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Jewish Journal

Affirmative Actions

by Tom Teicholz

May 22, 2003 | 8:00 pm

(Clockwise, from top to right) APCH members Melinda Lacaro, 13; Fwrnanda Gomez, 11; Andrea Bottelo, 8; APCH staff member Derrion Wyatt, 21; Xochell Maria Torres, 9; and Jessica Moore, 13. Photo courtesy APCH

(Clockwise, from top to right) APCH members Melinda Lacaro, 13; Fwrnanda Gomez, 11; Andrea Bottelo, 8; APCH staff member Derrion Wyatt, 21; Xochell Maria Torres, 9; and Jessica Moore, 13. Photo courtesy APCH

If you want to talk about education, if you want to discuss affirmative action, you need to take a trip with me down the 10 Freeway. Let's head east past the 405 and the 110 and exit on Central Avenue, heading south. That's right -- South Central, recently renamed South Los Angeles.

Driving on Central Avenue, you get inured to a certain version of urban neglect -- you begin to take gang tagging as a given. Then you come to A Place Called Home (APCH) -- a gleaming white building at 29th Street and South Central Avenue. There's no graffiti there. That's the first sign of community respect you see at APCH. But there's more inside.

APCH is a safe harbor for 9- to 20-year-olds. Started as an after-school program, APCH now includes a Los Angeles Unified School District-certified public school for those who've either missed 45 days of school and are not allowed to return to their schools, been asked to leave school or been assigned to APCH's school by the courts.

If I were pitching this to a studio, I might describe it as "Lean on Me" meets "Fame." There's a dance program and a computer lab where students can improve their skills or even be trained to receive certification as a computer technician. There are two music studios where students can play, sing and perform, as well as have group and private music lessons.

There are yoga classes, martial arts and a gym with serious workout machines. There's a lunch area where healthy meals are served. There are counselors for both children and their parents, offering gang prevention and interventions, as well as drug and alcohol treatment.

There is food and clothing distribution for the community, as well as Medi-Cal enrollment. There is a library where they don't loan books, they give them away.

Here's what they don't have at APCH: no gang colors, no gang signs, no drugs, no guns, no violence. The school has a higher attendance and graduation rate than the local public school. And it all began with one woman: Debrah Constance.

Constance is the founder and the president of APCH -- it is her mission and her dream. She's the former Jon Douglas executive who gave up a lucrative career to create a safe haven for children in South Central.

Rabbi Jan Goldstein's new book, "Sacred Wounds," tells in great detail of the journey that brought Constance, a high school dropout and recovering alcoholic, to found APCH in 1994 to help children whom so many others had given up on. (APCH was also profiled in The Journal in July 2000.)

Constance started in May 1993 with 12 children in two rooms of a church. Today, APCH works with 4,800 children, has 44 employees and an annual budget of $1.6 million.

Despite generous funds from a combination of corporate support and individuals, including Jasmine Guy, Johnny Carson, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Colin Horowitz, Rick Wisely and Steve Winston, APCH survives month to month and is in desperate need of greater support.

When you first walk into APCH, it is at the same time low-key and overwhelming. Some of the kids are scary looking -- or rather they've been schooled in the art of intimidation -- until they start smiling at you, which they all seem to do.

Don't ever think that one person can't make a difference: It's hard to walk around APCH and not be moved by what one woman has accomplished.

But what about younger children who are all dreams and potential?

A few minutes away at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Main Street is The Accelerated School (TAS), a public charter school with the soul and vibe of the best private schools. TAS currently educates 360 children, grades K-8, with plans to expand a class a year until it can offer a K-12 school.

TAS is the school that its founders, Jonathan Williams and Kevin Sved, dreamed of as teachers at South Central's 99th Street Elementary School. At TAS, every child is treated as gifted; children can get all the tutoring they need to keep up -- but there is no getting around meeting the school's rigorous standards. Students and parents both sign a contract that mandates their involvement in the school.

TAS was founded in 1994 (based on Dr. Henry Levin of Stanford University's model program) and began with 50 students, grades K-4, operating out of the community rooms of St. Stephen's Church. They had to put away the classrooms Friday and reassemble them after Sunday school.

When Williams and Sved received a $200,000 grant from Wells Fargo, they knew their dream had a chance. However Williams and Sved's big break came when fashion designer Carole Little and her husband and business partner, Leonard Rabinowitz, were considering donating their headquarters and warehouse in South Central to an educational institution.

Little and Rabinowitz entrusted the decision to Tara Lynda Guber, who at the time was president of Education First! Guber's decision to support TAS (she is now on the board) and the donation of the building (which was valued at over $6 million) took the school to a whole other level. Guber then pledged to raise the necessary funds so that they could one day tear down the Carole Little building and construct their own dream facility, one that would house a K-12 school. That school will open in September in an award-winning building designed by architects Marmol, Radziner + Associates.

Guber, who is also a well-known yoga figure, has introduced yoga as a physical education elective at TAS -- and I say this to skeptics: watching a group of awkward 9-year-olds find grace and calm doing yoga poses was one of the surprise pleasures of my recent tour of TAS.

The students at TAS wear uniforms (a parent-led decision) of light-blue polo shirts with the school's name on it and dark-blue shorts, pants or skirts. There is no screening for admitting students -- it's done by lottery.

However, because this is a charter school, it is not bound by union regulations for teachers and it can dismiss students who breach their contracts. The net result is a highly motivated group of students, parents and teachers. There is currently a waiting list of 2,000 for the school, which hopes to be the model for other charter schools in Los Angeles and around the country.

TAS provides opportunity for the motivated child; A Place Called Home is a safe harbor and second chance for what Constance calls "the children no one wants."

However, my inner seder leader asks, what about the everyday children? The children who attend public schools in low-income neighborhoods, the innocent victims of budget cuts and the elimination of arts programs. Is anyone reaching out to them?

I'm glad you asked. Let me to tell you about P.S. Arts.

P.S. Arts was founded in 1991 by Paul Cummins, the former Crossroads (private school) headmaster, with seed money from Herb Alpert. Their mission was to restore arts education to underserved public schools in Los Angeles.

They began by focusing on the 450 students of the Broadway Elementary School in Venice-Westchester area, providing them with an hour of musical and visual arts education a week. Fourth- and fifth-graders received drama instruction, while others were offered dance.

Today, they reach almost 6,000 students in more than a dozen schools. In addition, P.S. Arts provides students with field trips to museums, theaters and galleries, guest artists, after-school programs and arranges professional development workshops for teachers

I recently visited the Grand View Elementary School (near Grand View Boulevard and Washington Place), where P.S. Arts has donated an "arts bungalow." What that really means is a two-room building it paid for and installed. One is a music room.

On the day I visited, a group of 30 kids were preparing a performance. Half the class played individual xylophones, while a quarter danced and the other quarter read from a text relating to their American history studies. The kids were shy, embarrassed and totally delighted.

Next door, Tamie Smith, a very high-energy art teacher, was inspiring 30 fifth-graders to illustrate thought bubbles. The students were working on their own in groups of twos and threes.

As Smith pointed out, at the beginning of the term, some of the students were not speaking English -- some of the Mexican children didn't even speak Spanish (they spoke Zapotec) -- and they were now expressing their feelings through art. Not bad for a day's work.

P.S. Arts does not happen in a vacuum. It is fortunate to have the indefatigable Laurie David spearheading its board, a very committed staff, exceptional volunteers and a very active board of trustees (of which my wife is a member). But as budget cuts increase, P.S. Arts is needed more than ever.

Caring about education is why I was heading down the 10 in the first place (not as some may suspect to have lunch at a certain Creole eatery on Slauson Avenue -- although I did manage to slip in a little Yucatan chicken from Chicken Itza at the Mercado de la Paloma).

Let me set this story in context: The last week in March is when private schools in Los Angeles send out their verdicts. The Geneva marriage convention prohibits me from offering the actual details of my daughter's kindergarten application process.

However, suffice to say, the decision of where to send our child -- to private or public, to secular or parochial, to a developmental or academic school -- for me was like walking into a maze of my own ambivalence. I was forced to consider the choices that my parents and I had made about my own education, the dreams and desires I have for my daughter (my projections) vs. my weak-minded attempt to respect the person she is and will become (while trying not to be influenced by which school's parents I would most enjoy hanging with).

I pondered all this as if I had any say in the matter. As with most events in my life, the outcome was obvious from the start to everyone but me. But I digress.

The following week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the University of Michigan case regarding affirmative action. I've always believed that affirmative action is just an "old boys network" for people who don't have one.

Not everyone at the schools I went to got in because of their grades, test scores or personal essays. Some got in because of their siblings, parents, last names or because of donations given or promised. No level playing field for them. (And why should there be? It's their name on the field.) Apparently, the families of legacies and donors recognize the value of having their children attend certain institutions -- so why shouldn't the Supreme Court?

What I learned on my journey is that Los Angeles is filled with people who care deeply about education and who have chosen to do something to improve education for all students.

In the last decade, a group of -- for the most part -- high-achieving Westside women with potent Hollywood connections have taken it upon themselves to improve public education in Los Angeles. Could this happen in any city in the United States? Perhaps, but Los Angeles is uniquely populated with people who have the time, energy, talent, creativity, dedication and access to financial resources to accomplish it.

Maybe there's an element of guilt for the gilded lives we lead. So what? What is remarkable is their accomplishments, their affirmative actions. Why did I say theirs? They can be yours, too.

If you are interested in learning more about the institutions or organizations mentioned in this article, they could use your time, energy, ideas and/or financial support. Check out A Place Called Home at www.apch.org; The Accelerated School, www.accelerated.org., and P.S. Arts, www.psarts.org .

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