Education / 2013

High School Students Shape the Future of Los Angeles

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by CityLife-LA

The My LA2050 Challenge asks, “What does a successful Los Angeles look like to you?” Our idea at CityLife is to encourage the youth of Los Angeles to answer this question. The My LA2050 Challenge invites us “…to dream of the most innovative and creative ways to tackle Los Angeles’ biggest problems.” Our idea at CityLife is to offer the tools to enable the youth of Los Angeles to dream of possibilities, and to empower them to work to make their dreams a reality.

CityLife has offered, throughout its 17-year history, summer camp and after-school programs. Recently we have partnered with LAUSD to offer an English/Humanities course at Lincoln High School, during school hours and extending into after-school.

The CityLife students at Lincoln High School are currently exploring urban planning issues related to the proposed Cornfield/Arroyo Seco Specific Plan (CASP) for redevelopment of the areas around the Los Angeles State Historic Park (The Cornfield), between downtown and the Los Angeles River. Working closely with our staff as well as faculty and grad students from the UCLA REMAP project, they are researching the past—what was here before, what remains, what has been lost, what should be kept or restored. They are studying what effect the CASP will have on the future – on people in the immediate area, and on their community across the River in Lincoln Heights, even though it is not in the CASP area. They are discussing and proposing issues and ideas that are important for communities for all people, as well as what kinds of businesses, amenities, services, etc., make for a better city.

Research and discussion are just the beginning of the process. The CityLife students are creating an interactive digital mural as a means to present their ideas and also to engage the general community in the discussion. The mural consists of images created and photographed by students, with explanatory narrative written by students. On the one hand, the mural fits right in with the rich mural tradition in Los Angeles. On the other hand, it brings the tradition fully into the 21st Century, with its digital capacity of actually engaging viewers. Motion tracking cameras will enable viewers to manipulate the content of the mural. By waving a hand, the viewer can bring forward information about the CASP; by moving in another direction, the viewer can see the old Southern Pacific train yard (former use of the land where the Cornfield is located); yet another motion can help the viewer see into the future to analyze several alternative solutions to an urban problem. In fact, the mural is a tool for creative expression and community interaction about local urban planning issues. Our colleagues at UCLA are developing the technology, with input from the students. So in addition to being thinkers and artists, they are part of the research team of a major university!

This first mural, which will be projected onto a screen at The Cornfield, will be presented by the students on May 30, 2013. For this project, students receive high school credits in English and community service. More important, this entire process will change the way students approach problems. They will become hands-on participants in innovative solutions.

Our idea is to continue this project on several levels, all the while creating different ways of seeing, thinking and acting.

• Begin work with a summer program for incoming 9th graders, with current CityLife students acting as mentors for the new students.

• Work next year primarily within one Small Learning Community at Lincoln, in an effort to have a broader, positive impact on the school culture, which in turn, will increase student engagement and performance.

• Expand upon the work of this year’s students. Each project will end with an official public presentation and include the question, “What’s next?” as a starting point for the following group’s project.

• Work toward including students in other high schools, having our students make presentations at neighboring schools, encouraging students to become involved and develop comparable projects, and mentor them as they get going.

• Create a seat at the table for young people early in the planning process.

We believe that by working with teachers and administrators, as well as students, at Lincoln High, school culture will improve, student performance will increase, college attendance and job-readiness will increase, AND the CityLife alums will become active citizens and play a leadership role in in finding innovative solutions to urban planning issues in their communities.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

CityLife brings together young people from diverse backgrounds and offers them exposure to and experiences with the Arts, culture, history and politics of Los Angeles in order to find creative solutions to urban issues. We promote educational and interpersonal practices that encourage participants to find their own voices, become independent thinkers, be leaders within their community, and develop into adults who are good neighbors and active citizens who value learning as a means to personal growth, economic benefit and social change.

During every session of CityLife, participants tackle an urban issue and propose solutions to those challenges. Middle school students have designed an urban park, created public art for a redevelopment district, proposed an “Alley District” in Downtown, designed possible replacements for the 6th Street Bridge across the Los Angeles River. In addition, they wrote “The Sacred Spaces of Wilshire Boulevard, a Guide for Kids, by Kids,” published jointly by CityLife and the Los Angeles Conservancy, and remains on the Conservancy website (http://www.curatingthecity.org/sacred_spaces_kids.pdf). This project, funded by a grant from the History Channel, was a finalist for an award, which allowed us to take two participants to Washington, DC, where, among other adventures, they got to meet with staffers of Senator Feinstein and watch a debate on the Senate floor.

High school students created a People’s Promenade to connect the residential community of the William Mead Project with the Cornfield. This project was featured in an exhibit, RETHINK LA, Perspectives on a Future City, in 2011 at the A + D Museum. Students at Lincoln High created a brochure, Exploring the Centennial, using the school’s Centennial Celebration as the impetus to identify and propose projects that would improve the campus.

Many of our participants have had their first exposure to classical music and have brought their entire families on CityLife outings to the Hollywood Bowl, also a first for them. Families have attended CityLife activities at MOCA, again often for the first time. And all have experienced broadening their horizons by exploring neighborhoods outside of their own, often for the first time. They have learned to examine evidence, explore issues from different perspectives, ask questions and develop opinions.

We know that many of our former CityLifers have gone on to attend and complete college and are starting out in careers in education, the arts, web design and marketing. One is currently working on the CityLife staff; another is designing our website; two others are beginning to help with fundraising.

CityLife received a Rose Award from the Downtown Breakfast Club. And student projects have been featured in articles in the Los Angeles Downtown News and the Los Angeles Times.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

CityLife uses the city as our classroom, and in that context, has worked with collaborators and partners throughout its seventeen-year history. The major partners for this project are UCLA REMAP (http://remap.ucla.edu), a joint venture of the School of Theater, Film and Television and the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science at UCLA, Lincoln High School and EduCare Foundation. Additional collaborators include Councilman Ed Reyes’ office, The Department of City Planning, California Sate Parks and Los Angeles State Historic Park, MOCA, Grand Performances, Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Los Angeles Conservancy, Gilmore Associates, Harley Ellis Devereaux, and other business and civic leaders as needs arise.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

The Analytical Framework put forth in the LA2050 Report, describes Education as, “Evidence that students are engaged in a learning process that adequately prepares them to contribute their skills, talents, and abilities to society.” This is consistent with the growing body of research suggesting that qualities such as student engagement, values, character, self-discipline, grit and student-teacher relationships are far more predictive of student success in school and in life than are test scores and IQ. On the same page, the Report also talks about how “The field is embracing broader measures of human development and well-being–and so are we [LA2050].” And yet…

The LA2050 report counts test scores, high school completion/drop rates, and college-going rates among the measures of what works in education. Those measures do not tell the complete or correct story. Test scores, for example, are increasingly being challenged as ineffective predictors of success in post secondary education. They may even lead to cheating. While high school completion matters in the job market, it doesn’t tell us about careers or professions, or a student’s engagement in the community and civic affairs. In short, these measures don’t really tell us what students know and can do when they finish school. They don’t tell us what kind of adults they will be. And they most likely contribute to the exact opposite of the LA2050 description.

CityLife shares the LA2050 vision of Education. We live and breathe it every minute we are in session. Organizational achievements, which are really student achievements, are described in the second section above. These serve as one important measure of our success.

CityLife is based on Youth Development and Organizing models, both of which show very high correlations between youth activities and academic performance. A recent study by the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing noted that 80% of inner-city Black and Latino students involved in organizing activities improved their grades, 60% took more challenging coursework, 91% said they knew more about what they had to do to succeed in school, 95% were more motivated to finish high school, 92% were more motivated to go to college and 49% said they expected to complete graduate or professional degrees beyond college. This is 15-20% higher for degree completion than students surveyed in other national samples. The Funder’s Collaborative report describes similar differences between the Youth Organizing sample and other national samples regarding current and future political and civic engagement and commitment to activism.

One member of the team of our UCLA collaborators is an evaluator. He will work with us to develop and administer surveys to students, parents and teachers, as well as to monitor the quality of student projects. We will have both statistical and anecdotal evidence of success.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Our project will benefit Los Angeles in a variety of ways.

• CityLife students-as-adults will know how to access “City Hall” and the planning process in order to provide input into the urban planning process.

• Because CityLife students will understand the importance of the arts and their role in building and maintaining strong communities, they will support and protect various arts projects in their communities as well as throughout the city.

• CityLife students will “spread the word,” reaching out to and working with students in neighboring communities.

• CityLife students will become well educated citizens of the future, which according to the LA2050 Report, is the first step toward improving the City.

• CityLife students will learn about a whole range of career possibilities in urban planning, politics and government, and related fields such as urban planning, architecture, law (land use…), environmental engineering, the arts and more.

• Perhaps some CityLife students-as-adults will run for office and become public servants.

• CityLife students will help improve the quality of their neighborhoods and communities through bottom-up rather than top-down policies, planning and activities. Each time one neighborhood improves, it has a positive impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

• CityLife projects and murals will bring information, interaction, beauty, whimsy and art to the community.

• CityLife alums will model their varied and innovative ways of seeing, thinking and acting.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

Imagine a school where students are eagerly engaged in their own learning, where they are respected and encouraged to become the best possible human beings they can be, where they welcome and mentor younger students into the school culture. Imagine a neighborhood where children and adolescents are free from fear when walking down the street, where there are parks where children can play and centers where teens can, well, be teens. Imagine a community where the local café is actually owned and operated by high school students and is a gathering place for young and old alike, where news is exchanged and issues are discussed, where art is displayed and music is performed. Imagine a city where art and culture are valued, where history and vibrancy are celebrated with art, where walls are enhanced with murals, where parks have gazebos for dance and band performances. Imagine a city where planning benefits local residents as well as often-absent developers, where local neighborhood councils are really listened to in the decision-making process, where young people have a seat at the table with power brokers.

Blight usually begins on one block and spreads to the surrounding blocks, eventually engulfing entire neighborhoods. In fact, the definition of blight is disease, a plague. It is contagious. Its opposite is health and prosperity. The like the disease, the “cure” begins with one project, perhaps a digital mural, on one block and can spread to the next block and the next, eventually restoring entire neighborhoods to health and prosperity. Health is also contagious, in a good way.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Like the cure, this small group plants the seed and helps it grow. We, at CityLife, believe that this small group, these thoughtful, committed citizens who plant the seeds, are the middle and high school students of today and tomorrow. They have many of the answers we seek. Our job is to listen to them, help them refine their ideas, and support them as they work to implement them. If we give them the tools to see, think and act, we – our city – will reap the benefits of their ideas.