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A VIP school miracle springs up in the Valley

For a lot of the schools in Los Angeles, this week marks the beginning of the school year. But, next week on Aug. 18 a different kind of public charter school will open in the San Fernando Valley.

See the new students and staff at the VIP school
See the new students and staff at the VIP school
Mike Szymanski, Studio City Community Activism Examiner
The site of the new charter school in Van Nuys.
Mike Szymanski, Studio City Community Activism Examiner

“Books will be written about how we did this—it’s simply incredible how we pulled this off,” gushes an enthusiastic Brad Koepenick at the open house launch party for the Valley International Prep School South over the weekend. He is the Director of Arts and Communications at the new school and has admittedly been up for the past four or five days prepping for the weekend’s open house. “Nothing like this has been done before, here or anywhere.”

Indeed, only a few months ago, the idea of a new charter school seemed like a pie-in-the-sky idea, but some very active and motivated teachers and parents joined forces and allied with Koepenick and Headmaster Anne Cochran to create three separate (but allied) charter schools called Valley International Prep, under the Academy of Arts and Sciences umbrella. VIP has a north and south campus, one in Pacoima at 11261 Glenoaks Boulevard and one in Van Nuys at 14701 Friar Street which once was home to a church, and another school called CALSTEAM Learning Center in Thousand Oaks at 900 A Hampshire Road.

The public charter school is free and has a mission to "Innovate. Collaborate. Educate." They’ve attracted highly motivated and active teachers and families who want to prepare students for college and include visual and performing arts classes and extracurricular activities “all chosen with an eye toward providing students a 21st-Century preparation and worldview” which was not provided by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

And, they’ve brought in faculty and families from many neighboring schools both public and private including Carpenter Community Charter, Valley View Elementary, Walter Reed Middle School, Campbell Hall, Notre Dame and many others.

As Koepenick explains, “What we are doing was hard to do in the LAUSD system, and we created a family of three schools with one mission each with their own identity. We will be serving the underserved.”

Teachers Farnaz (Nazi) Kaufman and Myron Breitstein were among the most active teachers at the high-achieving LAUSD charter-affiliated Carpenter Community Charter School in Studio City, and were involved in the School Site Council committee when it became a charter school. Both of them left Carpenter elementary school this year to create the CALSTEAM school in Thousand Oaks.

“There really is an amazing pool of talent teaching the students and I’m so glad that this is an option now for us,” says Denise DaVinci, whose son will be going to the new school after he spent most of his school life at Carpenter. DaVinci was key at creating world class music festivals and fundraisers for Carpenter, and she launched her talents with VIP over the weekend by having students perform their own works on stage, attracting a half-dozen high quality food trucks to show up and finding people to walk around in superhero costumes to amuse the incoming students.

Among the talents showcased over the weekend was Hayden Begley, daughter of actors Rachelle Carson and Ed Begley Jr. who were proud parents in attendance at the school over the weekend.

“We found out about the school through a friend, and it seemed like a great fit,” says Rachelle. “She has been coming here for summer classes and she loves it.”

“I can see Hayden thrive in this community, there’s a lot of great spirit and talent here,” says Ed Begley, pointing out that his daughter was previously at a local private schools before transferring to VIP.

Hayden says she has enjoyed working with music teacher Chuck Cochran, who will be showcasing the talents of the students on a monthly basis for the public to see at their large auditorium.

“The songs the students are singing they have written themselves, and I’ve seen some real budding talent among them,” says the music teacher who is also building confidence in the students as they perform for the first time to a live audience.

Koepenick is an actor, writer and producer who has worked closely with Kevin Spacey in such films as “Shakespeare High” and “Albino Alligator.” He has experience with five charter schools and taught at CHAMPS (Charter High School of the Arts and Media).

Already local businesses have jumped in to help with the school and their mission to involve the students in the community. Some companies handed out food, and others had booths showing their arts-related classes and extracurricular opportunities.

“We prep the students for college, we develop leadership skills and we offer a diverse learning environment,” Koepenick says. Even though they have limited spaces for now, he adds, “I encourage everyone to come check us out.”

Jodi Fung and her family love the school. Her daughter will be attending this year, and their younger son will transfer over from Carpenter after he graduates from there. "We know the teachers who have come over to this school, so we feel very comfortable with this new school," Jodi says.

So, although some schools have already started the school year, these new schools will soon begin next week, and plan to offer an alternative to the students who feel lost in the LAUSD system.

For more information on the school itself, go to http://www.valleyprep.org and for more information about the Academy of Arts and Sciences, go to: http://www.aascalifornia.org.

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