Monday, August 11, 2008


By George B. Sánchez, Staff Writer | LA Daily News

Jet Ladomade, 11, looks at mouse bones for the camera during a staging of a science project at Colfax Charter Elementary School in Valley Village, Friday, August 8, 2008.

(Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)

Charlotte, a pig living on the "farm" is petted by, from left, Nick Santana, 10; principal Joanie Freckmann, Robert Lewis, 8; and Elyla Gonzalez, 9, in the farm area of Colfax Charter Elementary School in Valley Village, Friday, August 8, 2008.


11 August 2008 - VALLEY VILLAGE - After operating as a traditional Los Angeles Unified school for more than 50 years, Colfax Avenue Elementary will switch to a charter this fall after a frustrated staff voted to break with the district's rules.

The school's staff voted nearly unanimously for the switch earlier this year, saying they wanted to have more freedom to choose curriculum and from the district's ability to switch school administrators at whim.

Still, teachers at a school that converts to charter risk losing years of accumulated district benefits, so the staff chose to become an "affiliated" charter - a hybrid approach that offers a degree of freedom but still lets teachers retain district benefits.

Colfax Charter Elementary will be the only charter in the San Fernando Valley to follow that model.

"The word charter conjures the image of a break from the district and a break from the union," said school Principal Joanie Freckmann, who proposed the conversion and convinced her 28 teachers.

"This was very fearful."

Freckmann sought the move so the school could expand its curriculum, which it could not do under LAUSD. Being a charter also now prevents the district from reassigning the principal and assistant principals.

"We feel it is extremely important the staff have a say, particularly in who the administration at the school should be," she said.

Charter status will also allow the school to apply for more grants, although staff members had other concerns.

"The biggest fear was how many more rules would we have to comply with," said Taryn Fell, a fourth-grade teacher and 20-year veteran of Colfax.

Eventually the teachers were convinced, with all but one voting for conversion. Even United Teachers Los Angeles, a vocal opponent of the charter school movement, has signed on to the change.

A.J. Duffy, president of the teachers union, called the shift "homegrown education reform."

LAUSD board member Tamar Galatzan praised the conversion at a board meeting last month and later said she was excited for the students and staff of Colfax, even though it reflects criticism of the district.

"I've heard there are other schools in the Valley following what is happening at Colfax and I wouldn't be surprised if others go that route," she said.

"This is what's wrong with the district, in a nutshell."

Two types of charters

Within Los Angeles, there are two types of charter schools.

Independent charters are completely autonomous of LAUSD and receive funding directly from the state. Affiliated charters maintain a connection to LAUSD, but aren't bound by all the district's regulations, which allows for more freedom in curriculum and self-governance.

"As an affiliated charter, all the budgetary stuff is still handled by L.A. Unified," said Aaron Eairleywine, central business adviser for LAUSD's Charter Schools Division.

Affiliated charter school staff also maintain their standing as LAUSD employees, including teacher contracts.

"We're still UTLA members. We're still getting union benefits," said Don Walters, UTLA's Colfax representative.

Including Colfax, there are 11 affiliated charters in LAUSD, according to district figures. There are also 19 charter schools that converted from traditional LAUSD schools.

Freckmann submitted the 181-page charter application to LAUSD officials in March. After a review by a charter adviser, LAUSD's legal department and the Superintendent's Advisory Committee and the Charters and Innovation Committee, the application was approved this summer.

"Whatever we have now will be enhanced," Fell said. "We're going to have so much more ownership."

Teachers, she said, aren't used to creating their own curriculum. But the challenge is welcomed.

Jos Cole-Guti rrez, executive director of LAUSD's Charter Schools Division, agreed.

"This is a great school already," he said. "Now they're going to get more flexibility."

History of the campus

Colfax Avenue Elementary School opened in 1951 in place of what was once an arboretum at the corner of Addison Street and Colfax Avenue.

A quiet campus with its own farm and a reputation for strong academics, the school enjoys support from staff and parents.

Colfax has shown consistent growth in recent years on the Academic Performance Index, the state's measure of school progress, jumping from 658 in 2001 to 876 last year.

The school's garden was created by parents, who tore up the concrete to add to the campus's floral atmosphere, Freckmann said.

Then there's Leila Wells, mother of fourth-graders Timothy and Patrick, who runs the farm and works as an aide in the science lab after first volunteering four years ago.

And as a sign of neighborhood support, Wells notes that neighbors dote on the school's pig, Charlotte Petunia, and spoil it by feeding it treats.

Nora McGarry-Arian, chairwoman of the site governance council and parent of fifth-grader Megan Arian, calls the school an "undercover arts magnet" and credits the music, dance and art instruction with improved math scores.

Converting from a traditional school to a charter will allow the school to continue in that direction, she said.

"It's the natural thing to do, to take one more step," McGarry-Arian said. "This gives us freedom to include all our arts and the things that make it easier for students to learn."

An independent school

At the same time Colfax converted to a charter, another Valley school, which took the same path, has parted ways with LAUSD.

High Tech L.A. on Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys has just switched from a converted, affiliated charter school to an independent.

Principal Marsha Rybin, a 30-year veteran of LAUSD, said the school never wanted to leave the district.

"It was a shame we weren't able to work it out," she said.

But the staff's requests for further autonomy and curriculum expansion weren't met by LAUSD officials, though local administrators were supportive, she said.

Little conflicts - like problems with LAUSD's student information system and use of Moodle, an online education program - built up over time.

The departure of High Tech L.A., and the conversion of Colfax, should be a sign to LAUSD officials, school board member Galatzan said.

"I'm frustrated that if you're a public school in L.A. Unified and you want to innovate, your only choice is to leave the district and go charter," she said.

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