From Broadway to Millikan: The Journey of Carlos Lauchu
This year, LAUSD Journal is launching a series entitled “Profiles in Progress,” which will focus on teachers who incorporate their own, innovative methods to get their students to perform at high levels. We begin the series with Carlos Lauchu, a science teacher at Millikan Middle School, whose students regularly score a 3, 4, or 5 on Advanced Placement Exams in the sciences.
On the first day of his teaching career in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Carlos Lauchu didn’t merely walk into his science classroom at North Hollywood High School, but strutted, like some king-of-the-campus senior. A former Broadway stage actor, Lauchu gauged the appearance, mood, and behavior of the students and made an entrance that he felt would garner attention if not respect from a traditionally difficult audience.
Approaching a group of boys, who were engaged in a boisterous discussion involving typical teen topics, Lauchu asked a simple question: “What are you guys talking about?” Unsure the identity and purpose of this 6’ 2” stranger, they went silent for a minute or so. But then, something unusual happened.
“All of a sudden, they were talking to me about their conversation,” recalled Lauchu, of that day nearly 16 years ago. “The whole rest of the class got quiet.” It was at that moment that Lauchu told the students he would be their teacher for the year. By the end of the day, many were giving him high-fives on their way out the door.
Lauchu, who is now 51, spent 18 months at North Hollywood High before moving to Millikan Middle School, in Sherman Oaks, where he’s remained on the faculty for nearly 15 years. For the last eight years, he has been Chair of the Millikan Science Department; in 2010, he became director of the school’s Science Academy, which in 2011 was converted into a separate “School.” Through the years, his classes have amassed academic statistics that have astonished career educators, veteran superintendents, and parents.
He has taught Advanced Placement biology, chemistry, and physics classes -- usually offered and limited to high school juniors and seniors -- to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students, 80% of who achieve a passing score of 3, 4, or 5 on the AP exam. One hundred percent of his 8th grade Science Academy students have achieved an “advanced” rating on the California State Test the last five years; between 25 and 40% of these students each year compile a perfect score of 600.
To match the talents of his faculty to student needs, Lauchu instituted an innovative, collaborative program where teachers will give occasional lectures to a class other than their own in areas where they are especially strong. For example, he spoke to a special education class on the Periodic Table as the regular teacher watched from the side.
The LAUSD Teacher of the Year in 2011, Lauchu has received commendations from a wide range of elected officials, including United States senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, and President George W. Bush.
The plaudits have helped to create an aura of success around Lauchu’s classes that has spread throughout the Millikan community. Like players who were on John Wooden’s basketball teams at UCLA, the students who enroll in Lauchu’s courses are in part motivated by the desire to continue a winning tradition.
“Don’t you get it Carlos?,” said Lauchu, recalling a comment made to him by Jodi Huff, his partner in Millikan’s Science Academy,” the kids want to do well for you.”
The man responsible for transforming the teaching of science at Millikan was born in Panama, where his father, a practicing psychiatrist and the surgeon general, provided free medical aid to poor people living in the jungle at his own cost, until he could no longer afford to do so. When Lauchu was 8, he and his family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father took a position at a major hospital.
Lauchu was a pre-med student and biological sciences major at Michigan State University, where he also found time to play the lead roles in college productions of “Grease” and “West Side Story,” and serve as principal dancer with Ballet Folklorico Ibero Hispano. He toured the country with the dance group for two years.
After graduation, Lauchu faced a choice that’s not common among college students; medical school or Broadway? The offer of a scholarship at a New York dance studio clinched the deal on behalf of the arts.
When Lauchu got to New York, he found work as a model; along with dancing in industrial films and videos, this was how he made his living for several years. Then, someone saw a tape of Lauchu singing a part in a musical at Michigan State and urged him to try Broadway. He was already known among theater people for his work as a dancer.
The aspiring performer soon got cast in the musical revue “Alcazar De Paris,” which opened on Broadway in October 1988. He also joined a touring production of the 1954 musical “House of Flowers,” directed by Geoffrey Holder, who had been a member of the original cast. The revival starred Patti LaBelle.
Prior to that, Lauchu had shot a music video for LaToya Jackson (“You’re Gonna Get Rocked”) when he was introduced to Prince. Later, while he was on the road with “House of Flowers,” he was offered his first job in Los Angeles, as a principal dancer on the Prince videos for “Cream” and “Diamonds and Pearls.”
Like any determined actor/dancer/all-around performer in Los Angeles, Lauchu acquired an agent, read scripts, went on auditions, talked to people, talked to more people, and got parts, which led to other parts. In 1989, he was cast in “Baywatch,” not as just another body on the beach, but a lifeguard – named “Carlos” -- who actually spoke sentences; then, in 1994, he was chosen for a part in the feature film “Stargate.” Two years later, he played Slice in “Spy Hard,” one of the Leslie Nielsen spoofs that were quite popular at that time.
After appearing in that film, Lauchu was in the enviable position of being an in-demand Hollywood actor. “Get me Lauchu” was a command heard in the management suites of production companies. His agent fielded numerous offers, many of them involving productions being filmed in foreign countries.
Lauchu chose one based in Canada; but while he was in Toronto, on the set of “Final Countdown,” his frantic wife called from Los Angeles to say that their newborn son, Joshua, had stopped breathing, and was being rushed to the hospital. The actor hung up the phone, calmly walked over to the director, and told him the reason he had to get back to LA immediately.
“That’s when I said to myself I’m not doing this anymore,” recalled Lauchu. He didn’t change his mind after his son was revived, and out of danger (Joshua, 14, is in the ninth grade at Grant High School).
Instead of being an actor on the rise, Lauchu was now just another guy in Southern California looking for work. He couldn’t decide what to do next, and appealed to friends for guidance. Since he had previously taught classes in Tae Kwon Do and Jujitsu, as well as given dance lessons for the Arthur Murray studios, they suggested that he try the teaching profession.
That made sense to Lauchu, who was hired by the LAUSD on an emergency credential to teach science, his academic specialty. From the beginning, he seems to have regarded teaching almost as a branch of the dramatic arts, including the freedom to improvise. “If you get to know the kids, and they get to know you, you can use that,” he explained. “I didn’t know any better, which made the difference for me.”
As he prepared for his new career, Lauchu recalled an experience from his childhood that suddenly seemed topical and relevant. When he was ready to test for his first black belt, at the age of 8, his Sensei, an 83-year-old Korean master, had him teach the class – of adults – by himself. “He turned to me and said, ‘it is when the Master becomes the student, and the student becomes the Master, that the student will be taught,’” explained Lauchu. “This never meant anything to me outside the martial arts studio, until I became a teacher.”
He left North Hollywood High for the opportunity, as he puts it, “to give middle school students the advanced instruction in math and sciences I had always wanted for myself when I was their age, but was repeatedly told I ‘could not do it,’ or ‘it just wasn’t available’.” Having harbored this regret for more than 20 years, Lauchu was now in position to rectify a wrong from his own school days.
In addition to being offered AP classes, students in the Science Academy at Millikan have the opportunity to take Honors Astronomy and Honors Anatomy and Physiology. Graduates who enrolled in all or even some of these courses will have a distinct advantage over most of their peers going into high school.
But more than course offerings and high test scores have marked Lauchu’s academic tenure at Millikan. He also granted the wish of a class to write its own text book, and in 2003, he conceived and supervised a summer project where students built a version of the first flying device constructed by the Wright Brothers in 1903. Made from wood and canvas, with a wing span as wide as a classroom, the model went on display at Los Angeles City Hall.
Such projects reflect his strong belief in collaborative learning – the grouping and pairing of students to achieve an academic goal. He maintains that this leads to an active exchange of ideas with small groups that increases interest among students and also fosters critical thinking.
Lauchu is in his second year as head of the Science Academy, which he administers along with Jodi Huff, Millikan Principal John Plevack, and staff member Valerie Fresh. “John’s openness to new ideas and working outside the box has allowed me to be innovative and creative,” said Lauchu.
Not surprisingly, Lauchu is regularly asked to share his methods for academic success with fellow educators at schools and conferences. Those who attend expecting to receive a simple, single answer will be disappointed. Asked the question, “What’s your magic?” Lauchu invariably answers “I don’t know.”
Perhaps the questioners are posing the right question in the wrong way. Listening to Lauchu, the “magic” is not the kind that comes in a neat package, easily adopted for a professional manual, but exists in a spiritual realm, beyond the reach of theory or pedagogy. It comes out when he explains why he loves going to work every morning.
“A minute before, there was something the students were completely in the dark about,” said Lauchu. “And then a light goes on, because of you.”
By: Tom Waldman
Posted: October 1, 2012