Liza Bercovici suspected something was up when a student at Gabriella Charter School approached her last week and said, "Happy birthday tomorrow, Miss Liza." So it was not a surprise the next day when the school's 400-plus students sang "Happy Birthday" to her at morning assembly.
Bercovici sighed in appreciation, and when urged to make a speech, she stood humbly before the small sea of students gathered on the playground of the Echo Park school she'd founded. "I think everybody here knows that this school was started out of my love for my daughter, whose name was Gabriella," Bercovici said. "I lost Gabri when she was 13."
Gabriella loved to dance, Bercovici reminded the students. And she wanted to be a teacher.
This school — where great teachers are prized, and dance is central to the curriculum — exists in her memory.
Bercovici is a friend, and I was pleased last year when the California Charter Schools Assn. named Gabriella the school of the year. Then, earlier this year, her school was ranked second among California elementary and middle charters by a USC rating system.
So I decided to visit and see what they're doing to get these kinds of results — along with API scores near 900 — at a school where more than 90% of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged.
The answer begins with the tragedy that broke Bercovici's heart. She and her husband, both lawyers, were bike riding in Wyoming on vacation with their children when a passing driver reached to change a CD, swerved, and struck and killed Gabriella.
"She was my only daughter and she gave so much love to everyone in our family," said Bercovici. "She was at a stage where she wanted to be with me all the time, and I admired her so much."
Bercovici was virtually paralyzed for months, too devastated to continue her family law practice. She didn't know how to rebuild her life until the day she saw a newspaper story about a dance program for underserved kids in Orange County.
"It just hit me. 'You know what? I wonder if there's anything like that in L.A. ....' It was completely out of left field because I knew nothing about dance, I can't dance, I knew nothing about nonprofits."
Bercovici recruited the friends who'd been her support system after Gabriella's death. Bercovici managed to secure a donated space near Koreatown to use as the dance studio, and she and her friends made fliers announcing their intentions and distributed them in the MacArthur Park area and beyond, visiting laundromats, churches and parks. But when opening day came, they had no idea whether anyone would show up to register.
When Bercovici and Carol Zee, the dancer she'd recruited to run the program, saw a crowd forming outside the studio, they assumed they'd come to apply for housing in another part of the building. But they were there to sign up for Everybody Dance.
"We started out with 35 children and 12 classes a week," she said. The following year there were 70 to 80 classes weekly, and today there are six studios in the city serving roughly 2,200 students, many of them paying just $7 monthly for daily instruction.
Some of Bercovici's dance students attended a school called Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, and Bercovici saw no good reason not to start her own charter school, one with high academic standards and ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. L.A. Unified wasn't immediately sold, given Bercovici's complete lack of educational experience. But she's persistent, and they started small and grew, eventually moving from the MacArthur Park area to the campus of Logan Elementary in Echo Park, where there were some empty buildings.
"Liza is the special sauce," said Principal Rhonda Czapla Sivaraman. "She is so passionate about our mission — getting children opportunities in art, not to make them artists, but to make themselves better."
When I visited recently, the commitment of teachers was clear. I saw sixth-grade humanities instructor Amanda Arguello write her cellphone number on the blackboard and tell students to call her after school if they had questions about homework. In seventh-grade history class, teacher Brent Walmsley — who lost his job at LAUSD when funding cuts forced layoffs — said Gabriella Charter is free of the divisive politics that are common in large school districts, and it really is all about the students.
"My first reaction was, 'Ballet?' I thought I was going to have to wear tutus," said Fernando, a sixth-grade student who transferred from a regular public school. "But it's not that bad. It's interesting to get to do something I didn't used to do."
The philosophy is that students aren't just learning an art form in dance, they're burning energy and building confidence that carries over into other subjects. At the moment, the eighth-grade dance and algebra instructors are teaching systems of equations by charting dancers moving to different beats and at different rates of speed.
On Miss Liza's birthday, we watched a room full of adolescent girls perform "All That Jazz," each wearing a T-shirt bearing Gabriella's name.
"The irony is overwhelming," said Bercovici, who has turned devastating personal loss into opportunity for others. "I guess I'm trying to live my daughter's life for her a little bit."
And, in doing so, honoring her memory every day.