“A Tiny Ripple of Hope:” A Sanctuary of Learning at UCLA Community School

What has been going on in the United States over the period of the last three years … the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the division—whether it's between black and white, between the poor and the more affluent or between age groups—…we can start to work together. We are a great country and selfless country and a compassionate country. …We should move in a different direction.

—Robert F. Kennedy (Kennedy, 1968).

The message is as relevant today as when it was delivered just past midnight on June 5, 1968. Senator and antiwar presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) had just won the California primary. Moments after uttering those words, Kennedy stepped off the stage of the Embassy Ballroom in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, walked into the kitchen, and was assassinated.

Kennedy’s words and his dream hung in the air, suspended in time and place.

The Ambassador Hotel was purchased by Donald Trump and partners in 1989. Trump planned to raze the hotel and erect the world’s tallest building. He was foiled by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which took the 24-acre site by eminent domain and razed the hotel in 2006. In its place, six schools rose from the rubble. The RFK Community Schools were born.

Today, in the former ballroom where RFK uttered his prophetic last words, two 55-foot-high murals by artist Judith Baca, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), now adorn the walls. Tiny Ripples of Hope (Baca, 2010b) shows RFK reaching out as up-stretched hands reach toward him. The other, Seeing Through Others Eyes (Baca, 2010a), depicts RFK and civil rights icon Cesar Chavez. The two leaders now peer over a large room where 4,000 school children assemble, most of them immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America.

“There could be no better memorial to my father than a living memorial that educates the children of this city,” said Max Kennedy, RFK’s son, at the 2006 groundbreaking for the $579 million school construction project (J. Katz, 2018).

This is the story of how a landmark of national tragedy has transformed into a place of learning, community, and hope.

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"Seeing Through Others Eyes," a 12' x 55' digital mural by artist Judith Baca, one of two panels from the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial that is located at the RFK Learning Center, Los Angeles, CA.

Judith F. Baca ©2010
Courtesy of the SPARC Archives, SPARCinLA.org

The UCLA Community School was conceived in 2006 in the midst of a historic school construction boom led by LAUSD, which serves 480,000 students, the second largest school district in the country. It was part of a national reform movement that prioritized school choice, small schools, and teacher autonomy. UCLA teamed with LAUSD, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), and the community to reimagine public education. LAUSD operates the school, in partnership with UCLA. The proposal for the school captured their shared vision:

A community-based, learner centered, university-assisted school, a school where many different people come together, driven by the nation's long legacy of common schooling. Lead teachers were at the core of this design process, and the UCLA-led hiring committee recruited a principal and initial team of three lead teachers to turn the broad vision into a reality. Granted local autonomy over curricula, instruction, assessment, staffing, budget, and schedule, the new school was part of an original cohort of 10 Belmont Pilot Schools, a reform model that traveled from Boston to Los Angeles in response to the growth of charter schools. The UCLA Community School was set to open alongside five other new pilot schools on a historic site—the first wall-to-wall complex of pilot schools in the city. The stakes were high…. (Quartz et al., 2021a, pp. 163–178)

These six new pilot schools share the historic campus and are collectively known as the RFK Community Schools. These schools serve the neighborhoods of Pico Union and Koreatown, which educators said suffered from “30 years of neglect.” Prior to the creation of the RFK schools, the high school dropout rate in the area was around 60%, and fewer than 10% of students continued to college (Martinez & Quartz, 2012).Today the RFK Community Schools complex houses the Ambassador School of Global Education, the Ambassador School of Global Leadership, Los Angeles High School of the Arts, the New Open World Academy, the School for the Visual Arts and Humanities, and the UCLA Community School.

Karen Hunter Quartz, director of the UCLA Center for Community Schooling and research director of UCLA Community Schools, explained that the idea of a campus of public community schools was especially appealing to UCLA, which is often ranked as the nation’s top public university. “The university has a long track record of engaging with communities to advance equity and justice, supporting more than 350 programs across Los Angeles. The UCLA Labor Center, for example, supports worker rights and is located about a mile from the school. …The school developed as a signature community engagement strategy for UCLA, as part of a national movement to have universities partner in deeper ways with schools,” said Quartz.

UCLA Community School is funded by taxpayers, but the university provides a variety of “braided resources” and in-kind support that promote the mission of the university—research, teaching, and service. UCLA funds enrichment programs, professional learning for teachers, and research grants for graduate students to work with teachers. “This also helps the university,” said Quartz. For example, one-third of the classrooms at UCLA Community School host student teachers from UCLA, as well as graduate students who are artists, librarians, social workers, and lawyers. These emerging community school professionals work and learn alongside school staff. In addition, UCLA teaching artists work with teachers to integrate the arts into the curriculum, UCLA social work students intern with and assist school counselors, and UCLA information studies students work with the school librarian on special projects.

Based on the success of the UCLA Community School, the university and the school district initiated a second partnership with Horace Mann Middle School, a historic middle school that was experiencing declining enrollment due to the expansion of charter schools in South Los Angeles. In 2017, Mann UCLA Community School increased its enrollment by expanding to include high school.

University-Assisted Community Schools

The UCLA Community School is a university-assisted community school (UACS). The UCLA Center for Community Schooling (n.d.) explains:

As stable anchor institutions, universities play a unique role as K–12 community school partners. Our research, teaching, and service missions inform and are informed by the work of local schools and communities. In partnership, we are poised to disrupt historical inequalities and reimagine schooling as a public good that prepares all students to succeed in college, careers, and civic life.

Our partnership vision is rooted in the ideals of democracy, justice, and education. We engage in democratic spaces that build on the assets of all members; work to redistribute access to educational opportunities and resources for low-income students of color who have been marginalized in our educational system; and support community-based education that builds on the assets of students, families, and teachers. Research, teaching, and service activities advance our partnership vision and support the community school approach both within our partnership schools and more broadly.

UCLA is a regional center for the University Assisted Community School National Network, which is organized by the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with the Coalition for Community Schools. (See Chapter 3 for more about UACS.)

[6] Anchor institutions are “enduring organizations that are rooted in their localities,” according to the Anchor Institutions Task Force.

After several years of planning, the UCLA Community School (UCLA-CS) opened in 2009. It had an immediate impact. Students from the surrounding neighborhoods had been enduring long bus rides to attend over 60 schools throughout the city because local schools were critically overcrowded. Now, students could attend school just down the street. Three-fourths of the 1,000 students are from immigrant families: Latinx (81%), Asian (10%), and Filipino (5%). Nearly all speak a language other than English at home and qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

In just over a decade, the UCLA-CS, which spans transitional kindergarten to 12th grade, has changed the trajectory of students’ lives. Today, around 90% of UCLA-CS students graduate high school, and 97% plan to attend college.

Quartz, who has been involved with UCLA-CS since the planning stages, recalls an early partnership meeting to establish ways to ensure the relationship between the university and the community was mutually beneficial. A lead teacher used the analogy of clownfish and sea anemones, which have a symbiotic relationship. “It has been really important to view the school and university as interdependent, as stronger together. That’s hard to do well,” Quartz said.

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"I AM YOU." CYRCLE. 2016. Artists: David Leavitt and David "RABI" Torres.


Reproduced by permission of CYRCLE. https://www.cyrcle.com/art/outdoor/i-am-you/



These simple messages are superimposed over the striking images of two barefoot teenagers in 50-foot-high murals that adorn the side of RFK Community Schools in Los Angeles. They greet the stream of humanity that comes here from all parts of the world in pursuit of a brighter future.

Inside the doors of the UCLA-CS, students were greeted by Leyda Garcia, their principal. Her story is much like those of her students. She emigrated from Guatemala to Los Angeles with her family when she was 7: “I was part of the immigration wave of the 1980s. That informs my practice. I connect to the experience of the students.”

Garcia graduated from UCLA and has returned to this community. “I know that my education and role give me privilege and our circumstances are not the same,” said Garcia. “I come to this with respect for the families here now, their struggles, resilience, and strength. That’s the lens I come with. It took me a long time to see my experience and language as an asset rather than as a deficit.”

Social justice education is the foundation of UCLA-CS. “Social justice permeates [the school]. It’s an orientation. It’s a stance that informs everything we do,” explained Garcia. “Teachers have the autonomy to create curriculum that is responsive and affirming to students. But it's also expanding their understanding of the world, helping them become critical and interrogate a lot of systems that often have marginalized their communities and who they are. …not just 30 minutes twice a week, but in everything that we're doing. …We are offering a space for human beings to learn to feel safe, to feel like they can ask questions, that they can develop, that they understand where they are, and that there's always a continuum of learning. …We want all of our students to be self-directed, passionate learners.”

What does it mean to be a center of social justice education? “Part of social justice education is being active in our democracy and society,” Garcia said. “But there's also a piece, especially for students of color, to come to that involvement and engagement with their democracy and society knowing really who they are, the assets they bring to the process, and feeling confident about that. That's really critical in the area where we are and [for] the students that we serve, for them to really appreciate the richness of their languages and histories, struggles and resistance. So it's embedded into things.”

[7] After serving as principal of UCLA-CS for a decade, Leyda Garcia left the school in September 2022 to become Associate Director for Professional Learning for UCLA’s Center for Community Schooling.

Community Schools in Greater Los Angeles

In terms of size and geographic spread, the combined community school initiatives of Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles (LA) are among the largest in the nation. With roots going to back to the California Healthy Start Initiative (SB 620, 1992), the greater LA region has been implementing models of comprehensive, integrated, school-based services—including family resource centers, after-school programs, youth development centers, and school health centers with hundreds of nonprofit and public agency partners—for over 30 years.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) is headed up by Superintendent Debra Duardo, who was a school-site coordinator in the mid-1990s when the state’s Healthy Start and After School initiatives were first rolling out. Today, LACOE is partnering with county agencies and school districts to improve the academic, emotional, and physical well-being of students.

LACOE launched a community schools pilot program in September 2019. It now operates at 15 high schools across the county “that serve as hubs for a range of support services for students and their families,” according to the program website. “Each campus is provided with a full-time program specialist to coordinate services from participating agencies and a full-time educational community worker to support parent engagement” (Los Angeles County Office of Education, n.d.).

LAUSD runs the largest community school initiative within LA County (Los Angeles Unified School District, n.d.) and has implemented three cohorts of community schools to date, with 35 featured community schools, and more to come. Partners include unions, public agencies, nonprofits, philanthropies, and the UCLA Center for Community Schooling.

In 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom and the state legislature approved investing $4.1 billion over seven years to expand community schools throughout the state. It is the largest statewide community school initiative in the country. (Newbury, 2022) The Alameda County Office of Education, a lead partner of the Oakland school district (see Chapter 9), the UCLA Center for Community Schooling, the National Education Association, and Californians for Justice are co-leading the technical assistance effort for California’s community schools.

“Language Is a Political Act”

The UCLA-CS opened during a wave of anti-immigrant politics. In 1998, California passed Proposition 227, which made it illegal to teach in a language other than English unless a parent signed a waiver. The law stood for 18 years until California voters repealed it in 2016.

Dual-language education has been a foundational principle for UCLA-CS. A history of the school described it this way:

Teachers envisioned that graduates of the school would read, write, listen, and speak in at least two languages, and be able to use those languages flexibly with different audiences in order to think critically about the world around them, to engage as agents of social change, and to promote democratic practices. (Los Angeles Unified School District, n.d.)

Language is a political issue, and UCLA-CS takes a stand. “We opened in an anti-bilingual era in California as a dual-language school to build on the assets of our students,” Quartz recounted. “Most bilingual models at that time only used students’ home language as a vehicle to learn English. We said to students, it’s important to maintain your Spanish or Korean and learn English at same time. We had to convince parents that this was going to not only honor their family’s home language and home culture, but it was going to help their students succeed in school. So we developed a 90/10 home-language dominant model that would help students keep their Spanish-language proficiency while developing English as well. That’s a good example of community-based teaching and learning because you are teaching in the languages of the community.”

Educators see positive results from the school’s dual-language approach. “When I went to a classroom with Spanish as the language of instruction, students were so engaged and much more enthusiastic and eager,” said Queena Kim, a founding lead teacher and assistant principal. “Students were very quickly able to read in their primary language and parents were able to support them. There was a sense of confidence that they did know something and they could read and write. I saw how powerful that was to them. Learning Spanish first helps them to learn English so they can be dual proficient.”

When someone speaks in Spanish, “no one sees you as a valuable contributor to any space until you know English,” observed Kim. Speaking and teaching in Spanish or Korean “is a political act. It’s a cultural act.”

Dual-language instruction can change a student’s educational trajectory. “By third grade, you sort of already know if you're smart, if you're good at math, if you're a good reader, if you're either at grade level or below,” said Kim. “Really boosting students’ confidence and their cultural assets from the beginning makes such a difference. I saw the students as they went through the grade levels be so much more confident.” In a sign of changing times, Kim noted that there is now high demand from English-only students to learn in bilingual settings and it is driving enrollment in the UCLA-CS.

Principal Leyda Garcia insists that bi-literacy—gaining proficiency in multiple languages—expresses the values of the school. “It permeates every space,” she said. It tells a student that “everything about you belongs here, and you are proud to do what you are doing.”

[8] Queena Kim became principal of UCLA Community School in 2022 following the departure of Leyda Garcia.

School as Sanctuary

The UCLA-CS is a sanctuary school, a place of safety and security for students and their families. To be in community, said Karen Hunter Quartz of the UCLA Center for Community Schooling, “is not just about respecting cultural assets. It extends to the notion of struggle. You are embracing solidarity for immigrant rights.”

In the aftermath of President Trump’s election in 2016, immigrants felt threatened—and the community school responded. “What safety means is sanctuary and asylum for immigrants,” Quartz noted. “Los Angeles is a sanctuary city. LAUSD is a sanctuary district. We have lockdown protocols if federal ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents try to come on campus.”

“People are working hard to resist,” Quartz continued. “In particular communities, that means resisting federal authorities. We are ready in our school, and we are not alone. There are many stories of schools that have had active ICE agents near their site detaining parents. That’s been life in LA, and it certainly was heightened in 2016.”

As the Trump-era immigration crackdown intensified, students at the UCLA-CS participated in a citywide educational justice coalition called “Students Deserve.” They discussed how they were being affected by the crackdown and then engaged with teachers and parents to devise a plan for the entire RFK Community Schools campus. The RFK Community Schools Sanctuary School Protocol declared:

RFK Community Schools are committed to being a safe place for its students and their families in the wake of immigration enforcement efforts. A sanctuary school is as strong as a school’s organization. We believe it is important to be proactive in protecting and providing resources for our families. Our site, in partnership with community organizations and legal services, will be a refuge where families seek safety, information, and resources if they feel threatened or afraid. (Quartz et al., 2021b, pp. 153–170)

Principal Garcia said that the school is “plugged into the network” of the immigrant rights community. “We tell families to remember your rights and we keep holding ‘Know Your Rights’ workshops so families know how to respond,” she noted, if challenged about their immigration status.

The UCLA-CS is also home to the Immigrant Family Legal Clinic, a partnership of the UCLA School of Law and the LAUSD. The clinic engages in community education, direct legal services, and policy advocacy. Being a sanctuary school also extends to the curriculum. Quartz et al. (2021b) explained:

Complementing the school's sanctuary policy, UCLA Community School has worked for over a decade to foster students' and families' sense of belonging and safety inside the classroom. Teachers have designed instructional units on immigration intended to foreground immigrants' humanity, migration stories, and cultural richness. For example, students in an English class might discuss the social construction of having "papers," while in their government class they will debate the contributions of immigrants to the U.S. economy. In addition, the Spanish teacher might facilitate a discussion on ICE, asking students to critically examine its role in promoting a culture of fear in neighborhoods, as well as ways to challenge anti-immigrant systems. It is difficult work to bridge education and legal status issues, but as one teacher shared, "Teachers have to be very deliberate in creating spaces where students are encouraged to share their identity." In doing so, teachers affirm and honor community members' immigrant origins and prepare students to be active and critical participants in society.

Principal Garcia asserted, “Our families know that we are looking out for them.”

Community Schools and Democracy

For a community school to succeed, the teachers must be partners. The 30,000-member United Teachers of Los Angeles has been part of planning the UCLA-CS from its conception. It was initially a delicate dance: The union had to agree that teachers sign an “election to work” contract that allowed them to work extra hours. In return, teachers were assured that this reform would be led by teachers, not imposed on them (Martinez & Quartz, 2012).

Rosa Jimenez is a founding lead teacher at UCLA-CS and a leader within UTLA. She currently coordinates English language learners at the school, serves on the district's community schools steering committee, and co-founded Reclaim Our Schools LA, a coalition of parents, educators, students, and community members advocating for public schools. Jimenez noted that ever since the creation of the RFK Community Schools, “Our union has undergone a transformation in seeing itself as a vehicle for racial and social justice. One of the things we talked a lot about is [what does it mean] to be a union for racial and social justice when our schools are under attack and purposely being defunded? If we are saying ‘No’ to [charter schools], what is our vision for schools? We understood that schools were struggling, and that historically Black and brown students were not served here in LA. The idea and model of a community school has many of those elements that we believe are good for students, families, and teachers.”

Jimenez believes there is a natural alliance between the teacher’s union and the community school: “That is rooted in the sense of us as teachers having rights and seeing ourselves as playing a role in a movement. We are not just advocating for our schools, but advocating for issues in the community like immigration, economic justice, and social justice. So a lot of us play a big role in our union and in other movement spaces because we see that our role is more than just educators in the classroom.”

She emphasized that this includes “a commitment to keep growing the movement of community schools to other parts of the county and district.”

A school dedicated to democracy and social justice has to walk the walk. The fundamental difference [between a traditional school and a community school] is a commitment to democratic practices,” explained Jimenez. “We are constantly trying to figure out how to make decisions and problem-solve in a way that includes as many voices as possible. We’ve tried to flip the school hierarchy on its head and move away from traditional ideas of how a student learns and how teachers should think about their work. It allows for a lot of collaboration and a lot of decision making and problem solving using real data. It includes experience with curriculum and instruction that is not handed down, but we think it’s going to work. We get to know our students and community and try to be responsive to those needs.”

The Trump era was a crucial test of social justice education. “When Trump got elected many of our students played a big role in pushing these issues,” said Jimenez. “We addressed the fear among immigrant students, the feeling that ICE could come on campus. We organized students to organize a sanctuary schools movement on campus. Almost everyone on campus knows what to do if ICE comes to school and those students would go into the community and connect it to the Black Lives Matter movement.”

“We Bargained for the Common Good”

In 2019, UTLA went on strike throughout LAUSD. The strike was about more than teacher salaries. It was about learning conditions and who would control public education. A massive push was underway in LA to launch 260 new charter schools run by private “edupreneurs” that would serve half of LAUSD students. The union countered by demanding more nurses, librarians, counselors, smaller classes, and a commitment to open 20 new community schools. Rosa Jimenez reflected, “After years of teaching, I saw a push to privatization and the economic crisis. I was laid off twice. The instability and issues of housing in our community, issues of over-policing our students—all these things were really brought to light in the street protests around racial justice.”

“When we went on strike, the parents were very supportive,” recounted Jimenez. “They were out on picket lines and the majority did not cross. They kept students out, they brought us food and drinks. It was a testament to the relationships that we’ve built with parents over years.”

Jimenez proudly noted, “We bargained for the common good. By the time we put forward our contract demands, we said it was about salary and working conditions, but also about winning funding for 20 community schools. A lot of educators learned what community schools were, why we are so committed to it, why we are so concerned with de-policing our schools. We used the strike to end random searches of students, and we did it with parents and families. We had 60,000 people out on the streets.”

The strike was settled after six days. As part of the agreement, LAUSD committed to build 20 new community schools.

Community schools have gone from the margins to the center of discussion. “More people know about it, people are talking about it, and we have more unions that are committed to it,” said Jimenez. But she cautioned, “We want to make sure it doesn’t get watered down and become a flavor of the month.”

The goals of the UCLA-CS—advancing democracy, justice, and education—are part of a long-term struggle. “This school existed for 12 years, and we are starting to see the fruits of that. But it takes a long time,” Jimenez reflected. “One challenge is that the nature of public education is to say, ‘We tried that for two years and it didn’t work.’ So while it’s exciting that people see this movement to address racism and economic issues and equity, we want real commitment that allows educators and families and students to take on those roles and make it happen on their own. We need the opportunity to experiment and address the needs of students. A systemic transformation with community schools is part of that.”

Reflection and Practice

For Principal Leyda Garcia, success at UCLA-CS is defined by deepening engagement with the community: “You have to have the community at the table informing your decisions. Because otherwise you can demonstrate the same system of oppression that has existed for centuries.” She gives credit to the school governance council, which includes their university partners, parents, and students. “They really drive the decisions. That council has a lot of responsibility, and it has enriched what we do.”

“Community school is about working alongside a community, responding to the community, and elevating the voices of that community. Everything we do, we approach like that,” Garcia added.

One of the signature achievements of UCLA-CS is that nearly all of its students graduate from high school, a dramatic improvement from the days when only about 60% of neighborhood students graduated. Garcia remains focused on the handful of students who don’t graduate.

“If you ask who are the three who may not graduate, I know their names,” she said. “You have to be analyzing your system, finding gaps and what’s not working and being obsessed about every single student. This year we hit a 95% graduation rate. But we are still sad about the 5% of students who won’t graduate. We are obsessed about those five. And we are going to keep at it, and they will probably graduate by the end of year.”

“Ninety-five percent is good,” she conceded. “But we are not done.”

Robert F. Kennedy once said:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. (Kennedy, 1966)

In Los Angeles, the halls and classrooms of UCLA Community School are filled with “tiny ripples of hope” wearing school backpacks and speaking many languages.


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