Ballot provision forces public campuses to share space with charters, and neither side is looking forward to it.
by Howard Blume | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 7, 2008 - The faculty at tradition-proud but low-performing Fairfax High School has worked for two years on a plan to improve the school while also attracting long-absent middle-class families. Scheduled to start next fall, the new setup includes dividing the sprawling campus into small academies -- each with a different theme, each designed to devote attention to every student.
But there's something Fairfax wasn't planning on.
The school suddenly is expected to share space with one of the district's privately run charter schools.
A vocal group of teachers, students, parents and community organizations say the charter school will impede Fairfax's rise by taking up needed classrooms and creating logistical headaches.
"I don't think I've ever seen an issue that has brought together teachers in essentially unanimous agreement that this is hurtful to everything we're trying to do at Fairfax," said social studies teacher Mike Stryer.
Variations of this scenario are occurring throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District: at Crenshaw High to the south, at Taft High and Reseda High in the San Fernando Valley, at Selma Avenue Elementary in Hollywood and Miles Avenue Elementary in Huntington Park.
Some 40 Los Angeles schools learned last week that classrooms on their campuses have been offered to charter schools. And a little-noticed provision in a state ballot measure eight years ago requires district facilities to be shared.
Charter operators insist the law is clear but say that, until this year, the district has never tried to meet its obligation.
Only about half a dozen charters currently occupy district buildings, a fraction of the ever-growing population of 129 charters operating within district boundaries. Charter advocates sued and reached a settlement in February.
Even without the agreement, traditional schools have extra room because enrollment is dropping even as new campuses open. All 40 targeted traditional schools have classrooms that are underused.
Both sides look askance at how the other half lives. Charter operators are tired of putting up with substandard conditions in clammy rented church basements. And they worry about being stuck with the dregs on district campuses as well. More than a dozen charter schools that applied still don't have campus offers.
The host schools worry about the arrival of charters, which can offer smaller classes and competitive programs.
New West Charter Middle School, the proposed roommate for Fairfax, operates out of a former Westside furniture store at a cost of $20,000 a month. The school's test scores far surpass those of typical district middle schools, and 300 applicants were wait-listed after coming up short in an admission lottery. The school draws students from 52 ZIP Codes, despite lacking funds to provide transportation.
New West has a contentious history with the district, which refused to approve or renew the charter, partly because of allegations that the school's application process discourages lower-achieving students. The state Board of Education authorized the school.
The school's leaders now must decide if Fairfax is worth the move; it's miles from their Pico Boulevard campus, and the offer is only for one year.
"They make these offers so you can't accept them," said New West co-founder and governing board member Judith Bronowski. "Why would you turn your whole world upside down for one year?"
Not to mention the issue of not being wanted.
"We will fight this," said Erik Travis, lead teacher for the nascent Academy of Media and Performing Arts at Fairfax.
Travis had planned to house his program in the bungalows apparently slated for the charter. The Fairfax academies are supposed to be self-contained, with their own offices. The bungalows offer such a setting, but that also makes them well suited for a charter.
"It would be a shame to derail our plans, of which hundreds of students and families are very excited and supportive," said Travis, who also challenges the district's estimate of available space.
In the Valley, charter school operator Norman Isaacs hopes his struggle to find classrooms is over. Isaacs, a longtime district principal, opened a charter after the district resisted his idea for an arts high school. Now in its third year, his CHAMPS charter started off at Valley College, then moved to Sherman Oaks midyear before setting up in a Lutheran church in Van Nuys.
Last year, he thought he would get space at Woodland Hills Academy.
"The school district offered 15 rooms," Isaacs said. "Then it went down to 13, to seven, to five. And we ended up with two non-air-conditioned rooms."
This year, he's been promised 15 rooms at Taft High for his popular, high-performing charter.
"I'm probably the most optimistic person in the world," Isaacs said. "It just seems, sometimes, when you get to the school, things change."
In fact, Taft Principal Sharon Thomas said she has nothing close to 15 available rooms. And the school has its own performing-arts academy, so she doesn't appreciate the possible arrival of a competitor. Adding to her problems is a freeze on new enrollment permits -- even though more than one-third of her students live outside the school's official attendance boundaries. The district has halted new applications until it's clear how many seats the charter would occupy.
Crenshaw High parents and teachers aren't any happier.
"This is a slap in Crenshaw's face," said Rhonda Adway, whose granddaughter is a senior there. "We worked so hard. Why would we want to have a charter school on our campus when we're doing reform?"
The charter slated for Crenshaw is Frederick Douglass Academy Middle School, which is linked to a high-performing charter high school that has attracted public and private school students.
"Here, on our campus, is an opportunity for students in our area to be pulled away from our school," Adway said.
Crowding is the concern at several year-round schools. Though enrollment is declining -- which opens up some classrooms -- the student count is still close to 1,800 at Miles Avenue Elementary, for example.
Wadsworth Elementary teacher Robin Potash was dismayed when she heard about plans to provide a set of bathrooms for the exclusive use of three classes of charter students at her South Los Angeles campus. More than 1,000 students in the regular school must get by with only one set of bathrooms, she said.
There is another set of bathrooms, she added, but they're usually kept locked until the regular bathrooms flood, which happens periodically.
"It will set up a situation of haves and have-nots," Potash said. "They will probably look like they have new things and more things and more money. . . . There are many times when we don't have enough chairs and desks."
Times staff writer Evelyn Larrubia contributed to this report.