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LAUSD’s lone archivist helps schools with centennial celebrations

Mike Szymanski | October 22, 2015

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Michele Cairella Fillmore is the LAUSD curator

One of Stephen Salva’s first big responsibilities as a new principal at Cheremoya Avenue Elementary School was to plan for the 100th anniversary of his school, which came last week.

Salva, a 20-year veteran of LAUSD turned to a little-known gem that the district has had since 2003 — the person who serves as curator and collections manager for the school district.

Michele Cairella Fillmore is the sole archivist of the LAUSD Art and Artifact Collection for more than 150 years of memorabilia, which includes photos, yearbooks, scrapbooks, coins, art, dishes and all kinds of LA Unified tchotchkes. She works one day a week, and has no budget for preserving anything.

“I am amazed at what she was able to come up with to show what the school and neighborhood looked like over the last 100 years,” Salva said. “She was able to show us what parts of the school was built 100 years ago, and what was added on. It’s fascinating.”

Students, alumni, teachers and past principals all went to the second floor during Cheremoya centennial celebration last week when Fillmore showed photographs and maps of the school when it first opened. She displayed toys and games that children played, old report cards and other items of the era to help during the day of celebration of the school’s centennial.

“I’m getting tons of requests because a lot of schools are turning 100 lately,” Fillmore said. She finds pertinent pictures and objects for schools when they request it and helps with classroom activities.

It’s unclear how many district schools are turning 100 this year, but nearby Valley View Elementary School is gearing up for its centennial in 2017. A retired teacher there, Vicki Nishimura, said 2017 will mark her 49th year of involvement at the school, and she is helping students collect materials, photos and video testimonials for their event. They plan to put it all online, but at the moment much of it is in display cases at the school, not far from Cheremoya in Hollywood.

Already, 134 LA Unified schools have hit the 100 mark — that’s about 20 percent of the traditional schools — and those buildings are still in use, according to Gayle Pollard-Terry, a district spokeswoman. The total includes 120 elementary schools, five middle schools and nine high schools. In some cases, the old schools have been rebuilt from the ground up (like Valley View, which has no original structures), but keeping the name.


Stephen Salva, principal of Cheremoya Elementary

Fillmore said she is ready to help schools with their anniversaries by combing through the 100,000 items of memorabilia, 30,000 photos and more. Some of the items require students to wear gloves as they handle delicate primers from 1896 or yellowed newsletters that are extremely brittle.

“There are some items that are in a sorry state of affairs, but we are doing the best we can,” Fillmore said. Some of the schools have a collection of California impressionist paintings and other artwork that was commissioned for the schools. Sometimes those works go to museums, including LACMA and the Getty.

The collections include murals that were commissioned under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program to create art in public locations, as well as items from the on-campus museum of antiquities, once on the Venice High School campus; photographs from the Hollywood Beautification Team and gifts from teachers, staff and alumni that include rare books, scrapbooks, silver tea sets and china services used in Home Economics classes.

At Cheremoya last week they buried some memorabilia in a time capsule. It included a letter from Salva, a photograph of the graduating sixth grade, a lunch menu and the day’s Los Angeles Times.

Newly-elected Los Angeles city councilman, David Ryu, attended the celebration and pointed out to the students that alumni in the audience graduated many decades ago. “Many of the alumni still live in the area, and they still love this school,” he said.

“I was told if we had a celebration like this no one would come,” Salva said, pointing to a filled auditorium of community members. “I’m glad they were wrong.”

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