A beacon of hope along the mean streets
There are unique challenges to providing a quality education in any environment. Doing so in South LA can be especially daunting, but the rewards for both teacher and pupil are far reaching.
That’s what they’re doing at the Watts Learning Center. They match outstanding instruction with perseverance and creativity in identifying critical character traits among their charges. While it is arduous at times, the journey is successfully ongoing and the academic goal is well within reach for the students.
For the past 23 years, the faculty and administration at the Watts Learning Center has continued to open the doors of opportunity for some of the nation’s most underserved–and often dismissed–children who are thriving in an area most often associated with crime, drug abuse and poverty. The school has become a beacon of hope–a “second home” of sorts–where people genuinely care for students.
Among the innovative aspects of the Watts Learning Center is a new program, “I-SWATT” (Instructional Strategies With Applied Technology Tactics), which is designed to help quell what administrators there saw as an educational if not a community crisis. The school provides lessons in topics not often discussed in ordinary secondary schools. One of which is “Academic Exposure” early on in reading and vocabulary development. Kids there are reading by the first grade.
Well publicized data has indicated that an unacceptably large percentage of public school students from low-income communities perform below California grade Level Standards. These outcomes have further revealed a crisis of alarming shortfalls and gaps between underachievement and the stated goals of the academy itself. They want the students to perform at or above the California State Standards. For Eugene Fisher, co-founder and president of the Watts Learning Academy, this was like the proverbial “handwriting on the wall” in foretelling a permanent poor quality of life for a community which has always had its “back against the wall.”
Helping to foster a bright future
“We founded the Watts Learning Academy to address the important need of providing the best education possible for kids who already [faced challenges] against them in terms of community resources and their understanding that a positive future–both educationally and financially–is certainly within their grasp,” Fisher said. “We saw that kids in Watts had the lowest academic achievement in the state. Our charter law– “Education for a Better Quality of Life”–is an essential component of a bright and prosperous future.”
First off, they had to better identify student strengths and challenges and gain knowledge of actions needed to fill the identified gaps in learning. The center relied on a variety of technology tools and data analytics. Then they enlisted the services of a leading expert in filling gaps in basic reading skills. That meant hiring some of the Southland’s finest teachers to instruct in foundational reading across grade levels. Early on, the critical areas were phonological awareness, word analysis (or phonics based on regular spelling patterns of words), syllabication, Latin and Greek roots, and “high frequency” words (aka “sight words").
A California Distinguished School
Teachers quickly bought into the academic curriculum and dedicated themselves to daily application in classrooms. Regular periodic performance assessments were instituted to measure progress and to make any adjustments if needed. The plan worked. Today, the Watts Learning Center is recognized as one of the state’s leading secondary school facilities. In 2004 it became a California Distinguished School. Three years later, it was named Charter School of the Year. Numerous students have received four-year scholarships to college, including nearby USC.
Fisher and staff could have located the school anywhere in the Southland. They selected Watts because of the historic need to provide area youth with a quality education. They’ve witnessed nothing but success since then.
“As we progressed, we kept in mind that these kids didn’t have a pathway. The need was greatest in Watts,” Fisher said. “Why not commit to an area that needed it most? We chose Watts. It’s an under-resourced community, and people know it. Our charter school allows us to implement a belief system to change the narrative of the neighborhood’s reputation (i.e. Watts Riots). We’re very proud of our success rate.”
Setting high expectations
Fisher is uniquely qualified to influence educational policy. Throughout his career, he has strategically and effectively navigated bureaucratic systems and legislative bodies. He has served as senior vice president of Medicine for Humanity where he organized efforts to establish the prevention, patient care and treatment of cervical cancer for underserved women in Africa by arranging and coordinating international meetings and seminars for surgeons from the United States.
With the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Fisher led efforts to pass legislation that substantially increased fines for industrial pollution violations and was instrumental in helping to strengthen the current federal Clean Air Act.
The school provides a wealth of services beginning at or with Kindergarten (breakfast and lunch included) as well as Head Start programs. At it’s inception it was the seventh independent charter school within the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Unified School District. And while other charter schools have since closed or have been converted back to district schools, Watts Learning Center has remained unfazed by changing district budgets, economic downturns and, of course, the pandemic.
The philosophy of the school is clear:
–Every child must be known, understood and respected because children are at the center of the educational process.
–Parental involvement and volunteer services support and enhance the teaching and learning process.
–Children play an active role in the learning process.
–Educational experiences should enable students to communicate effectively, solve problems competently, think critically and creatively, and act responsibly.
Passport to the World program
“We’ve had graduates come back and let us know how they’re doing in college and the professional world to impart some wisdom and advice to current students,” Fisher said.
Fisher is joined by his wife, Sandra, and a host of administrators who came from the private sector to make the academy a reality. One of those early on was Jim Blew who, later, would move on to the Walton Family Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of charter schools.
“The Fishers came to education with a philosophy that the students could learn, and that they all have an enormous capacity for learning, even while surviving day to day,” Blew said. “They knew that the low-income community could perform well and that high expectations really mattered.”
Fisher and his wife are especially proud of the Passport to the World program. For the past 21 years, students and parents have expanded their understanding and history of the world through international journeys. They began with a trip to South Africa and in the following years groups have visited Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Togo and Benin, Egypt and, on the other side of the Atlantic, Costa Rica and Brazil. In Costa Rica during the 2012-13 winter break, they visited a children’s museum to learn about pre-Columbian artifacts, cruised the Tortuguera Canal, and visited a rain forest as well as a volcano. All of the participants attest the travel experiences have been both rewarding and life-changing. The school has received such acclaim both locally and nationally that a documentary film is underway with hopes of a screening in February 2024 at the Pan African Film Festival.
“The Passport to the World program has helped to demonstrate a strong, community commitment to educational improvement,” Fisher said. “We like to think of ourselves as a one-stop shop under the guidelines of the ‘Three Rs’: Relationships, Relevance and Rigor. If the kids respect and love the teacher, it’s a better relationship. They will relate better with [positive] things happening in the neighborhood. We give them something to gain confidence.”