Is LAUSD abandoning its core values by creating a new school for Playa Vista families?

By Karen Wolfe

The author is a local public education advocate and the founder of Public Schools Connect (psconnectnow.org).

Public education advocate
Karen Wolfe

The new Playa Vista Middle School approved last week by the LAUSD board illustrates how school choice can clash with the ideals of public education.

Every parent wants what’s best for his or her child. And in this era of education as a competitive marketplace, there is no shortage of products to fulfill the demand. But are we oversaturated? Even the high-performing Palms Middle School enrolled 100 fewer new students this year than previously.

Still, the bureaucratic Los Angeles Unified School District is vying with the massively funded charter industry for a bigger share of the school choice market by promising to create even more schools.

“One of our priorities has been to increase choice across the district,” LAUSD Supt. Michelle King said at last week’s school board meeting.

In the case of Playa Vista Middle School, other LAUSD officials twisted themselves into pretzel shapes trying to explain that this school was a new, different option responding to the demand from Playa Vista Elementary School — a “pathway,” they kept calling it.

“If there is a break in that pathway for our community, then that’s where we need to invest our dollars and our ideas in our thinking,” LAUSD Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson said. “In this particular case, with [support from] LMU, you see a STEM pathway that is different than the STEAM pathway [available at the existing middle school].”

Why so convoluted? Are Playa Vista families really so invested in keeping the arts (the A in STEAM) out of their middle school that they need a whole new school to avoid it?

Of course not.

Concerns have been raised at public meetings that this is an exclusive school only intended for certain families. LAUSD board member Ref Rodriguez said he was concerned with the emails he received about the school.

“So there’s this idea that we want to segregate kids … we don’t want them with the other kids coming from the surrounding — ” he said, stopping abruptly. “It’s very important that we take a real aggressive stand around that for obvious reasons.”

Added board member George McKenna: “If people look for their own best interests, then there is separatism.” He warned that the district needed to do more to prevent that than offer “lip service.”

LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer, who represents this area, said he had “absolute hope in the better angels of this community.”

But a couple of years ago, he didn’t sound so confident in an interview for the LA School Report.

“In reference to issues on L.A.’s west side, Zimmer argues, ‘The parents buying up the houses, who have more resources, have a lot of fear about public schools … and when you give them the opportunity to really engage and create integration and diversity in their neighborhood public schools, they don’t want to.’ Instead, he says, they exercise their right to start their own charter schools or they send their children to private schools,” reads that May 2014 article.

So what makes Zimmer so optimistic about the better angels now?

It might be political. Playa Vista Middle School would operate on the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet campus, and it was only a few years ago that LAUSD botched an effort to build up the “family of schools” in Westchester. Many Westchester families fled LAUSD schools and put the blame squarely on Zimmer’s shoulders. Now up for re-election, Zimmer could benefit from an influx of new families into LAUSD.

But we’re still a long way from this school opening. Other contrary measures have been passed that never came to fruition. There will be plenty more discussion about this school, including after the March election, as bond funds need approval, etc.

Before LAUSD leaders open a new school, there are many more questions that need answering: The board members need to ask themselves if they’ve done everything they can for the existing schools in Westchester.

Have they reduced class sizes?

Have they increased electives?

Have they budgeted for more adults on the campus so everyone feels safe?

Have they supported wraparound services so higher needs students are cared for and don’t disrupt classes?

Have they made sure campuses are clean and in good repair?

Have they increased outreach budgets to forge meaningful relationships with neighborhood families?

Have they funded libraries so each school is fully stocked and employs a specialist who helps children learn essential 21st-century skills to differentiate fake news from real information?

If they haven’t done those things and they still open this new school, they need to create a real plan to make equitable investments in other Westside schools.

But that will only happen if those school communities demand it.

Find Karen Wolfe on Twitter as @kwolfepack.

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