Watts Learning Center students receiving academic support in a small group setting. (Courtesy Photo)

When coronavirus fears sparked massive shutdowns of schools across California, Eugene Fisher, Watts Learning Center’s board president, wasn’t completely alarmed at the abrupt change.

The two charter schools he oversaw, Watts Learning Center Elementary School and Watts Learning Center Middle School, had already begun to use technology as a part of their academic programs, making the change to distance learning an easy one.

“We simply had to enhance and broaden our use of it and certainly augment in our transition with take-home assignments and also, then begin to follow-up on a daily basis,” Fisher said during a phone interview.

Adaption and resourcefulness is nothing new to WLC— in the mid-1990s, the elementary school was created due to a statewide focus group study calling for the need of adequate public  education in inner city areas. The study found that students from lower income families in the area did worse on standardized testing.

Instead of waiting for someone else to take the initiative, Fisher, a group of South Los Angeles residents and business people decided to form a board and start an elementary school in Watts, California. Fisher said that they hoped to dispel any negative stereotypes about the area that families may have.

“We decided that unless something was done about the education of that particular community, then the likelihood is that there would be a permanent underclass because it would compromise their ability to get jobs, get higher education and all the indicators for a better quality of life,” Fisher said.

In September 1997, there were two kindergarten students at WLC. Now, there are around 800 students total attending both the elementary and the middle school but it wasn’t easy. Fisher said parents were dubious of the newfound school but they were willing to give it a try and take the “leap of faith.”

Mr. Fisher on campus with parents and students on the first day of school. (Courtesy Photo)

A selling point Fisher drove into prospective families was something he referred to as WLC’s academic rigor. Fisher wanted his students to be academically competitive not only in California but anywhere they continued their education all over the world.

“It’s a commitment not only from the head but from the heart. I think that will be our basic theme, the head and heart,” Fisher said.

Even the effects of the coronavirus could not deter WLC from their academic rigor mindset. Fisher said in an end of the year letter that despite having to transition to distance learning, out of 1,343 middle schools in California, WLC’s growth in English Language Arts (ELA) and math ranked second and seventh in the state respectively. Of the 43 middle schools in South LA, WLC was the sole school to have double-digit growth in ELA and math.

Fisher wrote, “When the state is struggling to close the achievement gap between students of color and their White and Asian peers, these results are significant.”

He attributes his student’s success to the delicate and genuine care the administration and staff demonstrate to the students and their families. When the board discovered that some students did not have computers and reliable WiFi access for distance learning, they worked to raise money for families through a virtual concert with California pianist, Lara Downes.

The WLC board used the $25,000 raised in donations to provide over 800 Chromebooks and WiFi to students to learn from home as well as food for families suffering food insecurity. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank said that an estimated 2 million people in Los Angeles County live with food insecurity.

A group of Watts Learning Center students during a yoga class prior to the shutdown of schools. (Courtesy Photo)

“It’s caring that brings us closer together and says that we’re not here just to see how much you know and don’t know, but we care about your condition for a healthy learning environment at home,” Fisher said.

WLC also maintained extracurricular activities including yoga, chess, violin and choir for students and families to participate in at home, stating that no student should miss out on these programs “just because they come from a certain zip code.”

For the upcoming school year, the main challenge WLC has is maintaining a productive learning environment for its students.

“I don’t think anybody right now has all the answers but what we’re willing to do is learn how to be most effective in small group settings not only for our administrators and for our teachers, but to say how do they go about approaching education in a new and different way to be as effective [and] as competitive as we can be all over the world,” Fisher said.

To Fisher, the trust and relationships he and his staff have built with the families at WLC are the main reason they have succeeded thus far in the 20 years that they’ve been operating.

“If it’s me characterizing one word it’s love,” Fisher said. “It’s love for our families and making sure that our children realize that we love them and that we’re there to support them.