BY GARY WALKER | The Argonaut | http://bit.ly/fHKoRl
March 31, 2011 – Venice - Parents and teachers who opposed a colocation plan with charter organization Green Dot Public Schools are rejoicing following the announcement that the charter would not be coming to Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice.
Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Steve Zimmer's office confirmed to The Argonaut March 25 that the charter organization would be looking for space elsewhere on the Westside, but not at Westminster.
The charter organization had sought to establish a sixth grade class for Animo Westside Charter School at the Westminster campus beginning this fall, but ran into a spirited opposition of community members, faculty and parents.
The Venice Neighborhood Council passed a resolution March 15 asking the charter not to adversely harm the progress of the neighborhood school following a community forum days earlier where parents and educators from around the Westside came to express their thoughts on the growing controversy surrounding colocation.
Colocation is a situation where a charter school shares the same school site as a neighborhood school. Charters, which are publicly funded, independently run schools, have been making inroads in recent years on the Westside, and Green Dot has been up front regarding its desire to bring a charter middle school to the Venice/Mar Vista area.
Legally, community schools are required to provide certain amenities to charter groups who request space on LAUSD campuses. Proposition 39, an education initiative that was approved by the electorate in 2000, mandates that charter operators have the right to colocate with traditional schools and can ask to use classrooms that are underutilized or vacant.
What constitutes underutilized rooms has been the biggest sticking point in the colocation debate. Many of the rooms that the school district has identified are parent centers and intervention rooms, and parents and faculty take issue with the notion that these classrooms are considered not being used to their fullest potential.
As at other schools where charters are seeking space, that was one of the reasons cited for opposing Green Dot's arrival at the elementary school property.
Melissa Lauer, a kindergarten teacher at Westminster, said sixth-graders sharing restrooms with her pupils is one situation that she believes could lead to other potential problems.
“I'm worried about how this could work with teenagers cohabiting space with elementary school children,” she said at the Venice meeting. “Westminster has painted a clear picture of how (colocation) will affect our school.”
Westminster officials were given virtually no notice that LAUSD had offered Green Dot eight classrooms at the school and quickly rallied by holding a community meeting Feb. 4.
Peter Thottam, the chair of the Venice Neighborhood Council's education committee, sees this as an opportunity for both the charter organization and the school district to develop better relations as far as working together on potential colocations in the future.
“Based on the community feedback and what I heard at the community forum that we hosted, I think this allows both sides to lay the foundation for future charters,” said Thottam.
Thottam, who organized the education forum, blames LAUSD for notifying the elementary school just days before Green Dot was scheduled to conduct a walk-through of the classrooms that it requested.
“I think that LAUSD did a terrible job when communicating this possible colcation to the Westminster community,” the education chair asserted. “It was clear to me that (Westminster's) resources were being compromised on short notice.”
Douglas Weston, Green Dot's director of communications and campaigns, said his organization had not been notified that the Westminster site would not be available to them.
“We are not at liberty to speak on this. We respect the process,” said Weston.
Despite multiple confirmations from Zimmer's office, LAUSD was also reticent to discuss Green Dot's colocation situation.
“At this time, we are not commenting on what may/may not be included in the April 1 final notifications. Once they are sent, then they will state specifically what the status is,” LAUSD Director of Charter Schools Jos� Cole-Gut’errez wrote in an e-mail response.
Like Thottam, Weston said LAUSD could have done a better job at communicating with his organization as well as with Westminster regarding the colocation.
“We would have rather had a smoother entry into the process,” he said. “This one was a little bumpy.”
Green Dot pays a fee to LAUSD for colocation, and Weston said that in future endeavors, making the payment directly to the neighborhood school might make a possible cohabitation go much smoother.
“We've done that at our Animo Venice High School with Broadway Elementary (in Venice),” he noted. “We've suggested (to LAUSD) doing that again, so that way the school would see an immediate benefit.”
Another area where district representatives have also been reluctant to delve into and explain is what criteria are used to determine when a classroom is underused. In a response to Argonaut inquiries, LAUSD replied that there could be legal consequences to divulging any information pertaining to Prop. 39.
“Insofar as the district is presently engaged in litigation regarding its compliance with Proposition 39, it is inappropriate for the district to provide a legal opinion at this time,” LAUSD officials said in a statement. “However, please be advised that Proposition 39 was approved by California's voters in 2000, and amended Education Code section 47614.”
Parents and school administrators at other school sites are mystified how rooms that function as student intervention and parent centers are almost always on the list for charter schools to use. And after hearing that Green Dot will not be establishing a charter middle school colocation at Westminster, one Mar Vista school principal is hoping that he and his faculty will be able to avoid having a charter operator on their campus.
Grand View Boulevard Elementary School Principal Alfredo Ortiz says his school has become a beacon of hope for neighborhood children in recent years and bringing another school on campus now could impede the progress that they have made.
“While I am not against charter schools, I feel that if someone else comes onto our campus, we won't be able to continue to accomplish what we are doing,” Ortiz said.
Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) Public Schools has applied for space at Ortiz's school, and LAUSD has offered the organization intervention rooms and parent centers.
Academic Performance Index test scores at the elementary school have risen dramatically over the last two years and the level of parental involvement has gratified Ortiz and his staff, who see a direct link with having the intervention and parent centers and the school's academic progression.
“We are very happy about that and it motivates our staff to work harder with our community, such as doing more outreach,” the principal said.
Weston feels that charters have been given a bad rap by some members in certain communities as well as from certain sectors of LAUSD, and that might have played a factor in the pushback against Green Dot's plan to come to Westminster.
“The opponents of charters have managed to frame the debate as a public vs. private debate,” he said. “We are 90 percent publicly funded by the state and our only goal has always been to serve the middle school families of Venice.”
At the Feb. 4 meeting when the colocation proposal was first publicly announced, Zimmer said that while many parents and teachers thought the Green Dot colocation was a foregone conclusion, he counseled them not to give up hope.
“I always think it's a good thing when parents tell their story,” Zimmer said. “It's always important to have your choice validated as a parent.”
Weston remained upbeat that his charter organization would find a place in Venice for the next academic year. “We are confident that we will be opening a charter middle school in Venice,” said the Green Dot executive. “We owe it to the parents who have petitioned and lobbied to have a school there.”
Sources at LAUSD told the Argonaut that Green Dot could be offered space at Cowan Elementary School in Westchester.
The school board will make its final offer to charters for colocation Friday, April 1. Those sites include four Mar Vista schools and one Del Rey location.