Santa Monica, a Lifelong Learning Community








by Louise Jaffe, 1997

The Need for a Comprehensive Look at Education

The shoe no longer fits. As we look at education today it becomes increasingly clear that we are trying to make a too-small shoe fit. Our current primary institution dedicated to education is the K-12 school system. This institution was first designed to meet the needs of a predominantly agrarian society. As our society has moved from an agrarian age through the Industrial Age and into the Information Age, we have failed to systematically revise and remodel institutions that deliver and support education. Today, our society is twisting and turning before, after, and around an inadequate and obsolete K-12 model. We need to re-evaluate what we mean by "education" and design and implement a community-wide framework that will promote and support education as a lifelong process.

A Great Precedent
Recently our community participated in an inventory and assessment of our recreational and open space needs, resources and goals. The resulting Open Space Plan is a visionary long-range planning blueprint which provides a context for both current and future recreational facilities and programs. Its companion piece, the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, provides a step by step prioritized implementation guide. The process applied by our city staff in developing these documents was thorough, respectful of all stake-holders, and comprehensive.

The Open Space Plan serves as a roadway to direct how we, as a community, approach recreation. We need a comparable roadway to guide our approach to education.

As we have followed the progress of the Open Space Plan and the Parks and Recreation Master Plan we have been struck by how much greater the sum is than the parts. If we, as a community, take the same comprehensive look at education that we have taken at recreation, perhaps we can arrive at a shared vision for Santa Monica as a Lifelong Learning Community that will significantly impact the quality of life for all our residents.

Components of a Seamless and Powerful Educational System

The Missing Link: 0-3
Our children begin their public education at age 5 with Kindergarten, but research shows that ages birth to three are pivotal years for brain development. As a society, we must support what now appears to be the most critical and most vulnerable age for optimal brain development. Language acquisition is one important area of development that begins at birth.

A kindergarten teacher at one of our Santa Monica elementary schools relates that when she first began teaching, 22 years ago, 5 year old children would come into her classroom who did not know a single color or number. Happily, she reports this rarely happens now.

Nevertheless, enormous discrepancies in language acquisition and exposure persist. A research survey by Betty Hart and Todd Risley reports: "By age three, the children of the best-educated, most affluent parents have heard more than thirty million words, three times as many as the children in the least-privileged families... Follow-up testing in the third grade confirmed that the benefits of early language exposure persist, and do not seem to be caused by other factors, such as race or schooling."

The SMMUSD is well aware of the importance of Early Education and has written a grant for Infant and Family Early Support. This grant addresses this 0-3 institutional deficit by developing a three year pilot program for families with new babies and young children in the Will Rogers and John Muir neighborhoods.

It is a sign of our excellent administration, under Dr. Schmidt's stewardship, that our schools, set up to administer to the academic needs of K-12 students, are trying to also squeeze in the critical years of 0-3 within their agenda. They are right to do so. Beginning a child's "education" at 5 years of age is simply too late. However, the school district is not sufficiently empowered to meet this need and the public does not perceive this as the domain of the school district. Whose domain is it? How can we as a community design a program to meet the needs of our youngest learners?

By the time they are three, most middle class and wealthy children are enrolled in developmentally appropriate pre-schools. Good preschools provide a stimulating environment for cognitive and social growth for young children and help develop strong and nurturing parenting skills for their parents.

The federal government has recognized the need for and benefit of preschools for all families and has developed the Head Start program for the economically distressed. In Santa Monica, our state and school district have established state-funded preschools on many of our elementary school campuses. By locating preschools on elementary school campuses, the district is attempting to create a positive connection for children and their families with schools at an early age to foster a smooth and successful transition into kindergarten. The city has also stepped in to fill this 3-5 institutional gap by establishing city preschools and offering Parent-and-Me type classes through Parks and Recreation.

In our community, the city, the school district, the college, the YMCA, the YWCA, many churches, synagogues, and the private sector all have recognized the need for quality preschools and have independently worked to provide them. Many of these independent preschools have no direct positive connection with our K-12 school system, making the transition into kindergarten a very stressful time for families from every economic circumstance.

Despite the profusion of independent preschools, many lower income families are still not attending preschools. This leaves their children to suffer the consequences of being "less ready" for kindergarten. In the 1996-97 school year, 11% of the incoming class of kindergartners at Will Rogers Elementary School had not attended preschool. 82% of these children were identified by El Nido as being "at risk." How can preschool programs be developed to support early education for all children while promoting a smooth transition into our K-12 system?

The K-12 School System
Although we are fortunate to have a strong public school district in Santa Monica, we continue to suffer from inadequate funding. Even with this year's improved economy and the increase in the state budget for education, California schools rank 37 in the nation for per pupil funding.

Our public schools in Santa Monica benefit from strong community support as demonstrated by the passage of a parcel tax, developers' fees, the ES bond, and the annual gift and many partnerships funded by the city of Santa Monica. The Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation also plays a vital role in supporting our schools, actively fundraising among the private sector to supplement funding for excellence in all of our public schools. However, funding shortages continue to prevent us from implementing the full range of programs and educational opportunities that might otherwise be available for our students.

Furthermore, the recent (and welcome) funding for class size reduction has exacerbated a growing space crunch. Although we are just now completing work funded by ES we must already reassess our facility needs and attempt to solve severe space shortages. The demand for more classroom space has created a competition among diverse and beneficial programs for facilities and funds. How can our K-12 public school system acquire a continuous funding stream that will permit the long-term development and implementation of a supportive yet challenging academic environment for all students?

Higher Education
Most of us realize that in the Information Age, a high school diploma is just another step in the process of education. We are extremely fortunate to have a wonderful community college in our city. Santa Monica College is already working with our community and our school district to foster a smooth transition from high school to college. Yet many students enroll in college with grand dreams and little preparation. We can do a better job of working together to ensure that students and their families understand the requirements for college entrance so that more students will benefit from a smooth transition to college. The college and school district are already beginning to build a transitional bridge connecting each to the other. We must continue to reach out to middle and high school students who do not see themselves as college candidates and provide them with the support they need to become academically successful. Again, these commendable efforts are burdened by our failure to have a comprehensive collaborative model to promote seamless education. We need shared vision, and an integrated community-wide support system to help high school students successfully transition to college. How can we work together so that we build on each otherís work to provide a seamless sequential education?

School to Work programs
We also need to develop and expand alternative pathways for students who are not interested in or able to pursue a college education. Our business community has expressed strong support for education and an interest in developing a capable work force. Our Chamber of Commerce has shown a strong commitment to education and continues to supply leadership and support for our students. The Boys and Girls Club is beginning a new program for non-college bound youth to provide apprenticeships to the trades. And the city, in another cutting edge partnership with the school district, has funded the Alliance program at Samohi, providing guidance, support, and internships in the business world for some of our less-academically successful students. Still we need to do more. As a community, how can we develop programs that will provide a smooth school-to-work transition for non-college bound students? How can we expand opportunities for all learners?

Lifelong Learning
In our society, learning does not stop at high school or college graduation. It is remarkable to realize that when many of us graduated from college, the personal computer had not yet been invented. None of our students will have learned everything they need to know when they graduate from college. The stable society where a high school or college graduate anticipated holding one job with one company for the duration of their working life no longer exists. Everyone requires lifelong access to education that will enable them to meet lifeís challenges -- whether that means developing new skills for an ever- changing job market or learning to enrich the quality of one's life. In Santa Monica, SMC and Emeritus College provide the opportunity to continue learning not only for our young people but for all ages of student. How can we further encourage lifelong learning?

Support Systems for Education

All of us recognize the sequential components of education. But there are also surrounding, companion elements that support education. These companion elements need to be considered in any comprehensive effort to create a Learning Community.

In our current society, where both parents work in most two-parent households and where many families are headed by single parents, the need for high quality childcare for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school age children is acute. Here, as in early education, our school district is valiantly trying to meet a need it was not designed to address. While school sites are generally the best place for school-age children for before and after school care, our districtís schools, especially with the advent of reduced class size, are faced with a terrible space crunch. Many districts, as well as some of our own schools, share space by using regular classrooms for childcare before and after school. Would sharing classroom space alleviate the district space crunch and promote a more supportive view of childcare as an integral part of our educational support system? How can we encourage childcare workers and classroom teachers to work together? Why must the need to provide on- site quality childcare compete with the need for quality classroom experiences?

Childcare, like early education, is a problem that many agencies in our community have already tackled. Many churches, private agencies, and non-profits such as the YWCA, YMCA, and The Boys and Girls Club provide before and after school childcare. But again, there is no common framework these independent entities can plug into.

Our school district, and our city, have shown great initiative and commitment in working cooperatively to develop the landmark CREST after school program. CREST represents a significant and promising partnership that brings additional resources, staffing, and possibilities to our after school childcare programs. It is a commendable step in the right direction. How could our community do a better job of providing childcare, in addition to, not in competition with, the school districtís mandate of providing a quality education to all our students?

Sharing Facilities - Access to Libraries & Computers
Access to computers and libraries that offer a quiet environment for study and resource materials is vital for students of all ages whose home environment is not conducive to study. Perhaps the Open Space Plan with its plan for School-Parks is relevant. The School-Park concept proposes that city resources (staffing and maintenance) be applied to school grounds to expand the open spaces and parks available to Santa Monica residents. This concept of combining resources can easily expand beyond the playground. Can we provide community-wide access to our school libraries and our school computer labs?

The schools in Santa Monica are strategically scattered in all our neighborhoods. These school sites represent significant and underutilized community resources. Why is there an impenetrable wall that separates our city libraries (which are overcrowded and not well-distributed throughout the city) from our school libraries? Imagine a partnership where the city might provide staffing to keep school libraries open to the community after school hours and on weekends. This would address the needs of our entire community, providing easy access to libraries not only for school age students but also for neighborhood preschoolers and adults. Likewise, computer labs and community rooms could be better utilized by the community at large if we have the vision to break down the territorial boundaries that confine instead of expand educational opportunities for all. How can we expand access and maximize usage of facilities and programs that support learning?

Multiple Intelligences
Brain researcher Dr. Howard Gardner espouses a theory of multiple intelligences. The seven identified intellligences are: 1) Linguistic or verbal intelligence, 2) Logical-mathematical intelligence, 3) Spatial intelligence, 4) Musical intelligence, 5) Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, 6) Interpersonal intelligence, and 7) Intrapersonal intelligence. Traditionally, our schools have concerned themselves with developing linguistic or verbal intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence. In our current Information Age Society, these are essential and remain the primary obligation of public schools. However, there are many avenues to a "successful life" and it is in the best interest of all our learners that we expand opportunities rather than limit them.

The past decade saw an economic recession and deep cuts in education. Programs to support music (musical intelligence) and physical education (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence) were both significantly de-funded in our elementary school programs. Perhaps now is the time to reverse this trend. If we can build on the strengths our students have in one particular arena, that sense of accomplishment may give them the courage they need to work hard in areas that come less easily to them. Success breeds success.

In our community we have many resources that support and utilize these seven different intelligences. How can we provide support and recognition for all intelligences, so that students will be better able to develop their strengths and strengthen their weaknesses?

Visual and Performing Arts
Similarly, many students find the arts to be a great source of satisfaction and an entry point to expanded knowledge and self-confidence. Again, our district has taken the initiative in trying to compensate for an insufficient budget by forming partnerships outside the traditional "education community." The Santa Monica Cultural Affairs Division and the Santa Monica-Malibu School District were recently awarded an Arts Education Partnership grant from the California Arts Council. This grant will attempt to partner arts organizations and artists in our community with our schools. The model being designed explores forming a comprehensive, collaborative community-wide approach to arts education. How can we restore music and the visual and performing arts as an integral part of the curriculum for all students?

Defining and Expanding the Learning Community
The SMMUSD, in cooperation with the city of Santa Monica and a multitude of private and non-profit partnerships, has made a concerted effort to turn our schools into Learning Communities by providing multiple services -- a preschool, elementary school, childcare, afterschool enrichment, afterschool sports and recreation, health services, social services, and adult education -- all at one convenient neighborhood location. By providing these support services at the neighborhood school site, families are drawn into and feel included in the school community, engendering a more positive experience for their children. Will Rogers Learning Community has won national recognition as a Blue Ribbon School for its work in transforming and expanding the traditional school model into a true learning community.

With class size reduction comes the need to reassess space allocations. Each school site has space limitations imposed by the confines of the physical school site. Programs such as childcare and education, which should be cooperative, are forced to be competitive. Perhaps we can extend our concept of "what constitutes a Learning Community" beyond the confines of each physical school site. How can we transform our existing schools, our neighborhoods, and our entire city into an integrated Learning Community?

Expanding our Learning Community is an extension of existing practices in Santa Monica. Our college, our school district, and our city have shown enormous initiative in pushing the boundaries of the traditional K-12 school system to meet the expanding needs of our community as they are identified. They have all vigorously pursued new partnerships and programs in support of an expanded definition of "education." Everyone is already working hard; we need to work hard together.

We have the leadership. Now, we must search out a comprehensive shared vision.

Let us define a vision of "The City as a Lifelong Learning Community," a conceptual plan analogous to the Open Space Plan in its view of "The City as Park. Let us prioritize an implementation plan that will include the development of a structural framework to coordinate, facilitate, and effectively channel collaborative efforts that support seamless education, from cradle to grave, in our community for all our learners.

Lifelong Learning