In March of 1994, a small, determined group of parents and educators set out to create a new kind of school. These founding families believed in Lisa Rosenstein as an educator–in her vision, in her work ethic, and in her upbeat approach to life. Their shared vision imagined a progressive, innovative educational approach with strong academic roots that instilled character and compassion, inspired intellectual fearlessness and flexibility, and appealed to a broad demographic throughout Los Angeles. Together they drafted The Willows’ founding principles and embarked upon a seemingly impossible mission: to open the doors of this school within a record amount of time. The founding families formed a temporary board of trustees and sought advice from a broad spectrum of experts. They agreed upon the name The Willows Community School, honoring a tree that grows quickly, whose branches bend but do not break. They incorporated their fledgling school as a not-for-profit organization, named Lisa Rosenstein as Head of School, and began applying for grants.
Their vision began to materialize when the school leased an old warehouse located on a large lot in Culver City. Even before the lease was signed, Ms. Rosenstein, the teachers and founding parents galvanized support for the new school throughout the educational community. Working from a hotel room in the Westwood Marquis, their enthusiasm enticed 106 children and their families to enroll at the still-to-be-built Willows Community School, while construction teams raced to transform the empty warehouse into an air-conditioned, cheerful and welcoming schoolhouse. A mere seven months after the parents first met, The Willows Community School opened its doors to 90 students in grades Developmental Kindergarten through Fifth Grade. The school consisted of a single building in the Hayden Tract of Culver City.
The Willows has repeated this extraordinary feat four times since then, converting adjacent buildings to provide new classrooms, meeting rooms, a library, a rooftop athletic court, a gymnasium and much more.
In 1998, through the school’s first capital campaign, The Willows added a second kindergarten and opened its Middle School, by leasing Willows 2, a second building on campus that includes a bright, spacious art room, a comprehensive science lab, and a learning resource center containing more than 25 multi-media stations, as well as middle school classrooms. Willows 2 was purchased in 2009.
In 2000, the campus grew again with the expansion of the playground and the introduction of Willows 3, a long-term leased building containing a library and a state-of-the-art technology center.
In the fall of 2003, The Willows launched its second capital campaign and opened Willows 4, which dramatically enhanced the campus with the addition of a world-class gymnasium that accommodates the P.E. program, sports teams, and large all-school events; an intimate black-box theatre, choral and electronic music studios, and rehearsal space.
In 2009, Willows 1 and Willows 5 were purchased, and the development and implementation of a Master Plan and the quiet phase of a Capital Campaign were launched. In 2012 and 2013, the first phases of The Willows Master Plan began. The building on Willows 5 was demolished in the fall of 2012, and construction ensued through summer 2013 to complete The Willows 5 Warner Drive entrance, three dedicated sports courts, and a flexible outdoor space.
In December 2012, Willows 6, the building at 8510 Warner Drive, was purchased creating one secure, contiguous campus of 2.86 acres and building square footage of 72,973.
Major construction of the first phase of The Willows Master Plan began during the summer of 2013 and continued through January 2014, with the Dedication of the New Campus held on January 26, 2014. The Willows campus now has new, flexible learning spaces, a warm and welcoming entrance, dedicated outdoor athletic courts, enhanced security, a S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art and math) educational lab, and a total updating of The Lower Elementary Building. The Library/Media Center, which has been moved to the heart of our campus, has been redesigned as a fluid, dynamic space conducive to interdisciplinary learning, the sharing of knowledge, intellectual discourse, and individual growth. The transformation of our campus exterior areas continued in 2014 resulting in beautiful landscaped areas with the addition of shade trees, an expanded organic garden, a new, interactive playground with a slate wall and sand and water play areas, a Kindergarten Yard, play areas devoted to both active and imaginative, quiet play, and community gathering spaces, and a Middle School Alley. Completion of this phase of our Master Plan is a true reflection of The Willows’ spirit and culture.
During the summer of 2015, an additional construction project was undertaken: the transformation of the loading dock area between Willows 4 (the gym building) and Willows 6 into a 3,500 square foot “green” (organic, artificial turf) space for outdoor educational programming, dining, and community gathering.
The phenomenal growth of the school’s facilities and programming reflects the commitment of the parent body to the school’s goals and vision. Nowhere is this commitment more apparent than in The Willows fundraising efforts. The school’s Annual Giving Campaign revenues have more than doubled since 2010, and the school consistently receives 99-100% participation in its annual fundraising efforts from parents, trustees, faculty, and staff. The 2014-2015 20th Anniversary Greening & Growing Campaign raised over $200,000 in increased gifts to Annual Giving to make the enhancement of the outdoor green space possible.
In an amazing 21years, the school’s student body increased from 106 to 445 students, grades developmental kindergarten through eighth. During this time The Willows achieved a reputation as one of the pre-eminent independent schools in Los Angeles, known for its highly regarded technology program and educational innovations. Several leading national educators, who have spent time at The Willows, are unanimous in their praise of the school’s creative and stimulating learning environment and its engaged, involved students. The Willows received the 2014 and 2015 Culver City Private School Award for Excellence.
In 2006, The Willows became the first school citywide to institute a cutting-edge literacy program. The innovation continues as the school enters its ninth year of looping (keeping students and teachers together for two consecutive years), proving the many successes derived from this practice. The Willows is also one of the only local, independent, co-ed schools that separates students by gender for math, best meeting the needs of both boys and girls and allowing them to reach their optimum potential. Our challenging academic program is complemented by an exemplary performing and fine arts curriculum, a full range of athletic teams, a rich and thoughtful life skills and service learning curriculum, and extra-curricular activities–all taught by dedicated faculty who are professionals in their fields. Creativity and technology are integral parts of our curriculum, designed to develop out-of-the-box thinkers. Creativity is not restricted to the arts, but fostered in every discipline. Technology, including a 1:1 laptop program in grades two through eight, is integrated seamlessly in our curriculum as an essential tool for learning. Our S.T.E.A.M. Lab, makerLabs, designab integrate the latest educational strategies for exploration, skill development, problem solving, and design thinking directly into our curriculum through one-on-one and small group teaching experiences.
In 2014, twenty years after the school first opened its doors, The Willows held a spectacular yearlong 20th anniversary celebration with record-breaking attendance at a 20th Anniversary Birthday Party, Dinners, and Gala. Giving exceeded all goals. Our speaker events, workshops, and panels set new records for attendance for our constituents and from peer schools and Los Angeles organizations. We enhanced our Maker program across curriculum and into classrooms and dedicated maker spaces. Our first Alumni Art Show, Alumni 20-Year Luncheon, and Alumni Mixer were resounding successes.
In 2015, The Willows implemented the RULER emotional intelligence curriculum, a nationally recognized program developed over a 20-year period by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. RULER is an evidence-based approach to social emotional learning that helps schools to integrate emotional intelligence into their everyday practice by enabling each child to communicate and engage with others with empathy and respect.
In 2015-2016, The Willows introduced an innovative restructuring of the school’s administration designed to better serve our children and enhance our Developmental Kindergarten through 8th Grade model. This structure with a Director of Teaching and Learning, Director of Student Life, and Dean of the Middle School, will build on both the long-term relationships developed between administrators, parents, and students and the continuity of our academic program. This fluid structure will allow an administrator to follow a child from DK through 8th grade, knowing the whole child.
The founders realized their dream in 1994, and every year since, The Willows’ population and programming have grown. In 2015, 21 years later, The Willows evolved into one of the most desirable schools in Los Angeles, extending across a 2.86 acre, 124,404 square foot campus comprised of six buildings and educating 445 students.
A long-term vision of our school has always been to own our own properties and create one unified campus that secures the future of our school. To this end, in 2017, our Board voted to secure our footprint and buy the last remaining properties in our CUP. We purchased Willows 4, which houses our gym and theater, and Willows 7, the property adjacent to Willows1 on the west side. We have embarked on a Capital Campaign, Big Ideas Build Dreams, with the plan of making Willows 7 a multi-purpose field and flexible, outdoor space for group activities and outdoor learning. The next phase of our Master Plan will be the renovation of Willows 6 to create a cutting-edge innovation space and cross-disciplinary learning environment.
The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in collaboration with The Willows launched the first West Coast RULER training (Anchors of Emotional Intelligence Institute) in May 2018 at The Willows with 100 teachers and administrators from 22 independent, public, charter, and public schools in Los Angeles, Southern and Northern California, Oregon and Washington State. The Willows RULER team of faculty and administration co-facilitated the training alongside Yale RULER trainers and leadership.
The Willows began as a dream of community, defined intrinsically by its founders a “a sharing in common.” Now, The Willows community is ever expanding and energetic. Through the years, The Willows has grown to include not only a vigorous, committed community of students, faculty, staff, parents, grandparents and alumni but also an outreach into the larger community and around the globe. In 2017, the first Willows Middle School Service Community Learning Trip was held in Arizona to explore Sustainability in the Community during Spring Break. In 2018, the inaugural international Community Service Learning Trip ventured to Nicaragua. We believe that as individuals, we thrive; as a community we soar.
As we enter 2018-2019, with 470 students from 55+ zip codes, a $16 million budget, a 4.0 acre campus, an acclaimed educational program, a thriving professional development program, a lauded speaker series, and inclusion and outreach across Los Angeles, California, and the U.S., the dynamic, vibrant “can-do” spirit of The Willows is flourishing with a unique combination of innovation and tradition. The vision of the founding families is a reality with a community of students filled with the joy of learning and passionate about giving back. We are planning for and eagerly anticipating our 25th anniversary starting in September 2019. Preparing the student for a rapidly changing modern world, The Willows strives to provide an environment “where great minds grow.”