Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, Pacoima
Dominic Ng, East West Bank
Walk into Vaughn Next Century Learning Center and don’t be surprised to see the mostly Latino students conversing in fluent Mandarin.
After all, Vaughn's 2,000 students are expected to take four years of the Chinese dialect, in addition to mastering English and Spanish, before they graduate.
It is just one of the ways this school in the low-income community of Pacoima is defying expectations.
Vaughn serves an area in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles that is mostly first-generation, Spanish-speaking immigrants. Two-thirds of adults have no high school diploma, and the average household income is $19,170. Fifteen years ago, Vaughn was a failing elementary school, with test scores among the lowest in the state.
Today, Vaughn is proving to be a model of educational success. Not only has it raised the academic achievement and improved the future prospects of youth from highly disadvantaged backgrounds, but it has also strengthened the fabric of the local community.
Vaughn owes its remarkable turnabout to the vision and leadership of its principal, Yvonne Chan, and her efforts to involve the whole community in supporting children's education.
Chan explains, "Serving disadvantaged students means you need to be much more comprehensive in delivering services beyond instruction."
In 1993, Chan led Vaughn to become the first school in the country to convert to charter status. Greater autonomy allowed Vaughn to develop an effective educational model that includes smaller classes, high academic expectations, a teacher accountability system, and an array of community partnerships that support children and their families.
The results have been striking: average scores on the statewide Academic Performance Index have grown steadily over the past seven years — from 443 in 1999 to 706 in 2006. In 2007, 92 percent of Vaughn's 10th graders passed the English portion of the high school exit exam, and 82 percent passed the math portion.
"I think we have proven that increased autonomy, together with increased accountability, results in increased student achievement," says Chan.
Chan has created a culture of shared responsibility for students’ success. Teachers meet every week to discuss the progress of every child and develop strategies for improvement. And a noncompetitive incentive plan allows everyone — from custodians to the principal— to benefit financially when the school's students perform well.
Charismatic and warm, Chan is beloved by the school's community. On a tour of the school, children swarm about her as she greets many of them by name, asking about siblings and parents.
Indeed, Chan, having emigrated from Hong Kong alone at age 17 and having first lived in Fresno and East Los Angeles, has much in common with this community of first-generation immigrants, and she serves as a role model for the equalizing power of education.
For her vision and tenacity in creating a new and successful model of educational opportunity for a highly disadvantaged community, Yvonne Chan is a recipient of a 2007 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award.