Summer 2006 Newsletter

Lawndale And NSBN Continue to Collaborate On Joint Use Options for Families and Children

Joe CondonPerhaps the most efficient example of joint-use planning is the collaboration between education and recreation. Both require open spaces and equipment for children to play and get exercise, and both take up large, valuable swaths of scarce urban land. It is only natural, then, that Lawndale ESD would want to locate an early education center in a renovated, updated Bodger Park. In the following interview, Superintendent Joe Condon discusses the myriad benefits from its collaborations with NSBN, including a new effort in Hawthorne.

What eduction and program objectives have you established for Lawndale Elementary School District's collaboration with NSBN?

My vision, ultimately, is to establish a relationship with families the day the child is born. I'd love to have a staff that visits parents in the hospital and starts this relationship with them in terms of educating their children and meeting the needs of the family, that's my ultimate. I don't know if I will live long enough to achieve it, but that's where I'd like to go.

Elaborate this vision of lifelong education and its impact on the district's facility priorities. In doing so, share why the district partnered with NSBN.

I came across NSBN serendipitously. I didn't even know the organization existed until we began to look at using a piece of property a little differently, and I met David Abel at a meeting four years ago. NSBN expanded my thinking. It caused me to look at our assets differently and therefore meet the needs of a larger community, not just my student community or their parents, but the community at large. About 25 percent of the population has children in schools, so I am missing 75 percent of the population of this community on any given date. It enabled me to engage them about what their needs are and how we might better serve them.

NSBN caused me to think differently about how I might use a piece of property, so instead of just looking at a preschool, people began saying, "Well, have you thought about this, or that?"and the truth was no, I hadn't. So it gave me an opportunity to see a different way of doing this.

Let's talk about the work and the school district's Bodger Park charettes with the community, civic and school officials in Lawndale. What was the land asset and what has come of the opportunity?

We have a piece of property that is located between two schools. During the day and on the weekends it's a county park, and during the school day it's a school playground. The property is owned by the school district but it is used as a joint facility. We looked at building a preschool on a relatively unused two-acre portion of that area because we need room for preschool students, offices, staff, and things like that. Through a conversation with NSBN, the proposal was made to expand the use of that site. We had not previously thought about it, so we began a process to envision what that might look like.

Then, with the expertise of NSBN, we began to engage the community in a meaningful conversation about what that facility would that look like in order to better meet the needs of the community at large. So we had evening meetings at the local school adjacent to that property and gave notice to all the area residents to come in. With the NSBN staff as well as the architect for the project, we began to share with the community what we were thinking and ask them what they would like to see on that property in order to better meet their needs.

That process was exciting because it involved city representatives, police, fire, and then anyone that wanted to show up from the community. We had people that were opposed to our project; we had more people who were supportive of the project. More than any other project I've ever been involved in—we have built two schools and modernized seven—it engaged the community in a real, meaningful conversation. Looking back to what we had done in the last ten years, I would have done past projects differently had I been exposed to that kind of work.

A master plan that evolved from the charettes and community planning still awaits funding. Joint use school and park bond measures are on the November state ballot that could be tapped, and there is also the possibility of a local bond. How do these funding options affect the district's vision?

Locally we'd probably end up going out for another small bond. We estimate the cost of our plan at about $8 or 9 million. The wording of the state bond and pending legislation, which expands access to joint use funds, will determine whether we can seek matching state funds. Access by Lawndale ESD to state bonds may be a challenge. For about 15 years, our school district grew rather steadily, about 1 to 1.5 percent a year. Last year and this year we declined for the first time in about 17 years. That usually puts us out of the running for state money—which I think is an error on the part of the state, but be that as it may, money is generally earmarked for districts that are growing as opposed to other needs. I'd have to wait and see the exact wording of that bond - I have not seen the details—and the devil is in the details.

We also submitted an application for park bond resources to build out our open space plan but did not get funding. That was an extremely competitive state grant process.

What does the Bodger Park joint-use plan include?

A physical building would house pre-school students, some preschool staff, and a drop-off and pick-up library where parents could get online and order something. Our district truck goes right by the county library every day; we would be the delivery service for them. We've contacted the Little Company of Mary to see whether they would be interested in offering health services—not a medical clinic, but services such as health exams, and immunizations for the community. Initially they were not interested, but during that time Robert F. Kennedy Hospital in Hawthorne closed down. When that happened it burdened Little Company of Mary's emergency room. They came back to us and said that their interest had changed because it would give them a service area and a physical presence that would ease the burden on their hospital. So for the first time, they were interested.

In addition to that, the park is at least 30 years old and needs renovation. So that grant application was to renovate the park and create a much more community-friendly park: kid-friendly for playground, community and adult-friendly for adult exercise as part of the whole project. So we'd use the property for a physical building and we'd renovate the park to meet the needs of the community.

How does the plan meet community and family, as well as educational, needs?

Currently, it's a playground for kids, used mainly during the day - seven days a week by hundreds of people. And over 1,000 children use it every day as a playground, which was designed 40 years ago strictly as a children's play area. A nonprofit organization sponsors soccer, baseball, and basketball at the park all year-round. It's an incredibly over-used park in that sense. Our intention is to modernize the park to meet the demonstrable needs of the community.

But more is possible. In the charettes we talked to the community about what they would like to see, and they would like to see walking paths, par courses with exercises stations, etc. An adult component is currently missing. The only thing that engages adults currently is a community garden, and we'd like to maintain that as best we can. There are a lot of apartments in the area, and the people that live there need a place to relax, to exercise, to picnic, and to grow their own vegetables. We want to make the park friendly to the whole community.

Let's turn to another pre-K planning project involving NSBN and the Lawndale Elementary School District: the Salk School, located in the city of Hawthorne. Why you are involved in that project?

By our demographic estimates that Salk site is located in an area of LA County that houses the largest density of children 5 and under, and we are concerned about giving these children access to preschools. At the same time, we know that our own school district facilities are getting maxed out. The conversation with both LACOE, who owns the Salk site, and NSBN revolves around the possibility of us operating a pre-k program there. The Salk site allows us to expand our preschool offerings because it's in our catchment area. One of the needs in our community is full-day preschool, so we'd like to enroll children in an NSBN-developed preschool as well as our own state preschool so that children could go to one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

Also of importance, is that a pre-K on this site would draw from Hawthorne, which is a critical catchment area because they do not have preschools in Hawthorne. In fact, Bruce McDaniel of Lennox, another NSBN collaborator, and I have talked about finding locations in Hawthorne where we could run preschool programs. We have the staff and the experience, so does Lennox. The thought that we could operate the programs came out of our NSBN meetings about the Salk School. That's a whole different way of thinking about preschools, I think.

LACOE has signed on to this collaborative planning process with NSBN and Lawndale. What might be a reasonable timeline for establishing a new pre-K program at the Salk site?

I know NSBN is looking at September. That's really fast to get the community engaged and then to get the facility designed and built. Practically, I would think it could be done by the middle of the year.

You began this interview by saying that your vision starts with working with children from birth through all of their educational years. What role does pre-K and family resource centers play in the implementation of your life-long educational vision?

They are the key players. We have a home teaching program, and we call on parents, because they are children's first teachers. Our staff visits homes and works with parents. In addition to that, many parents, because of cultural issues, don't want to send their kids to preschool at age 3, so we recognize that and we go out to them. That's not just altruism. It's, first, to establish an education environment for every child, and, two, to establish a relationship with the school district.

A family resource center operated on the school camps says to the whole community, "We are here for all of you, not just for children ages 5 or 3 and above. We're here for you whether or not you have a child, whether or not you send your child to our school."I think it changes the whole dynamic of schools vis a vis the community. Right now I think the community sees school as simply serving children as a narrowly-defined client. I don't think that's where schools need to be, and I don't think that's where they ought to be. We have to get out of the mindset that we have a command over 25 percent of the population. We don't. The population votes with their feet, and we need to do a better job of meeting all needs.

Share with our readers the advantages and disadvantages of being a small school district. Some LAUSD supporters, it must be noted, have suggested that large school districts are much more able to plan for and provide resources to their students and families.

One disadvantage for us is that we don't have name-recognition. LAUSD does. People come to LAUSD and approach them because they're LAUSD, and because they are so large, they have a large, incredibly diverse staff. They have somebody for everything. In a district like Lawndale, everybody wears multiple hats.

At the same time, I think we can move much more quickly. Because I have a relatively small organization and an intimate relationship with both leadership personnel and the board, I'm comfortable supporting projects and taking positions I believe my board will support as well. Projects have come to me because LAUSD could not move quickly enough; organizations got frustrated and asked me if I was interested. So that's an advantage.

We affiliate with both Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount for student-teachers, and one of the reasons I like working with them is that they are small, private universities, and they can move quickly on projects. I think we bring that same quickness and flexibility that an LAUSD does not enjoy.

Regarding funding, if I was in LAUSD, I'd have more opportunities because people are more concerned about what's happening in L.A. and they come to L.A. For instance, we used to have a much closer relationship with UCLA for teacher training. At some point, they said that they had been directed to work with only LAUSD – and not because they didn't like working with us. At the same time, because we're aggressive and flexible, we have been very successful in bringing in projects. We have built a positive track record, and when funders look at us, they know that we honor what we have said we're going to do.

Lastly, there is so much discussion in the press about school reform. What can we learn from your work in Lawndale that might inform a discussion about how to improve public education?

Everything is based on relationships, both internal and external. One of the advantages of a Lennox or a Lawndale is that we're small and intimate. People know one another, and we continue to look at our relationships with our parents, employees, and kids. I believe that teachers are happy and better teachers if they're stimulated and challenged. When we host student-teachers from a variety of universities, I don't recruit them for Lawndale. I talk to them about what feeds their spirit, and if teaching feeds their spirit, they should find the best place without compromising themselves by going someplace they don't want to go. Ultimately, if they find that teaching doesn't feed their spirit, they should do themselves and their kids a favor and get out.