Our school is unique for a number of reasons, but we want to place this front and center: In contrast to most independent schools, the majority of our operating budget is dedicated to financial aid. In fact, thirty percent of our student body receives full aid, and another forty percent receives substantial or partial aid.
This means that regardless of your financial situation, an ESLA education is completely within reach. We cannot overstate what an important difference this makes.
By almost every measure, income inequality and economic stratification have steadily intensified in Los Angeles over the past several decades, and according to recent wide-ranging studies by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, racial and economic segregation in Los Angeles schools is now starker than it has been in half a century.
The price of an independent education has also been on the rise, and it presents a barrier to entry that is insurmountable for the vast majority of families in the city. Unfortunately, this barrier often stymies efforts to diversify student bodies at independent schools. On the other side of the equation, many of the public and charter schools that do incredible work in underserved neighborhoods remain bound by geographic segregation.
All of this boils down to one simple fact: there are very few institutions in our city that encourage a truly balanced and diverse group of young people to interact with one another. Ages twelve through eighteen are profoundly formative years in a young person’s life. These are the years when a student comes to understand herself as a citizen, a member of society, a political and ethical being. What happens when young people from different backgrounds spend these formative years largely isolated from one another? What is the true cost of a segregated, stratified education system?
The fact that our schools continue to reflect and cement the fissures in our society should be more than a matter of common sense. It should be an urgent call to action. At the Episcopal School of Los Angeles, we have posed a new question: What happens when the brightest, most dedicated students from all walks of life spend every day in the classroom together—growing, learning, and forming lifelong bonds? What happens when they are given the tools to understand their own histories, the history of the city, and the possibilities of social transformation?
Every year at ESLA we enroll just as many students who know what it means to live in the most trying financial circumstances—students whose convictions are forged with a visceral understanding of economic disparity in our nation, and whose perspectives are therefore vital—as we do students who come from significant affluence.
We do not believe in the rhetoric of the “haves” and the “have nots,” the “upper” and the “lower.” In our community, every member has something essential to contribute. Our families reflect the vibrant diversity of our neighborhood and our city—small business owners, studio executives, wage workers, Latino, Korean-American, black, and white. In a seminar of twelve—our average class size—it is often the case that no two students will approach the issue at hand from the same socioeconomic and cultural background. All of their contributions are invaluable. Everyone has much to give, and much to learn.
This is lofty rhetoric, we know. We are just one small school, growing every day, doing our best. The path ahead of us is long, but we walk it eagerly, and we hope our story resonates with yours.
In 2014, members of ESLA’s upper school embarked on a two-week research trip in the rainforests of Costa Rica. Students were challenged to formulate their own research questions and design their own experiments in the field. From howler monkeys and tree frogs to ant colonies and pesky mosquitos, there was an endless world of subjects to discover and study.
Our mission is what we are made of; it provides the building blocks for our entire school. We aim to foster a safe space where the most talented students from all walks of life can receive an education of unrivaled quality, a space where their differences will often recede into the background as they engage in intellectual, artistic, and athletic pursuits—and a space, too, where they can address their differences on an equal footing, where they can contend with difficult questions in a common spirit, with generosity and with joy. Everything we do is in service of this goal.
ESLA students are students of the city. We stand in the heart of Hollywood for this very reason: to open our doors directly to the urban community—to participate in it, draw from it, contribute to it. Our schoolhouse is located on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Lillian Way, easily accessible via multiple forms of public transportation, which many of our students use to travel to and from school each day—and we have access to the entire neighborhood for academics, arts, athletics, and service.
Students take walking field trips to nearby art galleries and studios. Our service council members deliver lunch to the homeless alongside the West Hollywood Food Coalition. Our athletes practice and compete at the nearby Hollywood Recreation Center—the largest park in the neighborhood. Most importantly, our curriculum includes yearlong courses on the history and literature of Los Angeles, so that students understand the deep, complex roots of the institutions that shape their place in society. Both inside and outside the schoolhouse, we want our students to feel connected to every aspect of the city they inhabit.
As far as we’re concerned, there’s no substitute for breaking bread—so each day at noon the entire school community gathers for a family-style meal. This is a time for students, faculty, and staff to celebrate life’s simplest pleasures: good food and good company. No one has to worry about packing a lunch; all of the food is provided by the school and prepared by our incomparable kitchen staff. (Our Head Chef sharpened his teeth at a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in London. The food is magnificent.)
The kitchen also provides hearty breakfasts and afternoon snacks to all our growing teens with bottomless stomachs. Nutrition is an integral part of ESLA’s health curriculum, and the daily work of building a community is at the core of our mission. At the lunch table, our students model for themselves what it means to eat well, to be thankful, and to share generously in the things that sustain them.
Our students wear a traditional school uniform, not because we believe there’s any value in enforcing a hard-edged policy for its own sake, but because we believe it fosters a sense of belonging. No one is dressed any fancier than the next person. Students don’t need to stress about what they’re going to wear each day, and there’s powerful symbolic value in putting on a uniform. It helps students enter a particular mindset and demarcate the part of the day they dedicate to study. It encourages them to respect themselves, their peers, and their work. (And yes, having to tuck in their shirts even gives our students something in common to gripe about, from time to time.)
We understand the value of carving out some space in a young person’s life that’s free from technology—free from text messages, video games, social media, and glowing liquid crystal screens. This is why our students put away all outside technology while they’re on campus—so that they can focus on the school day and interact face-to-face with faculty and peers.
But we also understand the incredible opportunities for integrating technology into our classrooms and our curricula, and we believe that technological literacy—the ability to navigate both the potentials and the perils of our rapidly evolving, tech-driven era—is an essential component of education today. The school provides every student with an iPad and all the software they will need for class, and ensures that everyone has a reliable internet connection when they go home each evening.
Moreover, our schoolhouse allows our students to engage with the tools that will undoubtedly shape their futures—from high-powered desktops to robotics equipment, virtual reality goggles, and 3D printers. These are not simply expensive toys; we want our students to be able to ask the larger questions about how technology shapes the ethical landscape of the world they live in, and how it can be harnessed toward positive social transformations.
Building a truly supportive, engaged community requires a holistic approach. Our students hail from neighborhoods all across the city; we want to make sure the conversations and relationships that begin in the classroom will flourish outside of them. That’s why our faculty, facilities, support staff, and school programming are available to each of our students every weekday from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., well beyond normal class hours.
All of our students take advantage of this incredible resource—participating in afterschool athletics, rehearsing with an ensemble in the music room, exploring new technologies with the Incubator Club, meeting individually with a faculty member, or studying in small groups. The extra time students spend together and with faculty is invaluable. Our schoolhouse is not just a set of classrooms, and not just a laboratory, a studio, a theater, a kitchen, a media center, and an office space—it is also a home away from home.
Ours is a young, vibrant, and rapidly growing endeavor—with grassroots beginnings and ambitious goals. Incorporated in 2009, ESLA began by providing tuition-free afterschool programs that offered playful, project-based learning in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In 2012 ESLA opened its doors to twenty-eight full-time students in the middle school—our first brave group of scholastic pioneers. Since then our community has expanded to include over 140 students in grades six through twelve, and our school has developed one of the most vibrant liberal arts curricula in the city. ESLA will proudly graduate its first senior class in the spring of 2017, and will grow to include 350 students—our target capacity—in the next five years.
The school has already evolved through many phases, but there has always been a core identity. If the afterschool programs served as the seeds of our enterprise—with their focus on broad access, spirited study, and the most forward-thinking pedagogical practices—the soil in which they germinated was the centuries-old tradition of Episcopal education, with its emphasis on community-building, social justice, and the highest academic standards. We will always remain dedicated to raising young people who understand the value of ethical self-reflection, rigorous inquiry, and generous civic engagement.
As members of a burgeoning institution, ESLA students are faced with the unique opportunity to shape this school for future generations, and to continuously define—through their leadership, their compassion, and their deeds—the broader ethos of our community. Each spring we host a special day of celebration, “Founders Day,” which honors this pioneering spirit.
Our community includes members from all walks of life and every major faith tradition. This diversity is not just the foundation of our intellectual pedagogy, it is the foundation of our spiritual pedagogy as well. Our students learn what it means to construct an ethics in a multicultural world. The fact that we identify as an Episcopal school does not mean we have any particular doctrine we’re interested in teaching; we would rather provide our students with the tools to examine and articulate their own beliefs. The Episcopal tradition teaches us that it is far better to live in the tension of difficult questions than in the static certainty of answers.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 10:00 a.m., the entire school community gathers for a half-hour chapel service. More than anything, chapel provides a time for students and faculty to sing together, to share in a ritual—to be still, listen, and reflect on the day. Services are organized by both the Student Vestry and the school’s Chaplains, and though they often draw their inspiration from the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible, and the Episcopal Hymnal, they are not bound to any particular religious doctrine. Each year, for example, we host sermons dedicated to the lives of Saint Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez—peacemakers, servants, and pioneers.
Chapel gives our students a venue to understand their common values, to celebrate their achievements, and to contemplate important moments in their lives. It is also our bedrock when we need to mourn a loss in our community or a tragedy in the nation. This is perhaps its greatest value: that it provides us with a physical space, with solid ground, when we feel unmoored. It provides us with words of healing when we feel that we have no words of our own to give. Ultimately the institution of chapel drives at our larger goal: to cultivate a student body in which every member feels dignified, uplifted, and invested in the whole.
Education is, in and of itself, an ethical enterprise—and so we do not ask our students to check their spiritual questions and their personal identities at the doors of the schoolhouse each morning. We do not ask them to pretend that issues of ethics and metaphysics are somehow separate from the work we are all doing in the classroom every day.
Study of world religions and philosophies is part of what it means to be a culturally literate person, and fundamental questions about one’s relationship to a set of beliefs, to oneself, to others, and to the universe undergird a truly comprehensive education. Our Religion and Ethics Department prepares students to question and form their own beliefs—and ultimately to lead reflective, fulfilling lives.
A dedication to service and social justice is a cornerstone of the Episcopal tradition, and it is embedded not just into the marrow of our institution, but into the heart of our curriculum. It is not something we relegate to one class or to extracurricular activity—rather, it is the foundation around which all of our inquiry-based learning comes to life. You can find it in the diverse reading lists of our English courses, in the syllabi of our history courses, in the conversations that emerge in our schoolhouse around science and technology, and in the theater and visual arts projects our students undertake. You can find it in the three-day trip our ninth graders take to Skid Row, where they learn firsthand about some of our city’s most vulnerable populations and the work being done by social servants in this area.
Because issues of social justice speak directly to all of our students, and because our classrooms are so diverse, we believe the education our students receive inside and outside our schoolhouse is truly unique in Los Angeles. Students learn about their privileges, their trials, and their personal histories in direct relation to their peers and to the city, so that understanding emerges with immediate, transformative force. Above all, we want our students to feel inspired by their time at ESLA—inspired to enter the world and give back, to live generously, openly, and courageously.
The Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols is a service that celebrates the promise of hope that the broken things in this world will be healed and set right. The word advent itself means “a coming into place, view, or being.” The themes of anticipation, hope, promises fulfilled, and promises not yet fulfilled are universal. We invite everyone to use this service as an opportunity to reflect on these themes in their own lives.