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All primary schools have certain things in common. Children are organised into classes, each of which has a classroom and teacher. The school follows a curriculum designed to give all children the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the future – and all this is delivered through lessons where the key focus is reading, writing and maths. The teacher explains what to do, the children do some work and everyone goes home at the end of the day happy that they’ve made progress.  Over the years the basic model of teaching has remained largely unchanged.

So, when you visit a primary school things are always largely familiar, unless of course you happen to visit Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts in Los Angeles.

Firstly, Los Feliz doesn’t look like a primary school. The address, Media Drive, gives a clue as to its previous incarnation, which I understand was, appropriately enough given its location, a film studio. The space feels like an aircraft hangar, with internal spaces created from shipping containers and warehouse racking, softened with natural materials, objects and plants. The feel is more design studio than classroom, and you can feel the collective creative energy.

The school’s mission is ‘to engage children in an inspiring, challenging, and civically active educational experience that embraces learning through the arts’, which was evident through the activities that I experienced.

One class were engaged in a project to come up with solutions for the problem of water conservation, a particular problem in LA given the scarcity of this precious resource.  The approach was investigative and collaborative, as children worked in groups, discussed approaches to the problem, recorded ideas on ‘post-its’ and immersed themselves in the creative process. The solutions were led by the children, facilitated by the teachers and supported by a town planner working in residence at the school.

Each class appeared to have fewer children than typical classes here, with a few children working at low tables. However on closer inspection, I found children working away on clipboards and laptops in a variety of small nooks, dens and under desks. ‘I do my best thinking under the desk’, one child told me, deep in thought to develop solutions for real world problems but keen to share her ideas.

Every topic at Los Feliz has a link with the arts and the school offers residences for a wide range of artist across a range of disciplines. Every space within the school is used, with children dancing, acting and creating art wherever you looked. The arts are completely integrated into the curriculum, in an approach designed to give meaning, develop understanding and enrich children’s experience of learning.

The most reassuring thing from my visit was that Los Feliz was strangely familiar in terms of feel and approach. Children learn best when they are empowered to investigate and explore, collaborate and take risks. Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts may be 5000 miles away, but I suspect my visit will have a lasting influence on our approach to education at Highgate Primary.