UCLA Community School grads to fulfill their destiny this fall as Bruins
Jonathan Bae (from the left), Seok Hyun Lee and Donna Ko are the first graduates from the UCLA Community School to be admitted to UCLA.
When Donna Ko learned that she was accepted to UCLA, the good news traveled quickly throughout her family to relatives in distant Korea. When the news that she had been admitted to the top-tier university reached her classmates and teachers, her achievement made them proud for a slightly different reason — Ko is heading to their collegiate “home” campus.
Ko and two of her classmates are the first who will be entering UCLA from the UCLA Community School, a K-12 pilot school launched
under a formal agreement between LAUSD and UCLA in 2009. It was started and administered by the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. But it also is supported by departments and units across the Westwood campus, from the engineering, public health, and arts and architecture schools to the Daily Bruin and UCLA Broadcast Studio.
As members of the first graduating high school class from the UCLA Community School (UCS)
, Ko and her fellow classmates, Jonathan Bae and Seok Hyun “Shon” Lee, are fulfilling a vision articulated by Chancellor Gene Block
almost three years ago and brought to fruition by this experiment to bring children and youths living in a primarily low-income, immigrant community in the Pico-Union/Koreatown neighborhood a top-quality education that would prepare them to enter college.
"We want to see more students from this community qualifying for admission to UCLA after high school," Block said in 2009 at a public celebration on the playground of the new school as residents cheered. "We're looking to enroll engineers, doctors, teachers — and perhaps a quarterback and center if we can find them," he said, drawing laughter. "They can begin their formal education right here. We want to make certain that students that graduate here are UC-eligible — and eligible for the very best colleges in this nation."
With students’ hard work, a strong network of support in a small-school environment, and internships and college-going experiences provided by UCLA departments, that destiny has come to pass for Ko and her two classmates, who transferred to UCS in their junior year. All three possess determination and a strong work ethic, values that helped them prevail against the odds with help from supportive counselors and faculty.
“We’re so happy that they got into UCLA, and we expect them to do very well,” said Agnes Cesare, guidance counselor at UCS. “[Donna] thinks she’s lucky, but she worked really hard. … They all worked really hard.”
One of six schools at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus built on the footprint of the former Ambassador Hotel, UCS provides its students with a college-preparatory education in an environment committed to civic participation and service.
About 86 percent of the students qualify for a free or reduced lunch program, according to Principal Georgia Lazo. The student population is approximately 85 percent Latina/Latino and about 13 percent Korean. To serve this diverse population, 85 percent of the faculty are bilingual in Spanish or Korean. Some teachers can even speak three languages. The school’s enrollment has grown from 340 students in kindergarten through fifth grade to a full K-12 cohort of 1,000. And this June, it celebrates its first graduating class of college-bound seniors, including Ko, who wants to major in English and creative writing at UCLA.
“I wanted to make my parents proud of me,” Ko said. “I am still hearing congratulations from my family in Korea. I’m really proud of myself, and my mom is really proud of me.”
Her classmate Bae, a self-described video game enthusiast and artist who found classes at his former school, Fairfax High School, unchallenging, admits that he had no college ambitions when he transferred.
But after serving an internship in his senior year at the UCLA Game Lab, a research center housed in the Department of Design Media Arts and supported by the School of the Arts and Architecture and the School of Theater, Film and Television, Bae discovered something unexpected.
“The first few weeks of [my internship], my impressions of the campus were, ‘It’s alright,’” recalled Bae. “But … I started to like campus life. Because I was doing well in the lab, the supervisors at my internship site helped me create a portfolio of my work.” Bae credits Game Lab manager David Elliott with helping him perfect his portfolio from start to finish, with samples of work that Bae created during a six- month internship.
Now Bae is looking forward to majoring in design and media arts at UCLA.
Guidance counselor Agnes Cesare and Sarah Bang, GSE&IS liaison to the UCLA Community School (third and fourth from the left), are flanked by the new Bruins.
Born in Jeonju, Korea, Lee immigrated to Toronto with his family as a child. When he was in the ninth grade, they moved to Los Angeles, where he enrolled at Fairfax High School. In order to prepare for college, he took numerous AP courses and got involved in extracurricular activities, often overextending himself by taking eight classes a day.
Transferring to UCS, Lee said, set him on a more manageable trajectory toward college with a realistic but challenging curriculum and opportunities to get a glimpse of college life at UCLA.
“I took a physiology class at UCLA in the summer of my junior year,” Lee said. “I liked the professor and the class. Even if I was studying with an older group of people, I got my first college experience. It was fun.
“When I came here (UCS) in my junior year, my GPA was 4.2,” noted Lee, who will study biochemistry. “Now it’s 4.4. I like how I was able to gain other opportunities at UCLA Community School to prepare for college and realize important things besides what school teaches.”
His guidance counselor, Cesare, recalled Lee’s thorough “vetting” of school officials at high schools on the Kennedy Community Schools campus before he transferred from Fairfax to UCS.
“He came to the campus and interviewed all the counselors and all the schools to make sure he was going to fit in,” Cesare said. “Although, as a small school, we didn’t offer a lot of the elective classes that he and his parents were looking for, there were other ways to get him the classes he needed.” Lee was able to take electives at Los Angeles City College.
But a small-school environment offers other advantages. “One of the things we found with the bigger high schools is that kids feel that [counselors and faculty] are distant,” Cesare said. “Here, they all know me, and I know all of them. It’s an individualized education.”
Ko shared that, although she had difficulty navigating around Los Angeles High School, transferring to UCLA Community School and working with Cesare and her teachers to plan her future was “a really good experience."
And while doing your school- and homework is vital, Ko said, “it’s really important that counselors, teachers and faculty members are here to motivate you and inspire you.”