, who died in 2012, wanted to see the minds of the poor challenged and enriched by the humanities, and he created a rigorous curriculum that exposed poor and uneducated adults to Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Tolstoy. His primary goal? That students live a reflective, considered life—a life of agency.
Science—the way a cell functions, the vastness of the universe, the effect of development on water quality—can and should have the same impact. But when we replace real, connected science learning with worksheets and test booklets, we are robbing students of the chance to understand what is truly at stake in their lives.
Most recently, I worked at the Hawbridge School, an environmentally focused charter middle and high school in a rural, economically disadvantaged county in North Carolina. Hawbridge’s students, who are selected by lottery, come from five different counties to the school, which is housed in a converted textile mill on the banks of the Haw River. Some come for the small class size and individualized attention, others for the program of interdisciplinary study, still others for the promise of canoeing instruction (part of the physical education program) or the chance to grow their own food in school gardens. But not all of Hawbridge’s students arrive eager for an ecological or even science-rich education; they come because, like students in charter schools everywhere, they had bad experiences in their assigned public schools: Their needs were ignored, they were bullied, or they fell in with the wrong crowd. It is our responsibility, as teachers, to turn them on to the opportunities the school offers—camping, rock climbing, gardening, monitoring water quality in the Haw River, or listening to presentations by university professors.
Sometimes, like teachers everywhere, we let them down.
Hawbridge students and teachers take a lot of field trips, usually about two a month. Two years ago, during a study of contemporary innovations, we were preparing for a trip to the planetarium. “You know I don’t believe in any of that stuff, Ms. Boggs,” said one of my students, a junior I’ll call Amy.
“What stuff?” I asked.
“You know,” she said, looking at the ceiling. “Outer space.”
“What do you think is up there then, Amy?”
“God,” she said. “And clouds. And Jesus.”
Rebecca Skloot might have helpfully drawn Amy a map of the solar system, or taken her stargazing one night, or asked why God, Jesus, stars, and meteorites could not all coexist. I did none of those things but continued with my English lesson—something about class consciousness and symbolism in The Great Gatsby. On breaks, at lunch, or before school, I’d been trying to persuade Amy to quit smoking, and I was afraid a religious dispute might turn her against me. I didn’t want Amy to feel isolated or alienated.
What occurred to me only later is that Amy was already alienated—from science, from ecology—in a way that was similar to Lawrence Lacks’ disengagement. Amy had several things in common with Lacks. Her family suffered from a history of health problems. She was fearful and suspicious of new ideas. She worked full time, at a fast-food restaurant, to help support her family. And she was underprepared by the education she received before she came to our school, arriving in ninth grade but reading at a level several grades below.
Luckily, I wasn’t Amy’s only teacher, and in her senior year she had the guidance of Norma Johnson, who once taught biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In Johnson’s biology class, Amy participated in a range of inquiry-based activities that made scientific principles real to her—reading nutrition labels and tracing her daily food consumption through the metabolic process, examining mosses growing in nearby woods, dissecting a fetal pig, and interacting with guest lecturers from universities and science-based outreach programs. In September and October, Amy used her lunch period and study period to get extra help with the challenging coursework, but she became more confident and independent as the year progressed. She finished the year with a B in biology and graduated from high school with plans to go to the local community college. She hopes to become a nurse.
Amy was one of the lucky ones, entering the school by lottery and finding teachers who not only helped her catch up on skills, but also made the things she was learning relevant to her life. Back at her old school, there are bound to be many Amys who won’t be so lucky—who won’t get in or aren’t even aware they can apply to a school with smaller class sizes or hands-on learning. Amy’s opportunity ought to be everyone’s.
Scientific illiteracy is a luxury—one our poorest and most vulnerable citizens cannot afford. In an ideal K–12 classroom, every student (and every teacher) would consider himself a scientist, and everyone would be engaged in personally relevant, inquiry-driven science learning. This kind of education, which invites students to observe, hypothesize, debate, experiment, and problem-solve, is not easy to facilitate. It requires content knowledge and experience not only with instructional methodology but also with classroom management. Science teachers in particular need strong management skills and specific and in-depth understanding of their subject matter.
But it’s also true that nonscientists can be trained to provide rigorous, exciting, inquiry-driven instruction in elementary school classrooms. “Kids are natural scientists,” said Laursen. “They like bugs and dirt, they can observe something for a long time, they’re curious. When we fail to capitalize on young children’s curiosity and inclination toward social learning, we turn science into a boring, rote exercise by middle school, at which point it is often too late to reclaim students’ interest and curiosity.” Whatever is outside the classroom door—a recovering post-industrial river, a patch of grass, a cracked cement courtyard—is an opportunity for engagement with science learning: growing vegetables, designing experiments, observing a colony of ants with a field notebook. And a community’s environmental issues—logging, littering, smog, development—are also immediately relevant to students’ lives.
* * *
“I’m not a scientist, man,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told GQ magazine in an interview published in December 2012, following the first presidential debate season in 28 years to fail to mention climate change. Rubio had been asked how old he thinks the Earth is; it is unclear whether he was signaling a fashionable disdain for scientific facts or whether he truly did not know. His full answer suggested that, in his mind, science was far removed from the important work of growing our economy, and that only people in lab coats have any business thinking about things like the age of the planet. In his response to the 2013 State of the Union address, in which President Obama declared himself willing to take executive action against climate change, Rubio dismissed such actions as “job-killing” and suggested that “the government can’t control the weather.”
Meanwhile, the year 2012 had been the hottest on record in the contiguous United States, with above-normal temperatures registering every month everywhere except the Pacific Northwest. That year’s drought was the worst in 50 years, registering as “severe” in more than half the country, and the record-setting wildfire season, the second worst since the 1960s, claimed an area of land roughly the size of Maryland. In late October of that year, the East Coast experienced the second-costliest hurricane on record, an immense storm that devastated areas rarely hit by Category 3 hurricanes.
After a devastatingly hot summer, and particularly after Hurricane Sandy, Americans began to appear more receptive to scientists’ warnings about climate change. Some polls had as many as 7 in 10 respondents agreeing that climate change is real, and post-election, 60 percent of voters agreed with the statement that “climate change made Hurricane Sandy worse.”
On the surface, this looks encouraging. In some respects, Americans may be finally waking up to the reality of a rapidly changing climate. But a response to a dramatic weather event, however convincing, is fragile and perhaps unsustainable. What if next summer is unusually cool, the hurricane season relatively calm? Will we continue to listen to climate reports from NOAA? Perhaps more importantly, there is little indication that respondents to recent polls understand what it would take to turn things around, or how their own actions and choices might play a role. They are not scientists either—not most of them, not yet.
Much recent discussion about the importance of STEM subject education has focused on job training, on preparing our kids and our country to compete in high-stakes and high-income professions. Like Marco Rubio, the majority of students in an average fifth-grade classroom will not become professional scientists or engineers. Every one of them, however, will need to understand skills and ideas connected to the principles of science—what a plant needs to grow, how to read nutrition and medication labels, what it means when their state considers hydraulic fracturing or offshore drilling. Their understanding of these principles will determine how long they live, and how well.
This essay originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Orion and also appears in the anthology Leave No Child Inside.
LOS ANGELES — Public parks are important to urban life, but green spaces and play areas are rare in many cities. Many organizations and volunteers are trying to change that.
At the Environmental Charter Middle School in the Los Angeles community of Gardena, several hundred volunteers are building a play area, sanding down benches, putting up swings and slides, and adding a touch of green with shrubs and bushes.
“Everyone needs a place to play, no matter how old they are,” noted parent Jennifer Briseno. Play lets the kids engage the world, which they can’t always do in the classroom, added school principal Kami Cotler. “They don’t have those opportunities to play with sticks in the mud, and to learn the really powerful lessons you learn when you get to do that,” she explained.
The newly renovated Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has also brought some of its exhibits outdoors. Kids learn about insects, birds and reptiles in their natural environment, partly on the site of a former parking lot. It’s part of a new focus, according to landscape architect Mia Lehrer.
“You can enjoy the gardens, but also learn something, if you are inspired to,” she said.
Los Angeles ranks far behind such cities as Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco in its public park space, according to a survey by the non-profit Trust for Public Land. The Trust’s Jodi Delaney said outdoor spaces are important, especially for children.
“Many of them spend one percent of their time in parks,” she said. “And 27 percent of their time watching television.”
Delaney said parks are also important for adults. They are places to relax, exercise and get in touch with nature.
She said Los Angeles ranked 34th in the national survey of cities and their parks. The survey ranked 50 cities by factors such as level of investment, the size of parks and access to parks in all neighborhoods.
“Where we could do better is a little bit on access, And the Trust for Public Land is actually working shoulder to shoulder with city and county officials to improve that,” added Delaney.
A charity called KaBOOM! is behind the school playground enhancements in the city of Gardena. The charity has built hundreds of playgrounds around the United States.
Getting the community involved is making a difference, said Vaughn Sigmon of CarMax, a seller of used cars. He brought 170 volunteers from his company. He said parks and outdoor spaces are important for children, and his company and its workers have pledged to build a total of 30 playgrounds.
“It’s the best place to get fresh air, get some exercise,” he stated.
The school in Gardena now has a playground, adding to the outdoor green and play spaces that are so needed in Los Angeles.
Environmental Charter School celebrated the opening of its third campus Wednesday, this one a middle school just outside Gardena. The new campus, which opened in April, serves 360 students in what was an abandoned church at 812 W. 165th Place in Harbor Gateway.
“It had been defaced with graffiti, with broken windows – it was just dilapidated,” said the school’s founder and executive director, Alison Suffet Diaz. “Now it’s a 16,000-square-foot school with 12 classrooms in a beautifully designed building. ”
The Environmental Charter franchise delivers a green-focused curriculum to urban students. It began in 2001 with a high school in Lawndale. That campus, too, opened on a former church site, though it ultimately moved to a bigger home a few miles away.
Environmental Charter High now serves 500-plus students on a campus that boasts cutting-edge science labs, an outdoor theater, a chicken coop and a student-made stream stocked with fish. It has won numerous accolades over the years, drawing repeated praise from the Obama administration, a big supporter of the charter movement. In 2010, Environmental Charter opened a middle school in Inglewood – again, on an abandoned private-school campus of a church.
Although the Gardena-area campus is Environmental Charter’s third location, not all three are up and running. The Inglewood campus on West Imperial Highway closed down again this spring for construction upgrades, but school officials say it will reopen in the fall.
In the meantime, the 165th Place campus is serving the 200 students from Inglewood plus an additional 160 from Gardena and Harbor Gateway, Diaz said. Come fall, the separate schools will serve those separate populations. Diaz added that she expects the Gardena-area campus to be fully enrolled next year with 360 students, due to the sizable number of families on the waiting list.
The newest campus has an open, sunlit feel, with a plant-decorated atrium cutting down the center of the two-story building. In some classrooms, a roll-up garage door serves as a wall that can open up to the outdoors. Second-story classrooms have patios that, in the next phase of construction, will be converted into greenhouses, Diaz said.
Still unfinished is the renovation of the church. The top floor will house a multipurpose room for performances and the bottom floor will include offices and a space for art projects. Diaz also envisions using the church space to hold workshops for the general public on environmental topics such as composting and rainwater collection.
Early next month, the nonprofit organization KaBOOM! will erect a playground for the school in conjunction with the CarMax Foundation. The structure will go up in one day.
All told, the charter school has spent about $6 million of the $8.5 million budgeted to fully renovate the property, Diaz said.
Environmental Charter affiliates say the new school is the first middle school in the South Bay to be designated LEED Silver by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED – which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is the nation’s industry-standard program for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.
Environmental Charter High was praised by the White House in 2012, when it was among 78 schools nationwide – and four throughout California – to be named a Green Ribbon School for its environmentally themed curriculum.
Photo: Environmental Charter Middle School (ECMS-G) students prepare activities for the school’s Grand Opening Ceremony, which took place on May 22, 2013 (Photo by Brad Graverson/Daily Breeze)
AS FEATURED ON KNX 1070 — CBS Radio Los Angeles
May 22, 2013
What makes Environmental Charter Middle School’s (ECMS-G) campus “literally green”? An abundance of natural light, classrooms that open right up to greenhouses, and much more. Just a year ago, this was an abandoned church site that was boarded up and had graffiti on it. Today, it is a LEED Silver certified middle school with 12 classrooms and 360 students.
Learn more about this transformation in the following interview where ECS Founder and Executive Director Alison Suffet Diaz speaks with KNX 1070 – CBS Radio Los Angeles.
By Dorothy Lee, Vice President of Client Management, EdTec Inc.
& Samantha Berman, Development Consultant, EdTec Inc.
Many charter school leaders dream of building the perfect school to meet the needs of their students, teachers and staff. With a million other duties demanding time and attention, these site dreams can become pipe dreams, often going unrealized. Once a school is successfully up and running for a few years, it can become nearly impossible to plan and manage large-scale improvements at its current site, let alone envisioning and building an entirely new one.
Still, with the right combination of foresight, patience and focus, some organizations manage to bring their dreams to fruition, all the while navigating significant hiccups along the way. Los Angeles’ Environmental Charter Schools is a perfect example.
Environmental Charter Schools (ECS) is a growing network of charter schools serving communities in Greater Los Angeles. ECS opened Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale in 2001, which now serves 534 students, and Environmental Charter Middle School temporarily located in Inglewood in 2010, serving 320 students. A second Environmental Charter Middle School will take over the Inglewood site this fall, since the existing middle school has relocated to its new facility.
ECS’ mission is to provide students with unique learning experiences that utilize environmental service learning opportunities. While doing so, ECS has become an educational force to be reckoned with: 98% of their students graduate with coursework necessary for admission to four-year colleges (compared to about 35% statewide), and 97% of their middle school students scored proficient or advanced on the writing portion of the CST.
ECS’ original middle school charter was approved for the city of Gardena, but at the time of approval no site was available there, so ECS received permission from
their authorizer to locate the middle school in the neighboring city of Inglewood. However, the intention was always to serve the community of Gardena, and last year, ECS Founder and Executive Director, Alison Suffet Diaz, identified an unused church facility in Gardena as a potential site. The challenge was to convert the vacant building into a LEED-certified middle school that could include 12 classrooms with indoor/outdoor space, 2 greenhouse classrooms, an outdoor amphitheater and playground, and a 2-story Community Center.
It was an ambitious plan, to say the least, but we’re happy to report that Environmental Charter Middle School-Gardena successfully opened this month. The process was not without its share of challenges. We spoke with Suffet Diaz, Founder & Executive Director of Environmental Charter Schools (ECS), Kami Cotler, Principal of Environmental Charter Middle School, Scott Thomas, CFO of Pacific Charter School Development (PCSD), and Megan Hadden, Vice-President of Real Estate, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, about lessons learned, and expect they will be instructive to other charters fostering plans to grow bigger and better.
Show me the Money
While every school would like to design and build their own facility, it isn’t possible without careful financial planning and management. Charter schools that want to control their own destiny when it comes to a facility have to develop – and stick to – a budget that allows them to accumulate a reserve and run with a consistent annual operating surplus sufficient to cover the financing costs. ECS has been blessed with strong fundraising and community support and has been able to amass cash to fund this expensive project. Even with their corporate and foundation donations, ECS still must take care to watch their cash flow as the middle school is still growing; this is the first year the school has served all grades 6-8. This project also would not have been possible without the
involvement of PCSD. Now that the building is complete, PCSD has taken on the role of lessor and ECS has agreed to eventually purchase the facility.
Given the school’s location and population, ECS is looking into New Market Tax Credits (NMTC) with a Community Development Entity in order to purchase the building. Scott Thomas, CFO of Pacific Charter School Development, notes, “more than 85% of our clients have used New Market Tax Credits to purchase
their facilities.” ECS favors the use of NMTC since interest-only payments will be required for the next seven years and it is common for 20-25% of the loan to be forgiven and counted as equity at the end of the seven-year period. The downside of this arrangement is that ECS will need to refinance the loan at that time, with the hope that interest rates have not skyrocketed.
Pioneer Spirit Pitfalls
When charter organizations want to develop facilities, they often enlist the help of charter-friendly real estate development organizations to help them identify the site and negotiate the acquisition. In the case of ECS, Suffet Diaz found the Gardena property and negotiated the terms of the sale herself. Only then did ECS hire Pacific Charter School Development, a non-
profit charter real estate development organization, to assist with financing and project management.
Independently handling the initial steps of choosing the site and finalizing the sale can make the site design more challenging for all parties. Scott Thomas explains, “We usually take clients to other schools so they can see what they like and don’t like.” When a charter organization is able
to visit other sites, they can bring concrete examples of their priorities to the architects. In the case of
ECMS-Gardena, the school site was going to be created from a rehabilitated building – an unused church. Thomas notes, “You can find out things about buildings that you don’t originally know. This building in particular had a lot of surprises for us, and it was in worse shape than we thought.”
Megan Hadden is currently the Vice-President of Real Estate at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, but previously acted as a consultant to fill in gaps between PCSD project managers, liaising between the general contractor, the architect, and the owner. In speaking about what made ECS’ project unique, she highlighted that “it was a very large tenant improvement of a church building. Previous use was not consistent with education, and it’s very difficult to convert existing spaces into education spaces.” Hadden sums up the complications: “IF, and that is a big IF, you are considering a tenant improvement of a space that has traditionally not been used for educational use–first, reconsider. It is very specialized, complicated, and brings many unknowns to your team and the experts working on the project.”
In hindsight, Kami Cotler, Principal at Environmental Charter Middle School-Gardena, not only recommends visiting other schools before starting the design process, but also having a better understanding of the real priorities of the build: “It’s challenging to run a school and simultaneously manage the creative process the architect wants to engage in. Looking back, I wish I knew it was okay to pick one or two points of coolness and have everything else be functional. This would have simplified the process and helped control the budget. Next time, I would put together a master list of ‘Must- Haves’ and then a ranked list of ‘Nice-to-Haves.’ Then I would ask the architect to put dollar values on the Nice-to-Haves so that we could prioritize what is really necessary.”
Time is of the Essence
One of the most frustrating challenges the team encountered was the amount of time it took to get started once the property was acquired. The original goal was to move into the new site in December of 2012. Then it was February 2013. Then it was April.
ECS had the property under contract in May of 2011, and they began working with Pacific Charter School Development in the fall. The Conditional Use Permit (CUP) process began shortly thereafter, but it took a full eight months to obtain the CUP, so no actual building could happen during that time. PCSD’s Scott Thomas notes, “There is a risk with CUP because you’re just waiting and depending on the city to approve your plans. It’s very frustrating because it’s completely out of your control.” PCSD was able to close on the property for ECS in June of
2012 when CUP was finalized, and construction finally began in August.
School leadership at ECS originally planned for the school to have a Mid-Winter Break so that move-in could happen in December 2012. Because the space wasn’t ready in December, they had to change that plan. They ultimately decided to offer a 2-week Spring Break instead, and conduct the move-in then. Not only did this affect everybody’s break schedule, but the larger school calendar had to be reconfigured; the Board had to approve all the changes, and the staff and students had to be increasingly flexible throughout the process. Timing challenges can’t necessarily be planned for with any accuracy, but anticipation and flexibility are key to coping with them.
We’re Building a Building!
Once the initial challenges of timing and financing were met, the fact remained: the school site still had to be built out. Scott Thomas of PCSD explains, “It’s extremely important to understand what the client wants out of the building. Do they want architectural flair? Should it be purely functional and really maximize space? Is the goal for it to be the least expensive build? In the end, you can’t maximize all three – you need to be very clear that there are trade-offs.”
This idea of a trade-off isn’t only true for the project as a whole, but for all the minutiae of the build, too. Suffet Diaz explains, “We wanted windows facing the exterior hallway because we knew that students learn better with natural light. This created a bunch of questions: If we have those windows, should we have
blinds? If the blinds are expensive, should we only have tall windows so that blinds aren’t necessary? Should the windows be frosted? And on and on.”
In the end, they decided to add the windows and install blinds, but the blinds open from the bottom, which is distracting for students because they see everybody walking by. If they had realized this problem beforehand, they would have installed blinds that open from the top, to allow for the natural light, but not serve as an unnecessary distraction for the students.
A Balancing Act
An additional challenge can present itself in the management of the building process itself. “There is a constant tension of opposites: the builder wants something simple, fast and executable while the architect desires something interesting, creative and beautiful,” explains Cotler. Aside from balancing these competing interests, you also run the risk of getting past the City gatekeepers. PCSD’s Thomas says, “It’s vital to understand the city process; the plan may meet Code by the plan checker, but the inspector can interpret the code differently and decide to override the previous plan.”
Fortunately, ECS had already become adept at keeping necessary information organized and indexed at the Board level. “In our weekly minutes, the history of issues — Permits, Schedule, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, etc. — were reflected, so it was easy to keep track of how things were resolved. Everyone was kept up to date.” It’s crucial to keep the school’s leadership, the contractors and architects aware and informed at every step of the process so that accountability doesn’t slip through the cracks.
A final stakeholder to keep in mind is the community around the new site itself. Cotler notes, “It’s important to remember to be a good neighbor, and really create a foundation for that prior to moving to the area.” Not only that, but you have to be vigilant in keeping the lines of communication open so that you can continue to be a good neighbor once you have officially moved in. Cotler continues, “You don’t want a contentious relationship. This involves educating the parents because, for example, if someone blocks a neighbor’s driveway and that resident complains to the city, this can complicate the school’s Conditional Use Permit renewal process. We have to teach them that their behavior impacts the school.”
When asked why they wanted to construct their own school, Suffet Diaz explained, “We want to create a textbook for learning; this facility is a page in that book. With our own school we get to design the campus we want. Otherwise we would need a long-term lease and an excellent relationship with the owner. We wouldn’t be able to make all the site improvements we would want. Besides, Prop 39 assignments are at the district’s whim and are only for a 1- year term, so we couldn’t think about what we wanted our school to feel like in the long-term.” Reinventing a space clearly has its benefits, but Hadden warns, “If you’re going that route, inflate your budget. Make sure the acquisition or lease price gives you the flexibility and contingency you will need for construction – all of it will cost you more than you think it will.”
On Monday, April 8th all of the current students at ECMS-Inglewood moved to the new ECMS-Gardena site, and in August, ECMS-Inglewood will begin serving another 180 new students for the 2013/14 year. Cotler is proud to report that all ECMS- Gardena teachers now have their own classrooms and four of them include a garage door opening to an outdoor learning space. It’s heartening to see that this school is not only serving the community the petition was originally written for, but also providing a green space to truly fulfill the organization’s mission. ECS has plans to renovate the ECMS-Inglewood site in the future, and when that happens, they feel confident that they will be prepared in understanding the process better and knowing what they want and how to make it happen.
Suffet Diaz is now looking ahead to Phase II of the ECMS- Gardena construction, “the fun spaces – a multi-purpose room, art space, kitchen and reception area…the greenhouses, the vines that are an art feature which will climb the walls, signifying the community’s contributions to our growth.” Clearly, the leadership of ECS have a grand
vision for the ultimate green learning space. Phase I, now complete, was to construct clean and bright classrooms with places for plants and trees inside the facility, and that mission was not only a frustrating and challenging process, but also an unqualified success.
By Dalina Castellanos
December 13, 2012, 8:59 p.m.
The State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program brings foreign guests to charter school’s class for young women.
Girls at the Environmental Charter Middle School in Inglewood looked puzzled when Fahmia Al-Fotih described her former days as a teacher in Yemen.
The students weren’t curious so much about the visitor’s hijab or the fact that she had taught more than 70 pupils in a small room. They were surprised that Al-Fotih still used chalkboards and that her female students don’t have much of a voice in school.
Al-Fotih and 19 others from a variety of countries were at the school recently to talk to the girls about topics that concern women around the world. They were part of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program in which delegates travel around the country examining ways to cultivate leadership in young women in their home communities.
“Yemen is a male-dominated society,” Al-Fotih said. “I am very impressed with the facilities and platforms in place to help [girls] out here.”
Geneva Dowdy’s EmpowHer class at the charter school is one such program. As part of the EmpowHer Institute, the class teaches young women in middle and high school personal, community and financial responsibility and self-reliance. In the class, girls practice what they call “elevator speeches,” which train them to deliver a short resume of who they are in 30 seconds or less, getting them accustomed to public speaking.
Before the visit, Dowdy went over concerns the girls might have had in talking to such a group.
“Some of these girls have … never met anyone from another country,” she said. “This was a huge opportunity for them and we talked about how we can engage with our guests and make them feel as comfortable as possible while still learning from them.”
The visit allowed them to practice asking appropriate and interesting questions and how to engage in conversation with an older person.
“It shocked the girls how much they were able to get out of the session,” Dowdy said. “I don’t think they realize all the things that we’ve been molding them to be able to do.”
Poised and courteous, Dowdy’s students read poems and told the international delegates about their daily struggles with bullying and “drama.”
“What is drama?” one of the visitors asked, not familiar with the term used outside theatrical expression.
“It’s like when someone talks bad about you behind your back,” a student replied.
Keosha Taylor, 13, told the crowd that before participating in the class, she thought she was “just regular.” Through EmpowHer, she felt more important and special.
“Was you guys,” she started to ask the women before correcting herself. “Are you guys empowered?”
Samaher Abuthaher, who is Palestinian, said it is difficult when women can’t speak freely or stand in front of a group to express themselves.
Sora Duba Dadacha, a head teacher of a nomadic all-girls school in Kenya, told the class that he loses many of his students to forced marriages and many of them have suffered genital mutilation.
“The girls see the school as a rescue center,” he said. “I’m going to educate them so they get empowered like the girls here. I want to take my girls from darkness to light.”
The clock marked the end of the conversation, and much to some of the delegates’ surprise, the group took an impromptu vote for extra time.
The young teenagers all threw a thumbs-up sign in the air, noting their approval of the extension. Dadacha and many of the delegates did the same.
A woman from Romania asked how the girls felt about the world’s perception of young women living in Los Angeles based on such television shows as “Hannah Montana” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
Many of the teenagers groaned and said the shows were nothing like their lives.
“It makes it seem that we all spend our days at the beach or go crazy shopping,” said Diana Cervantes. “I’d rather not be known as that.”
AS FEATURED IN THE DAILY BREEZE
By Rob Kuznia, Staff Writer
December 2, 2012
Environmental Charter Middle School in Inglewood on Tuesday will host a delegation of activists, educators and nonprofit managers from 19 countries as part of a program to empower women through education.
The delegation, which is visiting the United States under the auspices of the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, will visit a girls-only class at the school known as EmpowHer.
Offered through the EmpowHer Institute, the Empowered Girls Program is delivered as a curriculum in a 20- to 38-week program in middle schools as part of the school class schedule. The program is aimed at developing life skills, financial literacy and leadership capabilities for low-income girls from 11 to 18 years old in neighborhoods with a dropout rate that exceeds 50 percent.
The delegation is in the United States to learn best practices and ideas from community leaders about programs that engage young women in positive ways.
The Principal’s Corner
ECMS IS LIKE A FAMILY. WHEN I’M HERE I FEEL AT HOME.