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On May 14th, I graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in broadcast journalism and a minor in business entrepreneurship. It’s difficult to truly describe my feelings about graduation, but I would have to say that I am forever grateful, thankful and humbled by the opportunity to attend my dream school. These years exceeded my expectations by far, and there is no doubt in my mind that the education I received at USC is priceless.  It was a time of tremendous personal growth, so I am thankful to everyone that was part of my life – and will continue – to be part of my life from here on out.

My dream of going to USC was cultivated at a young age when I would attend football games with my family since we had season tickets every single year. My dad is a USC alumnus, so I suppose you could say I was born into the Trojan family. During game days, we would tailgate on campus, and I’d walk through campus – marveling at the sea of cardinal and gold – hoping that one day I’d be able to attend USC. Now, many years later, I am humbled by this journey that started when I was just a little girl.

The one thing that I value the most about USC is the people. The people at USC are such well rounded, driven, passionate individuals. It’s hard to explain it in words, but you can feel the vibe when you’re around people. I went to a highly competitive high school where it was cut throat and individualistic – it was all about being the best in terms of grade point average, SAT scores and who got into the best university. I realized much later on that this was not a conducive, positive learning environment. But at USC, when you’re surrounded by people who follow their passions in life and value networking and interpersonal skills, it makes you become that type of person. I let go of the attitude of “getting the best grades and GPA” and followed my passion in life, which is journalism. When you love what you’re studying, it makes learning such an incredible, fun experience. Class isn’t a boring, mundane thing; it’s something you look forward to.

With that being said, I believe college was as great as it was because of my fond experiences in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. I spent many hours and long nights in the digital lab, editing my news stories and projects for classes. I spent weekends filming and interviewing people, always on the lookout for a story to tell. My professors were so supportive and wonderful, and it is truly an amazing experience to be around motivated, like-minded people who share similar passions to you. Journalism is changing quite rapidly, but I truly believe my education at Annenberg has prepared me for the “real world.”

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Last, but certainly not least, graduation day is a time to celebrate it with those who helped you throughout college. I am very thankful to have parents who have been so supportive during the course of my education. They never pressured me to do anything, and weren’t the typical Asian parents who got upset at their kids if they didn’t get straight A’s, forced them to play the piano, or go to after-school tutors. Instead, I think I had a well-rounded, balanced upbringing. So I am forever grateful and indebted to them for the opportunities they have provided me with, and I could not have gone through college without their support.

Thanks USC…For everything!

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During the past 5 months, I was given the opportunity to teach students at Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles about how to write news stories for their school newspaper. Later, I will write about my experiences teaching in a low-income neighborhood.  Over time, I became more attentive to the pitfalls and shortcomings of America’s educational system.  I wrote the following letter to President Obama, and I would like to share it with you all. It’s lengthy, but hopefully it will make you think about education in a different light. [I highlighted some of the more important statistics.] Below is a video trailer for a documentary that will be coming out in the Fall 2010 – you will find this interesting.

For full citations and/or sources used in the following essay, please feel free to contact me.


Dear President Obama:

The following is a cry for help.

Only 36. 3% of California’s high school graduates go to college, compared with the 40% nationally. The flaws in our education system have played a significant role in this declining number. In fact, there are only 20 states that spend less per person than California does, and we rank next to last in student to teacher ratios. Yet we are the most highly populated state in America, and serve the most students in the nation. To top this all off, the costs of higher education in our state have skyrocketed in the last few decades. Over the past ten years, the University of California fees have increased a whopping 300% to $10,302 annually.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, there is a 48% graduation rate in 2009, ranking it as the sixth worst among urban cities in the United States. From primary school to higher education, these numbers plead for attention and help. But we must get help from the federal government to fix these problems.

Let me pose a question: why is it that California is at the forefront of science, bio technology, and telecommunication in the Silicon Valley and earning millions in the illustrious entertainment industry of Hollywood, yet our own children are failing out of school and lacking the support needed for a bright and illustrious future?

Now let me make a statement: It’s not enough to get children into school. It’s what they get out of school that counts. We can talk about LAUSD dropout rates – 34.9% – compared to 20.1% for the rest of the state, and our goals of keeping kids in school. But none of that matters if we don’t change the inner workings of our educational system. President Obama, we urge for help from the federal government because we cannot leave our students in the dust, struggling to survive.

There are several issues in our educational system, primarily in the low-performance schools, that need to be changed or improved in order to create better learning opportunities for our students. Support and funds from the federal government are absolutely essential in making these issues a priority.

One important issue that must be addressed face first is the decline of the performing arts in our education system. Since California is facing a $470 million budget shortfall in the 2010-2011 school year, LAUSD is considering reductions in the performing arts. Up to 50% of the district’s arts programs, including art, drama and dance, plan to be cut from schools. This would result in savings up to $14.9 million for the 2010-2011 school year.

However, the question to be asked is: what are we really saving? Arts education is absolutely essential in order to compete in the professional workforce because it is proven to spark creativity, imagination and leadership skills that cannot be learned through any textbooks or lectures in the classroom. In fact, in the United States, those schools that have the highest academic achievement are the ones that spend twenty to thirty percent of the day involving their students in the performing arts. Research has shown that students involved in the performing arts are more likely to pursue a higher education. It is a powerful – an essential – part of education that truly improves the well-being of our youth.

LAUSD has gradually been cutting arts programs, including the Arts Community Partnership Network, which was suspended in 2008. This program brought professional musicians, dancers, artists and singers to local schools to teach schoolchildren about their craft. It was a mentoring program set to inspire and encourage our youth to seek learning outside the classroom. Low performing schools and professional arts groups like the Arts Community Partnership Network need more funding from the government to continue these partnerships in schools. This is just one of several arts programs that have been cut in recent years.

Secondly, we must recruit, retain, develop and support excellent teachers and leaders who can help all students meet high standards in their education. Much of the success of students rests with the teachers and leaders. Therefore, much of our effort needs to be focused on recruiting, retaining, developing and supporting excellent teachers – especially in districts where they are needed the most. How will this be done?

We must provide special opportunities and pathways for highly effective educators. The state should create a teacher-leader role, which essentially gives the highly effective educators the chance to work in other schools (or their own) as instructional leaders. The teacher-leaders will be given additional responsibilities in their schools and receive higher compensation, while continuing their own classroom duties. They will share their teaching methodology with others and help implement change in schools. They must maintain their highly effective ratings in order to keep this position. Of course, they will be compensated for their work, but it is an excellent distinction for educators.

A fellowship program should be funded to encourage highly effective teachers to work in schools that are in dire need of help. It will provide educators with bonuses and incentives to transfer to high-need schools. States like Delaware currently fund a fellows program that provide a $5,000 transfer bonus to those highly effective teachers who are willing to work in high poverty or high needs schools. One other recommendation is to create a teacher residency program at local universities. By creating a teacher residency program, it will give highly effective teachers the opportunity to serve as mentors and teacher residents. This will help pave the way for the future teachers of California.

In addition to becoming eligible for new programs, highly effective educators in high-needs schools should be eligible for retention bonuses. We should use the model and examples of other states such as Maryland as a skeleton guide. For example, Prince George’s County in Maryland offers about $10,000 for highly effective principals, $10,000 for teachers in highly critical subject areas and $8,500 for teachers in non-highly critical subject areas. All bonuses should be available in the year after the highly effective rating was achieved.

On the flipside, we must address the prevalent issue of ineffective teachers. Teachers must show student growth in order to receive an “effective” rating. If he/she shows student growth for more than one year, that educator is given a “highly effective” rating. Tenure often keeps ineffective teachers in school districts – at the cost of the students. We must create a new way to remove ineffective tenured and untenured teachers and principals. All educators, no matter of tenure, should be eligible for removal if they show a pattern of ineffective teaching/performance for three consecutive years.

Currently, if a teacher is dismissed from a school, he/she can contest their firing to the state commission. Instead, the district school board should have the final say in this decision. The school district is directly working with the teacher, and is aware of all of the ins and outs of what is going on in a specific school. The state commission is an entity that is more of an overseer, and does not necessarily have direct interaction with the teachers. In 2009, the Commission on Professional Competence overturned nearly one third of all teachers’ dismissals in California during the past 15 years. This is a staggering number. When the district dismisses a teacher, the school board should have the final say in the matter, not an umbrella organization that serves as an overseer of matters like this.

We need to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in California. There needs to be a lift in the number of charter schools to promote innovation and creativity in teaching so more students can thrive.

Charter schools have been successes for many students because it is a way to derive from traditional teaching and help students explore their passion and creativity in a multitude of ways. One success story comes from the Inner City Education Fund (ICEF), a non-profit charter school magnet organization serving the South Los Angeles Communities. Their goal is to provide low income students with an overall quality education that will prepare them for college and the workforce after graduation. ICEF offers several programs for academics, performing arts, visual and media arts, and athletics.

In the spring of 2009, I had the opportunity to meet the ICEF Rugby Program, which has grown to over 200 student participants.  Rugby is an unfamiliar sport in their neighborhood, but it has provided so many students with an after school outlet to learn this new sport. Under the leadership of Stuart Krohn, the rugby program has taken these students around the world to Hong Kong, London, New Zealand and more.

I recently saw a CBS 2 news piece about ICEF rugby, and it highlighted the achievements of one particular student, Taylor Johnson. She became involved in rugby after transferring into the ICEF schools. Rugby has given her the chance to broaden her horizons while learning the critical skills needed for the game of rugby. It is something that she became in love with, and devoted her time to playing this sport after school in the ICEF league. Now, Taylor is a high school senior, and she will be attending Dartmouth University in the Fall. It was a Taylor’s story is just one of many success stories coming out of the charter schools in California. We need to continue this legacy and support charter schools with more federal funding to create programs such as ICEF rugby, or other performing arts and athletics programs.

Under the leadership of Governor Schwarzenegger, the number of charter schools have increased from 382 in 2003-2004 to 809 today. These numbers are promising, but the difficulty in adding more charter schools in California is a challenge. In order to continue to open more charter schools, we must get more federal funds to ensure these types of schools can thrive for our children.

The severity of the issues plaguing our educational system in California will only decline if we do not take drastic steps to change our schools. We must take action now in order to secure prosperous futures for our youth.

Sincerely,

Lauren L.

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Two weeks ago, I traveled to Zengcheng, located in the countryside of Guangzhou prefecture of China to teach English at Pai Tan School for students in grades 2-4 and 7-9.


Sometimes, putting yourself in the most unfamiliar and different situations can lead to the most enriching experiences of your life. In the days leading up to my teaching trip in the countryside of China, a rush of anxiety and nervousness consumed my every thought. My perceptions of China – being uncleanly and unsanitary – got the best of me. I had the notion that the people would be aloof and unfriendly towards foreigners, and I foolishly went into the trip with a blind eye.

Yet the moment our driver picked us up from the bus station, and Seven, the English teacher from the school, jumped out of the car with a warm smile, all of my inhibitions disappeared. Seven is a sweet, middle-aged woman with a short and petite frame of 5’2”. I came to realize that her personality is bigger and bolder, sweeter and softer than anyone I’ve ever met.

Driving into Zengcheng was a true eye-opener, primarily because of its underdeveloped landscape and poor economic status of the area. I’ve lived in the heart of South Central Los Angeles and have seen my share of rural, urban living, but this was unlike anything else. Many of the roads were severely unpaved, with concrete and brick piling up on the sides as if a tornado passed by. Some of the buildings looked like they were barely standing.

We taught English at Pai Tan School, and students from grades 2-4 and 7-9 voluntarily showed up on their weekend to see the “foreigners” as they call us. Many of the students have never traveled outside of Zengcheng, not even to Beijing or Shanghai, so you could imagine they were excited. It was quite difficult trying to teach English because they knew very little of the language, but we did our best by talking about our lives, showing them photos, and playing interactive games. Each day we were there, no matter how frigid cold it was, the students had a genuine smile across their face. It was a good feeling to hear the excitement in their voices as we all played games together and talked about America.

The more I interacted with everyone, I came to realize that they were such warm-hearted people. Despite their living conditions, they were so hospitable and caring towards us. The teachers and staff of Pai Tan School treated us to many hearty meals with more than enough food to feed the entire group.

When reflecting on this experience, I gained an important life lesson. I was so foolish to go into the experience with preconceived assumptions about what was to come. I chuckle at the thought of me stocking up on snacks to put in my backpack so I wouldn’t go hungry during the trip. Yes, my idea that it would be dirty and unsanitary proved true at times, but let me tell you this: the beauty of the people in Zengcheng far surpassed anything else. Despite the language barrier, their warm and loving smiles were enough to know that they appreciated us, and we appreciated them.

Highlights from the trip:

Seven (top left), the English teacher at Pai Tan School, and her young daughter Angel.

A few snapshots of Zengcheng

The students of Pai Tan School

Classroom activities

For breakfast, we went to a small restaurant/shop that was basically tables and chairs inside a garage. It was one of those moments when you think, “wow, what an experience!” Not many people can say they ate breakfast in a garage while bundled up in sweatpants and jackets in the freezing cold, watching the rain trickle down, all while eating a hearty, hot breakfast. We ate the most delicious jook and chow fun noodles!

We ate at the most peaceful, scenic restaurant for two meals. We had our own private cabin room overlooking the beautiful forest and mountainous landscape. I was in absolute awe. Pictures do no justice.

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