Dedicated to educating children to become independent, creative and critical thinkers in a culturally diverse environment, Toluca Lake Elementary School makes learning a true community endeavor through strong partnerships with local families and neighborhood organizations. The school opened on July 1, 1944, to serve the many new residents who had been drawn to the San Fernando Valley by the aviation industry boom during World War II. Since then, it’s grown from nine classrooms in a single main building to a campus of over 30 classrooms, with a total of more than 500 students from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. It’s also continued to expand and enhance its offerings to provide a high-quality public education for all its young learners.
“People are surprised to learn that Toluca Lake Elementary is a Title I school — meaning over 65% of our families qualify for free or reduced lunch,” principal Jeffrey Daniel says. “Oftentimes, people equate a Title I school with low performance. That, however, is not our case. Toluca Lake Elementary is among the top-performing elementary schools in the area and, in fact, is the highest-performing Title I school in the area.”
The school’s assets include the ever-growing racial and cultural diversity of its students and staff, which it embraces through events such as the annual Around the World Multicultural Night, where families share food, artifacts and pictures representing their backgrounds. “Ensuring that all families feel included and connected to the school community has helped make us even stronger,” Daniel explains. That philosophy has fostered another key element of Toluca Lake Elementary’s success: a high level of parent involvement. “Toluca Lake prides itself on its strong school-to-home connection,” teacher Rhory McConville says. “We have a wonderful Parent Teacher Association that supports many school enrichment programs like music and the garden ranger program, which students attend weekly. They also host many school events for community families, like movie nights, dance parties and our annual Move-a-Thon, which is our largest fundraiser of the year.”
And it’s not only parents who contribute valuable time, energy and resources, Daniel notes: “The school has many wonderful partnerships with local businesses and organizations. The Greater Toluca Lake Neighborhood Council, Craig Strong Group, ExxonMobil gas station, Toluca Lake Chamber of Commerce and NBCUniversal are some of the businesses that donate annually to support our programs.” Toluca Lake Beautification Partners constructed a school garden with 12 raised vegetable beds, and the Toluca Lake Garden Club has donated plants and more than 200 library books on gardening-related topics. Teacher Dennis Hagen-Smith shares that the UCLA neuroscience department visits annually so students can study brain samples firsthand, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Aerojet Rocketdyne and the Burbank Sidewalk Astronomers participate in the school’s popular annual Family Astronomy Night and Star Party, where community members can learn about celestial objects and stargaze through high-powered telescopes.
Such strong support helps Toluca Lake Elementary provide students with a host of enrichment options both in and out of the classroom, in STEM, the arts, sports and more. Through the Lasting Learning program, UCLA learning coaches teach kids how to become and stay curious, embrace mistakes, use the right study techniques and lead a healthy lifestyle. A turf field recently installed with joint funding from Out of Bounds, the PTA and the school has opened up many more opportunities for students to be active, including in the Out of Bounds after-school program where coaches lead play-based activities that foster friendships, cooperation and problem-solving. Education Through Music–Los Angeles (ETM-LA) provides every class with instruction from a music teacher on a weekly basis and runs an after-school choir. A ranger from EnrichLA leads weekly gardening classes for students, and a science teacher from STEM&More provides additional science enrichment throughout the week. Theatre West supports a fully funded annual field trip for kindergarten and first-grade students to see a live theater performance, and will bring a 12-week theater program to campus this fall for all students to participate in. Among the other outreach programs Hagen-Smith recalls are “repeat visits from the Debussy Trio, the L.A. Jazz Society, Project Reef, Windows on Our Waters, Friends of the L.A. River, UCLA ArtsBridge, the L.A. Opera, the Story Pirates, the Geffen Playhouse, and even vocalist Maggie Brown and the Tuskegee Airmen. Author visits from Dana Middleton, Keith Calabrese, and the writing team of Annabeth Bondor-Stone and Connor White have been very inspirational to students as well.” Teacher Rick Lee adds, “Our students have also been very involved with several National Geographic projects, including the BioBlitz and the GeoBee.” The school further boasts an active Spirit Squad of 22 fourth- and fifth-graders “who not only lead the school in cheer, but are also student leaders,” Daniel notes.
Dedicated employees constitute another pillar of strength for the school, with a low turnover rate translating into a highly skilled teaching staff that maintains focus on not only academic rigor, but also social–emotional learning to promote mental wellness. Daniel himself has been part of Toluca Lake Elementary since the start of his education career in 1999. Beginning as a fourth-grade teacher, he went on to teach every grade from first to fifth, then served as the school’s categorical programs and bilingual coordinator, gifted and talented education coordinator, technology coordinator and state testing coordinator. He was promoted to assistant principal at Arleta High School in 2018, but less than a year later he was called to return to Toluca Lake as principal. “I am filled with excitement and gratitude and am thankful for the wonderful students, families and colleagues who have helped me to be where I am today,” he shares.
With broad-based support and so many opportunities for every child to learn, it’s no wonder the school has made a name for itself. “The diversity and high number of enrichment programs have made Toluca Lake Elementary a highly desired school in the area,” Daniel says. “Because of word-of-mouth about the many wonderful programs here, coupled with high test scores and the many amazing teachers, we are seeing many more families who live in the area enroll their children at this school rather than sending them to a private institution.” But that doesn’t mean Toluca Lake Elementary is resting on its laurels: “The school is always reflecting on how to make learning better.” And there are still many more ways for the community to help. L.A. Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently announced a new program called Everyone Mentors L.A., with the goal of finding mentors for 27,000 students throughout the school district, and Daniel notes that some students at Toluca Lake would certainly benefit from such support. And for those who would like to contribute but may not have the time to be personally involved, there’s always a need for donations, from smaller things like copy paper and physical education equipment to funding for programs and wish list items like renovating the 168-seat auditorium and acquiring a portable outdoor stage and folding chairs so that the school can accommodate larger audiences at special events.
All these group efforts pay off in simple yet profound ways for the young members of our community. “The best part of my day is when I am able to interact with the students and see robust learning in action,” Daniel says. “I love experiencing the excitement of students coming to school every day. Seeing a third-grader master their times tables or a fifth-grader understand the principles of building a strong truss bridge design is priceless.”