Growing up it was difficult to escape discussions about education. Whether it was homework projects at the time or the future investments in my college academic career, my parents were all about learning to improve yourself. My mother and father were more than just cheerleaders—they were active participants in my education. This focus on education by my parents, both chemical engineers who immigrated from the Philippines, was a normal part of my childhood that would become a trait of my own personality and eventually lead me to a bold concept for a school later in life. The concept, a school providing a high-quality education where student voice, collaboration, integrity and sense of community are valued and embraced, and the curriculum challenges students to create entrepreneurial solutions to global issues, would be fully developed only after years of work in the education field as a teacher and administrator.
The building blocks of this school started when I signed up for a course that had me mentoring and tutoring kids from the local schools in New York City. My life was changed. I knew that education and being a teacher was going to be my career of choice—and I have never looked back. My teaching career began at the New York City Museum School, a public school focused on project-based learning (PBL) and interdisciplinary teaching. Creating structure, designing curriculum and preparing course materials were aspects I thrived on and helped me focus on delivering impactful lessons to each of my students. As I progressed in my career, I eventually began working with colleagues to help them design and deliver innovative instructional models. This began the second phase of my career in education, moving to the administrative side. Helping other teachers become more effective in the classroom took me to San Francisco and Mexico City. The work in building and implementing diversity models in San Francisco and creating protocols to eliminate bullying in a Mexico City school were challenging, but extremely rewarding. My work eventually led me to the Hawaiian school system, where I was one of two female private high school principals under the age of 40 in the state. Once again, project-based learning was the focus and building programs to help teachers understand and implement best practices in their classrooms was the goal.
Throughout my travels, I have found myself being just as much of a student as a teacher or administrator. The educators I have been blessed to work with share a common thread of viewing each student in their classrooms as individuals and trying to awaken their minds to the possibility of a bright future through education. Talking with teachers from coast to coast and abroad, I have learned about distinctive characteristics of students by region and ways schools serve them according to how they merge traditional teaching techniques with emerging methodologies in learning. This insight has been of extreme value to the work I began with the Los Angeles Unified School District through the
Linked Learning framework. There, my colleagues and I provide teachers and principals with support and professional development on instruction around interdisciplinary PBLs and curriculum design. It was here in Los Angeles when I took my experience as a teacher and administrator to realize the school I had worked my entire career to open became a reality. Opening in August of 2018, PRIME will serve 200 students in grades 6 through 9. PRIME reimagines the student experience through community focused, experiential education and helps transition the traditional understanding of the term “school” to reflect a more modern concept involving a series of interconnected learning experiences rather than a single brick-and-mortar site—making our community of South Los Angeles and the Greater Los Angeles region an extension of our classrooms. It took time, but I finally realize that mentoring those students when I was in college was the first step on the pathway my parents had created for me early in my educational travels. Just like them, I was involved, persistent and looking for ways to get my students involved in the world. And just like them, I am all about learning to inspire and achieve great things in life.
Grace Cruz has worked in K-12 education for 19 years, serving in a variety of school leadership roles, from dean to high school principal. She is the founder of PRIME School in Los Angeles. She has also worked at the Center for Powerful Public Schools in Los Angeles, where she advised high school leadership teams on ways to strengthen student achievement.