Children’s Community School: Progressive Instruction In Matters of the Heart and Mind

CCS Front entrance

Children’s Community School (CCS) is a remarkable progressive school located on a residential street in Van Nuys. It is differentiated from other progressive schools in part by its mission to create a school where neighborhood kids are an integral part of the student body. CCS’s significant outreach program to local residents, many of them immigrant families, offers financial aid for their kids to attend the school. With one-third of its students receiving financial aid and of these families, one-third living below the poverty line, it is truly a community school.


CCS LibraryFounded 34 years ago, CCS’s 118 students (K-6) occupy a compact urban campus that blends seamlessly into the predominately working class neighborhood that surrounds it. CCS’s architecture is an important aspect of a serious community-building endeavor. Its buildings are two-story and revolve around a multi-purpose outdoor space. The school’s façade is equal parts secure and welcoming.


CCS Classroom 4

A focus on the community is exemplified by the school’s annual health fair for the neighborhood, now in its 18th year, offering free heath and dental care in partnership with 30 local non-profits. The fair is attended by thousands of locals.


CCS Outdoor Space

As I entered the school on a quiet weekday morning, the ethnically diverse teaching staff immediately impressed me. I know firsthand how important it is for families and students of color to see diverse teachers like themselves. Yet, diversity like this doesn’t happen at private schools without a concerted effort to recruit, train and retain staff. This is just one of CCS’s many unique qualities.


CCS Classroom Window

CCS Printing Press


CCS hums with a vibrant energy. Some spaces are quiet, while others are bustling with kids running, playing, eating lunch or learning. Heather McPherson, the director of advancement, greeted me at the gate and we began a tour, starting in the library, a well-stocked, expansive open space, with several parent volunteers preparing it for Halloween. We walked through classrooms, into an art room containing a very cool letter press printer (above) and into the outdoor space, filled with kids of various ages all using the space in different ways, but co-existing harmoniously.


CCS Garden 2

CCS Garden 3


An eco-friendly campus has been the domain of the Green, Clean and Healthy Committee working with the Playground Committee. From procuring untreated wood chips for the playground to painting classrooms with non-toxic, zero VOC paint, the list of sustainable improvements is long.


CCS is progressivism personified. Sitting down to chat with Neil Wrightson, the head of school and co-founder, I noted his commitment to diversity and his adherence to progressive education. Neil is experienced and friendly, with an easy demeanor and an obvious affection for his school. He’s cerebral and thoughtful, with an unwavering commitment to ethnic and socio-economic diversity to benefit all students.


Legendary education reformer John Dewey has always been Neil’s inspiration for CCS. “Learning happens all the time, not just at a specific time of day,” Neil told me. “Preparing kids to be powerful and effective learners involves a whole community,” he continued.


CCS Music


Dewey believed that children’s interests should be a driving force in their education, rather than a teacher-centric approach where all ideas flow from the teacher. As we talked, Neil discussed how progressive aspects of the school are apparent both inside the classrooms and in the outdoor spaces.  In true progressive fashion, kids are learning by doing. They are creating, building, questioning, analyzing and shaping their own education in partnership with their teachers and peers.


CCS Corridor

As Heather explained, in math, for example, big ideas and number sense are emphasized over rote memorization. Math is taught using practical applications…using cooking, measuring, woodworking and other hands-on instruction techniques. Frequent fieldtrips—including walk trips to the local fire station for the youngest kids–expand and enhance the learning environment, with students returning to school with knowledge that will be used discuss and work on a variety of writing, math, and art projects related to what they’ve seen. The curriculum is intimate and individualized due to the small size of the school. Kids at CCS are learning by doing, using real-world tools.


CCS Classroom

CS does not give grades or traditional report cards. Instead, narrative reports are given twice a year and throughout the year, informal teacher assessments are provided by teachers. There are no tests and textbooks are not used. The school does give standardized tests for students to practice in the grades 5 and 6. Homework is non-traditional and age-appropriate. For example, for upper grades, 60 minutes of reading focused on deepening a student’s understanding of their current arer of study. Or, for younger kids, real-world, hands on learning at home that might involve observing their family structure and home life. Worksheets and workbooks are not used.


CCS getting creative


In the CCS brochure, the curriculum is explained as follows: “Reading, writing, math, science, as well as geography, grammar, creative and extemporaneous writing, interpreting literature, poetry, storytelling and measurement are all taught independently, but with their relationship to each other and to the core unit of study always on the surface.”


CCS Playtime


The school is non-traditional in the way it groups kids by age. Kindergarten is not a mixed age grade. Grades 1-6 are mixed age.  Every year, the class formations will change depending on the mix of students in the grade. Class formations typically consist of two 1st/2nd grade classes, one 3rd/4th grade and two 5th/6th grade classes. Each class has two teachers.


CCS Multipurpose auditorium


CCS is encouraging the student’s inherent sense of wonderment and awe. It strives to create fiercely independent thinkers who have an exuberant love of learning that will last throughout their lives.


Students from CCS go to both private and public schools upon graduation. About 50 percent of students attend public school for 7th grade by choice. The other half attend Oakwood, Campbell Hall, New Roads, Harvard-Westlake, Crossroads, Wildwood, Archer and Buckley, among others. Neil helps families extensively with the admissions process for secondary school.


CCS chatting on the yard


I left this wonderful school with the impression that CCS will be educating the next generation of writers, teachers, world leaders, mathematicians, artists, scientists, architects and Nobel Peace Prize recipients. Aspiring Wall Street tycoons may need to look elsewhere.


The application deadline is January 23, 2015. For more information go to:


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Guest Blogger Virginia: “If My Kid Goes to a Progressive School, Will He/She Be Well Prepared?”

Children’s Community School garden (photo: CCS)

Parents who wonder if saddling a kindergartener with homework hurts more than helps may want to consider sending their children to a progressive school. Progressive schools believe that kids need to master social-emotional skills – articulating feelings, learning toresolve conflict, working well with others – in order to learn in the classroom.


Progressive schools typically feature group projects, experiential learning, and a curriculum that is geared to get kids invested in learning, rather than invested in grades. According to the progressive philosophy, a child who becomes intrinsically motivated to learn is more likely to excel academically and flourish emotionally.


After watching my son struggle in a traditional elementary school that seemed designed primarily as a pipeline to law school or the entertainment business, I looked for a school that wanted to help kids get along with each other instead of compete with each other.


So I enrolled my daughter in Children’s Community School (CCS), a progressive school in Van Nuys. Now in 5th grade, my daughter is a proactive, engaged learner who completes her homework without being nagged and wants to be the first kid in the classroom in the morning.


While I’m thrilled that she takes ownership of her learning process, I admit that at times I worry that years of deep learning but little test-taking will leave her unprepared for secondary school.


To ease my mind, I interviewed three CCS alumni parents and asked them about their child’s transition to secondary school. I wanted to know if kids who graduate from progressive elementary schools can truly hack it in more traditional school environments. Here is what they told me:


Question: Were there any gaps in your child’s learning due to being at a progressive school?


Paula Cushman, President/CEO at Valley Community Clinic. Her son now attends Crespi Carmelite High School.

At times it was hard to resist the comparisons with other children at traditional schools: shouldn’t they be reading or reciting their times tables by now? But when my son graduated he was on par with other 7th graders. Needless worrying…


Mindy Stern, Social Worker turned Screenwriter. Her daughter now attends Immaculate Heart.

She needed to learn how to memorize for quizzes (e.g. vocabulary words). This took one bad quiz and ten minutes of instruction from me to overcome.


Jonny Solomon, Voiceover Artist and Filmmaker. His son Elijah now attends Berkeley Hall.

He worked with an ISEE prep tutor because the test is actually a 7th/8th grade test. There is material in it that no 6th grader – no matter what school they are in – would have covered. Elijah completely understood that he was studying for the test, thought it was ridiculous and consequently it had little meaning for him. But CCS does have the 5th and 6th graders work on practice tests to teach test-taking strategies.


Question: Many people think progressive schools don’t prepare kids for more rigorous secondary schools. From your child’s experience, can you speak to this?


Johnny Solomon

This fear has more to do with the parent than with the child. From our experience, we have seen the benefit of what Elijah worked on during seven years of immersive projects. He has approached all his classes at Berkeley Hall with enthusiasm and depth and has done exceptionally well. For us, it has only further enforced our belief that CCS and progressive education is a phenomenal foundation.


Paula Cushman

Not true for us. In fact, our son thought grades were “stupid” and not a true measure of his knowledge. By the way, he is a 4.0 student in high school now. His 7th grade teacher actually called CCS to find out how it was that my son was so curious, volunteered to stay after school to learn more and put 110% into his assignments in comparison to other students.


Mindy Stern

Untrue. She had the time management and basic skills, ability to ask for help and overall confidence as a student necessary for the transition.


Question: Describe your child’s adjustment to secondary school. What was the toughest part of the transition? What was the smoothest?


Mindy Stern

Her adjustment has been fantastic, smooth across the board.


Jonny Solomon

He is completely thriving. The only tough parts have been managing different classes and having to call teachers by their surnames.


Paula Cushman

Becoming a teenager was the hardest part of the transition. Making new friends, unfamiliar surroundings, understanding more structured classes – the CCS field trips and group meetings helped him to navigate this part.


Question: Are there ways in which you feel your child’s progressive education gave them an advantage over kids who went to traditional elementary schools?


Jonny Solomon

Absolutely, the children who have come from traditional schools more often than not seem to only be able to look at their work and experience in one way. For Elijah, having gone to CCS, he is open and available to a myriad of viewpoints.


Mindy Stern

Her attitude about grades is profoundly healthy. She does her best, works hard, but is not wedded to the grade at the end of the process. She values doing her best and fully accepts that that still may result in a B, and when she has not tried her best, she takes responsibility for that C.


Paula Cushman

It’s funny that even today, our son, a junior in high school, will remark that he learned to approach learning in a different way and that there are many ways to solve the same problem. He is willing to question his teachers and challenge certain values. He still knows how to play his recorder and lately convened an afterschool club for boys who want to learn recorder. Imagine a bunch of burly teenage boys playing recorder on the football field!


Virginia Gilbert, MFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist living in Los Angeles. She is also a writer whose articles have appeared in Salon, Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and Examiner to name a few. Together, her two children have attended three preschools, two elementary schools, and two middle schools in the L.A. area.

For More Information About Children’s Community School, visit,


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