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Yvonne Chan’s charter school empire flourishes in Pacoima

by Barbara Jones
Los Angeles Daily News
October 10, 2012

Her empire stretches from the aging Vaughn Elementary School at one end to the state-of-the-art Global and Green Generation campus at the other.

In between lies a primary center, a middle school, a campus for senior high students and a half-dozen lots where Yvonne Chan dreams of building high-tech learning academies.

It’s been nearly 20 years since Chan transformed LAUSD’s failing Vaughn Elementary into the nation’s first independent conversion charter, a move she parlayed into a thriving network of charter campuses serving 2,400 students in preschool through 12th grade.

Chan envisions her schools, known collectively as the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, as a hub for the Pacoima community and the anchors of an education and economic corridor stretching along six blocks of Herrick Avenue. It’s a dream she is pursuing with the same single-minded determination that has won her acclaim and brought her students academic success.
“Never allow `no’ to get in the way,” she said during a recent tour of the campuses.

Chan’s newest enterprise is the so-called 3G campus, an architectural wonder that opened this fall and serves 500 second- and third-graders.

Small clusters of students are taught in sprawling classrooms without walls – “These have `me space’ and `we space,” Chan said – with arts and technology integrated into the curriculum. The lessons are taught by teams of teachers and are infused with elements from countries and cultures from around the world.

Off the front lobby is a well-equipped auditorium/theater and space where a library and a coffee shop will soon be completed – all to be open to the Pacoima community.

“Yvonne has completely transformed the neighborhood,” said LAUSD board member Nury Martinez, who grew up in Pacoima and now represents the area.

“She is a pioneer of education reform in Los Angeles. More importantly, she did it with very little help and support from folks at the district who didn’t think she could do it.”

At Vaughn, youngsters begin learning computer skills at the primary center, while those in high school take college-prep classes and study Mandarin – Chan’s native language and one of four in which she’s fluent.

She wants her graduates to be able to compete on the global economic stage, to be supervisors in the factories where all of those “Made in China” products originate.

She’s also established an exchange program with dozens of high-ranking civic and government leaders in China. About 50 Chinese students come to Pacoima for two, two-month periods each year, living with Vaughn’s teachers and bonding with its students in exchange for what Chan termed a “donation” to the school.
Those same Chinese leaders then play host when Chan takes all of her teachers and a select group of high school students on an annual expense-paid trip to Asia.

“She’s one of our most important pioneers,” said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association. “Yvonne has brought a great spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that is contagious. When you look at Vaughn, you see what’s possible.”

Chan is known in educational circles for being forward-thinking yet practical, such as establishing school-based health clinics and performance-based pay for teachers long before those issues became part of the national dialogue.

She bargained and bartered for materials and services, then plowed the savings back into her operation, which now has assets of nearly $100 million.

She used cash prizes from the Milken Educator Award and other honors she received to leverage grants and bonds, invested in Wall Street, and snapped up neighboring properties when the housing crisis hit.

It’s on these lots where Chan plans to expand her enterprise even further.

While Los Angeles Unified and other districts plan to create STEM centers for science, technology, engineering and math studies, Chan has proposed facilities that incorporate those subjects and an arts component. What she’s dubbed STEAM academies are included in the application she’s compiling for the renewal of her five-year charter in 2013.

The application also includes a track record of her progress at Vaughn, which draws its students from the impoverished neighborhoods of Pacoima, San Fernando and Sylmar.

The school’s Academic Performance Index has climbed nearly 200 points over the last decade and is expected to top 800 for the first time this year. The learning academy’s attendance rate averages 98 percent, while its high school graduation rate is just shy of its 90 percent goal.

“Yvonne is an example of what’s possible in terms of trying to serve all students,” said Jose Cole-Gutierrez, who heads the district’s Charter Schools Division.

“Whether you agree or disagree with her, she’s always trying to be creative and solution-oriented. She’s always trying to push the envelope.”

Chan, now 68, shows no sign of slowing down. She’s tapped into her pension as an LAUSD employee, and is working for $1 a year as founding principal of the learning center and chief of its nonprofit fundraising arm.

She’s a regular visitor to the classrooms of the various campuses, urging preschoolers to dream of college, encouraging second-graders to think creatively, imploring high schoolers to work for a better life.

“If you put kids first,” she said, “miracles happen.”