WATTS LEARNING CENTER
Our story takes place in one of the most infamous two square mile blocks in all of America: Watts. A city whose name automatically invokes the word “Riots,” as if the two were a call and response. A city that is still largely defined by, and has never quite escaped from, the infamous 1965 uprising in which pent up racial tensions exploded into an outburst of violence and destruction that lasted a week, but have been seared into our nation’s memory ever since. And while decades have come and gone, Watts — with some of the nation’s highest rates of homicide, poverty, and single-parent households — has never fully turned the corner. However, one small school with a big heart, the Watts Learning Center, is fighting to prove how a school and a community, working hand-in-hand, can change each other for the better.
Watts Learning Center is an innovative charter elementary and middle school with an uncommon, community-based approach to education. Gene and Sandra Fisher founded WLC with the strong conviction that building quality schools was the best way to combat what seemed to be an unbreakable poverty cycle of African Americans and Latinos in South Central, LA. They determined that a quality education is the only way to truly “change the narrative,” and overcome the many disproportionate, systemic obstacles in place for its youth to succeed. With unshakeable, if not contrarian, optimism, WLC opened its doors in 1997 across the street from one of the most notorious housing projects in LA — Nickerson Gardens. Twenty years later, it has blossomed from a school of two students into an elementary school and a middle school that educates almost one thousand children from underserved areas of South Los Angeles. With an Academic Performance Index of 852 despite a high student poverty rate, WLC has not only greatly surpassed average test scores from surrounding schools, but is now on par with many schools in affluent, white suburbs of Los Angeles.
Why does WLC succeed when so many other schools in similar environments fail? Gene is fond of saying “it takes an urban village to raise a school.” Community collaboration is the school’s secret sauce, and the wide range of community members that it involves — parents, grandparents, policemen, religious leaders, businesses and local government officials — are its ingredients. Breaking down the walls between the community and the school fosters a passion for learning in WLC students who are encouraged to solve real world problems that affect them personally — trash, graffiti, and homelessness to name a few. This creates a virtuous cycle in which Watts helps WLC, and WLC helps Watts. Only with the opportunities offered through education can the community improve as a whole, together. Thus, the story of Watts Learning Center and Watts, itself, are inextricably linked, and our documentary will probe deep into both.
Like the city of Watts, Watts Learning Center has its fair share of setbacks and challenges. The film will explore, among other things, the politicized nature of charter schools, gang violence in the area, regular robberies of school equipment, and financial hardships. In addition to the macro problems faced by Watts and WLC, the film will also tell the story of individuals who face intense obstacles in their everyday lives, including violence, poverty, substance abuse, single parenthood, and mass incarceration.
Much like the classic novel, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," the story of the Watts Learning Center is an uplifting reminder that powerful ideas and substantial progress can take root in even the toughest conditions. It is a wake up call to those who have written off Watts, its children, and other inner city communities across the country. It is a rallying cry that, through the power of education and community, every single one of our country’s children should and could have an opportunity for a better life. Finally, it shines a light on an exciting, innovative community-based education model that is progressive and successful, yet underutilized.