By May S. Ruiz
Nestled at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in Altadena is Altadena Elementary School, established in 1903 from what used to be a trolley stop for the Mount Lowe Trail. Known today as Altadena Arts Magnet School, it is the premier dual language and arts school in the San Gabriel Valley.
That renown, however, is fairly new. The school languished for a few years after its principal left and it became the lowest-rated in the district. It took a grant, a curriculum change, and the guidance of Dr. Benita Scheckel to transform the school into a model of excellence in a relatively short period of time.
A former actress and opera singer, Dr. Scheckel came to the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) in 2007 and taught English, drama, and music at Blair IB Magnet School. In 2015, she decided she wanted to go into administration; she got placed as assistant principal for Student Support Services at Marshall Fundamental School.
Dr. Scheckel picks up the story, “From there, I applied to Altadena Elementary School when it had just applied for the five-year arts magnet grant. We didn’t know then if we were going to get it, but I took a leap of faith that this would become an arts magnet school. At the same time, it became a French dual language immersion school and I had some experience in that area so I felt it was a dream place to work at.”
“It was once a wonderful school of 600 students and they had a long-time principal for 20 years,” relates Dr. Scheckel. “As PUSD began to attract more charter and private schools, the principal left and then the school went under construction. There was a period of instability – they had five principals in three years, enrollment declined from 600 to just under 200, there was low staff morale, and they had very low test scores – it was the lowest performing elementary school in the district.
“I looked at that first year as a chance to get to know the culture and climate and to infuse the school with as much positivity, enthusiasm, and vision. I set out to uplift the staff and support the teachers so that they can begin doing the amazing work they used to do that they weren’t able to do through the years of not having solid leadership.”
Continues Dr. Scheckel, “Before the school year started, the first couple of weeks I was here, I sat down for a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with the entire staff. Having just gotten here, I knew they didn’t trust me initially, so I asked teachers who they trusted and respected. I also met each staff member individually for a half hour. From those meetings and being on campus, I was able to figure out who they trusted and those were the people I put in the leadership team.
“Being used to secondary school, where there’s an assistant principal of curriculum and an assistant principal of discipline, I installed an instructional leadership team consisting of an instructional coach, a coach for discipline, and myself. I also created an extended leadership team – this includes our arts teacher, TOSA (teacher on special assignment), and our magnet grant coordinator.
“Then I brought in ‘Capturing Kids’ Hearts,’ a systemic reform program which our grant pays for. It provides many hours of professional development to teachers and staff around building a relational culture – student to student, teacher to teacher, staff to staff. I spent a lot of our money, resources, and energy forming a relational campus, where people don’t just shut their door and not relate to others but instead get together and hang out, appreciate each other and feel safe.”
“Now we have a thriving school – our enrollment is increasing daily,” Dr. Scheckel says, beaming with pride. “We closed last school year with 228 students and today we’re at 287. When we came back from winter break, in January and February, 20 students enrolled. Along with enrollment, test scores are up. We’ve increased our math and English scores exponentially – we’re no longer the lowest performing school. We have arts infused into everything we do. Our students receive up to 12 hours per week of discrete art and arts integrated instruction – it runs similar to a conservatory, which is very unusual for an elementary school where normally kids stay in the classroom and do an art project.
“Here, students go to dance, art, music, media arts, and theatre arts classes taught by professionals in that specific field. We have designated arts spaces – we have a state-of-the-art Marley dance floor, fully sprung so that it doesn’t hurt their joints, with ballet barres and mirrors; a black box theatre; a music studio; an art studio, and so on. To complement the dedicated spaces, we have a curriculum that’s structured like a conservatory. All students attend every art class so teachers have had to look at the schedule – take out the time students would have their recess and lunch, and when they’re in art class, and figure out how to teach the core curriculum in that time. I was nervous about it at first but they have done a beautiful job. It’s taken out any wasted time, transitions are tightened. Also, the teachers are following the students to all the art classes so that they can learn how to do these things when we switch to our built-in sustainability plan when the grant expires.”
Dr. Scheckel then came up with another great idea. She discloses, “With the grant, we decided we were going to build art spaces out of the classrooms. I thought I needed to bring a little bit of community awareness, community buy-in, and a little glitz and glamour to our campus. I reached out to some local celebrities and community leaders and asked them if we could name these spaces for them. Fortunately, they said yes.”
And so, on Wednesday, March 11, Altadena Arts Magnet School will hold a special ribbon cutting and studio dedication event where the art spaces will be named for distinguished arts personalities. The star studded festivities, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger in attendance, will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. and will feature a special performance by vocal artist Lynn Fiddmont.
“We’ll have a red carpet and a photographer,” says Dr. Scheckel. “The Muir Jazz Band will play and we’ll walk around and unveil these seven art spaces – the Matthew Lillard Black Box Theatre; Patrice Rushen Music Studio; Lula Washington Dance Studio; Keni Arts Art Studio; Artis Lane Sculpture Play Yard and Kiln; Bettye Holliday Art Gallery; and the MonteCedro and Dr. Eunice Elizabeth Nash Arts Garden.”
“I would like students to be inspired by knowing that each room is connected to someone who’s really working in that profession,” explains Dr. Scheckel. “So every time a student walks into the Patrice Rushin Music Studio I want them to be able to look around and think ‘I could be a four-time Grammy-nominated musician; I can be just like Patrice.’ I’m hoping that the celebrity name will maybe add a little pixie dust to the space, a little inspiration for the children.”
Three years into Dr. Scheckel’s stewardship, Altadena Arts Magnet School is the only elementary school where little children are travelling throughout the day like middle- and high-schoolers. It has earned a distinct reputation in the area, something Dr. Scheckel revels in, and not without a sense of relief mixed with wonder.
“It’s incredible!” enthuses Dr. Scheckel. “The first year I was very nervous all the time. It was my first principalship and I was worried; I wanted to be certain I do things correctly and make as few mistakes as possible. Now, this third year feels like ‘we’re okay, we’re cooking with gas.’ Everybody knows what the vision is, the team is phenomenal, everybody’s moving in the right direction.
“It’s amazing what you can do with a school if you add love, grit, and a solid vision for greatness. I think if you have those three things, you can really turn a school around. And we have achieved that. We can’t believe it when families try to come to us from Glendale or La Cañada. They’re leaving La Cañada schools to come and be a part of our school! Our tours have 40 people on them. There are pregnant mothers who are crying because they think there won’t be space when their baby comes. How fascinating!”
Dr. Scheckel is only just beginning and there’s no stopping her. And students at Altadena Arts Magnet School are the lucky beneficiaries of this indefatigable principal’s grand vision.