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.


Los Encinos 9


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.


Los Encinos 2


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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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.


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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


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.


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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: www.ccsteaches.org


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Walden School: Educating Students Who Are Destined To Make A Difference

* Updated on Dec. 29, 2016. Walden School’s head of school is now Terra Toscano and Scott Turner is the admissions director.

Welcome to Walden School!

The Walden School in Pasadena is a Pre-K-6th progressive school whose namesake is the famous Walden Pond from Thoreau’s “On Walden Pond”. The school, like Thoreau’s personal journey at Walden Pond, embraces personal discovery, adventure and learning with its students.


Front entryway and head of school’s office


Arriving at Walden School on a recent morning, I entered the colorful lobby filled with student art, next to head of school Matt Allio’s glass walled office. I had the opportunity to sit down with Matt before he dashed off to teach a math class. Matt is a brainy, articulate educator who is thoughtful and soft-spoken. Adept at ensuring the school never strays far from its roots, he has bolstered the curriculum with pragmatic, result-oriented programs. His credentials are impeccable, previously serving as head of school at several of California’s most prestigious schools.


In his eight years at Walden, Matt’s leadership has helped to shape a cohesive and distinctive vision for the school. It is a kid-focused, dynamic group of faculty, students and programs that make up this urban school on a shady street in Pasadena. Matt’s tenure at Walden has also led to several one-of-a-kind, signature programs. Thoughtful and introspective, I got the feeling that Matt is simmering with ideas, eager to tackle projects big and small, as he stays close to the students who are his daily inspiration.


Leading to the K classrooms

“We want to graduate students who will make things better, not just maintain the status quo,” Matt told me. “It’s not about the ‘I’ but the ‘we,’” he continued. The writer Alfie Kohn is a major influence on the school’s philosophy. Kohn has written that progressive schools organize learning around projects, problems and questions rather than “lists of facts, skills and separate disciplines,” because “facts and skills do matter but only in a context and for a purpose.”  (Walden literature)


Walden is so interesting I spent more than an hour with Sarah Lougheed-Gill, the admissions director, taking it all in. I gleaned a lot about the school, which definitely resonated with me. An educator and mom, Sarah is enthusiastic about showcasing every aspect of the school. She is outgoing and friendly with a fun, upbeat approach to giving tours, chatting with kids and making visitors feel at home. Janel Umfress, a former Walden mom and now its learning specialist, also joined us.


One of two K-1 classrooms


Sarah explained that the K-1 program draws from some aspects of Montessori influences including mixed ages in the K-1 program.  and other elements in the preschool program. There are 210 students in the school, two classes per grade and about 18 kids per class with two teachers.


Where kindergartners play

Walden was founded in 1970. Remarkably, 39 percent of the students are ethnically and/or socio-economically diverse. Walden’s progressive approach means that students, through traditional academic disciplines, are taught and encouraged to question the status quo and develop skills to improve our world. Thinking in the plural is deeply ingrained in the school’s philosophy. According to Walden’s literature, “Students learn academic skills and concepts through experience and Socratic discussion, as well as through direct instruction and practice”. The day begins and ends with circle time at Walden for all grades. It’s a time for discussing practical tasks and a time for bonding and reflection.


Walden’s Pond


Ethnically diverse, with talented faculty and an incredible sense of community (gorgeous family photos adorn several interior walls), the school fosters collaboration over competition, emphasizing the important role of kids in their own education. It has the latest, most advanced teaching tools and is constantly innovating.


Family wall
Another view of the K-1 outdoor play area

The school’s 1.3-acre campus is modern and spacious. It is includes 13 classrooms, an art studio, a technology lab, a science lab, a sport court and more. Several years ago, Walden students suggested adding a pond to reflect the school’s heritage. Dotted with student-created and inspired projects and shaded with gorgeous greenery, the campus is understated, functional and absolutely marvelous!


The sport court


Matt is especially proud of two unique programs. Walden partners with the USC School of Education, so that Walden teachers receive training and professional development in math from the USC professors. This brings the latest mathematics teaching tools into the classroom on an ongoing basis.


The second program is a Walden partnership with Columbia University’s Teachers College where the school’s teachers are trained in cutting edge teaching reading and writing techniques. Matt explained that this creates students who are excellent writers.


The Technology Lab


Walden has a technology lab overseen by Drew Gagne (he also runs the outdoor education program). The Tech Lab’s work is carefully integrated with the classroom curriculum. While the school uses the most up-to-date-technology, there are no Smart Boards in the classroom, only in the Tech Lab. After talking to teachers, the school realized that Smart Boards in the classroom can create a very teacher-centric model where the teacher is at the front of the room using the Smart Board rather than moving around the room more freely. The willingness to stragetically use technology exhibits a confidence on the part of the school that is instructive and refreshing.


In the music room: drums!
In the music room: guitars!
In the music room: tambourines!
Rainwater Harvest Demo Tank


Walking around the school, we stopped at a large, vertical metal container. Sarah told me the students created a demonstration tank to reuse rainwater to hydrate plants. It is a work in progress, not yet complete. Yet it is an impressive effort involving science, engineering and a variety of other skills. When finished, it will help the school become more eco-friendly.


The library

If you tour Walden, you’ll receive one of the most useful packet’s I’ve seen. It includes a detailed curriculum guide, grade by grade, describing what each grade will be learning in extensive detail. Check out the “Matriculation” section of the website: Walden graduates place at the top independent schools in the area including Barnhart School, Chandler School, Clairbourn School, Flintridge Preparatory School, The Gooden School, High Point Academy, Mayfield Junior School, Marlborough School, Oakwood School, Polytechnic School, The Waverly School, and Westridge School.


Walden is a remarkable elementary school with a clear and compelling progressive approach. Matt Allio and his team have built upon the school’s history to create a warm, forward-thinking place, where diversity of all kinds is embraced. It exudes a spirit of adventure, a sense that every student can reach for the stars, grab one and harness it to fit their unique talents. One incredibly articulate 6th grader remarked in a video about  Walden that if her next school “puts her in a cage,” she will find a way to “break free.” I’m confident that she will!


For more information, visit, www.waldenschool.net