Winter 2005 Newsletter
Paramount Unified Collaborates With City and
Community to Enhance Its Preschool Facilities
In the City of Paramount, cooperation and collaboration have become a way of life, but this Los Angeles County city still faces many challenges. In February 2004, the city, the Paramount Unified School District, and Gateway Cities Partnership, Inc., signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the master planning of a joint-use preschool facility, park, family resource center, and community center on the grounds of the existing Los Cerritos Elementary School and former Edison right of way. In this interview with NSBN, Paramount Assistant Superintendent Michael Bishop and Gateway Cities Partnership CEO Richard Hollingsworth give an update on the project.
Can you describe the challenges and opportunities that drew the school district, city and Gateway City Partnership together in Paramount?
Michael Bishop: As I remember it, the project began with conversations between NSBN and the City of Paramount, because the city had identi- fied a need for better connection with the community and more community involvement in one area to resolve issues of preschool services as well as gang-related activities.
Richard, you were part of the early conversations. What inticed the Gateway Cities Partnerhip to become involved?
Richard Hollingsworth: In 2003, Gateway Cities Partnership did an analysis of how educational attainment levels in the city could be raised over the next decade. Among the five problem issues we identi- fied was a lack of access to resources. We have gone on to open up two community learning resource centers in the past 12 months. Both of these are already running out of space, to put it mildly; both of them are completely over-subscribed. And so, the idea of creating co-located activities in a new facility on the school site was attractive to us, which is why we became involved in the process.
Michael, can you speak to the building environment and the constraints around Los Cerritos Elementary School that created an opportunity there for new investment and modernization by the school district and the city?
MB: Los Cerritos School is a fairly old campus that consists of permanent buildings as well as traditional portable classroom buildings. The district had already approved an expensive expansion and modernization, somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 to $5.5 million, at the site. So this was a site that had been identified as a needy area, but it was also a site that we had already approved for extensive expansion and modernization.
When NSBN, Paramount Unified School District, City of Paramount, Gateway Cities Partnership, the Paramount Education Project, and others began this project, we recognized that Paramount already had a well-functioning, collaborative institutional culture. Our concern was how to take advantage of that existing culture to invest some new resources in one of your schools.
Richard, how would you describe the culture of collaboration in Paramount between City and School District?
RH: I think the City of Paramount is unique, inasmuch as the city council and the school board are both on the same page when it comes to the educational needs of the community. Long before we came into the city, there has been an ad hoc committee composed of two city council members, two school board members, the city manager, and the school superintendent, which meets monthly to talk about how they can best collaborate to serve the needs of the school district, particularly in terms of the recent and significant expansion of schools in the area. Gateway Cities Partnership recognized that we had a unique opportunity to do a major education program in a community of very high needs, but working with a city and school district that were all willing to play ball and work with us.
At the ceremonial signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, County Supervisor Knabe, Superintendent Wilbur, the mayor of Paramount, and other dignitaries, spoke as one about early childhood education and the possibilities of joint-use and collaboration. Michael, can you expand on that agenda?
MB: Well, the district had just been approved as a recipient of First 5 funds for two preschool classes on the Los Cerritos campus. Since the beginning of this school year, we have operated four half-day preschool programs servicing approximately 75 students at that location. We have submitted applications for two additional sites as well as an expansion at that existing site.
Could each of you describe the NSBN collaborative planning process in Paramount, and what the goals were for the school district and the city. Obviously an easement opportunity for open space grew out of the planning, but the school district was also pursuing some additional building space, correct?
MB: What we are particularly looking for on the Los Cerritos campus would be a building or a complex that would accommodate operating preschool programs, and at the same time be able to house various types of services and programs that could be accessed by the community, as well as a multipurpose facility that could address the lack of that kind of facility within that community.
Elaborate on the site plan as it has evolved and the school district's recent application for LAUP preschool funding.
MB: On December 2, we completed a total of three applications. NSBN assisted the district in preparing one of the three applications, which would take advantage of the joint-use portion of the current school facility program to fund the construction of the building or building complex that I mentioned a few minutes ago. In addition, our application requested funding for two additional preschool classrooms. The district also prepared applications for four preschool classes at two additional sites, which would bring to eight the number of operating classrooms if all three of those applications were approved.
Richard, a lot of the energy behind this collaborative effort, and ones like it, arises from a vision of schools becoming the centers of their neighborhoods and communities. In the El Cerritos project, there is park space to the north and the east. Gateway Cities Partnership runs a program in one of the parks. Please elaborate on the value of creating these neighborhood-centered complexes in which parents and children can feel safe and where there are resources that can be used for multiple purposes?
RH: I can give you a good example, although also a bit frightening. We operate in the park you mention. There has been a recent shooting in that park, and the parents and the kids know that they are only safe inside our facility. So, these types of facilities do offer a haven for the kids in that area. Gangs tend to stay away from them. They are starting to respect it as a "no-man's land," if you will; a place where they don't do their business.
When you have these kinds of joint-use facilities available, they give kids who might be drawn into gangs an alternative that not only keeps them safe but also gives them educational opportunities that they wouldn't have otherwise, particularly in the evenings. A lot of kids don't have access to computers at home. If they want to conduct research for high school or other projects, this is the only place that they can do it because the library is closed. So, these kinds of facilities are very important for communities like those in the Sans area, which has a very low per-capita income. They have really no other opportunities for recreation or for academic activities after school or during weekends.
Michael, is there a significant opportunity for the Paramount Unified School District to use its facilities dollars through this collaborative planning process to link preschool and early education to its primary program and create the kind of community center complex that really works for Paramount families?
MB: I think it's very clear that, should the district be funded in this endeavor, we will have reached the outcome that the district hoped for when it entered into the cooperative with the City of Paramount and New Schools Better Neighborhoods. Without this funding, clearly the district would not be in a position to implement this kind of community outreach and provide these levels of services to our students and their families, as well as for the community at large.
Secondly, I think that, as Richard said, this project shows the uniqueness of our situation, where a school district and a municipality are really focusing on client/ constituent needs as opposed to bickering over credit and turf. The assistance of New Schools Better Neighborhoods and Gateway Cities Partnership helped us to identify this project as a potential collaborative effort and then to get the two parties to move ahead in the process, even though there was no guarantee that anything was going to come from it. In this project, the product - not the process - is the trophy.