Ken Marsh graduated in 1958 and is a proud L.A. High alum. After spending half a century away from the campus, a stroll through the hallways inspired Ken to help bring the school back to its glory days.
“I hadn’t been in the building for years,” Marsh said. “And when I attended the school, it wasn’t what it is now.”
Marsh remembers the palpable sense of pride he felt as a student, but that energy seemed to be missing as he wandered around in 2008. The school was physically different as well. Marsh lamented the loss of the original brick architecture – the building was damaged in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, and despite community efforts to restore it, it was eventually demolished and replaced with the current (and universally disliked) version.
When his 50th reunion came along, Marsh decided to get involved in the planning efforts. He didn’t care much about the party. He was hoping something more active and progressive would come from the meetings.
“I thought, ‘Here we are, 68 years old, and we got a lot of life experience. Given the world we’re in – climate change, political challenges, what’s happening (and not happening) in education – besides this celebration of becoming old, let’s do something with this.”
In the end, the party took precedent for most of the participants, but Marsh managed to team up with a few like-minded grads to found the Alumni on Campus group. Since its inception in 2009, about a dozen alumni have participated, chaperoning field trips, tutoring struggling students and helping organize campus beautification projects, including resurfacing tennis courts and creating an educational garden on the west side of the school. Marsh helps out with the school newspaper, The Blue and White, which had been on publishing hiatus for years. He’s especially excited about assisting the students with the paper’s multi-page community section.
“We felt like we were igniting something by being on campus,” Marsh said. “The whole beautification idea, for example, is about getting kids involved and establishing a sense of pride. If there’s a window broken, fix it. If there’s graffiti, paint it out. Left up, it just invites more.”
Marsh admits that some of Alumni on Campus’ work would not have been possible without the Alice G. Harrison Trust, a $2 million endowment left to L.A. High by an alum who graduated in 1895. Harrison passed away in 1958 and left her entire fortune to the school – she had never married, had no children and no close relatives, according to trust executive director, Joyce Kliefield.
Since 1960, the Harrison Trust has operated like a non-profit organization. In accordance with Harrison’s will, the $2 million was to be invested and the interest used to ‘provide students with exceptional educational opportunities.' Guest speaker fees, equipment for classrooms and campus clubs and college scholarships are often paid for with trust funds. When LAUSD cut field trip support in recent years, the Harrison Trust filled in the gaps. A board of directors composed of community members, L.A. High teachers, an LAUSD representative and the school principal oversee how the funds are used through a petition process.
“[The trust] has never been a fundraising organization, it’s been a granting organization. And I don’t think they’ve ever said ‘No,’” said Kliefield. “But now, the board has decided they should start raising money, as other schools are doing. As the executive director, I will grow the trust fund. My main goal is to help teachers teach better.”
Kliefield has her sights set on teacher trainings, grant writing, and community building – since being hired in August, she has already written three grants requested by classroom teachers. She has considerable experience as a school activist and is confident about her ability to positively impact the campus and the students. Prior to taking the position with the Harrison Trust, Kliefield spent six years as Fairfax High’s community outreach representative and primary fundraiser.
“Fairfax is my neighborhood high school, and it made me sad that local families weren’t sending their kids there,” said Kliefield. “Instead of abandoning them completely, I wanted to see what I could do to help.”
Her efforts brought in new programming for students, various campus beautification projects, and a new football stadium and field. More importantly, school officials felt that the community was once again embracing the school. Kliefield aims to bring similar changes to L.A. High.
“My goals are to rebuild community support and to make this school one that the community can be proud of and feel comfortable sending their kids to,” said Kliefield. “And we’re not far away. L.A. High has some amazing things going, but it needs publicity. We need people to know about it.”
The school has struggled to achieve higher academic marks – its 2012 API score was 647, despite a state-wide goal of 800 or higher – but the rollout of new assessments and Common Core Standards makes Kliefield hopeful.
“We’re in a new era. We’re rolling out Common Core State Standards, and we’ll have regular assessments that look at growth instead of high-stakes tests. Also, schools aren’t only going to be judged just by scores, but by students’ social and cultural development as well. We’re heading in the right direction.”
Photo of Ken Marsh by Chelsee Lowe