A Light on Chestnut Avenue: Lafayette Elementary
By Melina Paris
Lafayette Elementary School is a beam of light in a largely immigrant neighborhood on Chestnut Avenue in Long Beach. Lafayette is an inner city “learning community” nestled in the historic residential neighborhood of the South Wrigley District surrounded by small homes and apartments. They serve approximately 900 students Kindergarten to 5th grade.
Their demographics are familiar: 71% Hispanic, 18% African-American, 4% Asian, 1% Filipino, 2% Pacific Islander, and 2% White. 44% of the students are English Language Learners, and 80% are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
There are 34 classes of students on three pathways to college: Excel, Dual immersion (Classes taught 50% in English and 50% in Spanish) and College Preparatory Academy.
School principal Wendy Thompson listed a long litany of positive news. Students surpassing or coming close to school goals. High marks in the Aprenda which is a test in Spanish for the Dual Immersion students.
“They are learning. They have the skills they need to succeed,” explains Thompson, “We’re doing well with the foundational skills. We’re helping them now to develop the analytic skills.”
But. “Test scores don’t tell the whole story,” adds Thompson. There’s something special happening at Lafayette. “It’s about the collaboration.” Between educators, parents, students, and the community that supports them.
And the best line yet from the Principal. “The path to College starts in Kindergarten.”
“Test scores don’t tell the whole story,” adds Thompson. There’s something special happening at Lafayette. “It’s about the collaboration.”
Most of the students’ families are not longtime residents. Some have to move around a lot. Rising rents and the search for work are some of the reasons, according to one parent. According to Lafayette teacher Leo Ramos, the majority of the students here were born in United States and this is their first exposure to an American school.
Ramos, a 5th grade teacher, has been at Lafayette 18 years. He loves his students and the feeling seems mutual. The kids respect him but communicate with him almost like a friend.
“We have visitors who feel like some of the things we’re doing here are really helping to prepare them for middle school, high school and even beyond to college.”
Lafayette Elementary looks much like any city school. Creamy beige exterior. Two story building with long corridors. It’s an old but sturdy structure and clean. The office walls are covered with school accomplishments and inspiring quotes that speak to the excellence that occurs here.
Kathrine Tacea is the school librarian. She is a big admirer of both the staff and the children at Lafayette. Her enthusiasm and high regard for the school fuel each other.
“I believe the reason for our success is collaboration with all the classroom teachers and with the administration,” explains Tacea. She was asked five years ago to come to Lafayette to create a “library of the future” and implement a new design for LBUSD programs.
“Everybody works as a team to work with students and families as they’re going through the years. Teachers frequently talk between themselves about the kids, their learning style, and their learning needs on a successful level,” explains Tacea. “The teachers bring a lot of expertise to each other and they learn from each other. There’s no reservation to share ideas and expand upon those.”
To foster the students’ technology capacity, Lafayette built two new computer labs. School principal Wendy Thompson boasts that Lafayette uses technology with direct instruction in the classrooms. “The children have also been taught to present digitally, showing what they’ve learned about a topic.”
Eliceo Herrera-Flores has been at Lafayette for 20 years. He currently teaches in the computer lab as an Intermediate Intervention Specialist/ Computer Lab Teacher.
“…We also try to bring our parents in and give them training on the computers. A lot of our parents have access to technology in their homes but maybe they’re not sure how to best use it with their kids,” Herrera-Flores says. They held a series of monthly trainings last year, and once completed, the parents were awarded a certificate.
Prior to his current job, Herrera-Flores was a classroom teacher in 2nd, 4th and 5th grades. “One of the things that make our kids and our school so successful is the expectations that we have of them. We expect all kids to achieve to their potential and we try to motivate them and encourage them whenever possible,” Herrera-Flores explains. “Something I’ve instilled in my former classes is they have to be good students and be motivated for themselves and for their families, not to please me, not to earn candy or a prize. We all expect them to be highly successful.”
Parent participation is very high at Lafayette. Principal Thompson instituted the Parent Center about 5 years ago to give the parents and even their younger siblings a place to come. Parents are always willing to help with anything a classroom or teacher needs. Tacea adds there are a lot of opportunities for parents to learn the school system and the expectations here.
Sandra Garcia works as one of heads of the recreational staff but she has also been an integral part of the school’s booster club for six years. Her children, Melisa, Pablo and Pricila all went to Lafayette.
“My 3 kids came to this school. My daughter Melisa is in the last year of her masters at the University of New Mexico,” Garcia explains, “She came back here and talked to the kids about her experiences in college and the good teachers she had and her time here at Lafayette. My son (Pablo) is in his second year of college studying music and my youngest (Pricila) is in middle school at Stanford, 7th grade.”
As president of the booster club, she leads a group of parents who handle events and fundraising. “We help the teachers with everything they need from our Parent Center. We have between 8-10 parents coming in every day there.”
Asked how she feels about Lafayette, she speaks about “a special thing” they have. “The people working here and the community we have. It’s easy for us to come together as a family and do fundraising or do a special event for the kids. Everybody is willing to give their time, whatever they can give to this school. When we plan something, we always complete it,” Garcia said. “We help each other with everything and I think the kids know that, so they feel the love here.”
For the students, the support of teachers, parents and the technology means success. For example, students can work out a math problem in real time on their computers. Their work is projected onto a screen, and in a safe and nurturing environment, other students are free to respond. It facilitates their learning process.
Jacqueline Perez is a fifth grader who is not shy to explain why she thinks Lafayette is special, “There is a program called Dual Immersion and some kids that don’t really know how to speak Spanish, they can learn it and most schools don’t really have that. Lafayette is a great school and the teachers are great and they respect you.”
Librarian Tacea describes their success this way. “What stands out is the hard work, dedication and flexibility not only of teachers and staff but also with students. Teachers do not only hold on to what they know is good teaching and learning but are also lifelong learners. They are ready to grow and change with the times.”
And then, there are these stories. Leo Ramos recalled a surprise visit from one of his former students. “He’s 18 so I had him in the 4th grade.” Ramos asked him how he was doing; “Well I got accepted into college” was the reply. “Then, he told me, he was accepted into Cornell University. I got Goosebumps.”