Thursday, June 25, 2009

FLEXIBILITY KEY FOR LOCAL CHARTER SCHOOLS: Direct control allows school officials to avoid drastic cuts and layoffs.

By Paul Aranda Jr., EGP Staff Writer: Eastside Sun / Northeast Sun / Mexican American Sun / Bell Gardens Sun / City Terrace Comet / Commerce Comet / Montebello Comet / Monterey Park Comet / ELA Brookyln Belvedere Comet / Wyvernwood Chronicle / Vernon Sun

With the effects of the ongoing budget cuts still to be determined, local charter schools appear to have weathered the storm that has hit their traditional public school neighbors. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of larger districts.

In an EGP News survey of several local charter schools, administrators echoed familiar messages. They said the autonomy and independence at their schools have so far prevented some of the cuts the Los Angeles Unified School District has outlined for its campuses. One of the key cuts the charter schools have been able to avoid has been teacher layoffs. Although the school officials have made budget adjustments to compensate for funds that the state has delayed, the cuts have so far avoided producing a direct impact on the classroom.

Ricardo Mireles, executive director of Academia Avance Middle School said that one of the keys to the school’s ability to continue its current operations are new partnerships with other community-based organizations. The Highland Park charter will collaborate with the Jaime Escalante Math Program at East Los Angeles City College for additional math instruction and materials. The City Hearts non-profit organization will provide students with theatre classes. El Centro de Pueblo and the North East Community Clinic will provide family counseling.

With only one campus, Mireles has greater flexibility than other local charter schools. One of the keys to ensuring the school receives state funding is to increase student enrollment. This fall, the school will expand to include the 11th grade, which will increase student enrollment to 360. Mireles said he has reduced costs such as health care benefits, but not salaries. He said there is no plan to lay off any staff members.

The Partnership to Uplift Communities (PUC) operates eight charter schools in northeast Los Angeles and northeast San Fernando Valley. In Eagle Rock, the CALS Charter Middle School has provided parents an alternative to local public middle schools since the fall of 2000. This fall PUC will open the Santa Rosa Charter Academy in Highland Park.

Ref Rodriguez, Ed. D, co- chief executive and co-founder of PUC Schools, said the key to preventing cuts to critical resources is financial flexibility.

Teachers at PUC schools are not members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), but are unionized, Rodriguez said. The difference, he said, is “Our union does not dictate how our schools are run.”

He said there will be no staff layoffs or salary freezes. In fact, with the new school set to open this fall, Rodriguez said PUC plans to increase its staff.

As part of its budget adjustments, the Los Angeles Unified School District recently announced the elimination of summer school for elementary and middle schools. Only high school students in need of required courses for gradation will have access to summer school. As a measure to ensure that summer school will be available, CALS Charter Middle School and nearby Excel Charter Academy will combine their summer school programs on one campus.

Rodriguez said the difference at PUC compared to LAUSD is the administrative staff.

“We are much more centralized [than LAUSD],” he said.

Unlike the nation’s second largest school district that grants PUC its charters, school principals do not receive promotions to work in positions at the district headquarters. Rodriguez said PUC pays its personnel at the schools more than most of its administrators because of their direct work with students. He said PUC is able to hire non-educators for administrative positions.

For Marcia Aaron, executive director of KIPP L.A. Schools, the current budget conflict has allowed the charter management company to “cut back on the small things that add up over time.”

Among the cuts pursued by KIPP LA Schools are expenses related to substitute teachers, travel and outside consulting. Although the charter school company has been able to save funds by leaving certain open positions unfilled, no teacher layoffs are expected. In fact, the company is currently in the process of hiring additional teachers to accommodate for the upcoming expansion of the student population from the current level of 212 to over 360.

Aaron said there is “high interest” in the local community for the KIPP Los Angeles College Preparatory School for the upcoming school year. The middle school moved into its new Boyle Heights campus in February 2009.

Aaron said the current cuts discussed by the LAUSD are especially critical for the communities in the eastside of Los Angeles.

“Our education system is in crisis,” she said.

As part of her efforts to maintain KIPP LA Schools’ academic programs, Aaron said her team proceeds with caution when it comes to budget adjustments.

“We’ll be prudent, but if we cut key components of our program, we will have long-term negative impacts.”

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