Echo Park school teaches students through dance

Gabriella Charter School in Echo Park touts itself as a “dance-themed” school.  But how is dance used as a teaching tool?   Becky Kopenhaver went to Gabriella to find out.

By Becky Koppenhaver

A recent visit to Gabriella Charter School last week gave me a chance to see students in action. The second graders in teacher Chippy Zuniga’s choreography class had just finished their morning stretch and were sitting quietly while Ms. Chippy, as she is referred to by students, wrote the word “ACTION” in bold letters on the board in front of them. After explaining what an action word was, Zuniga then asked students to come up with their own action words. Then, working in groups of three, the kids demonstrated their own interpretation of action words by moving their bodies in rhythm to the beat of Zuniga’s drum.

The morning lesson that I had arrived in time to witness was a prime example of something I had been curious about since I first heard of the school:  How does a charter school with a focus on dance  integrate an art form into a strong academics program?

According to school director, Liza Bercovici, the school uses the focus, discipline and creativity of dance to stimulate students in other areas. “The school is academically structured and emphasizes high expectations,” she says, “but dance integration into the curriculum is also a primary focal point.”

Bercovici says that she and Zuniga, who received her master’s degree in Dance Education from New York University, are working with the school’s teachers on new ways of accomplishing this integration of art and academics. She says that, fortunately, the young, energetic teaching staff  is eager to try new progressive approaches to learning.

“It’s all about making the connection between movement and words,” says Zuniga, who is also co-coordinator of curriculum. All students, K through 7, receive at least one hour a day of dance instruction. By next year, the school will add an eight grade class.

Gabriella, which occupies part of the  Logan Street Elementary school campus, is currently in its second year.Parents must apply and then be chosen by a yearly lottery to gain admittance. As with most charter schools in Los Angeles,  there are always more applicants than open positions, Bervovici said.  Although the student body consists mainly of low-income Latino students, there is a large mix of Korean, Filipino, and Anglo students that represent the changing demographics of the area as well.

Bercovici said that for the majority of students at Gabriella Charter, dance is an added benefit to a strong academic education. The school boasts an 874 API for 2009-2010, and was described by Los Angeles Magazine, as “one of 60 great elementary schools you should know about.”

“Most parents apply to the school just wanting a better alternative for their child, but then they see the benefits,” Bercovici said.  “It’s something that a lot of children would not normally be exposed to.”

Becky Koppenhaver is a freelance writer covering schools. You can send Becky story tips and ideas at becky@theEastsiderLA.com

Photos by Ana Homonnay/Stuart Foundation


  1. This sounds like a great way to reach kinesthetic learners. I wonder how they manage to combine math and fractions?

  2. They dance under a limbo stick to represent fractions. (Well, the denominators do.)

  3. The Eastside LA profile of Gabriella Charter and Liza Bercovici does NOT tell a complete picture of life at Logan Elementary School campus.
    MOST of the students who attend Gabriella do NOT come from the local area. A public records act request of the 90026 zip code reflects this FACT.

    Logan API scores have gone up 39 points in one year and student population has gone up – in spite of a stressful seperate but NOT EQUAL learning environment on campus thanks to Gabriella Charter being jammed into Logan Campus.
    Gabriella boasts 874 because they “creame” their student and hard core special needs students are taught at Logan-not Gabriella.

    This collocation was done by LAUSD with OUT
    the support of the Echo Park community.

    The Gabriella Charter collocation started with a lie before the LAUSD Prop BB Oversight Committee by Liza Bercovici and then Dist 4 Superintendent Richard Alonzo stating on the record that they held community and parent meetings. (testimony is public record in the 2008 LAUSD Prop BB meeting minutes).

    The first public community-parent meeting on the Gabriella Charter Colocation at Logan was held Feb 2009 by the Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council (GEPENC) AFTER LAUSD Board voted January 2009 approvong the Gabriella Charter Coolocation ( imagine – only 6 weeks after this item was introduced at the Board-just before the xmas holidays and winter break!).

    NOW 2010 After the FIRST YEAR of the collocation agreement-HALF of the Logan campus footprint has been given away by LAUSD to make a BAD colocation situation” work”. In September 2010 Gabriella “squatted” In Logan classrooms that were NOT provided in the LAUSD shared use agreement.

    LAUSD President Monica Garcia addressed a packed parent meeting Nov 2010 (60 plus at 8am) who are STILL waiting for answers and her to keep her promise to return for a follow up meeting in Feb 2011.

    As Logan continues to grow and improve- MORE not less student from Echo Park need classrooms-play areas-tutoring rooms and over all space for LOCAL kids to go to the LOCAL district school-which is Logan not Gabriella CHARTER.

    Let’s remember Gabriella Charter School is a BUSINESS. -Their private Board of Director and Liza Bercovici are not required to hold public meetings. Gabriella uses their Ballet school to make money by providing dance services to other charter school-like – Camino Nuevo – now in a heated competition with LAUSD for the new CRES 14 campus on Alvarado St.

    Gabriella TAKES AWAY classrooms and resources from local Echo Park Logan parents and students. BOTH campus are at capacity-there is NO ROOM for Logan to add a Pre K for students of siblings who do NOT qualify to attend the Logan Early Childhood Center across the street.

    – EVERY study shows kids do better in school and have a better chance to go on to higher Ed with Pre K learning and preperation.

    -Prop 39 law requires classrooms to be return to local district schools when they need them-



    – Under the new Aug 2010 LAUSD approved Charter renewal guidelines-Gabriella Charter is on a fast track for renewal without any requierment for any public hearing or LAUSD community-parent outreach effort..

    This year the Logan parents gave up their parent center classroom and moved to a smaller room on Logan’s second floor -this is really fun to climb stairs with a stroller and small kids!

    So while NON 90026 Echo Park students learn the word ACTION and dance ballet at Gabriella Charter in million dollar dance studios – know that there are 90026 Echo Park Pre K kids future’s being sacrificed !

    I INVITE the EastsiderLA to view the parents multiple videotapes of the November 2010 meeting with LAUSD President Garcia. Give equal time to Logan and take time to ASK Logan moms active in Logan ELECTED parent leadership what THEY THINK and more importantly what they WANT done with Gabriella Charter school at Logan Elementary.

    Thank you-
    Lisa Baca CIO

  4. As a former Logan teacher, I see that the saddest thing that has happened at Logan is the removal of the preschool in order to accommodate the Gabriella dance studio. In a low income community with a high percentage of English learners, this violation of equal access to education is intolerable to the community and needs to be rectified. Who will speak up for the Logan families?

  5. Concerned Parent

    Apparently a vocal few do indeed speak up for Logan elementary. They do so loudly and frequently. However, I have yet to see any ACTION on their behalf as is demonstrated by the Gabriella parents every single day. Part of Gabriella’s success is due to the strong parent participation, whether its something as simple as opening car doors in the morning for arriving students, to serving meals, to numerous other DAILY activities that encourage healthy participation of the student’s family, it is this effort as a community that propels the school forward.

    I am saddened to read any reports regarding Gabriella Charter School and its wonderful accomplishments because more often than not they are followed by derogatory comments by neighborhood activists that fail to realize that there is no hidden secret, no backroom deals that lead to the success of this charter. It is simply the fostering of an actively involved school community.

  6. I just wanted to add that we live in 90026, and our daughter goes to Gabriella, and it’s awesome. I’m also happy to say that we’ve made friends with other 90026 families since she started there, and have met still others who now *commute* from the MacArthur Park area (where Gabriella was founded, and where it was located until 2 years ago) just so their kids could stay in this wonderful school.

    The dance curriculum seems to suit our daughter well, as do the school’s high expectations. Ever since we first visited the school and watched the kids dancing, it’s seemed to me that dance and academics are a good match. Dance is fun, of course, but it’s also a physical activity that encourages kids to have self-discipline, to focus intensely, to strive to master difficult/complex skills, etc. I suspect that’s at least part of why the kids are doing well academically.

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