L.A. School Turnaround Sets Sights on Reinventing the Library

column | Maker and DIY Movement

L.A. School Turnaround Sets Sights on Reinventing the Library

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Aug 5, 2014

L.A. School Turnaround Sets Sights on Reinventing the Library

Back in 2008, charter system Green Dot Public Schools reclaimed Alain Leroy Locke High School, a failing Los Angeles Unified school in the city of Watts that was once called “a broken district high school” by education writer Alexander Russo. Change has come slowly since.

Years after Green Dot founder Steve Barr renamed the school to Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy (or colloquially Locke College Prep) and elected to split the school’s campus into four separate academies, a report conducted in July 2011 by UCLA’s National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing demonstrated that Locke’s overall performance remained low when compared to other U.S. schools. But there was a silver lining: the report also showed that the academies collectively surpassed local Watts schools in student performance.

Keeping up with the momentum, Locke doesn’t just want to measure its success and/or failure on quantitative scores alone. Cue its partnership with creative industry collective No Right Brain Left Behind (NRBLB) and its piloting of the JetSpace, an effort to bring project-based learning back into the classroom--or rather, library.

A "library turnaround" dream

Back in the early spring of 2013, Green Dot partnered with NRBLB on a plan (originally called the Salamander Project) to transform Locke’s school library into a 3,000 square foot “Innovation Space,” referred to now as the JetSpace.

The library has gone relatively unused for years, providing an impetus for the partnership.

“I don't think the library had been fully functional for years. Things got a lot better during the turnaround, but the library remained at least partially shuttered for much of the early years,” shares Alexander Russo, Locke’s longtime commentator.

Current Locke tenth grade teacher Kathleen Hicks corroborates the backstory: "Over 20 years of transient staffing meant the books were a combination of woefully outdated and randomly new or donated from well-intentioned ladies book clubs.... The space was only used for meetings and testing students. It might have been a nice, traditional library many years ago, but there was no one really to keep up the space."

Prior to the partnership, Green Dot’s Director of Development Douglas Weston had a chance encounter with NRBLB founder Viktor Venson at the end of 2011 at an awards ceremony. After they started getting together to discuss all things education, Viktor noted that Weston wanted to “turbo-charge what they were doing well with creativity at Green Dot.” Weston and Venson made the joint decision to tackle the Locke school library, which Venson describes as previously “unused” with “no staff or librarian.”

“We thought to ourselves, let’s do something with it. How do we spatially design based on community involvement and activating these spaces?” Venson says.

The idea also fell in line with Locke’s solution to some student culture issues. “The school lost some of its unity because it broke up into four spaces. But the theme this year [2013-2014] is ‘One Locke, One Love,’” Venson explains. “This new [JetSpace] can help with that.”

Cost-wise, Venson estimates that a project like this would cost upwards of $450,000, but with pro-bono services provided by NRBLB and a few other partners, the total cost came out to a little under $50,000. And better yet, the project won the LA2050 challenge to “envision the city of Los Angeles in 2050", receiving $50,000 in seed funding.

Logistics and design

Come June of 2013, Locke High School was ready for some imaginative design, attempting to answer the question: “Exactly how do we want to support creative thinking in this space?”

“We started the design process with students, teachers, and parents. We asked them to prototype their own idea of the space with pen and paper,” Venson shares. Locke educators like Hicks were jazzed, excited to bring outsiders into the process: "Community members will drive the progress of the space. It takes the dedicated vision of a collaborative team to make it succeed."

What came about from those prototypes wasn’t your typical library. The JetSpace evolved over the 2013-2014 year as a combination of common library design with makerspace and project-based learning lab influences.

Bookshelves and Reading Space

The JetSpace features something reminiscent of a typical library: a space for quiet reading, but with hexagonal bookshelves that connect to create spaces for students to sit or do work. Venson describes this area as a “space within a space,” set squarely in the center of the giant room as a focal point of the design.

Small Group Work Space and Presentation Area

In another corner, observers will see couches and whiteboards-on-wheels, designed for smaller group work and conceptual thinking. Students can work with each other, or listen to an instructor as they get directions.

As the 2013-2014 year became an impromptu pilot for the slowly-growing space, educators took advantage of the JetSpace small group spaces--especially when it came to project-based learning. A “presentation” corner of the room, a space with a flat screen television and chairs where students can give presentations, provided a balance between small group work and public instruction. It also provided NRBLB with a unique opportunity to bring in “educators” from outside of Locke’s walls.

“We want to bring in people from the outside who can help educate. Last year, we had Indy racecar driver JR Hildebrand come in to help teach physics to some students through motor sports,” says Venson. “He did a presentation around thermodynamics, and gave the students a mission to represent back to him. They worked on it both in the classroom and in the JetSpace, and gave presentations in the JetSpace. It was great.”

But the space isn’t just being utilized by teachers and entrepreneurs. Venson observes students in the JetSpace, sharing that students want to take care of and protect it: “They look forward to having a place to do homework. They have a place that feels safe, where they can hang out, and we wanted them to feel like they could take ownership of the space.”

High hopes and next steps

As Locke gears up for the 2014-2015 school year, the JetSpace is far from completion--not so much in physical design, but in practical use. But NRBLB and Locke have high hopes, and everything comes back to that creative, coworking question of “How does this ultimately become a community space?”

First, there’s the relationship between the school and the library. Green Dot administrators are currently designing professional development to show teachers how to use the space, though some are already brimming with ideas ("I would love to use it for after school programs as well as project-based learning during the school day," Hicks says).

In terms of a "librarian," NRBLB is in the process of hiring a “Jet curator”--someone who will plan learning opportunities in the space while also working with potential collaborators on the outside, specifically through a “Jet Mentor” program. “The mentor program would bring in individuals from design, technology, and so-forth to work with the kids,” explains Venson. Already on the list for the upcoming year: representatives from the Vans apparel company will pilot a twice-a-week class for students on product design.

And what about technology? Though not the main focus, Venson shares, “We’re looking at about 30 Chromebooks for the space for next year, but are also very fascinated by Oculus Rift and how we can bring that into the space.”

Though the JetSpace is still very much in its pilot stage, other Green Dot educators already are asking for their own innovation hubs--including one principal in Memphis, TN, Green Dot’s newest charter location outside of California. Yet true to the design form, Venson recognizes the potential pitfalls of scaling too quickly.

“We have to set up a core model before we move into any other spaces. It all depends on funding, how fast we can get things up and running,” Venson admits. “But there is a lot of opportunity.”

Opportunity, indeed, as Hicks explains in her approach to the JetSpace's effect on Locke's community. "Projects like the library renovation give teachers like me hope that things can continue to improve on our campus," she says.

Interested in finding out more about the edtech scene in Los Angeles? Come to our September 12-13 Tech for Schools Summit in L.A.!

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