By Melissa Pamer Staff Writer, Daily Breeze (from the Contra Costa Times) | http://bit.ly/p8P4Yg
Principal Keri Lew was chosen by LAUSD to lead new Rancho Dominguez Preparatory School in Long Beach. (Robert Casillas/Staff Photographer)
9/06/2011 07:45:46 AM PDT - When Rancho Dominguez Preparatory School welcomes some 1,250 students to its new Carson-area campus on Wednesday, the first day of classes for Los Angeles Unified schools, an educational experiment will begin.
The gleaming, four-story, $181 million campus is only the second new LAUSD school to open in the South Bay or Harbor Area since the district began a massive construction campaign about a decade ago.
The school - designed to relieve overcrowding that was once more severe at Carson and Banning high schools - was showcased at a special event last week in which hundreds of contractors, administrators, staff and incoming students were invited to the unveiling of a new health campaign and of healthier lunch menu choices.
LAUSD board member Richard Vladovic, who represents the area, crowed that Rancho Dominguez was built on a reform model.
"This is really to be what we call a 21st Century school," he said.
Since the school was planned, the district has adopted a reform effort that put new campuses up for bid by outside operators.
That controversial Public School Choice policy changed just last week, but not before a rigorous planning process led a district team to be awarded control of Rancho Dominguez Prep over an application from a Long Beach charter school group.
The district's nine-member design team created a plan for the school that's a departure for Gardena-based Local District 8, which oversees LAUSD campuses from South Los Angeles to San Pedro.
The campus, which was erected on the border of a Carson residential neighborhood in an industrial section of Long Beach, will include a small middle school, a ninth-grade academy and two themed academies for 10th through 12th grade. Academies will be separated physically and color-coded, with students expected to wear colored lanyards identifying their academy.
"We've taken a large school and found a way to make it smaller. It's really built for personalization," said Keri Lew, the school's newly assigned interim principal.
●●smf: what’s with that?
Teachers signed special agreements allowing more flexibility - and requiring more work hours and more collaboration - than normal union contracts. They're coming to the campus voluntarily and can leave or be asked to leave at the end of the year, unlike at other traditional LAUSD schools.
Teachers will offer electives such as women's and Latino history, philosophy, sociology and psychology.
Students will lead weekly advisory sessions and would be required to complete a senior project.
"We are very excited. We really want to focus not just on students but the community as a whole, the parents - to create better outcomes for kids," said Ryan Gillespie, a history teacher who sat on the design team. "Everybody has input and that input is real."
Gillespie had been a teacher at Carson's Carnegie Middle School, which will feed into Rancho Dominguez. He said the vision for the school is a bottom-up, teacher-led initiative. It was a kind of hijacking of the Public School Choice plan, but one that demanded extraordinary commitment from incoming teachers.
"We took the opportunity and we wrote an awesome plan," Gillespie said.
There's been a hiccup over the summer, however. Interim Principal Veronica Aragon - a popular administrator who had previously led Wilmington Middle School to improved test scores - was promoted to a director position overseeing three families of secondary schools within Local District 8. She'll oversee Rancho Dominguez, but she won't be its leader.
The promotion, she said, was "bittersweet," but she was enthusiastic about Lew as her replacement.
"It's definitely a teacher-led school, and Keri is definitely the personality to work with a strong teacher leadership," Aragon said.
Gillespie said teachers felt a bit abandoned by Aragon's departure, but they've had positive experiences collaborating with Lew so far.
Lew will remain an interim principal until the school's design team officially selects her - or, as the case may be, another candidate - as its principal in coming weeks. Lew, a Torrance resident who graduated from South High, said she's hopeful she'll stay on board.
Lew was principal for three years of Henry Clay Middle School in Athens in South Los Angeles until - in a contentious vote this summer - the school board moved to turn that campus over to charter operator Green Dot Public Schools.
Lew, out of a job but with experience as an assistant principal at Hollywood High, was selected to run Rancho Dominguez. It was a lot of pressure, she said.
After she got the call, she immediately downloaded the Public School Choice proposal that teachers and Aragon had developed.
"These are teachers that did their regular day job and then got together to create a new school. ... Then all of a sudden, I'm (saying), `Hi, I'm the principal,"' Lew said.
She said she's committed to collaborating with them, and she's been impressed, in turn, with their commitment.
Teachers spent 13 days in paid training sessions over the summer - a rare opportunity amid severe budget cuts.
"These are staff members that are so dedicated. I get emails from them all the time - 4 a.m., 10 at night, 12:15 in the morning. Please, go to sleep!" Lew said.
Rest will probably be even more difficult to catch in coming weeks, however, with Rancho Dominguez ramping up its first year.