One of the reasons given for a planned conversion from a traditional school to an affiliated charter at Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista was to give more decision-making authority to governance councils comprised of community members, faculty and parents at the school.

“We feel that parents and teachers have a good idea of what is needed here,” said Jean Caravella, a history teacher and United Teachers Los Angeles chapter chair at the middle school.

But according to a state organization that represents charters, there could be some limits on how much authority a school governance council may have.

Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association, agreed that the proposal will likely allow Mark Twain increased authority in certain areas, depending on how the charter proposal is structured. But she added that the governance councils might not have much leeway in others.

“The role of the school site council post-charter approval depends on what the charter petition states in the governance section and other pertinent parts of the petition,” Waters told The Argonaut. “As a district affiliated charter, the school will not have the full autonomy and flexibility in areas such as finance and governance that is possible through chartering and that are hallmarks of independent charter schools.”

The school site council at Mark Twain voted to petition the Los Angeles Unified School District to become an affiliated charter Oct. 18. The vote was 5-0 with two abstentions.

There are two types of charter schools: Conversions or affiliated and independent.

According to LAUSD, independent charters receive the fullest autonomy and flexibility permitted by the law but no organizational support from the district. Independent charters must provide their own administrative functions, including human resources, employee benefits, finance, payroll, accounting, and facilities.

Affiliated charters are “semiautonomous conversion charter schools that are funded and function similarly to traditional district schools.”

In LAUSD, affiliated charters adhere to district policy except for specific areas described in their charters, such as philosophy, curriculum, pedagogy, personnel, or governance, the school district’s website states. Affiliated charters purchase services from the district, hire LAUSD teachers, and participate in program and professional development offered by the district.

Teachers and staff members in affiliated charters continue to be members of the district’s collective bargaining units.

Affiliated charters have more site-based freedom over budgeting and educational programming than non-charter schools. They receive free district facilities and the district continues to provide administrative support services.

“The state Board of Education assigns a sequential charter number to all charter schools. Once the charter has been approved by the district, it will be placed on the (state board’s) agenda for numbering,” Waters explained.

Caravella said another reason for the petition is to bring back students from Venice and Mar Vista whose parents have chosen to send them outside the district to middle schools in Palms or West Los Angeles or to charter schools.

“We very much want Mark Twain to be a neighborhood school, and we care very much about our students from all of our feeders, including Shenandoah Elementary,” the teachers’ union chapter chair said. “We look forward to welcoming back many neighborhood families, and to collaborating and engaging in articulation with all of our feeders such as Beethoven and Walgrove (elementary schools).”

Mark Twain will be competing with a charter school at the Walgrove campus in approximately four years if a plan by LAUSD to build a school there is approved next year. The school district is offering a 2-acre parcel of land at the elementary school for a 500-seat school to a charter operator.

Green Dot Public Schools and Ocean Charter School have applied for the land lease. Ocean Charter is currently involved in a colocation with Walgrove, where the charter’s fourth through eighth grades attend classes at the elementary school.

Mar Vista parent James Brennan lives only a few blocks from Mark Twain, and his daughter attends Ocean Charter.

“My experience with an independent charter school at Ocean Charter is that local governance by teachers, parents and community members can increase engagement and participation of the parent community and lead to a more responsive administration and more successful classrooms,” Brennan said.

“Board representation by teachers, parents and community members seems key to effective local governance.”

LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer could not be reached for comment. But in a July 1 interview with The Argonaut, Zimmer indicated he might support an affiliated charter school or several pilot schools, but under certain conditions.

“It would have to be a plurality of the stakeholders that want to see a charter,” he said. “That is one aspect that (proponents) of a charter school should know about me; I will not support a charter that seeks to deny any students for the wrong reasons.”

Brennan also said broad based support for an affiliated charter could draw his attention.

“I would potentially support the concept of a charter school at Mark Twain if it has support from parents and teachers at the school,” he said. “I would also be interested to know if a charter could colocate at Mark Twain, rather than converting the entire existing school into a charter.”

Colocation, which is occurring with greater frequency on the Westside, is an outgrowth of Proposition 39, a 2000 ballot initiative that gave charter schools the right to share space with community schools.

Mark Twain has been a frequent target of parents whose children are attending schools where they are losing space to charters because over the last several years the middle school has suffered a drop in its enrollment on its large campus.

Zimmer said the main reason for offering a charter at Walgrove was to decrease tensions that occurred during “colocation spring,” when some charters gained additional classrooms despite protests from the host schools and schools in Mar Vista and Venice forcefully and successfully fought off colocations.

Caravella said the school site council structured the petition as an affiliated charter because of past history at Mark Twain.

“In the past, we have been faced with those who want to ‘take over’ our campus and turn it into an independent charter run by a charter management organization,” she said. “One of the many reasons that we did not believe that would be a good solution for our school is that we were afraid all of our current students might not be granted entry to such a school.”

Independent charters like Green Dot and Ocean Charter use lotteries to select students. As an affiliated charter, Mark Twain would be able to recruit local students without having to use a lottery.

“Our (charter petition) clearly states that all students living in the current attendance area of Mark Twain will automatically be admitted,” Caravella said. “They do not have to go through any sort of lottery process.”

Mark Twain Principal Rex Patton was one of the abstentions in the vote for an affiliated charter, due to the fact that many on the school site council had been exploring an affiliated charter at least three years before his arrival at the middle school.

UTLA declined to comment on the charter petition, and LAUSD representatives from the charter division could not be reached for comment.

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