Welcome to Crestview Preparatory: Q and A with Head of School Baudelia Chavez Taylor

CP Front

A few weeks ago, I stopped by Crestview Preparatory in La Canada to chat with head of school Baudelia Chavez Tayor. I’d never seen this absolutely charming school, but I’ve heard parents buzzing about it since Baudelia left the Center For Early Education about three years ago to become Crestview’s head of school.

Baudelia is immediately likable, personable and low-key. As we talked, I saw her genuine passion for the school, as our conversation flowed from big picture education trends like STEM, Maker Spaces and Robotics (yes, Crestview has these programs) to what’s happening in the school’s Harry Potter garden which functions as a science lab of sorts. The school plants fruits and veggies that local wildlife animals won’t eat, hence the gorgeous Kumquat tree.

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Crestview is very close to Pasadena and is accessible for families who live in Eagle Rock, Atwater, Silverlake, Los Feliz and other areas including the San Gabriel Valley. The school is a blend of traditional and developmental philosophies, with a focus on respect for childhood. One big change Baudelia instituted since taking over the school is a new homework policy. Now, there is “must-do” homework and “may-do” homework. Homework, Baudelia notes, must reinforce and relate to classroom work. The school has a lot of impressive programs like a robust technology program where kids start learning about computers in kindergarten where, as part of the curriculum, they learn to take apart a computer and put it back together, treating the computer as a “family” of parts that combine to create a whole. In later grades, robotics, coding and maker activities round out the program. The school garden is a real-life laboratory, where students plant and grow various fruits and vegetables, with the goal of learning why certain plants flourished and others withered.

CP Kinder Classroom

The school is small, with 155 students total for grades K-6, so Baudelia knows each student and their family personally. She beams with pride as we walk around the campus, peeking in classrooms. She gives credit to her team of teachers, administrators and staff at the school as we walk around the campus. Parent volunteers, she notes, do a lot of work at the school too. Baudelia is no stranger to the secondary school application process, so when it’s time to apply for secondary school, she takes a hands-on approach beginning in 5th grade to help families find the right school for their child. I really like the way she described extracurricular activities, an important part of the secondary school process. She noted that a student can participate in the traditional activities like soccer and piano, but she believes in a broad definition of what comprises a student’s passion like reading voraciously outside of school, which can show a secondary school a student applicant who is studious, patient, imaginative and typically, a very strong writer. So what if your kid doesn’t play soccer! See the impressive list of schools where Crestview kids enroll for secondary school. On my way out, I grabbed a copy of the school’s newspaper, Crestview Blastoff. How cool is that!

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Can you talk a bit about your background and experience? What brought you to Crestview?

I started my career as a teacher at LAUSD working with bilingual students at the middle school level. In 2001, I moved to The Center for Early Education in West Hollywood. I joined as a teacher in the early childhood and moved to the elementary several years later, landing in the third grade- my favorite grade to teach. From there, I joined the administration as the Director of Early Childhood Programs and led the early childhood division for several years before starting my headship at Crestview.

The opportunity to lead Crestview was a blessing, as the moment I visited the school it felt like home. At that time, I was ready to begin a headship and the small size of the Crestview community was perfect. I was drawn to its commitment to elementary education and to providing a balanced school experience to its students.

How would you describe the school’s educational philosophy?

Crestview’s philosophy is centered around the “respect for childhood” and balance in education. We strive to provide structure and nurture as we deliver instruction. We provide hands-on experiences that our students anchor conceptual understanding around.

CP Garden

Crestview describes itself as “the neighborhood school”. What are some things you do to build a strong school community of parents and students.

Amongst the students, we help build community through our Reading Buddies program. We pair students in kindergarten and third grade, first and fourth grade, and second and fifth grade each year. They initially begin their interactions by reading with each other, as the year progresses they work on projects together, they working on community service initiatives and come together to play on a weekly basis. This allow them to build a strong rapport and feel connected across grade-levels.

With our parents, we have many opportunities for them to volunteer on campus. We also have parties throughout the year that parents attend to get to know each other and build community. We have host families that welcome new families.

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Each school has a unique culture. How would you describe Crestview?

Crestview is a small but mighty school, focused on educating children 5 to 12 years old. It is a welcoming environment that is nimble and dedicated on being reflective. We honor the voices of all constituents and encourage conversation about learning and development.

Parents worry about placement into 7-12 schools. Crestview students go on to top schools in SGV and LA area. What does the school do to help students get into top secondary schools?

Families are supported in the secondary school process by Crestview. We begin the process in fifth grade into the sixth grade year. The head of school meets with every family to discuss the student’s profile, advice focus in the summer, and suggest schools to consider. Students are given mock interviews and practice in writing essays to prepare them for the admission’s process. Here’s a list of some of the schools are graduates attend.

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Crestview offers CTY online for gifted students who are eligible. Can you describe this unique program?

We identify current students in accelerated in mathematics through teacher referral, year-end grade-level tests, and ERB standardized testing results on the independent school norm. When identified they are still responsible for completing their grade-level work as they are provided with above grade-level material according to their individual level. We subsidize the courses for our students.

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What advice would you offer parents who are applying to Crestview? Any tips for getting their child in?

I advice families to be themselves, we are interested in authenticity. We are child advocates and work hard to make the process a welcoming one for prospective families. We want parents and children to feel comfortable and share who they are with us.

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For more information, visit, www.crestviewprep.org

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Beth Hillel Elementary School: A Hidden Jewel With An All-Embracing Vision

While I was having coffee with a Beth Hillel Elementary School (BHES) board member last month, she invited me to visit the school and I immediately accepted the invitation. I’m always intrigued when I hear the words “progressive” and “religious” in the same sentence, so I set up a date to meet the head of school for a tour.  Kathryn Jensen was just announced as permanent head of school, a position she held as “interim” previously.  Kathryn is at the top of her game and she’s ready to take the BHES to the next level. At the top of her list is enrolling more interfaith families. Kathryn is incredibly friendly and outgoing, with a warmth and enthusiasm that makes you want to keep talking to her long after its time to leave. She brings a wealth of experience and her enthusiasm for BHES shines. I enjoyed meeting with Kathryn and hearing about her vision for this “hidden gem” of a school. The school is small and nurturing with a bold, robust curriculum, a wonderful combination for an elementary school. At BHES, “Students should believe they are authors, scientists or artists,” says Kathryn. One thing that is certain to remain unchanged is the school’s impressive placement to top secondary schools like Oakwood and Harvard-Westlake.

 

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Beth Hillel Elementary School (BHES) is a progressively-minded Jewish Day School located in the heart of Valley Village. Beth Hillel Synagogue, which hosts the school’s campus, is affiliated with the Reform Movement – which means that interfaith, LGBT and families of color feel at home here. For further proof, look no further than the synagogue’s senior spiritual leadership – all female. There are three schools that share the campus; Early Child Education, Religious School and the Elementary School.

 

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BHES is a small school with no more than 15 students per class. With such small class sizes, each child receives a significant amount of personal attention, and Individual Success Plans (ISPs) for each child are a big component of BHES’ educational philosophy. These ISPs are created for every student and are crafted by the student’s teacher in collaboration with the student and their family. The ISP sets measurable goals that faculty and family partner on to achieve. These goals may relate to a student’s academic skills, social/emotional toolkit, or work habits. Beginning in Kindergarten, the school opens an Evernote file for every student that preserves a digital record of all of the child’s work, progress, projects and assessments. From worksheets to sound recordings of their first forays into reading, each child’s academic life is diligently chronicled and celebrated.

 

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In addition, BHES realizes that different children have different learning styles: If a child would rather figure out a math problem at a standing desk, or do their reading on a giant bean bag chair in a quiet corner of the room, the school empowers students to use tools that make them successful. How fantastic is that?

 

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BHES features a cutting-edge General Studies curriculum and the school provides for a significant amount of professional development for its teaching staff. Teachers participate in professional development for a minimum of 64 hours throughout the school year and often attend more advanced trainings, like Teacher’s College at Columbia University, during summer months.

 

Based in part on research conducted at the UCLA Lab School, the academic curriculum includes scientifically researched programs such as Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop, Responsive Classroom, and Singapore Math. BHES was one of the first schools in the Valley to adopt these highly effective programs, in the belief that more important than their rigorous academic content, these programs teach kids how to think, solve problems, and innovate.

 

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In addition, the school offers a strong robotics and technology program and integrates this curriculum throughout the school day. Starting in 2nd grade, students create interactive stories, games, and animations directly in a browser with MIT’s drag-and-drop programming language. The program is designed to teach students to navigate through the multiple stages of development from brainstorming to play testing. Beginning in 3rd grade, robotics and engineering are part of the science curriculum. Students participate in teams as they learn to program Lego Ev3 Robots and troubleshoot problems that come up. They also learn engineering principles and participate in engineering challenges using the STEAM Trax Design Process. Besides Robotics, Beth Hillel prides itself on complete Arts Integration throughout the school day.

The curriculum follows these core principles:

  1. Students are learning principles of Constructivism (actively built, experiential, evolving, collaborative, problem-solving, and reflective).
  2. Students are engaged in constructing and demonstrating understanding as opposed to just memorizing and reciting knowledge.
  3. Students are constructing and demonstrating their understandings through an art form.
  4. Students are engaged in a process of creating something original as opposed to copying or parroting.
  5. Students will revise their products at least once.
  6. The art form connects to other parts of the curriculum.
  7. The connection is mutually reinforcing.
  8. There is emphasis on both the art form the other subject areas, as well as specified learning objectives.
  9. The objectives evolved since the last time the students engaged with this subject matter.
  10. There is one class per grade level. 

 

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At each grade level, children at Beth Hillel Day School have access to projects and materials that engage them in a way best suited for where they are both academically and developmentally. The result is a steady stream of positive experiences associated with learning and school. As Kathryn Jensen puts it, “Learning is a process that continues throughout our lives and it’s vital for children to discover it early on as a joyful, empowering and fun. Having fun at school makes learning sticky; and it increases student achievement and reduces anxiety.”

 

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The school’s academic results are impressive. In 2014, Beth Hillel Elementary was ranked #1 nationally on the Measuring Success survey for its math program. The school also ranked in the top three schools, nationally, for STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts and math integration.

 

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BHES students’ Educational Records Bureau (ERB) results were also impressive: one quarter of their students tested in the 9th stanine, which meant they were in the top 4% of students who were tested nationally. The school is proud that in 2015, 15% of students that were in the qualifying pool, received the Presidential Award for Academic Excellence. A number of BHES students have qualified to participate in the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (a gifted program).

 

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As Kathryn puts it, “We are your partners in raising a mensch.” The entire staff feels very strongly that the educational curriculum must go further than explaining the workings of the world to students. It seeks to provide them with a guide for how to be in the world by promoting empathy, curiosity, optimism, self-control and motivation. These character strengths are scientifically proven to prepare students for further success and fulfillment in life. “Teaching our students to find and nurture these qualities within themselves is as central to our curriculum as the academic disciplines, says Jensen.

The Jewish Studies portion of the curriculum focuses on the importance of social justice and social responsibility. Students put this into practice not only through classroom lessons and projects, but also by growing food in the school’s garden to give to the needy, taking field trips to purchase canned goods and packing them into gift baskets with a personalized card to donate to the local food bank, and collecting tzedakah (charitable giving) and clothing in for those in need. The goal is for all students to understand the responsibility all individuals share to care for each other as human beings.

 

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The Religious part of the curriculum supports and enhances the rest of the program. Rabbi Eleanor Steinman, Temple Beth Hillel’s Director of Education, oversees the religious programming. An integral aspect of Jewish tradition is learning to ask questions in an effort to cultivate critical thinking skills. The school’s philosophy supports the belief that a Jewish education and a passionate exploration of the sciences are complimentary to each other, not mutually exclusive.

 

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The same philosophy of education to is applied to Judaic Studies as it is to other subjects. Each child learns about Jewish tradition and belief through various music, art and drama projects. Students begin learning to read and write Hebrew in Kindergarten, and learn about their Jewish identity in an environment that is both progressive and inclusive. Many of BHES’ families are interfaith, and students are encouraged to share and celebrate all aspects of their authentic self.

 

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Graduates of BHES matriculate into a wide variety of middle schools for 7th grade such as Oakwood, Harvard-Westlake, Buckley, Campbell Hall, Heschel, Kadima, and the Millikan Academies (Performing Arts, Civics, Mathematics, Cinematic Arts) and Walter Reed Independent Honors Program and School For Advanced Studies. Ninety-Five percent of students get into their top choice. The application deadline is January 29, 2016. For more information, visit, www.tbhla.com

 

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Echo Horizon School’s Magnificent Makerspace

 

 

Echo Horizon front

Update: As of July 1, 2017, Peggy Procter will become Echo Horizon’s new head of school. And, Lisa Marfisi is no longer with Echo Horizon. Abeni Bias is now the school’s enrollment manager.

Circuit blocks, Playdoh squishy circuits, Legos, woodworking, electronics, fabric, coding, programming, 3D printing, motors, robotics and batteries. What do all these seemingly unrelated items have in common? They’re all tools for the brand new Markerspace at Echo Horizon School.

Back in May, I stopped by Echo Horizon, located on a quiet street in Culver City, to meet with Martha Schuur, the new-ish head of school (she’s starting her 3rd year there). The Makerspace is one of the most important programs she’s launched since arriving at school, so I returned a second time to meet with Lisa Marfisi, the school’s admissions director, to watch the new Makerspace open its doors to students.

 

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Excitement was palpable as 5th graders entered the Makerspace room for the first time. They’d been eagerly anticipating it for months and finally it was theirs to explore. But first, they’d get an overview of what they’d be working on and some rules about safety from Jean Kaneko, the school’s design thinking consultant. Her role on the project has been in collaboration with Elaine Wrenn, director of curriculum and technology at Echo Horizon.

The 5th graders listened intently as Jean explained how the new space works. First, kids will become familiar with the concepts of inquiry and innovation. Then, they will create a “passion project” using the tools they select from within the space. Listening to Jean explain the Makerspace, it was clear to me that this is a very unique place, where kids will be ushered into a world of creative collaboration that will require a mix of practical and imaginative thinking and detailed concentration.

 

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The Makerspace isn’t your basic classroom. It’s more like a mix between a fabulous design space, your grandma’s sewing room and your dad’s tool shed. In it, students from grades 3-6 will learn skills and use tools that real companies like Nike or Apple use to create innovative design products. When it comes to tools, there are tons of options. These student-designers will utilize old-school crafts and cutting edge technology to make just about anything they can dream up. Over the next nine months, the students will ponder project ideas, try various designs, keep some, toss some and re-work others. They might swap a tool for a more useful one. They’ll be encouraged to work by trial and error, experimentation and collaboration. They’ll share resources and ideas. It is the epitome of hands-on, project-based learning.

 

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Makerspaces are places influenced from fields like technology, engineering and design and where people use similar tools to tinker, imagine and create. The FabLab at Stanford University and the ThinkBox at Case Western Reserve University are examples of Makerspaces in higher education. Echo Horizon’s Makerspace is modeled on the same principles: provide an array of high and low tech tools, from circuit boards to thread, where kids will find the ultimate forum to learn by doing. At Echo Horizon, the Makerspace might even involve the school garden as a tool one week and duct tape, arduino boards (microcontrollers) or batteries the next week. From planning and experimentation to the creation of a completed project, the ultimate Makerspace experience is multi-faceted.

It was fascinating to watch as Jean asked the students to form groups to discuss their first project: A character from The Simpsons who would need a chair created by the students to meet the character’s needs. The students talked about the emotional needs of various characters, like the grandpa who might need a new chair to sit down and rest his legs. A baby was discussed as another option for a character who might have needs the students could solve. As one kid put it, “A character might not want people to bother him, so he’ll need a soundproof home.”

 

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Echo Horizon students will consult, create and collaborate on a project with a teacher mentor, which will culminate in a Ted style talk presented to parents and peers. After the presentation of their Makerspace projects, they will be able to curate and hang their own shows in the school’s 3 Centers of Excellence: The Think it/Build it Center, The Center for Digital Media and Production and an Art Center.

 

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For grades Pre-K-2, kids will use the STEAM Center (above) to become familiar with a sequential progression of learning the basics of wondering, early researching, sharing, collaborating and first steps of presenting. The experiences students will have in these centers will be inquiry based, reflective, collaborative, process oriented and passion driven.

The Makerspace is just one of the many transformations happening at Echo Horizon. Martha has also green-lighted a reconfiguration of the classroom space to create one class per grade with up to 20 students in it. Each class will have two credentialed teachers in a co-teaching model. The average teacher to student ratio is 10:1. Technology is well-integrated the curriculum. For example, Pre-K-2nd graders utilize both iPads and laptops in their classrooms and the Technology Center.  Students in 3rd and 4th grade have 1:1 access to laptops in the classroom and every 5th and 6th grader at Echo Horizon School is provided a laptop computer to use at school and at home.

 

Echo Horizon outdoor

 

Martha is quite impressive, with an accomplished educational background and a knowledge of how to blend new ideas with tried and true practices to build upon the school’s more than three decades of excellence. Martha’s warm smile and outgoing personality made me feel like I’d known her for years, although we’d just met.

Says Martha, “What I love most about being Head of Echo Horizon School is that I get to share in the joy of learning that fills our school. Day in and day out I see the happiest most engaged students that I have ever seen in my 25 years in education. It is exciting for me to see children working together using design thinking and technology to solve real world problems. Every day I am surrounded by talented faculty and students who are truly 21st Century thinkers.”

Martha is contemplative as she talks about her commitment to ensuring that Echo Horizon educates its students to become leaders, thinkers and citizens of a global community. Her overarching vision for the school focuses on the idea of balance. This translates into an integrated curriculum, where what’s happening in science is tied closely to what kids are learning in other classes. To achieve balance in its curriculum, the school draws from a number of educational philosophies to influence the curriculum, from progressive educator John Dewy’s child-centered ideas to the very traditional practice of teaching cursive writing. With 10 % deaf and hard of hearing students mainstreamed throughout the school, the community is an example of true inclusion.

 

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I walked around the school while talking with Lisa, one of L.A.’s most experienced private school admissions directors, who also happens to be incredibly sincere and accessible. I noted the school’s harmonious, tranquil yet upbeat quality. The teachers are a mix of young and experienced, with diversity that can’t be missed. In the classrooms, there’s a sense of adventure and curiosity. Graduates, she explained, go on to the top secondary schools in Los Angeles including Harvard- Westlake, Marlborough, Windward, Campbell Hall, Viewpoint, Archer and Crossroads.

 

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We ended my visit with a look around the newly shaded and spacious new outdoor facilities, complete with artificial turf. Echo Horizon’s Makerspace is a place where kids can embrace their inner nerd. Or maybe their artistic side…or how about their penchant for computer programming? Watching the kids totally engrossed in Makerspace and other school activities made me think a few of them might discover a life-long interest, or possibly even a career like Nike’s Phil Knight or Apple’s late founder Steve Jobs, based on their experience at Echo Horizon. The future is theirs to see!

Most families apply for Pre-K or Kindergarten. For more information, visit, www.echohorizon.org or contact Lisa for a tour at 310-838-2442.

 

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Mirman School: A Gift For The Gifted

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Mirman School evokes a sense of mystery among parents looking for a private elementary and/or middle school in Los Angeles. It’s a school for brainy kids who need a place where they will be challenged to the full extent of their capabilities, where they will be encouraged to explore their deep interests and where they’ll find a peer group doing the same. The school’s mysterious quality may stem from the fact that even before you can apply, your kid must receive a minimum IQ score of 145 on the Stanford Binet LM test, or they can take the Weschler Intelligence test. The school provides a list of licensed psychologists who can administer the test. After test results are provided to the school, families can proceed with the admissions process. A passing score on the test doesn’t guarantee admission, but offers the opportunity to apply.

 

These days, change is in the air at Mirman. Dan Vorenberg is Mirman’s new-ish head of school, taking the helm just less than two years ago. In that short time, he’s walked a delicate balance between remaining true to Mirman’s mission—and enviable track record– while making changes that will enhance the school’s core mission. Right away, he got to work with staff, faculty and parents to bring about changes—some big, others small but important. At a school with an established 52-year history, this takes careful balancing.

 

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I met Dan in his office on a cloudy afternoon. This was my first visit to the school and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Kids who seemed overly serious? Stressed out parents hovering nearby? The answer, like something out of an SAT test, was “None of the above.” I was immediately impressed by the low-key atmosphere at the school, located on a serene six-acre campus off Mulholland Drive. The lower and upper school buildings, surrounded by trees and stunning views, anchor the campus, which is truly an urban sanctuary. With views of the city and valley, Mirman has a Lower School (ages 5-9) and an Upper School (ages 10-14). The Lower and Middle Schools are in separate buildings. Outdoor sports areas, including new athletic fields, round out the facility.

 

As we walked through the school, Dan stopped to chat with kids, getting quick updates from one girl, asking a young boy how things were going. He knows their names, their interests and what they’re about as individuals. The kids seem genuinely happy and energetic, totally engaged in their classroom work and socializing outside the class. Dan, who possesses a wealth of experience as an educator, wants Mirman to be a combination of “Love and achievement.” “Highly gifted isn’t always about math, but can be a kid who is interested in mythology or robotics,” he explains. Mirman, he tells me, offers a place where it’s cool to be smart and where kids understand and challenge each other. Mirman serves students who have narrow interests as well as those who are still figuring out what inspires them. The school, he says, meets kids where they are academically, at whatever level that is. Academic excellence will always remain at Mirman’s core.

 

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Mirman students are all very smart. Yet within this category (up to an IQ of 180), there are kids who have deep, narrow interests and those who have a myriad of broad interests. The school is designed to teach them all. It feeds their intellect and imaginations. There are young Einsteins who seem older than their years, leaving for college earlier than their peers. But, mostly there are kids who need a curriculum designed for their giftedness. There are kids who are stronger in one subject than others, for example math. There are kids who need tutors to get through classes. Just like any school, there are a wide range of individuals, except at Mirman, they share one thing in common: high IQs.

 

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There are no grade levels at Mirman. The school is based on student’s ages (ages 5-14). Kids work in classes called “Rooms” rather than grade levels. The Lower School curriculum is the equivalent to grades 1-5 in other schools. The Upper School is comparable to grades 6- 9. This structure allows fluidity for kids to move between rooms, depending on the level he/she is working at. For example, an eight year-old might learn math with kids who are ten and 11 years old, but work with his/her own age group for other subjects. In the Lower School kids are taught by their homeroom teacher and specialists for languages, art, music and P.E. Students receive individual instruction and work in small and large groups, based on ability and interests.

 

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Dan brings 31 years of experience in private/independent schools to Mirman. With his background, he is comfortable taking a big picture view of Mirman’s future. He is incredibly well-versed in various educational philosophies, from traditional to progressive. He’s also a kind, friendly and approachable dad of three kids, with a true affinity for children and education. Mirman is a traditional school and won’t deviate from this core educational value.

 

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As we sat talking in his office, he didn’t hesitate to answer my questions about the changes he’s initiating. Big picture, Dan told me he is working to broaden the focus of the school and opportunities for students by enhancing sports, arts and community, while staying true to Mirman’s mission of academic excellence. Mirman will always offer kids the chance to explore complex academic issues, but Dan believes that music, arts, sports and a sense of community should also be central to the school’s mission. The school’s strong, sometimes intense, intellectual atmosphere, he believes, is enhanced by a broader curriculum. Academic renown is the defining feature of the school. The focus at Mirman will always be on the students first and foremost, with a community of involved, engaged parents to build on the foundations of community that exist at the school. It is expected that Mirman students will go on to excel in high school, college and in their chosen fields. For Dan, it is as important that they also become thoughtful, caring and contributing citizens of the world.

 

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Dan has made staffing changes. In addition to the arrival of several new educators and administrators, he hired a new admissions director, Jen Liggitt, and there is a search underway for a new head of Upper School. There are changes happening with the faculty too. He has introduced regular assemblies that bring students together, helping to build community and his team is working to integrate some aspects of the curriculum.

 

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Walking around the newly expanded athletic fields, one of Dan’s first projects, he points out that among the kids playing soccer there was one student using the goal post to write with a pencil and paper. At Mirman, this sort of thing is totally fine and nobody told the kid to “join the game or leave,” as might happen at another school. As the fifth head of school, Dan is excited about the school’s unique characteristics, its quirkiness and its potential for entering the next phase of growth based on the Mirman founder’s vision and inspiration.

 

I’ve always heard from Mirman parents that the school is really about the students and to a lesser extent about their parents. Giving highly gifted kids what they need to excel and create an environment for them to do so is what the school does best. Parents matter too, but because the school requires an IQ test, the family—who they are or what they do– may take on less significance than at other schools.

 

Says one former Mirman parent:

“I loved the small class sizes, the attention to an individual student’s needs/abilities, the ease of movement between levels based on student’s readiness, their very strong alumni culture (my kid loves to attend the Thanksgiving alumni breakfast hosted by Mirman every year and it’s amazing how many older alumni show up to that thing), how none of the kids feel “different” or “special” or go around boasting because they’re all in the same boat. Most of all so many of the amazing teachers stand out to me, especially Mr. Kay, the choir teacher, who puts on the most amazing concerts.”–Former Mirman parent, currently at Harvard-Westlake.

Of note, The Mirman Concert Singers performed at the 2014 Heritage Music Festival in Montreal, winning the Outstanding Choral Award for the highest score of all choirs.

 

The brain is a mysterious thing, and IQ is only one measure of its wonders, but Mirman isn’t so mysterious after all. It’s a school where really smart kids can exercise their gifts in a variety of ways, find their peer group, and develop into future leaders.

 

Mirman Outdoor

 

Admission to Mirman is competitive. The school receives several hundred applications for about 40 openings for the entry year. There are very few openings in older grades. In addition to IQ tests as the basic qualification, other admissions considerations include, school readiness, intellectual curiosity and working above grade level.

 

Mirman has a generous financial aid budget of $1 million per year. Students who graduate from Mirman attend a variety of secondary schools like Harvard-Westlake, Crossroads, Windward, Viewpoint, Marlborough and boarding schools like Exeter, Andover, Choate and others. You absolutely must check on the school’s great looking and informative new website at www.mirman.org –it’s definitely one of the best school websites I’ve seen!

 

 

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Los Encinos: A Small School For A Big World

Los Encinos Front

 

Along an understated stretch of Ventura Boulevard, sits Los Encinos, a small, progressive gem of a school in the heart of Encino. My curiosity about the school was piqued last year when I met one of its impressive graduates at Viewpoint, my kids’ school. I’ve also heard rave reviews from my friend who used to teach there. So, I asked her to introduce me to Ilene Reinfeld, the head of school at Los Encinos.

 

Los Encinos’ unassuming urban location belies a dynamic and absolutely charming interior. I arrived on a day when the school was celebrating the Lunar New Year and parent volunteers were getting ready for the lunchtime festivities in the brightly decorated outdoor space. There were lots of volunteers–as family involvement at the school is considered essential to creating a sense of community and ensuring parents are involved in their children’s education.

 

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Los Encinos radiates a fun sensibility. The school is vibrant and high-spirited–as if it is harnessing the energy of the kids to create a place that’s about learning, freedom of expression and community service. It is the embodiment of progressive education, equal parts utilitarian and inspiration. I came away with the sense that Los Encinos is freethinking and non-conformist, with just enough structure for kids to explore their fullest potential in each subject.

 

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Ilene greeted me in her office and we quickly set out for a tour of the school. Ilene talked as she walked, surveying the environment, peeking into classrooms and proudly showing me the newest building. She’s a tour-de-force at the school, overseeing the big picture vision and involved in day-to-day management of curriculum and teaching.

 

Ilene has the tools and insight to make big things happen. When the school needed new classrooms, science labs, offices and a library, she pushed donors to raise $1.5 million with the promise the new building renovation would be completed over the summer (an ambitious schedule!). Donors answered her call. They raised the money and she, along with help from the board, parents and her staff, delivered the project on time and on budget. This followed a 2009 renovation with a similar budget. The stunning new library, with its cozy, inviting sitting area, practically begs for a good book and a cup of hot cocoa. It is absolutely gorgeous. The librarian told me she feels lucky to work in such a magical place.

 

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Los Encinos 13

 

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It is this kind of tenacity that helped Ilene win a coveted fellowship to the Klingenstein Center for a two-week intensive study for the Heads of Schools Program at Columbia University.

 

Ilene’s commitment to a diverse faculty, including male teachers, is something she says is important to a school that reflects the diversity of our world. Hiring the best teachers, even if it means relocating them from the East Coast, is just part of her day.

 

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In just 10 years, under the leadership of this smart mom of two, the school has flourished by leaps and bounds. Her dedication to the school is undeniable. Running Los Encinos isn’t just a job for Ilene, but a passion. She oversees it with the attentiveness of someone who has a lot at stake because she does: the education of 168 kids. Along with change, the school has withstood the test of time, staying true to the original vision set forth in 1980 by its founder, a former Oakwood School administrator. The school has remained purposefully small, a hallmark of its founding principles.

 

Ilene has successfully built upon the school’s mission, which is based on the social and academic benefits of a learning environment within a close-knit community. There is a deep respect for collaboration, compassion and sharing; all progressive educational tenets. While Ilene has definitely reimagined parts of the school in her own vision, she has always stayed true to its roots.

 

Los Encinos 7

 

If you’re looking for a small, progressive school, Los Encinos checks off all the requirements. The curriculum is challenging and encouraging, not always an easy balance to achieve. Seeing the kids in big, sunlight-filled classrooms, it was evident they were fully immersed in activities or absorbing the teacher’s lesson. An important tenet of the school is an emphasis on collaboration, not competition. As we stopped in a science class, one student’s boundless enthusiasm greeted us, “Look, we are making the most awesome project!” she exclaimed. Her lab partner nodded in agreement as he continued working, completely engrossed in the lab.

 

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Los Encinos has one class per grade, K-6. There are 26 kids in each class, with two teachers. When half of the class is in art or science, for example, the other half remains in the class, making individual teaching and small group learning possible.

 

Los Encinos Virtues and Values

 

In each classroom, there are 16 words called values and virtues, reflecting the school’s core character. Creativity, Friendship, Effort, Responsibility, Patience, Initiative, Integrity and more. These words to live by are taught in grades K-3 and reinforced in grades 4-6. They are referred to frequently, as they remind students what the school is all about.

 

Ilene’s focus is on overseeing a school that can provide each student with a high degree of individualized instruction. She knows every kid, their needs and their specific interests. She hires teachers who are dynamic, diverse in both ethnicity and gender, skilled and energetic. Every teacher can offer each student one-on-one time to discuss a project, answer questions, refine ideas and encourage exploration.

 

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Learning doesn’t happen in isolation so the integrated curriculum, another progressive concept, plays a big role in how subjects are taught. For example, when kids are learning about the ocean in science, they might also be reading about it in another class and taking a field trip to study the ocean, while completing community service in the same study area. When fables are taught in 1st grade, there is a connection to other subject areas. Nothing is taught in isolation of other study areas, so students make connections between various subjects and ideas.

 

“Every kid should feel successful. They need to take risks because that’s where learning takes place,” says Ilene. “Los Encinos is a school with a heart!”

 

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To expand upon the core educational philosophy, Ilene explains that not every young kid learns best by sitting still in a chair or walking in a perfectly straight line. That’s okay at Los Encinos. All rules should have a purpose and Los Encinos is a relaxed learning environment. Students are trusted to walk to class in formations other than a straight line. Kids learn the power of both leading and following, with the confidence to know when to do both.

 

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Art, music, drama, technology & media, P.E., science and library are part of the curriculum taught by specialists. Frequent field trips and guest speakers round out the areas of study. In 4th grade, there are intramural sports. The school plays at Tarzana Park. Every kid gets a chance to play. There is computer lab and 1:1 laptop beginning in 4th grade. Students participate in yearlong, grade-specific volunteer service programs to help develop a meaningful connection with the larger community.

 

On the school’s website, an overview is offered: “Small class sizes and a low student-teacher ratio enable the teachers to know each child and to assign work that challenges individual ability levels and learning styles. Coursework follows an established curriculum that is personalized by the incorporation of current events, student interests and curiosity, community opportunities, and individual student needs. Technology, manipulatives, and cooperative projects are used to involve the students in the learning process.”

 

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I asked Ilene what is most important to her when looking at prospective students and their families. Her reply? Parents who understand what we do and feel strongly that it is the right place for their kid. The school offers 14 percent of its annual budget for financial aid. There is ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. There are kids of famous people alongside the kids of regular families.

 

Ilene also personally oversees placement to middle school. As a result, the kids from Los Encinos go on to top middle schools like Campbell Hall, Marlborough, Harvard-Westlake, Oakwood, Windward and Viewpoint, to name a few.

 

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Los Encinos’ understanding of how important it is to for students to be able to take risks as they learn is a huge, important concept they will carry with them throughout their lives. Combined with a dedication to community service and a class size where individualized instruction happens, these attributes make the school a small but powerful place to learn.

 

I can imagine a Los Encinos student saying to another, “Come sit with us.” This is the kind of stuff that can be life changing.

 

For more information, visit, www.losencinosschool.org

Photos credit #3 & #11: Los Encinos School

 

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