CityLife: A Camp That Started a School

An Inteview with Jacki Breger, Founder of CityLife Downtown Charter School in Los Angeles

In an interview charged with a passion for progressive education, a dedication to reach out to children and lift learning barriers created by the insular world of poverty or gang life, and a focus on experiential learning, Jacki Breger, founder of CityLife Downtown Charter School in Los Angeles, discusses the inspiration that led her to transform her CityLife summer camp program into an acclaimed charter school. Breger developed and directed the CityLife camp to provide young people from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds exposure to and experiences with the arts, culture, history, and politics of Los Angeles. Now, on a broader level she brings those experiences, once reserved for the elite student, to inner-city children within her charter school. An educator with over thirty-five years of experience and a well-known music teacher and performer, she intertwines her wit, wisdom, and knowledge of the educational system with her love of camp.

CityLife: The Summer Program

Describe the CityLife summer program.

Basically, as a camp person, I always thought that schools ought to be a little more like camp. We've just seen over and over again that kids do well in camp. They'll love nature and fail biology. What's wrong with that picture?

So, CityLife, the summer program, was a camp, but an urban camp, where we met downtown in Los Angeles. Established in 1995, it was a day camp program for middle-school age (eleven to fourteen) children. The idea of the program was to use the arts as the tool to look at culture, history, and politics in Los Angeles. We took on real life projects that were happening, things that were happening in downtown during the five weeks we were in session. We had no permanent indoor facility we just met on the steps of the spiral court in California Plaza, and then we would go off downtown visiting museums, talking with business leaders, looking at buildings, and learning about the city.

We developed relationships with arts and civic groups, political folks, and business people in downtown. Some of our collaborators included the Japanese American National Museum, the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Central Library, the Ketchum Downtown YMCA, and the Glorious Repertory Company. We also had relationships with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (LA Phil) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which actually shares our site with us at California Plaza. We had our very own museum right where we needed it. We had a fabulous time looking at art, talking about it, and making art. And, the LA Phil is in residence at the Hollywood Bowl in the summertime. We would often go to rehearsal in the morning and meet with the soloist, the conductor, or one of the musicians from the orchestra. And the Phil gave us tickets for the camper families to go at night — sometimes 100 to 125 tickets.

Urban Planners
The first year we became urban planners was the second year of camp. There was a disagreement between the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Conservancy, which is the preservation organization. St. Vibiana's Cathedral had been damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. The Cardinal wanted to tear it down and build a fancy, new cathedral. And, in the summer of 1996 right when we were in session, the archdiocese had started taking down the cathedral, and the Conservancy got an injunction prohibiting them from doing it. The archdiocese started anyway. A suit was filed and then it was appealed. The appellate hearing was right in the middle of CityLife's session. We invited a representative from the archdiocese to come and talk to the kids about why they wanted to do what they wanted to do, and also a representative from the Conservancy came to visit the students and explain the preservation point of view. Then we went and sketched and drew, and thought and talked about it. The Conservancy won out. Now almost ten years later, the cathedral will become a performing arts space as part of a relationship with a local university performing arts department. The major downtown development includes hotels, apartments, and shops.

Designing Parks and Homes
As we took walks downtown, the kids would ask, where do the children play? This question generated an entire project where campers began to design parks as places for kids to play. There was talk about what should be here and what shouldn't be here.

We are also in the middle of a big urban development boon here, and builders are converting old buildings into homes. One of the builders who started these restorative projects worked with us for two summers as he took a couple of old buildings in the (what he called) Bank District and renovated them. During the project, half the kids worked as architects, looking at the project from the planning and developing point of view, and the other half were the artists, who looked at the development from a public art point of view — what would make the neighborhood more inviting.

CityLife Becomes a School

It's interesting the idea of "a camp that started a school"; how would you describe the "heart and soul" of the camp program that you maintained as you added the academic component to create your charter school?

It was easy to consider the CityLife camp program becoming a school, because the camp values were already there. We functioned as a group, as a whole. We were ACA accredited, so we did participate in planning the programs. And, we went swimming, played basketball, and we would go to the parks. We really were a camp, and my thought was if we could take that core of the summer camp and then add the academic piece to it, we would have a fabulous school. The arts and urban planning, along with play (basketball, soccer, swimming), outings (sort of like hikes), and general camp values (valuing the group, community, working together to make things better) all together form the heart and soul of the program.

I'm a believer in progressive education, now called constructivism — going back to Dewey. He's the first one to do major writing about progressive education. Kids learn best by doing real work, in the real world with real people. They also learn better if they have learning environments and situations in which they can construct their own meaning rather than just being given information by rote. I think this is one reason that kids who don't do well in school, do well in camp. Because that's what camps do intuitively. Many schools miss that part. Here is my vision of the "traditional" classroom: the kids come in to the classroom. The teacher unzips the head, fills it with knowledge, zips it back up, and sends them off. A friend of mine, in a book he wrote, quoted someone whose name I can't remember, but who said it perfectly: "School is where children go to watch adults work."

Our belief is that students learn the best and most through project-based learning. Put kids out there in the community. It doesn't really matter what the project is, whether they are investigating a particular part of town, a project about themselves, or ancient history. The teacher's job is to structure the project so that the students have the skills and resources they need to do the research and gather the information rather than to stand in front of the class and feed them information that they may or may not remember after the test. Students are given the tools of learning so that they can become independent learners in any situation.

Our students actually publish their work at the end of a project and present it to their peers and others we worked with in the community. For example, when we worked on the "Sacred Spaces" project, we studied the history of Los Angeles through the history and preservation of the "Sacred Spaces" (seven churches and one temple) of Wilshire Boulevard. We learned about the religions, architecture, and how Los Angeles grew in the early 20th Century. We celebrated the completion of the project by compiling the research and artistic renderings of each sacred space into a publication, Sacred Spaces of Wilshire Boulevard, A Guide for Kids, by Kids, co-published by CityLife and the Los Angeles Conservancy. Our students held a formal event, inviting all of the people from all of the churches who had worked with us, our elected officials, school board members, the charter school office, and all the families of the students, where they presented a true exhibition. They talked about what they did, gave a PowerPoint® presentation, and displayed their work.

When was your school officially established? How many students and what is the acceptance criteria? How many staff?

We want to be a local school. We are a downtown school serving people downtown. It is also important to us to have our demographics match, as closely as possible, the demographics of our local district schools. We believe that our vision of education will be successful with students who are not doing well in the larger district.

In California, charter schools are public schools that are open to any student in the entire State. However, we wrote in our Charter that we want to be a local school and that we would actively recruit within about a one- to- two-mile radius of our location in Downtown. We have worked closely with the principals of several nearby schools to recruit students across the spectrum — those who are at grade level and above, those who are seriously at risk of failing, those with learning disabilities who receive special education services, and everything in between.

As best I can tell, this past year we had a real range of students. Six out of our eighty came with IEPs in special education, resulting in mostly learning disabilities, and one student has hearing disabilities. We have kids reading at a pre-primer level and several at first and second grade levels. The critical mass is reading at a third or fourth grade level, which is the same critical mass as the district. And, we have a couple of stars who are reading at grade level or above. Most charter schools don't go out of their way to seek the low performing students like we do.

Like Camp, Like School

How does your charter school program unite camp and the classroom as an educational method?

We are trying to develop a school culture based on trust, honor, and respect. This is where we will be closest to a camp. What we, and other schools like ours, are trying to do is really based on the model of a resident camp where you have your cabin group and your cabin counselor. This is where problems are solved and relationships are built. That counselor-camper relationship is powerful and often remembered well into adulthood.

What we are doing in lieu of being a cabin group is what's called Advisory. Each core teacher is also an Advisor to twenty students. It is the job of the Advisor to know those students inside and out, to be their advocate in school, to be sure they are up on all their work, to know if there's trouble at home, to talk with parents, to be the point person for parents to call. Not only is the Advisor-student relationship powerful, but the peer relationships are as well. Advisory meets for about an hour every day, and we have a curriculum that includes projects and protocols.

Middle-school kids need to be part of a group; it's part of their developmental stage — they are really the groupiest kids of all. They also want to be with adults who care about them, pay proper attention to them, respect them, and like them a lot. Advisory is a place where we attempt to foster that relationship. We have activities and exercises that support developing a group. Advisory is a place where kids can talk about things. And we'll have Socratic seminars where they'll read text, talk about it, and have discussions. When problems come up in school, Advisory is the place where we will ask what are we going to do about it? It's more than homeroom, but not therapy . . . more like camp, which includes aspects of all of those things.

Academic subjects include a humanities block with history, social studies, and language arts, and math and science. We also have choir. We've planned a long-range overview of a major music program that purposely begins with singing. That's a carry over from camp, too. Some of it is fun everyday singing, but some of it is instruction in music — how to read music and ear training. We also have a drama specialist who comes in and teaches everybody once a week, and we have a PE coach.

Another similarity to camp is that students will be out and about in the community on a regular basis as part of their work. We want the schedule to allow for planned-in-advance outings, and also last-minute outings because sometimes something happens spontaneously. You can lose the teachable moment if you can't do it right then. It's similar to camp. You have the overnight that you plan for, and then you have the moments where you say let's hike up to the meadow just because we're in the mood for it today.

Finally, here is another big similarity between our school culture and camp. I try to keep in mind what camp is fundamentally about; it's about building a community. I think of all the years I directed camps and what I did that's different than any place else. What makes the difference is at camp you have an extended family. You have chores. You have responsibilities. You contribute to the welfare of the community. I'm an old-fashioned camp person. I don't do rock and roll and bingo nights. I like campfires with silly little skits. Taking that idea of being a community and incorporating that into my school is important.

A community to me is where there is some common purpose, and you do give up a little bit of your individual self as an investment in the community. It is an investment, because the community will be better, healthier, and stronger for my investment in it. And part of the return on my investment and part of the strength of the community is that when I need something, everybody's going to be there to help me. If I don't need something, I'm there to help somebody else. Those are really important concepts that I think camp has always done very well at building, but schools have not. It's a very important value to me. And, I think it should be to schools as well. I think that comes directly out of camp.

A New Way of Teaching

Another connection to camp within our school is the way we teach. It's been fascinating. I've been working with my teachers over the summer, and they want to go plan their lessons. My colleague and I keep saying you're not ready to plan your lessons yet, you have to know a few other things first. They just want to plan a lesson. I keep asking "Why? What's the outcome to the kids?" Well, you know they all went through teacher training. This is not something they were taught. What's the outcome other than the test score? They are thinking about it, and it's really wonderful to watch them.

It's a new way of teaching. It's new to schools. It's not new to camps. Camps have been doing it for years. That's why I was a camp director for many years and not a teacher, because the idea of hands-on learning, the relaxed atmosphere, and the community doesn't exist very often in schools. We don't have kids go clean the bathrooms. We're not going to give pinecones for the cleanest cabin, but we are actually working together as a school staff to figure out what chores we can have. We are asking ourselves, how do we rotate responsibilities so that kids do get the sense of contributing to the common good — to a community? I like to think of it as camp with academics rather than school. School should be camp with academics. In my heart of hearts, I'm really a camp person, and I love the idea of a camp becoming a school.

For more information about CityLife Downtown Charter School, e-mail info@citylifeinc.org.

Originally published in the 2005 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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