“Edgy” is the way the Rev. Maryetta Anschutz describes the Episcopal School of Los Angeles (ESLA) on the last day of the school year for its very first class, consisting of 27 sixth through eighth graders.
The campus encompasses the surrounding Hollywood neighborhood, from the main “Schoolhouse” at Santa Monica Boulevard and Lillian Way, to the Elephant Theatre across the street where students performed “Notes from the ESLA Underground,” to gym classes in a nearby city parks and recreation field to rented classrooms in the Arshag Dickranian Armenian School a few blocks away on Cahuenga.
“We are building this school in a 21st century model, so locating it in Hollywood makes a great deal of sense; it’s a center of public transportation, very practical,” said Anschutz, founding headmaster, who had spent part of the morning interviewing a prospective student and her father. “We needed to be accessible to all people.”
“The other nice part of the neighborhood is it’s a tech corridor, so you have high-tech companies and you have homeless people. Our kids have learned to negotiate the difference between the people who are really building the economy of Hollywood and the reality of life in an urban neighborhood.”
She chuckled. “I think the first week of full-time school our kids were walking down the street and were using words like ‘hobos.’ Now, they are incredible advocates for the poor. They really have grown. We’re very careful about it, of course, but now they care about the people who live in the park. They know their names, their stories.”
Growing is just one of the things that students Anthony Hernandez and Hays Johnson like about ESLA.
Like the recent physics lesson which led to a popsicle-stick bridge-building exercise. “We put weight on the bridges and learned about arches and triangles and shapes. We get the principles and lectures but then we experience it in the real world,” said Hays, 13, who will be starting the eighth grade when classes resume Aug. 26.
“I like to learn hands on,” added Hays, who switched schools after taking an ESLA-led STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) after-school course. STEM is incorporated throughout the curriculum and workshops are held at various times throughout the city. “They’re very innovative, but it’s also traditional at the same time.”
The STEM classes also brought 13-year-old Joe Patrick to the school, said his mother, Ellen Devine. “We hadn’t thought about a private school for Joe, but after he attended the STEM camps for a few summers he was so excited and inspired, and we were so impressed with Maryetta, that we decided we wanted to be involved with whatever she’s doing. You just want to get on board that train.”
Tradition vs. edginess
ESLA students use school-issued iPads; in many cases video courses have replaced traditional textbooks.
“What’s good about that for our program is the students can work at their own pace,” said Jane McCarron, a teaching fellow from Delaware. “Some need more help than others and they can go back to those videos and watch them and have a tangible record of how something was taught.”
The math curriculum includes both classroom lectures and Khan Academy video components. The Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org), a nonprofit educational organization whose mission is to provide a world-class education for anyone anywhere, “has essentially put an entire mathematics curriculum from basic math all the way to calculus online via teaching videos,” McCarron said.
Math is what Anthony Hernandez, 13, likes best about ESLA.
“I have an easy time memorizing numbers,” he said. “That’s why I find math to be one of my favorite subjects. So is history, and learning about how we’ve changed and evolved from the past and how we are now.”
The evening before (May 30) at the baccalaureate ceremony, Anthony became the first recipient of the Founders Award “because he reflects the eight virtues of the school” — generosity, kindness, humility, integrity, community, curiosity, courage and excellence, Anschutz said.
“I refer to him as the kid with grace and grit. He’s an incredibly hard worker, very determined, and the kindest kid I’ve ever known.”
She recalled his autobiographical photo essay, in five snapshots depicting running shoes. “He’s training for a marathon. He took pictures with one shoe placed in front of the other … on an angle, balancing on the other, because he said, ‘I always feel like I might fall over.’ And I said, all right, this is a child who gets it.”
“Getting it” means, for Anschutz, “living in this tension between the very traditional liberal arts programming and this very innovative edgy application of curriculum.”
It also means cultivating something the fourth-generation, “first skirt” priest knows a lot about — the Episcopal ethos. “We tend to look at curriculum not just for ourselves but the larger world and that models our ultimate value and that is building kids who are ethical leaders in the world and feel a call to public service.”
It also means loving and living the questions. “We are a people who value the question more than just the answer, so in an academic setting, that works very well,” she added.
Attending ESLA is “a lot different from my other school,” said Anthony, who lives in Koreatown. “In my other school there were so many students, you couldn’t have a whole conversation with anyone.”
Pressing toward the goal
Taking time for conversation and welcoming new students were among several challenges the Rev. Megan Hollaway offered students during the day’s chapel service.
“One of the really great things about this age is that it’s all about figuring out who you are, what’s important to you,” said Hollaway, chaplain and dean of students.
“And one way to do that is to just pick something and invest in it for a little while. Not sure what sport you want to play? Pick a sport and stick with it for a season. Don’t know if you’d be any good at violin? Practice for a year and commit to performing in front of other people. Your commitment to things changes when you have some skin in it.”
Paraphrasing Philippians 3, she encouraged students to, as Paul says, strain toward what lies ahead and “to never say, next year, ‘but we didn’t do it that way last year.’” She kicked off the welcome with prayers for incoming students like Ashley Garibay.
Luis Garibay, building superintendent at the diocese’s Cathedral Center, said that his daughter Ashley, 12, along with the entire family, is excited about her starting studies at ESLA in the fall.
“It’s a community school, and it offers everything, a solid curriculum, a good performing arts program that she’s interested in, and great academics,” he said. “Yet, it’s a down-to-earth kind of place.”
On any given day, Anschutz, former associate dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, is juggling such tasks as “figuring out anything from who’s the best plumber in town to where we’re going to go for our curriculum specialist in engineering.”
She also presses on toward the goal and looks forward. “It’s taken four years to get to this day; we have had the luxury of not having to grow that fast,” she said.
The school currently has 10 faculty members and will grow to about 50 students with the incoming class.
The school is a “gift to the city,” says board president Paulette Katzenbach, a parishioner at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Pacific Palisades. “They received the Rookie Award in a robotics competition against schools who have been in existence longer than most of our students,” she said.
“ESLA has just completed its first academic year — and with a flourish. The first Founder’s Day was proclaimed and classes were canceled; bagpipers piped; costumes were donned; fun and games were enjoyed and a lifelong tradition was begun. The school year ended with a meaningful, family-oriented awards ceremony. The recipient of the Founder’s Award was greeted with heartfelt applause from the audience and deafening screams of support from his schoolmates. It was a moment I will never forget! … ESLA offers thoughtful, hard-working, ethical, motivated and caring people to the world at large and I can think of no better gift.”
Inspired by the students’ trophy, earned in a Lego League Robotics tournament, a robotics program will be launched in 2014 in the afterschool programs held throughout the city, Anschutz said.
Staff and faculty are committed “to building a school with the best science department in the country” as well as to ethnic, racial, religious and economic diversity. “We aim to be legitimately a school that reflects the face of the city,” Anschutz said. At least half of the operating budget is designated for tuition assistance.
With “generous” scholarship support, tuition is about $24,400 yearly, although educational costs average about $75,000 per student currently, she said. “You have to understand, it’s a start-up school. By year five, the educational costs will be about $25,000 per student.”
Reflecting the face of the city
Not all students are Christian; approximately one-third live “well below” the poverty line; another third live well above it.
“The rest are very much in the middle and they’re kids who would probably not necessarily flourish in a traditional private school setting,” Anschutz said.
“We’ve knocked out the money culture as much as we can; they all wear uniforms, a coat and tie, skirts or shorts every day. Everybody has the same stuff. Every child has an iPad we provide. We all eat lunch together. All our kids eat with all the faculty, that’s an important part of our life.”
Even the food — much of it cooked daily by Anschutz — is “slightly edgy.”
“Yesterday we had watermelon and feta salad for lunch,” she chuckled. “We feed 45 people very healthy meals and good food for about $5 a person a day, which is half what the LAUSD feeds kids pizza for. Our kids have become foodies.”
Yet, “we have not done Eucharist in the chapel” a multi-purpose area that doubles as a cafeteria and meeting room, she said.
“I don’t feel like we’re at a place where we’ve figured that out yet. It’s a very important piece of our life. I take the sacraments so very seriously that when we do, we need to be very thoughtful about it, and we’re building toward that,” she said.
But she added, “Lunch for me is the most sacramental thing in the world because essentially you’re building a Eucharistic community that makes sense to kids.”
‘What makes ESLA special?’
ESLA has begun the four-year accreditation process, and Serena Beeks, executive director of the diocesan Commission on Schools, said it’s “been a privilege to watch the founding of ESLA, particularly because of the great combination in the administration and faculty of unstoppable enthusiasm and lively intelligence!
“And what a wonderful mission — to offer to children living on the “margins” in our city an education and an educational and spiritual community that is so excellent that families with considerable resources are also competing for admission.”
The faculty includes experienced teachers and teaching fellows, who are recent university graduates. “We’re a pretty classical school; we’re progressive about how we live, but traditional about how we grade,” Anschutz said. “We’re moving kids toward college prep; you can’t monkey around with that.”
The plan is to establish middle and high schools; a ninth grade class will be added this fall. “Our long-range vision is to build a curriculum that can be expansive and available to the wider community. We may never have more than 350 students but we want to make sure the curriculum is available to 350,000.”
The school closed escrow in mid-June on the Santa Monica Boulevard building, which is so unschool-like it is often mistaken for a tech company. About half the building is rented out to tenants, but eventually classrooms will be consolidated there. Anschutz is already considering creating a program to do workshops for overseas communities.
In the short term, there will be summer program offerings, including remediation work for some students and girl empowerment for others because “middle school is a tough age for girls.”
The reminder on a yellow “Post-it” note stands out from a sea of similar cues along one wall of Anschutz’ office: “What makes ESLA special?”
She considers the question carefully before recalling the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when she was serving a suburban New York City parish and school and “we waited for dads who were at work in the city to come and pick up their kids. Some came; some didn’t. It devastated our community.”
The attacks brought men into church in record numbers and “about six months later I asked them what brought them there. Ninety percent of those men had gone to an Episcopal school at one point in their life.”
She hopes to emulate “the thing the Episcopal Church does the best … humbly and graciously imparting our beautiful language, liturgy and faith in schools like this, and not worrying about when they’ll come back in the door, but knowing that some day they will come back in the door or they’ll know it’s always open no matter what happens in the world.”
Consider that for “kids who go to chapel three times a week and just marinate in the language … it’s a pretty powerful thing and it’s different from a Sunday morning. It’s different from coming with your parents.
“These kids are coming in and learning to be silent for each other and learning to pray for each other and that’s a pretty important skill at 13 years old.”
Ellen Devine said her son Joe has just experienced “his best school year ever.
“[The] Rev. Maryetta wants kids who are not only smart, but kind,” she said. “Joe’s been intellectually and physically stimulated, the teachers are all so bright and caring, they’ve recognized his strengths and encouraged him.”
For example, when he wanted to write a book review, he was inspired to start a school newspaper and he did — “and then he got to write the review,” chuckled Devine, who lives in Valley Glen.
“He’s getting this fantastic education but he’s also learning to be a good citizen. He’s also part of the city, and he recognizes his responsibility to it, too.”
Said Anschutz: “I have the best job in the whole world. This is the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s certainly the scariest. The money piece is scary, and knowing you’re responsible for students and staff. It’s also an extraordinary privilege. I loved parish life and university life, but this is it — it’s fun.”