Santa Clarita Unsung Hero Amber Raskin Dreamed Of Making A Difference
Ex-Showbiz “Arranger” and Santa Clarita Valley Mom Co-Founded SCVi Charter School to Provide All SCV K-12 Students a Leadership-Based Alternative to Traditional Schools
When SCVi Charter School co-founder Amber Raskin first looked into fresh alternatives to traditional public schools or homeschooling for her own children, she thought beyond her own family. She figured other Santa Clarita Valley families might want the same choices.
Talking with other parents, Raskin discovered she was hardly alone in wanting a change for her children. While she could have focused on her own two kids, she played it smart, and went big.
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After attempting to leverage change to the existing school system’s old school teaching model, a sometimes successful but other times futile exercise, Raskin decided to take the concept of childhood education back to the drawing board.
Drawing from her expertise in TV production, budgets and logistics, she assembled a team of highly qualified educators, administrators and financial backers. They researched other schools around the nation, then developed a forward-thinking curriculum focused on problem-solving and leadership-building and geared to students here in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Finally, after meeting all state and local requirements for charter school designation, Raskin and her partners opened the SCVi Charter School for International Learning in Valencia — a tuition-free public school open to all SCV students — in 2008. There were about 50 charter students that inaugural semester, from all over the valley.
Among the student body, not surprisingly, were the co-founder’s own progeny, and the children of several other educators and staff members as well.
Five years later, SCVi is a learning center for more than 900 local students, from Kindergarteners through high school seniors, interacting with a staff of more than 40 teachers, also known as “facilitators.”
In 2012, SCVi’s 33,545-square-foot-and-swelling campus in a strip mall off Hasley Canyon Road in the Valencia Commerce Center took over an adjacent 14,000 square foot building. Raskin and SCVi raised renovation funds, and moved all the high school students into the new wing just a couple weeks ago.
(A second campus modeled after SCVi, called the iLEAD Charter School, opened in Lancaster in 2012. Others are planned. Find out more here.)
What Drives Education Reform Advocate Amber Raskin?
As an outspoken, enthusiastic advocate for SCVi Charter and for education reform, Raskin is not entirely unsung. As SCVi’s executive director of business development and operations, she has guested on several AM 1220 KHTS segments to talk about education reform, schools and SCVi, and the school’s history and approach have been subject of several in-depth articles.
But beyond recounting how her own two kids helped spark the idea for a different kind of school, Raskin usually keeps the focus on SCVi, its programs, activities and continued expansion, not herself.
So in her Santa Clarita Unsung Hero on-air interview at KHTS, we wanted to find out more about her, and what drives her passion for providing what she calls a 21st century education for our future leaders. We quickly found it’s a passion that goes back to her own early childhood.
“I don’t necessarily love being on camera, but because (education reform) is something I’m passionate about, I do (the interview) because it will forward what I care about,” she told AM 1220 KHTS air personality Kyle Jellings when she visited the station Aug. 12, and before they went on the air.
Raskin the Bright but Clueless High School Grad
Raskin was born and raised in California, the latest of several generations of Californians. She lived in Los Angeles as a youngster and grew up in Orange County, attending elementary, junior high and high schools in Newport Beach.
But as a high school graduate, she still had no clue what she wanted to do in life, and felt woefully unprepared.
She was a passionate person, certainly, but had not yet discovered what she was passionate about. Eventually she concluded the existing school system – which may have worked just fine for many other kids – failed her, both personally and educationally. Through her own research and talking to other parents, she learned she was not the only one who felt that way.
“I think it’s a crime that so many kids graduate from high school not knowing (what they want to do),” Raskin told Jellings.
“Things went really well for me in elementary school – I tested into Mentally Gifted Minors, which was what GATE was back then, and I just had a great time,” she said.
“Then I got to junior high and high school, and things kind of fell through the cracks,” Raskin said. “My parents got divorced and it was a hard time. I felt like if I had connected with another adult or there had been more of a focus on what I am interested in, I could have had a great career earlier in life. (Instead,) I felt like I had to recover from my education, because the message was that you’re not going to be much, you’re not going to do much, because I struggled.”
Raskin said that’s because she lacked “executive function skills,” as educators today might say.
“It’s being organized, knowing how to take notes, doing all those kinds of things,” she said. “I think if I would have had some of that help and training, I would have had a much easier time. So, I graduated from high school thinking, ‘I don’t know what I want to do. I have to go to college and declare a major, and... I don’t have any idea.’”
She was undecided right up to the last minute, walking to the college admissions office. And when finally cornered into making a choice, it was a stretch.
Raskin’s Random Career Choice Fails to Make a Difference
“I used to stay up late at night when I was a kid, rearranging my room, so I guess I’ll do interior design, because I know I like to move stuff around,” she said. “I think environments are really important to your psyche. I was really passionate about making a difference, so I just chose interior design, sort of randomly.”
Raskin took classes at a couple community colleges, and eventually earned her interior design degree from California State University, Long Beach.
“I took a long, long time to finish college – I used to apologize for how long…but then I realized I graduated with no debt,” she said.
After a couple of interior design internships, Raskin also finally realized her random career choice was a big mistake.
“I love the creativity of interior design, I love environments, but the people in interior design weren’t my tribe,” she said. “I felt like they were more about choosing the right color of the couch – which is part of the puzzle, but not the whole thing.”
Raskin searched her soul as never before.
“As I’m graduating with a degree (in a field) I don’t want to go into, what matters to me the most?” she asked herself.
“And I thought, ‘It’s just making a difference.’ I want to surround myself with people who want to make a difference,” she said. “That’s my intent, that’s my goal in life.”
But how? Where? With whom?
Oprah Winfrey’s Example a Life-Changing Inspiration
“Who was big on the scene, who I still, to this day, adore? Oprah,” Raskin said.
As anyone paying attention to pop culture in the mid-1980s can tell you, Oprah Winfrey was a Chicago talk show host who went national in 1986. Legendary record producer and film producer Quincy Jones had caught her on TV and cast her in “The Color Purple,” and she earned an Academy Award nomination that spring. A few months later, her talk show went into national syndication in 130 cities.
Winfrey had overcome poverty, a troubled childhood and discrimination to achieve those goals, and many others since (she most recently earned acclaim as a co-star in the film “The Butler”). Her story inspired and empowered countless people, especially women, around the world, including Amber Raskin, then a twenty-something in California trying to figure out how she could make a difference in her part of the world.
Oprah Winfrey is pictured at her 50th birthday party, Hotel Bel Air, 2004. Photo: Alan Light.
What happened next is key to Raskin’s success and underlies everything she does at SCVi. It’s how people like Winfrey have achieved their dreams: Determine the goal, set your eyes on the prize, figure out how to get it, and don’t give up till you do.
“When she…went national, I thought, ‘I would like to work with Oprah. I’m going to work my way toward Oprah!’” Raskin vowed. “Naturally, that meant I had to get some experience in TV. So I was living in Orange County, working in a restaurant, and just cold-called every TV show I could think of, and got an internship again.”
Raskin rearranged her restaurant schedule so she could make the hellacious commute from Orange County to Hollywood.
“They said, ‘You need to be here 10 hours a week.’ I said, ‘Can I come more?’” she said. “And they said, ‘Well, I guess so.’
“All the other interns were doing their thing, just a few hours a week. I showed up every hour that anybody who worked there did,” Raskin said. “It wasn’t long before I got a job. Then, I worked my way up…went to a production assistant. I got promoted pretty quickly. I was put in charge of hiring, multimillion-dollar budgets. I got to a pretty good level.
Raskin’s TV Colleagues Saw the Potential Her Teachers Didn’t
Raskin called her years behind the scenes in TV production an eye-opening experience. It made her think again of how her public school teachers had undervalued her potential.
“I thought, ‘There’s something (the TV people) are valuing (about me) in the workplace, and it’s different than what they valued in school,” she said. “Clearly they see there’s something in me that all my teachers told me wasn’t there. At least (when I was in) junior high and high school.
“I actually thought I would go into set design because of my degree in interior design, but it turned out I went a different route,” she said. “I was pretty good at the logistics. I’m pretty good at arranging. In fact, I (got) one of those personality assessments, and one of (my) top (traits) was ‘arranger.’ And that is me. I absolutely like to set up the conditions so people can do their thing.”
That’s what Raskin has done, and continues to do, at SCVi, for students, educators and staff alike.
Jellings insisted on hearing some celebrity gossip, and was undeterred, so Raskin gave up a couple of stories involving then-TV show host Tammy Faye Bakker and, separately, actress Marilu Henner. You’ll have to watch or listen to the interview video or podcast to hear them.
Moving to Santa Clarita as a Full-Time Mom
Raskin also recounted how she met her soon-to-be husband and got married while both were working on a reality show called “The World’s Wildest Police Videos.” They moved to Santa Clarita about a year later while she was pregnant, and her last day at work in TV (where her husband still works as a producer) was the day she went into labor.
“Then I stayed home, which was planned…for around 10 years…for most of my kids’ childhood and volunteered. Well, I became the super-volunteer, of course,” she said.
“When my kids got to school-age and I started to think about their schooling and where to contribute, I sort of got sucked into my calling, I guess, and my passion, which was to really make a difference,” Raskin said. “So it turned out we were going to make a difference in education. That’s how (SCVi) came about.”
Defining Moments that Sparked SCVi
One defining moment for her, she told Jellings, was when she as volunteering at her son’s school and the teacher barked at another student for not doing his art project like the sample provided.
“It broke my heart,” Raskin said. “I don’t even think the teacher meant it the way it came out – I think there was just pressure to do things a certain way. It’s not any one person’s fault or any one school’s fault. I think this is a systemic problem.”
She saw other unsettling things, like teachers and aides cheerfully feeding sugary beverages and snacks to toddlers and youngsters who would then become disruptive in class.
As a mom who carefully controlled her own children’s sugar intake at home precisely to avoid that kind of behavior, Raskin was alarmed teachers and school officials did not connect those dots and cut out the sweet treats.
As she traveled around California, comparing schools, picking up ideas about what she thought did and didn’t work from each one, she shared her findings with an ever-growing network of like-minded Santa Clarita Valley parents.
Ultimately, drawing from the best elements of the innovative Wildwood private school in West Los Angeles and the High-Tech High charter school in San Diego, SCVi customized its own curriculum, and tailored it to students in the Santa Clarita Valley.
“What we finally realized is we just needed to customize something that worked for our area,” Raskin said. “Our area (is) definitely different.”
The result: SCVi puts its greatest emphasis on creative problem-solving through real-world, hands-on projects involving math, science, English and history, plus technology and the arts.
“The traditional schools work for a lot of kids, so I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with traditional schools,” she said. “I do think the world is changing and we need to adapt, and sometimes the way our system is set up, we change a little too slowly, especially for the rapidly changing world of today...That was really the intent. I didn’t want to take over anything, just wanted to offer an alternative.”
SCVi Willing to be Controversial if it “Serves the Kids’
“We know our approach is not without controversy,” Raskin said. “Because we stand for, strongly, and firmly believe what we are offering is addressing a lot of kids who might not have been successful in another system, we are willing to be controversial, because we know it serves the kids. That’s the point. And that’s what I think parents were attracted to – we’re approaching education in a different way, trying new things.”
Raskin said the charter school law is meant to address not only sub-par or failing schools, but also to foster innovation in education.
“Innovation is really what we’re addressing, and I think it seems, in Santa Clarita, a little out there and different to people,” Raskin said. “But if you go around the world and particularly look at the people who are really into educational reform, what we’re doing is on the cutting edge and in the forefront of education.”
Shifting to ‘Common Core State Standards’ to Prepare for Rest of 21st Century
Raskin pointed to a shift now going on in education from traditional standardized testing to a newer set of educational standards more attuned to preparing students to meet current and future challenges.
“In fact, a lot of (California’s) Common Core State Standards, which are now new to the country, are based on project-based learning,” she said. “You can’t have project-based learning without building a culture of independents. And kids don’t come to you making good choices already, is our belief. We need to teach them to make good choices. So, we get kids who make poor choices and we help them reflect, which looks really different and it’s controversial. But we know that, (and) we’re willing to continue to educate adults and kids about those concepts.”
Toward that end, Raskin invited listeners, viewers and readers to visit the SCVi website at http://www.scvi-k12.org or the campus in Castaic. “We encourage you to reach out to us, take a tour. We’re happy to share.”
SCVi is located at 28060 Hasley Canyon Road, Castaic, Calif., 91384. Here’s a map. The phone is 661-705-4820.
Watch the Amber Raskin Unsung Hero Video, Listen to the Podcast
Photos: Stephen K. Peeples except Oprah Winfrey by Alan Light and Amber Raskin headshot courtesy SCVi.
Mercedes-Benz of Valencia Salutes Santa Clarita's Unsung Heroes
Mercedes-Benz of Valencia is proud to be part of the Santa Clarita Valley, not only giving you the superior customer service you deserve, but also giving back to our community by supporting our schools, sports teams, Sheriff's Station and nonprofit organizations. Now, Mercedes-Benz of Valencia and KHTS have teamed up to present "Santa Clarita's Unsung Heroes," a series of special features spotlighting local residents who make a difference in our valley. With new contributions also comes a new Mercedes management team. Visit Mercedes-Benz of Valencia today.
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