TEP at 40, a Topanga Legacy

By Pete Samson

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TEP at 40, a Topanga Legacy
Principal Kevin Kassebaum and (L-R) Zahara Avelar, Rylie Applegate and Harlow Hexum pledge allegiance to the flag in the first assembly of the school year.
Topanga Elementary Charter School (TECS) students have returned for a landmark new school year—celebrating 40 years since the formation of Topanga Enrichment Programs (TEP) when resourceful parents created a local solution to “A Nation at Risk.” Topanga Enrichment Programs (TEP) was launched in 1983 by a group of spirited parents—led by its original president, psychotherapist and then first-grade mom Lynne Haigh—and has become a multigenerational force for good. TEP is the parent-led booster club that pays for staff and resources at Topanga Elementary Charter School (TECS) that LAUSD does not cover. This currently includes nine classroom aides and the specialist art, science, outdoor education, technology and physical education teachers. A new music enrichment is also being added to the schedule this year. Haigh, who has since moved to Golden, Colorado, is incredibly proud that TEP has grown into a Topanga legacy, enriching the education of every child who has attended TECS for the’ last four decades. “In 1983, a government report came out called, ‘A Nation at Risk,’” recalled Haigh, who turns 80 this month. “It said that American schools were getting worse, test scores were falling, and our teachers weren’t paid enough. There were cuts happening left and right.
TECS principal Kevin Kassebaum and school mascot Hawky get the new school year off to a flying start.

“I knew there were booster clubs at some high schools but they generally raised money for things like band uniforms and cheerleader outfits, extra-curricular stuff,” Haigh continued. “I thought, why couldn’t we raise money to pay for some educational enrichment? So we set it up as a nonprofit, and started raising money.”
The school was at the time being led by a new principal, Paula Benjamin, who later married and became Paula Little. She was named Topanga Citizen of the Year in 1986, and died in 2000.
“Paula was a firecracker and so enthusiastic,” said Haigh. “We couldn’t have done this without her support.”
In the Articles of Incorporation establishing TEP as a nonprofit on July 28, 1983, Haigh is named as one of the original directors alongside Judy Smart, Merilee Oakes Sperber, Roger Pittman and Stanley Young. That document states: “The purpose of this corporation is the planning, funding and operation of supplemental educational programs to enrich the curriculum of basic education offered to the students at Topanga Elementary School.”
Haigh was delighted to hear the fundamental goals of TEP, and even many of the specific enrichments, remain the same today.
“People were starting to look more at private schools for their kids at this time,” she said. “So our pitch was to instead improve our own school, as we all valued this community so much. Our central philosophy was about inclusion. We wanted to make sure everybody was included in any enrichments we offered.
“The Topanga Messenger did a front-page story for us, we did a big push at Back to School Night, and we raised our first goal of $10,000. We paid for a science program, where the kids went once a week for a hands-on session. The library aide had just been cut, so we hired a new one. We paid for some music enrichment. And computers were just becoming important at that time, so we got Apple to donate a couple and set up a computer lab.”
Haigh moved to Golden eight years ago to be closer to her daughter Heather and her grandchildren. Heather was six when her mom co-founded TEP and went on to earn a PhD from the University of Maryland in animal conservation. Haigh’s late husband, Gerry, was known as “The Birdman” and wrote a nature column in the Topanga Messenger.
She misses the Topanga community immensely, but her presence is still felt in the canyon thanks to the continued success of TEP. This year’s TEP annual budget is $340,000 as generous parents continue to invest their own money and time to build upon the education offered by LAUSD.
“It’s incredibly gratifying, and quite overwhelming, to hear how much it has grown,” Haigh added. “It just makes me so proud of Topanga, and how people have always pulled together to do things that benefit the community. It’s an amazing place to live.”
TEP now raises a large portion of its money through the Giving Fund, asking all parents to make an annual donation of $1,200 per child, or whatever they can afford. And the organization is also at the center of much of the volunteering and community-building that takes place in the school and wider community.
This year’s fundraisers are kicking off soon, with the legendary annual Coyote Run and a new-style Book Fair focusing on pre-loved books and toys taking place in the coming weeks.
Those wanting to learn more about TEP can email tepboard@topangaelementary.com, or donate at topangaelementary.org/donate.
First grader Griffin Nelson Thomas (L) meets his neighbor, new TK student Brecken Anderson, at the school gates to offer support on his first day at TECS.
Second grader Georgie Swanson is welcomed back to school by TECS mascot Hawky.

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