When Jeannie Kamm and her husband, Jason, bought their house in Encino two decades ago, they assumed they would send their kids to the local public school. But the young couple soon learned that Lanai Road Elementary was barely keeping its doors open due to low enrollment. The school, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, looked neglected, with overgrown weeds and no enrichment programs. Kamm was determined to give her boys, a toddler and an infant at the time, the type of neighborhood school she grew up with. She started rallying the local parents and brought together a handful of dedicated moms interested in LA education to create Friends of Lanai, a grassroots organization credited with bringing neighborhood kids back to the school, which was honored with a National Blue Ribbon Award in 2014. Today, Kamm is the district’s deputy of school and community affairs.
Tell us about those early days of bringing attention to the plight of Lanai Road.
I started by calling my neighbor across the street and then started contacting as many neighbors as we could. We went to PTA meetings, neighborhood council meetings, homeowner association meetings and Board of Education meetings. We did a lot of cold calling and created a database of names of neighborhood families who were interested in sending their kids to Lanai. Within a couple of months, we had 1,000 names.
What inspired you to take on mobilizing parents and challenging the demise of local public schools?
I was sitting in my kitchen, holding my baby, and I started reading a newspaper article on a group of moms who successfully brought back their neighborhood school. It was the Beverlywood moms. They inspired me. I learned so much from them.
Were you involved in community activism prior to Lanai?
No. Before I had kids, I was an accountant working for a CPA firm. I took this on not knowing where it would take me. I didn’t have any experience, but I was very passionate about creating a sense of community for my kids. I also grew up in a family where giving back to the community was very important. That’s the root of my passion.
What type of community events did you organize to share your vision for Lanai?
We wanted to create a buzz. Our first event was “A Day at the Park,” and we brought in a face painter and a bouncy house and invited the families in our database to join us. The only thing we charged for was the magic show. We raised $1,200 that day, and we used that money to buy art supplies to start an art program at the school. We then hosted wine-and-cheese events in neighborhood homes. It was an informal gathering and a great way to capture the parents with newborns and preschoolers. We walked the neighborhood, gave school tours and contacted local businesses asking for their support.
You have come full circle as a mom activist and are now working as a community liaison between families and school-board members. What perspective have you gained?
On a personal level, this has been a huge transformation for me. It has given me the confidence and courage to guide my own life. I used to be so nervous when talking in front of people. I never imagined that I would take on a leadership role like this. But when you follow your gut, the rest will figure itself out.
Watch for our feature article on the evolution of Lanai Road Elementary and advice from the moms who made it happen in our LA Education Guide, coming in February.