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LACES Threads High Expectations Throughout School

High expectations, demanding courses, and dedicated faculty combine to give the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES) the feel and results of a pricey prep school rather than an urban magnet school. Included: Description of a strong urban magnet school program.

Imagine being accepted to a school with more competitive admissions than the University of California - Los Angeles (UCLA) -- when you're a sixth-grader.

So impressive are the reputation -- and the results -- of the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES) magnet school that it draws hundreds more applicants than it can accommodate and has an acceptance rate closer to that of elite colleges than urban magnet schools.

Almost 100 percent of LACES graduates are admitted to college. Yet most of the 1,523 students enrolled in the grade six-to-12 school are from minority groups and the inner city -- populations that typically struggle in school.

"This is not a gifted magnet; yet, somehow when they get here, they become successful, and get motivated," said principal Margaret Kim. "I can't quite figure out the formula -- maybe it's because students have to apply."


For assistant principal Marion Wong, the main ingredient in the formula is high expectations. The school's motto is "In search of excellence."

LACES students pass between buildings on their way to classes.
(All photos by Education World)

"We start with the idea that everyone is going to college," Wong told Education World in spring 2007. "The school is designed around two standards of excellence. Every student will take one or more advanced placement (AP) classes by the end of his or her career. Every student will attend a four-year college, have a fruitful career, and be an engaged citizen."

Serving students from many different backgrounds and circumstances and widely varying ability levels has not diluted those goals or expectations. "We do run the gamut, from some special education students to the very gifted," Wong noted. "A lot of kids are inner-city, but not hard-core inner-city. Some live in bad neighborhoods."


LACES at a Glance

Total enrollment: 1,523
Grade levels: 6-12
Ethnic breakdown:
-- 30.4 percent white
-- 21.7 percent African-American
-- 23.2 percent Asian
-- 21.7 percent Hispanic
-- 2.4 percent Filipino
-- .5 percent Native American
-- .1 percent Pacific Islander

Title 1 School: Yes
Free and reduced priced lunch: 40 percent
Special education: 3 percent
ESL: .3 percent
Students identified as gifted: 50 percent
Teachers with full credentials: 97 percent
Average class size:
Middle school:
High school:

LACES' results stand out even more because the school has many of the challenges that often sink urban schools into the lower-performing category and anchor them there: a predominately urban, minority population; large classes (the average is 29 students in middle-school classes, 34 in high school); few computers, no computer lab, and a building that was new when Franklin D. Roosevelt served as president.

Yet in 2005, LACES received the California Distinguished High School Award. The school also earned the California Distinguished School Award twice and the National Blue Ribbon School Award once.

"By multiple measures, the school offers an island of excellence in the midst of the inner-city neighborhood in which it resides," according to a California Best Practices Study done in 2005. "LACES is not a high-end private school but an inner-city school with no admissions criteria in GPA. Yet, it shows many of the features of an Exeter or Groton."

"It's harder to get in here than UCLA," noted Wong.

For the 2007-2008 school year, LACES received about 2,000 applications for approximately 244 openings in sixth grade. Students are chosen through a complex lottery system, and preference is given to siblings of students. The school also accepts about 35 ninth-graders each year to replace students who transfer to another high school.

"Parents cry when their kids don't get in here," Wong added. "Therapists call and say they want a child to go here."

In part because getting admitted is so difficult, parent involvement also is very high. "If we call a parent, they're in," Wong said. "Often both parents. All the families want the best for their kids. This school is definitely the first choice for many parents."

Lorraine, 16, a junior, said she was drawn to LACES because she heard it was a good school and her mother liked that she wouldn't have to transfer after middle school.

Teacher Randy Rutschman also is a tenth-grade guidance counselor.

"I know it's much harder than an LA high school," Lorraine told Education World. "There are more classes and the teachers are nice, but strict. You have to balance your schedule so you do well." Asked about her plans after high school, Lorraine answered, "I'll attend college, of course. I'm not sure yet what I'll study -- maybe fashion, business, or economics."


The school offers 23 AP courses, a wide variety of electives, and classes for different ability levels. LACES students are required to take seven courses a year, using a block schedule. Faculty members teach six courses, as opposed to five in many schools.

"This is designed to be an academic school," teacher Randy Rutschman said. "The kids realize why they are here."


LACES' Long History

LACES is the Los Angeles district's oldest magnet school. It began its second career as a magnet in 1977, when it opened to fourth through eighth-graders as part of the city's voluntary integration program. The last class of fourth-graders entered in 1991, and the school converted to grades 6-12.

The school was constructed as a junior high school for grades 7 to 9 during the 1930s with federal Work Projects Administration funds, and its design shows period Art Deco-influences. The buildings also show signs of minimal maintenance over the past 75 years. The school does boast a recently-constructed gym with a pool.

Designed much like a college campus, classes are spread among different buildings, some detached and some connected by open passageways. Between classes, students congregate in corridors and open courtyards.

LACES' architecture reflects the Art Deco-era of the school's construction.

Besides mandating that all LACES students take at least one AP class, the school's standards for graduation are much higher than the state's. While California requires students to earn 230 credits to receive a high school diploma, LACES students must earn 280.

"So LACES kids look pretty good," said Victoria Vickers, the magnet coordinator and sixth-grade counselor.

"Even with all the requirements, every student has a course he or she likes during the day," Wong noted. "We're able to offer electives. They can take at least one elective every year -- usually two."

And unlike many urban schools where teachers spend the bulk of the day on scripted lessons, drilling classes on basic skills for high-stakes tests, LACES teachers spend very little time prepping students for California's state tests. "We teach to state standards, and our kids usually do well on tests," Wong said. "Teachers often take students to a local college for testing, because there are fewer distractions and the setting reminds students of why they are taking tests and working so hard."

"Most graduates make a successful transition to higher education. Generally, our kids do really well in college," guidance counselor Mary Jane London said. "The kids who go to small schools do better -- many of them get lost at larger schools."

Staff members do want to add some curriculum specifically for middle-schoolers. "Our reputation has been made on the reputation of the high school," Vickers said. "We need to concentrate on the middle school. Now we're adding distinctly middle-school classes, such as leadership and journalism."

Generally speaking, LACES students are inquisitive and motivated, and that is a large part of the appeal of teaching there, said Marlene Braer, a 12th-grade English teacher who has been at the school for 15 years.

"I like the students and I like my colleagues," Braer told Education World. "My students are respectful and complete assignments, and I respect them. I love the interplay. The expectations are high; they don't want to disappoint me. And they stay engaged if you give them interesting things to talk about."


While requiring hard work from its students, LACES provides them with a dedicated 60-member faculty, a safe environment, 80 after-school clubs from which to choose, and a diversity that many public or private schools would envy. Preference is given to applicants from racially isolated neighborhoods. About 90 percent of LACES students are bused in from different parts of Los Angeles. The school's acceptance rate is designed to create a population that is about 70 percent minority and 30 percent white.

"I would never have met anyone who was a white American if I hadn't come here."

"I would never have met anyone who was a white American if I hadn't come here," said Cecilia, 13, a seventh-grader. "The neighborhood school I went to was all Hispanic; known for violence, and the people were not so nice. I learned new things here about people who are Korean, Chinese, and Japanese that I never would have known and became friends with them. You learn more here from other groups of people."

Because electives are open to students in all grades, pupils also learn with students of varying ages. Math classes are grouped by ability level, allowing some sixth graders to take first-year algebra. The calculus teacher also can teach seventh-grade honors math.

LACES faculty has little turnover, and that and the fact that students are there for seven years allows teachers and students to bond. Teachers try to turn students on to their strengths, and often the older ones help the younger ones, Vickers noted.

Middle and high-school students learn together in some LACES classes.

"Just having them for so long is a plus," she added. You can start with kids who don't know anything about music and dance and get them involved."

Some, though, say there are drawbacks to spending their middle- and high-school years in one school. "I met a lot of people I wouldn't have met normally," said Marissa, 16, a junior. "But it is a long time to be in one place. I wish I'd had some more transitions."

Others initially had doubts about attending, but were won over. "When I first came here, I didn't want to come," said Christina, 13, a seventh-grader. "I am an artist, and they focus on academics. It's a different experience -- there is no football team, the mascot is the unicorn, which is different -- but I feel like I'm learning a lot. Classes are big, but teachers try hard to give you a lot of help. You get to make friends with kids from other grades and races."


Teachers at LACES probably have more work to do than their counterparts in other districts schools, but the longer hours for staff members pay off in the relationships they build with students and peers, Rutschman said. "There is a lot of interaction among the faculty, and we have a supportive administration; the principal has vision."

Rutschman has been at LACES for 23 years and teaches AP psychology, a leadership class and U.S. history. He also is a tenth-grade guidance counselor who passes out licorice to his advisees.

"I like the kids -- they are intelligent, personable, and verbal -- that's mostly what has kept me here all these years."

If that weren't enough, he serves as principal of an orthodox yeshiva, a school for Jewish students, working there from 3:20 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. four days a week.

"I like the [LACES] kids -- they are intelligent, personable, and verbal -- that's mostly what has kept me here all these years," Rutschman told Education World. "At this school, the worst kid is a good kid. They are willing to tell you when you are right or wrong. And I like the fact that it is integrated -- it's really culturally rich."

Robert, 17, a senior and a member of the Young Black Scholars, said LACES is a good place for people who want to apply themselves. He had been accepted to Loyola Marymount College.

"The classes are smaller, and I met a lot of different kinds of people," Robert said. "If you come to school to handle your business, you're okay. If not, it's hard."


LACES also encourages peer support and interaction across the grades. High school students serve as peer counselors, for which they must undergo 20 hours of training. The program is run by an English teacher.

Students who complete the training meet with classmates and talk about issues such as transitions, coping with divorce, and handling grief. But the students recognize they are no substitute for professionals. "They know when to call in help," Wong said.

High school students also volunteer as homeroom leaders for the younger ones. At least four or five high school students are assigned to all the sixth-grade homerooms. The homeroom leaders also run summer orientation for new students.

Open passageways connect some of LACES' buildings.

Homeroom leaders help sixth-graders with homework, the transition to middle school, and discuss how to work with different teachers. The older students also participate with sixth-graders in team building, seasonal activities, and diversity training.

Christopher, 12, a sixth-grader who lifted his feet up and down as he talked, said the interaction with older students was one of LACES' strengths. "I like having the big brothers and big sisters -- they help with homework," he said.


Despite the staff's efforts to help all students perform at high levels, the biggest challenge LACES faces is closing the achievement gap. African-American and Latino students do better than students in those groups in other district schools, but they still are not scoring as high as Asian-American and white students. "We love all the kids, but they come from uneven backgrounds," Wong noted.

To assist struggling students, teachers volunteer to tutor pupils before and after school and during their own lunch periods. The school has no formal remedial or tutoring programs.


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"I wish we could do more for kids who need that [extra help]," Vickers said. Maybe it makes them more responsible; they have to take responsibility for their own learning."

LACES makes an effort to get all parents involved in their children's learning by providing buses for people without their own transportation so they can attend school functions and meetings.

Other strategies LACES faculty has used include participating in district-supported site leadership for closing the achievement gap; designing opportunities for teacher collaboration around increasingly common assessments; and offering professional development for highly differentiated instruction, noted the California Best Practices Study.

Staff members have adopted other approaches to narrow the gap, including making some courses more culturally relevant. In one math class, for example, students map the neighborhood to learn map construction and trigonometry. Teachers also rotate teaching courses so they get experience teaching students at different levels. Language arts teachers are including more books by minority authors in reading assignments.

Teachers also have begun identifying which standards need to be taught and administering quarterly assessments to pinpoint the skills on which students need to concentrate, according to Vickers.

To promote multicultural awareness, student organizations on campus such as the Young Black Scholars, Young Latino Scholars, and the Young Asian Scholars put on cultural programs for the school. The Black Scholars organize Black History Month programs, and the Latino student group sponsors dance assemblies.

And LACES' efforts to narrow the achievement gap have not gone unnoticed. "The school is challenging the conventional belief that excellence must be sacrificed in the quest for equity," noted the California Best Practices Study. "The school aims for both -- though it has not yet succeeded."

What LACES has succeeded in doing so far is creating an academic and social setting that is providing many students the skills and vision to take them beyond high school. "I heard of the school's reputation for getting people into college," said Ian, 16, a junior, explaining why he applied. "This seemed like a way to secure my future."




Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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