Trojan Family

32nd Street: A Kaleidoscope of K-Through-12 Learning

Footsteps from the University Park Campus, two magnets - one a math-science high school, the other an arts primary and middle school - draw together sparkling clusters of children in an educational jewel box.

The teenagers look after the little ones with mock-grudging concern, picking them up and dusting them off after they’ve taken a tumble, bending down to dry their tears in the face of life’s vicissitudes. The smaller children are grateful, if a tad embarrassed, to be on the receiving end of this “grown-up” attention.

As for the adolescents, they know full well that they’re closely observed and admired. The very vulnerability of the 5- to 7-year-olds forces the teens to be responsible role models, to carry themselves as budding adults.

Siblings in a model family?

In a way, yes. Though no blood ties bind these brothers and sisters, they belong to a larger brood that’s no less a family. All are students at the 32nd Street/USC and MaST (Math, Science and Tech-nology) High School – a member of the USC-sponsored Family of Five Schools partnership.

USC’s immediate neighbor to the north is educational home to some 1,000 young people, ranging from rambunctious kindergartners to too-cool high school seniors. Most are bussed to the Jefferson Boulevard campus from across the city to take advantage of these exceptional magnet schools in the L.A. Unified School District.

No small part of what makes 32nd Street/ USC/MaST extraordinary is principal Gail Greer. Like a charismatic preacher, Greer ministers to her charges as if she were on a vast maternal crusade, affectionately referring to all her students – regardless of age – as “my babies.”

Since her arrival in 1998, this Ph.D. candidate from the USC Rossier School of Education has brought stability and pride to an institution that, in the preceding five years, had gone through principals faster than big-city school boards go through superintendents.

Greer can readily talk the mission-statement talk, describing 32nd Street/USC/MaST as “a K-12 multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic school community with a citywide base of student enrollment in a city-center location.” Equally fluent in plain English, she waxes eloquent about “the beauty of K-12 schools” when trying to articulate her institution’s mission.

That beauty shines bright in the eyes of Brandie Christion, Valerie Jane Vidal and Dachelle Butler, a giggling threesome of 7- and 8-year-olds. These representatives of “Krupin’s Kritters,” as teacher Jody Krupin’s boisterous second-graders are called, are outspoken advocates of the K-12 experience.

“The big kids teach me how to read better,” declares diminutive Dachelle. “They help us a lot!”

Three of 32nd Street teacher Jody Krupin’s bright-eyed second-graders, a.k.a. “Krupin’s Kritters:” Dachelle Butler, Valerie Jane Vidal and Brandie Christion

“Yeah,” chimes in Valerie. “On my bus, there’s only one other kid my age. All the rest of them are big kids. But they never pick on us. On the bus, they help me with my reading too.”

Brandie Christion, formerly a shy kid who struggled with reading, has experienced a turnaround socially and academically. She not only reads at second-grade level now – and loves it – but boasts that several of her “best friends” on campus are high schoolers.

The friendships go in both directions. MaST senior Jacob Edwards says he has several chums in sixth and seventh grade. A varsity basketball player who hopes to become a neurobiologist, Edwards knows “the younger kids notice us and look up to us.” The knowledge doesn’t make him arrogant.

The campus athlete often volunteers for DJ duty at the little ones’ school dances. “When it comes to just about anything, the younger kids know that if they need help, they can count on us,” he says.

Affirmations like these are what principal Greer lives for. “I love the idea of having children go through their entire K-12 years in one safe and secure location that’s committed to their education,” she gushes.

Another of “Krupin’s Kritters” Andrea Bautista.

Parents seem to like this philosophy too. The proof is in the numbers: 32nd Street/USC/MaST has the largest percentage of applications of any magnet school in LAUSD. For last fall’s 100 openings, Greer says her school received a whopping 2,300 applicants (selection for enrollment is completely random; done, in fact, by computer).

The school is something of a rarity – it’s one of only three K-12 schools in the 900-strong LAUSD system (Family of Five member Foshay Learning Center is another).

“Among those three,” Greer notes, “ours is the only school that actually has two schools on its campus, with two different areas of emphasis.”

This helps explain the name, which few would dispute could use some work. 32nd Street School /USC/MaST High School – what a mouthful!

Technically, the slash-happy abbreviation stands for “32nd Street/USC Visual and Performing Arts Magnet K-8” and “USC/Math, Science and Technology Magnet High School 9-12.” The two schools on the 32nd Street campus are distinct magnets, each with its own history.

The original 32nd Street School opened about 70 years ago. Today, it’s a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade visual and performing arts magnet. As the designation suggests, humanities education is central to the curriculum of the 750-student school. (Despite this arts niche, most 32nd Street graduates try to continue their education at MaST, though the 70-student freshman class is selected randomly.)

The LAUSD/USC Math, Science and Tech-nology (MaST) High School began in 1994 as a collaboration between LAUSD, USC and the California National Guard (initial plans called for temporarily housing the school in National Guard facilities). The magnet was designed for college-bound students focusing on basic and applied sciences, math and technology. MaST opened – temporarily, it was thought – on the 32nd Street/USC School campus until another location could be found.

More of teacher Jody Krupin’s second-graders: Prince Geronimo and Celeste Garrett.

Five years and four principals later, MaST was still looking. And it would be looking now if not for Greer’s intervention.

Arriving two years ago, the new principal was surprised to find that the little kids owned the entire campus. Any space other than their classrooms was pretty much off-limits to the 250 high schoolers. MaST students didn’t even have access to the cafeteria.

It wasn’t an easy fix. Space was and remains a problem. (“We don’t have any,” Greer quips.) Cramped bungalows house most classrooms on the small urban campus. When she took the helm, the current principal could readily understand the primary/middle school’s reluctance to share. “The presence of the high school was considered ‘temporary,’” she recalls. “But I couldn’t help but wonder how two [groups] could live on a dime and not speak with each other. Soon after I became principal, I made a pact in my mind to bridge the schools.”

The figurative bridge-building is now well underway, but real-world engineering challenges remain. With little likelihood of expanding horizontally, Greer has begun lobbying to build up. “I’d like to have Waite Phillips Hall on our campus,” she jokes, referring to the 11-story structure that’s home to USC’s Rossier School. “But I’ll settle for adding second stories to our existing bungalows.”

The school’s proximity to and relationship with USC strongly influences the education of Greer’s several hundred “babies.” Certainly more than a few university faculty and staff members begin the day by dropping their children here.

One such child is 16-year-old Nakul Shankar, who entered MaST four years ago, when his Indian parents came to Los Angeles to do graduate work at USC. His father, Atul Gupta MA ’97, is working on his doctorate in economics, and his mother, Dipa Gupta, is pursuing a master’s degree in sociology. Nakul hopes this fall to follow in both his parents’ footsteps as a physics major at USC.

Though proximity is important, USC-based parents choose 32nd Street/USC/MaST for a variety of other reasons – among them, the school’s magnet status, its relatively small enrollment size and its high academic standards.

“It’s a tight school,” says Jacob Edwards, the MaST hoop star. “When we talk to friends who go to bigger schools – and that aren’t next door to USC – we realize how lucky we are.”

His classmate Sheryl Reyes points to another perk: “Unlike a lot of other schools, it’s safe here. We don’t have to worry about violence,” says the 18-year-old senior, who like Nakul Shankar has close ties to the Trojan Family. Her mother, Evangeline Reyes, is employed as a budget/business technician in the USC School of Engineering.

Like a charismatic preacher, principal Gail Greer ministers to her charges as if she were on a vast maternal crusade, affectionately referring to all her students, regardless of age, as “my babies.”

Because “USC” is in the school’s name, people often mistakenly assume it’s a feeder to the university. “We battle an information myth,” says high school coordinator Claudia Lopez-Gil, “that 32nd Street/USC and MaST are some kind of junior academy whose students are automatically guaranteed acceptance to USC. Not so.”

USC was added to the moniker in 1978, when the original 32nd Street School became a citywide magnet institution.

“Naturally, the benefits to students of being so close to the campus help make us a magnet,” says Barbara Lesure, coordinator of the visual and performing arts school. “USC is a gold mine right across the street.”

The mine’s bounty has yielded, among other things, a cache of able employees for the neighboring school. Lopez-Gil was a second-year student at USC Law School when she first started volunteering at 32nd Street School. A leave of absence turned into a job offer and a new-found calling in education. “Many of our teachers and staff are alumni of USC,” she says, “so we’re not shy about pointing our students across the street after they’ve graduated.”

Foot traffic between the public magnet school and the private research university isn’t confined to the admissions and employment offices of the two institutions. 32nd Street/USC/ MaST enjoys numerous benefits as a member of USC’s Family of Five Schools – a partnership among USC, five neighborhood schools and a variety of community organizations.

MaST science teacher Mariah Cone ’96 leads 12th-graders Bryan Young and Ymelda Ramos down the road to discovery in her advanced placement biology class.

“We really appreciate all the opportunities we have at USC,” says 17-year-old Wendy Correa, a thoughtful and mature MaST senior. “We’ve always felt welcome when we go over there to use their classrooms, athletic facilities and to attend events,” adds Correa, who hopes to study education at USC and become a teacher, perhaps even to return one day to work at 32nd Street/MaST.

USC lends support to the neighboring school in many forms:
• Through USC’s Joint Educational Project, undergraduate volunteers coach students in reading and math.
• USC’s Afterschool Enrichment Program exposes elementary-aged students to art, dance, music, film, computers and theater.
• The university’s Mission Science Program nurtures interest in math and science among middle school students.
• The USC School of Social Work deploys two psychiatric interns to counsel schoolchildren and their families in need. It also designates a community organization intern to serve as liaison between the university and 32nd Street/USC/MaST.
• The USC-sponsored community outreach program Multimedia University Academy opens pathways for MaST graduates to gain experience in multimedia production.

Supported by these and many other USC efforts, MaST graduates are going somewhere – whether it’s USC or not – for post-secondary education. Recent grads are now attending such in-state institutions as USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and various Cal State campuses, and such out-of-state schools as Howard, Georgetown, Morehouse, Brandeis, Brown, Dartmouth and MIT.

Buttressing 32nd Street/USC/MaST’s academic successes is an inspired adaptation, the outgrowth of Greer’s bridge-building efforts and faith in the hybrid K-12 school model.

Second-graders Ryan Williams and Imari Stewart pay rapt attention to a film about 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, who made desegregation history in 1960. Their own school is a model of diversity: 38 percent black, 36 percent Hispanic and 26 percent Asian, white and other.

Where her predecessors had seen only a space-challenged campus embroiled in territorial rivalries, the new principal saw a golden opportunity to address some tough realities in the reform-minded educational landscape of the late ’90s. Statewide rules requiring standardized testing had put new academic pressures on 32nd Street’s arts-focused curriculum; meanwhile, a rule requiring all high school students to take arts classes posed a dilemma for MaST’s hard-core science program. Meshing the two schools’ schedules, Greer realized, would bea boon to both.

While visual and performing arts remains the focus of 32nd Street, there’s now a heightened emphasis on reading and math. All eighth-graders must now take algebra. The math- and science-focused high schoolers, in turn, now take courses in performing and visual arts, leaving their books and computers to learn the basics of music and glide across a dance floor.

In both classroom and faculty lounge, a kind of détente has emerged without any prodding from Greer. “Parents are pleased. Rigor and discipline are being established in both the arts and academics,” says assistant principal Jackie Schneider, who heads MaST. “The bridging makes for far better schools and far better human beings who graduate from them.”

The science/arts convergence has worked so well, in fact, that teachers and students have broached the once-unthinkable idea of officially combining the two schools to create one MAST (Math, Arts, Science and Technology) Magnet School. In the shaky bureaucracy that attends LAUSD today, such a melding is “a little too much for us right now,” says a cautious Greer, but she admits that “we’re not at all interested in having the high school find another location.”

Cessation of hostilities, better academic performance and fulfilled state educational requirements aren’t the only reasons the schools’ stakeholders are sold on what is, in practice, becoming a single smoothly functioning K-12 institution. There are also intangible social and developmental benefits that don’t show up on school report cards or national test scores.

“There’s a lot of respect between younger and older students here. There’s no division,” says MaST senior Sheryl Reyes, who hopes to enter USC this fall.

“We sort of look at all the kindergarten-through-eighth-graders as our little brothers and sisters,” adds classmate Wendy Correa, whose own sister is a fourth-grader at 32nd Street.

Whenever Greer strolls around campus, she finds ample proof that her 32nd Street bridge is rock solid. Her younger “babies” flock to regale her with accounts of high school students paying attention to them, helping them with their homework. “They revere the high school students,” Greer says.

Those exalted high schoolers, meanwhile, are constantly reminded that they’re on display, setting an example. “We tell our high school babies, ‘There will be no kissing on campus because the kindergartners are watching you. You’re not here for that. You’re here for education,’” Greer says. “And it works. It’s a beautiful thing.”

You might expect adolescents to respond sulkily to such strict scrutiny, but many MaST students relish being role models.

The knowledge Nakul Shankar gains here filters back to students of all ages, whom he gladly tutors.

“I enjoy being a mentor to the younger kids,” says Nakul Shankar, who’s so adept at math and science that students of all ages turn to him for tutoring. “I think the influence of the older students works like this,” he says. “We spend some of our academic time on the USC campus. That rubs off on us. Then our demeanor from spending time there rubs off on the younger students when we come back here.”

Diversity in the student body is not simply reflected in age and academic emphasis. The student body at the two magnet schools is 38 percent African American, 36 percent Hispanic and 26 percent Asian, Caucasian and other.

“We’re able to bridge not just by age-level, but by culture, socio-economic status and ability levels,” says parent representative Cristina Sylvester, a 14-year veteran on 32nd Street’s administrative staff. “We have students coming from all over Los Angeles, which means we may have West L.A. interfacing with Watts, Boyle Heights interfacing with the San Fernando Valley. Of course, this sometimes creates issues, but that’s one of the ways they learn from each other.”

Art has a way of bridging the differences in students’ backgrounds, Greer believes. “Dance, music and visual arts are universal. No one cares who makes great art – it’s simply to be appreciated,” she says.

Even the school’s cramped space, despite its undeniable drawbacks, plays into the bridging concept. “Our school is a village,” says MaST’s Schneider. “All the students know the teachers and principal, and we know who all the children are.”

Greer’s bridging efforts dovetail well with a concept very much in favor at USC. The goal of Renaissance education – the intellectual breadth-with-depth that characterized the best thinkers of the European Renaissance – is taking hold on both sides of Jefferson Boulevard.

USC President Steven B. Sample might just as well have been talking about 32nd Street/USC/MaST when he spelled out the philosophy behind the university’s Renaissance Scholars Program last fall: “to create an opportunity for students to work deeply and productively in two or three disciplines that are not contiguous in the current geography of thought,” he wrote in the Autumn 1999 issue of USC Trojan Family Magazine. “At the boundaries and bridgings between separated fields of knowledge, dramatic things can happen.”

At the intersection of science and art, 32nd Street/USC/MaST is making dramatic things happen for its students. “I like to think we’re developing junior Renaissance scholars, because the bridging [President Sample] described is happening right here,” Greer says. “We’re trying to say that math and art correlate. Geometry is a form of art. And there are strong connections between music and mathematics.”

So confident is Greer in her junior scholars’ abilities that she looks forward to 32nd Street/ USC/MaST becoming a Blue Ribbon School.

“We’re by no means done,” she admits. “First, of course, we have to reach the level of being recognized as a California Distinguished School – we must garner the scores that are necessary to be considered a world-class school.”

Formidable as those obstacles may appear to outsiders, Greer has no doubts of her school’s ultimate triumph. “We already have world-class students,” she says. “The babies will move forward at all costs, and that’s the bottom line.”

All in the Family
USC President Steven B. Sample laid down the challenge after the Los Angeles civil disturbance of 1992: “We want parents from all over the region to look at our community schools and say, ‘That’s where I want to send my child.’” That challenge has been translated into the Family of Five Schools, a partnership among the five schools near the University Park Campus, the university and a wide array of community agencies.

The Family of Five is comprised of 32nd Street School/ USC/MaST High School (K-12), Foshay Learning Center (K-12), Norwood Street School (K-5), Vermont Avenue School (K-5) and L.B. Weemes School (K-5).