learn / 2014

The Los Angeles Service Academy

The Los Angeles Service Academy

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Los Angeles Service Academy (LASA)

LASA teaches high school students how things work in Southern California.


Please describe yourself.

Solo actor (just us on this project!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

  • Central LA
  • East LA
  • South LA
  • San Gabriel Valley
  • San Fernando Valley
  • Westside

What is your idea/project in more detail?

LASA begins with questions. How does a city run? How does a vast metropolitan region like Los Angeles work? Which institutions are responsible for moving water, people, food, and power from points A to points Z? How are such institutions and agencies funded and run? Who runs them? How can neighborhoods be made more livable? What does an elected official do all day? What role do cultural institutions play in the life of greater Los Angeles? What about businesses and non-profits? What are the potential educational and career paths for young people interested in civic, civil, and public service in the Los Angeles Basin? We encourage high school students to ask these – and so many more – questions, and then we work together to answer them.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

LASA works annually with about 30 high school juniors from all across the Los Angeles Basin. Most of our students come from public schools and public districts; some come from private schools. We add as well about six teachers or administrators, and as many as three collegiate interns. Our design is simple. We plunge the students into a four-day summer introductory seminar that teaches them the broadest strokes of Los Angeles history and culture (issues ranging from seismic vulnerabilities to film studio history, and from city governance to immigration and demographic patterns. We do so with experts and remarkable documents from archives at The Huntington or Central Library. We build every participant’s library by supplying them with key texts on LA issues and LA history.

From that summer immersion, we move to a once-a-month Saturday LASA session. Each of these Saturdays (eight or nine per year) embraces a particular infrastructural issue: water, transit, the harbor, law enforcement, cultural expression/institutions, technological innovation, etc. Each session grapples with its issue in conversation with an expert. These are give and take sessions, and LASA students are prepared to ask good and difficult questions. We meet at key sites: water facilities, City Hall, high-tech operations, LAPD headquarters, the harbor complex, etc. We always get the participants out into the landscapes of greater LA; walking tours, our LASA bus, test-your-knowledge light rail explorations, etc. Each day ends with all of us tired and very well informed as to this or that major issue within the infrastructural networks that make up metropolitan Los Angeles. Along the way, and throughout the year, we work hard on community building efforts: public school and private school interfaces at the individual, face to face level (our students become friends with one another across the city and across circumstances); we work with our teacher participants on building collegiality across schools and districts. Along the way, we carefully encourage all LASA students to think about their role as citizens of the metropolis and their trajectory as soon-to-be college students, a status we embrace by bringing college admissions’ officers in to talk about the application process regarding the move from high school to college or university. LASA teaches kids about LA, shows them that they have an important role to play here, and fosters friendships and community while doing so.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to LEARN today? In 2050?

The 2050 metric is really important to us at LASA. We embrace the long-term. We work with a fairly small group of participants at a time. We are about to welcome our third LASA class (in early August). It has thirty high school juniors. We have three collegiate interns and about a half dozen teachers. That’s a small footprint in terms of making a difference. But: we will soon have close to a hundred LASA students, past and present, with which to build foundational change in greater Los Angeles. Then 130, 160, 190, and so on. Even thinking of thirty-per year (we expect to expand that number) gets us to well over 1000 LASA-ites by 2050. If, in the long-term, we can establish networks of knowledge, civil and civic service and awareness, and public obligation among our graduates, we will have accomplished our highest goals. In other words, there’s a scenario in our head about problem solving in LA in 2050. And the principals involved in wrestling with said problem are LASA graduates – they’ve built knowledge over the years, they’ve established efficient networks of collegiality and collaboration, and they get down to solve infrastructural problems and puzzles with greater skill and vision because of all this.

Of course there are short-term goals. Teach a broad cross section of kids about LA; draw a diverse group of young people who may come from very different circumstances or parts of LA together, allow them to discover commonalities of experience and curiosity. Put them into the landscape, teach them about going to college, show them how transit works, empower them to use libraries well help them learn to express themselves in public settings; have a lot of fun on a Saturday LASA day.

We think LASA is spot on with experiential learning objectives. We think greater Los Angeles is an astonishing learning laboratory for history, policy, landscape, culture, and urbanism, and we think no one is too young to begin to grapple with his or her place in the metropolis. We think LASA helps make LA navigable, and we think that we empower and built the confidence of the young people who join us each year.

Whom will your project benefit?

At the very center of the experience, we know LASA benefit four specific groups. First and foremost are the high school participants themselves. Those benefits accrue, we think, in post-LASA years, in that we make efforts to keep in touch, to track our graduates into next phases of their lives and budding careers. Second, we think the program benefits our collegiate interns. Since inception several years ago, these have been Occidental College students solely, a reflection of that college’s commitment to public/civic service through the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI). Neither of LASA’s directors are affiliated with Oxy (one of us is at USC, the other at Colburn School of Music). These interns see their undergraduate training enhanced by their interaction with the city and our high schoolers. Third, we believe the teacher participants, some of whom have been with us since we started, benefit from taking their curricular interests into the city and its landscapes. They also benefit from collegial exchange with their colleagues from other institutions. Fourth, co-directors Bill Deverell and Doug Smith benefit from the opportunity to work with younger, non-collegiate students on this regular basis and get to enhance networks of collaboration throughout greater LA.

Those are focused beneficiaries. There are more, we think. Our LASA students take their experience back to their families. These families often repeat our fieldtrip experiences; we go to point A on a given Saturday and the student brings her family back there on the next Saturday. The friends of our LASA students benefit similarly, and we recruit new LASA students from these ranks.

Most widely, we believe LA benefits. Not yet, perhaps. But we think the lines of friendship, knowledge, and commitment to public service and awareness cannot help but make LA both work better and become a better place to live and work. That’s LASA’s promise, we think, and it makes it all very exciting to us.

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

LASA thrives on and can only work through partnerships. It is in fostering these partnerships – and in showcasing them to the students – that we further and strengthen our foundation of collaboration across the great city. Our key institutional partners are two institutions: the Huntington Library and the Los Angeles Public Library. These are our base camps; we meet here, we use materials from here, we explore relevant issues on top of their materials and outward from them into the region. But other partnerships with individuals and their institutions are every bit as critical. Our experts drive LASA. We are proud of the relationships we have built with, for example, the Los Angeles Times (esp. architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne and transit reporter Laura Nelson); Raphael Sonenshein of Cal State LA; Rob Salzman of the Los Angeles Police Commission; Maria Cabildo of the East LA Community Corporation; Robert DeGroot of the Southern California Earthquake Center; Laurence Frank of LA Trade Tech and former mayor Villaraigosa’s office; Rich Llewellyan of Mayor Garcetti’s office; Ken Brecher of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles; Bernadette Glenn of the WHH Foundation; Jeff Kightlinger and Marjorie Wheeler of the Metropolitan Water District; the Port of Los Angeles and the Los Angele Harbor Commission, esp. David Arian; Deputy LAPD Chief Sandy Jo MacArthur; Steven Koblik of the Huntington Library; and others. Our network of colleagues and collaborators is expanding, and we are proud of the fact that the LASA participants get to meet high-profile decision-makers and leaders across a broad swath of institutions, agencies, and educational centers in the region.

How will your project impact the LA2050 “Learn” metrics?

  • Percentage of community college students completing a certificate, degree, or transfer-related program in six years
  • Academic Performance Index scores
  • College matriculation rates
  • Greater content knowledge about the region, its infrastructural networks, its history, and LASA participant's places within that.

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

We believe the content knowledge imparted by LASA is step one; step two is confidence-building about each student’s place within the metropolis. We believe these fit hand in glove and will pay big educational and community dividends. We track LASA college matriculation numbers, and we are doing very well.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

We will track our students into colleges/universities.

We will watch as recruitment and application curves rise in the face of greater awareness and interest in LASA.

We will look to 2050 in the expectation that LASA and LASA students are keystone mechanisms within the wide project of making LA better and a better place to live, work, learn.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

High school students are hungry to learn how to navigate and make sense of the gargantuan metropolis.

High school students have little difficulty establishing connections and friendships across wide differences of background, circumstance, or experience – if given the chance.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

We are already a going concern. We have seed funding. We need more to keep the project going, and to expand it. We have grown each of the three years: from about 20 kids to more and now 30. We have also piloted a two-day “LASA Junior” project aimed at 8th graders, which is possibly expandable and a good recruitment pool to draw from for the high school effort.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

We have two key challenges. One is conceptual: how to expand, widen our impact, grow – but not at the expense of the specialness and community established and sustained by our relatively small numbers year to year. We can solve this. But it will take thought and careful planning. We could add students at a regular clip – five or so more per year. That would be growth, and it would be manageable, at least in the short term. We could run LASA wings or parallel experiences with several groups. We could offer an experiential LASA (the Saturday model) to one group and an abridged experience to a larger group (in the summer, for example). This is a good problem to have; we are at work figuring it out.

Our second is funding. We are at work on broadening our philanthropic outreach. It is gradual. We have been successful in drawing seed support to launch and sustain LASA for several years. We think we can successfully build upon that, and we think that the LA2050 opportunities and objectives meet our vision and goals directly; this is a spectacular opportunity for us to take the next philanthropic step.

What resources does your project need?

  • Money (financial capital)
  • Publicity/awareness (social capital)
  • Community outreach
  • Quality improvement research