The Little School That Could

Published February 1, 2004

The transformation of Vaughn Elementary School in Los Angeles began on July 1, 1993, when teachers overwhelmingly voted for change and the facility became, in the words of its principal, Yvonne Chan, “the first independent, urban conversion charter school in the state of California and in the nation.”

The building did not change, nor did the principal, students, or teachers. Yet the school became a top academic performer.

“It’s not the kids who have changed,” said Chan, “it’s the adults who have changed. It’s a different culture.”

Decades-Long Struggle

Before the change, Vaughn Elementary School was a conventional K-6 inner-city school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Nearly 95 percent of its 1,200 students were Hispanic, 80 percent were Spanish-speaking English learners, 5 percent were African-American, and a handful were Asian. More than 97 percent were entitled to free or reduced lunches.

The school operated on a multi-track year-round basis with only two-thirds of the students attending at any given time. The area was so poor that many residents were reported to live in backyard trailers or even garages.

Few schools could match Vaughn’s serious problems or dismal results. For 40 years, since 1951, the school was listed as one of the worst in the district. Its test scores were in single digits, below the 10th percentile. Absenteeism was high, at any given time as many as 12 percent of the students were suspended, student fights were a daily occurrence, classrooms were regularly vandalized, and new computers were stolen before they could be unpacked.

About a dozen of the school’s 39 teachers left every year, with the result that 70 percent of the teachers had less than three years’ experience. A custodian was robbed and beaten at gun point, and one morning there was a dead body on the sidewalk in front of the school. Relations within the school and with the community were so bad in 1990 that the principal left in March after receiving repeated death threats. His successor, Chan, was appointed in May and assigned three campus aides for security reasons.

Transformation Begins

For three years the struggle continued. Then, after the July 1 vote in 1993, a transformation began, with the school building symbolically renamed the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center with the slogan “The Little School That Could.”

The security personnel were dismissed as Chan successfully sought to restore community relations. When the assistant principal and eight other employees left, the remaining staff took on extra duties rather than replace them. Achievement and attendance rates rose. Chan finished the school year with more than a $1,000,000 surplus.

The surplus made it possible to buy two houses–one a “crack” house–that adjoined school property. They were torn down and replaced by a 14-room learning center. The construction was completed within 10 months, far less time than would have been possible if Vaughn had been a regular district school. An insistence that workers from the community be employed on the project was but one of the initiatives to win support from the public as the school became a full-service community based school.

Just two years later, in 1995, Vaughn received a California Distinguished Schools Award. In 1996 it was selected for a National Blue Ribbon Schools Award. The school has continued to achieve well academically and is a top-ranked school on the state’s Academic Performance Index. Student attendance as of June 2002 was 97.73 percent and at times has exceeded 99 percent.

In 1995, Vaughn dropped the multi-track schedule and established a 200 school day year–the only Los Angeles school to do so. Other changes include:

1993 — the addition of 22 teaching stations;
1994 — adding six portable classroom units and reducing class size to 27 in all grades;
1995 — building 14 new classrooms and reducing class size to 20 in grades K-3;
1999 — building a community library, clinic, museum, multimedia lab science center, professional development center, 10 demonstration classrooms, and reducing class size to 20 in every grade;
2000 — buying land for a 650-seat center for pre-K to first grade students and a campus for expansion into grades 6, 7 and 8.

It was decided to add grades because too many of Vaughn’s now-successful students were running into difficulties as they moved to higher grades in conventional schools within the district. In 2001 another site was purchased to build a 500-student high school academy, scheduled to open in July 2005. When that occurs, Vaughn will have 2,400 students on four 600-student campuses within a three-block radius.

Principal Chan has testified at hearings in more than 32 states, a Congressional hearing on school reform has been held at the school, and the school has been noted in the national media. Even so, Vaughn’s story remains one that more people in the public school establishment need to know.

David W. Kirkpatrick is a senior education fellow with the U.S. Freedom Foundation. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Further details of the changes that took place in the Vaughn school over the past decade–including a performance pay plan and incentives for all staff–are available at the school’s Web site at