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Making it real

by Jason Winders, MES'10 | August 22, 2014

karen

Karen Hunter Quartz’s “interesting story of failure” has led to a chance at success for hundreds of kids in one of the most disadvantaged areas of Los Angeles.

Drawn to Philosophy early on, Hunter Quartz, BA’86 (Huron, Philosophy), MA’87 (Philosophy), entered Huron University College as an undergraduate in the early 1980s. There, she met her husband, Steven Quartz, BA’86 (Huron, Philosophy), MA’87 (Philosophy), in an Ancient Philosophy course. They were married straight out of the Western affiliate, and then the couple “walked across the road” to work on their master’s degrees in the same discipline.

Hunter Quartz’s memories of Western are rich and deep – citing with ease the impact particular professors or classes had on her studies. She conjures up an especially vivid description of Western Philosophy professor Robert Butts. She described the late icon of the academe walking across campus with a signature copy of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, tattered and bookmarked, well-worn and well-examined, tucked under his arm.

“I remember him being the consummate intellectual who took apart paragraphs and was so motivated by ideas,” Hunter Quartz said. “He was this old philosopher, ostensibly not part of our culture any more, but the ideas he brought to life make for happy memories and inspiration for me.”

After graduation, she and her husband wanted to continue their studies, although admittedly ignorant of the competitive graduate school landscape in The States. They both applied for PhD studies to the University of California- San Diego – and nowhere else.

“Looking back, it was completely ridiculous what we did – applying to one graduate school,” Hunter Quartz said. Her husband was accepted into the program; she was not.

“You know, when I got rejected, I went through this whole thing – doubts, questions,” she said. “But then I started thinking. I always wanted to start a school, study education. It was always so interesting to me the ideas and philosophy behind it. I decided to go looking into this field even though I had never studied education – I had only been to school.” Regrouping, she placed a blind call up the road to UCLA Philosophy professor David Ericson.

Oddly enough, Ericson recently had a paper rejected by an academic journal Butts edited. So, he was extremely familiar with the man behind the name on one of Hunter Quartz’s letters of recommendation. The professor was intrigued and accepted her into the program.

Soon after, she and her husband headed to California in a beat-up Mazda – and they have been there ever since. Hunter Quartz went on to earn her PhD from UCLA, and then stayed on as a professor.

But she yearned to do something different. “One of the things I struggle with as an academic is that the world of ideas is a nice place to live, but at some level it is not real,” Hunter Quartz said.

To her mind, she had two options: Change the system from within by becoming a classroom teacher and administrator, or apply her research to the existing system. She chose the latter.

Her passion, along with a hearty constitution to weather nay-sayers and government bureaucracy, fueled the founding of the UCLA Community School.

The K-12 pilot school, located on the campus of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, operates through a partnership between UCLA, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Koreatown/Pico-Union community. The school draws 1,000 students from the neighbourhood. This is not a charter school, Hunter Quartz said, but an institution informed by scholarship, and grounded in progressive educational philosophical ideas, all within the public school district.

From the start, she had a hand in every aspect – from putting together tricycles and blowing up playground balls to reassuring everyone from the families of students to the university chancellor that “everything will be OK” when the school opened its doors.

The UCLA Community School opened in September 2010, and last June, the first cohort of incoming freshmen graduated. The Class of 2014 included 80 seniors, 44 of whom were accepted into a four-year college, 20 are headed to a University of California campus, the elite campuses of the system. Almost all other students are planning to attend a two-year institution. Those numbers shine even brighter when you consider only 6 per cent of families from the neighbourhood had a member go to college, and only 4 per cent ever went to a UC campus.

“This moment is electrifying,” said Hunter Quartz, who serves as the school’s research director. “This class has exceeded our expectations. It’s an exciting moment right now to celebrate a lot of hard work and dedication by a lot of people so these students can take the next step in life.” While much work remains to be done to achieve the school’s ultimate mission, Hunter Quartz has paused for a bit of celebration and to remember its origin.

“As a graduate student at Western, I taught Intro to Philosophy. That (class) was why I went into education. I loved that opportunity to connect with students and think about how to engage people in learning ideas,” she said. “I do that every day now.

“Today, for these kids, this is about more than grades or those formal credentials they need. They need to learn the world, they need to develop that social capital, know lots of people who look like them and are successful. This is about something bigger for them.”


This article appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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