Imagine if your children woke up excited to go to school every day. For Karin Newlin, the idea of making homework as appealing as playtime is the most natural -- and the most important -- principle of education.
Her school, the Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts is the culmination of more than 40 years as an educator. After serving as a teacher and principal in seven different school districts, Newlin retired, but went on to consult for several groups dedicated to education reform, which she said she sees as crucial.
"It's been a passion to figure out what makes a school good for kids," she said.
Though she found consulting energizing, working with children again provided the real spark, Newlin said. "I had an epiphany. You can't keep fixing broken schools," she recalled. "Maybe you can just go and create one that pulls together all these things that you've learned."
In 2004, Newlin formed the Los Feliz charter school with a group of 25 parents in her Southern Californian community. Regardless of other educational philosophies, the kids come first, she said: "Number one is to create a really good environment for the 500 children we're servicing. To me, success is when I see children smiling and they want to be here."
The charter-school founder stressed that education-reform debates shouldn't focus on pitting public schools against private ones. She did say, however, that the reduced restrictions of the private sector have afforded her more options.
"In a charter, you can pick and choose those things that you know work," she said. "You can create your structure and your curriculum."
Admission at the school is run by lottery. "One of the major objectives for me was to really create a school that teaches all ethnicities, all socioeconomic backgrounds," Newlin said. "Children win when all types of learners are in the building, when we have a model where kids collaborate with each other."
Lessons at Los Feliz are structured around projects and focus on the arts, Newlin said, to promote more involved collaborative learning. While she said that the school is not designed solely to turn out artists, she argued that arts education should play a fundamental part in education alongside reading, writing and mathematics. Kids at Los Feliz have an hour each of theater, music, visual arts and dance each week. "We create projects that children can work together on, we weave different art forms," Newlin said. "They have to do research and read about their project and present it using any of the art forms."
The school is located in a converted warehouse, now a colorful open-space arena. "The environment is the third teacher," Newlin said, after parents and educators, and she said the building cost one-fifth of what a more traditional location would have. "It is a wow factor," Newlin said. "In the way you create spaces for kids to learn in ... [there has to be] a real emphasis on a building that's unique."
It's not just the structure, though, that sets the school apart. "This building isn't worth anything if the program we're doing doesn't work. I don't think I could separate either one," Newlin said. "You must invest in teachers, otherwise these things don't work."
In any case, here are the results: The program has ballooned from 120 kids in kindergarten and first grade to 500 kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, and will expand to include sixth grade next year. Demand is high: more than 700 children were on the waitlist this year. "People are hungry to look at [education] a different way," Newlin said.
Newlin said she hopes the Los Feliz model can influence other educators to take innovative approaches to teaching. "I do think this model is replicable," she said. "Educators that want to replicate it have to catch the bug."
At the end of the day, she said, it's still about that feeling she gets when she's back out in the classroom with the kids. "When I start walking around, I get hugs and it feels really good," she said. And she's confident about Los Feliz's future, as well. "It will get better and better," she said.
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