Los Angeles in many ways has become the epicenter for much of the West Coast and throughout the nation for the charter school movement.
Parents seeking alternative educational choices have looked at charters as a viable option due to the low graduation rates and bureaucratic obstacles they have encountered with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
One Westchester parent, who strongly believes in making her local schools more academically competitive through reform, has chosen not to send her son to a charter: she has instead chosen to start one with the assistance of an educator friend.
Ann Wexler, a special education attorney, joined the fight for Westchester autonomy from LAUSD several years ago after the school district promised to enact certain reforms that would allow parents and teachers more decision-making authority in their local schools. But after the promised reforms were not implemented, Wexler lost hope that the district was sincere about any type of reform effort.
The last straw for her was when Dr. Bruce Mims, an educator with a strong educational background, was fired by LAUSD. Mims, a former Westchester High School principal, was one of three principals that year who were brought to the schools by school hiring committees made up of community members, parents and teachers, part of the reforms that came with autonomy.
“(The decision to form a charter school) was born out of the loss of autonomy, and the firing of Dr. Mims really accelerated it,” recalled Wexler, whose daughter Sarah graduated from Westchester High School two years ago. “There were decisions being made without community input, decisions that we were told that we would be involved in, and we weren’t.
“At some point, you just get tired of fighting battles that take you away from the things that you should be focusing on,” she added.
Working with Wexler to open Westchester Secondary Charter School is Janet Landon, a former principal at Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester. Landon has been chosen to be the principal at the proposed charter.
She too, grew perturbed with LAUSD after years of what she calls “trying to work within the system.” Landon is now looking toward another option to give what she and Wexler think will be an enriching educational experience.
“There were too many decisions being made outside the school site,” she said. “I’ve been frustrated for quite a long time about the bureaucracy that prevents us from serving children in the way that we should be serving them.”
It is not an easy endeavor to start a charter school. Petitions for charters must address a number of elements, including the proposed school’s educational program, measurable pupil outcomes, governance structure and budget, according to the California Charter School Association.
Westchester Secondary Charter plans to have grades six through nine in its first year and later expand to a combination middle and high school. It will be an independent, or start-up charter.
There are three types of charters: charter organizations, affiliated or conversion charters, which occurs when 51 percent of the teachers at a given school vote to convert their school into a charter, and independent charters.
“Affiliated charters are essentially schools of the district, so a truly independent and autonomous charter has more flexibility and control over their curricula, governance, finance, hiring, etc.,” said Sierra Jenkins, communications director for the state charter association.
Wexler said opening as an independent charter has its own advantages.
“We can make our own decisions on how to use our budget,” she said. “But unlike with a converted charter, you don’t have a designated attendance area.”
Resident Kelly Kane, who was also at the forefront of the autonomy battle, supports the proposed charter. “It seems the only way to have local autonomy is through the charter system,” said Kane, whose two children attend Westport Heights Elementary School in Westchester.
Asked what if this means that autonomy from LAUSD through traditional schools is over, Kane asserted, “(Former LAUSD Superintendent Ramon) Cortines built its coffin and (current superintendent John) Deasy put the nails in it.”
Mylah Wessels, a Westchester parent who is the former Parent-Teachers Association president at Orville Wright, knows both Landon and Wexler.
“I certainly respect what they are trying to provide for the area. Having said that, I appreciate and understand the need for charter schools in areas that are underserved and yes, there are certain Westchester schools or portions of the schools, which fall on that spectrum,” Wessels said.
“I am not so certain that we need quite so many charter schools in our area compared to other portions of LAUSD,” she continued. “In my observations, I see that certain charter schools currently in Westchester do not appear to improve or change the academic experience of their students compared to our local schools.”
Westchester Secondary Charter will find itself in competition for students not only from Orville Wright but also from another well-known charter organization. Green Dot Public Schools has a sixth grade class at Cowan Elementary School and is applying for more classrooms this year through Proposition 39.
The Westchester charter was approved by LAUSD charter division staff members last year but was denied 6-1 by the school board in a May 20 vote. LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester, voted against Westchester Secondary Charter’s petition.
Wexler said she was “surprised and disappointed” by the board’s vote as well as with Zimmer’s position. “He would not talk to us. We tried to contact him and met with some of his staff, but we never heard from him directly,” Wexler recalled.
Zimmer could not be reached for comment.
The charter co-founders are not deterred in their quest to open their school. Their next move is to petition the Los Angeles County Office of Education to grant its permission to establish a charter after being turned down by LAUSD.
“We will actually get to make a more persuasive presentation to the county board that we didn’t have the opportunity to make with LAUSD,” said Landon, noting that they will have 30 minutes to make their case and they have much less time before the LAUSD board.
Landon and Wexler would prefer that their charter have its own campus, but realize how scarce affordable real estate is on the Westside and they hope to open in Westchester.
“We think it would be easier to enlist parents in what we’re doing as well as raise money,” Wexler explained.
District 4, which includes schools in Westchester, Venice, Mar Vista and Del Rey, had the most charter applications for Proposition 39 last year during a tenuous spring where tensions among some traditional school parents and those from charter schools came to the forefront. At Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey and at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista angry parents sounded off about their feelings about losing space to charters.
Proposition 39, passed by the voters in 2000, grants charters the right to use classrooms at neighborhood school campuses that are not being used, although some schools have criticized LAUSD officials for allowing music rooms and laboratories to be given to charter students.
Charter parents invoked the spirit of the proposition last year, asserting their rights to pursue an educational alternative to traditional LAUSD schools.
Faced with a myriad of charter colocations last spring, Zimmer sought a solution by offering charter schools a 2-acre parcel at Walgrove. Ocean Charter School, which is in its last year of colocation at Walgrove, won the land lease bid at the elementary school but the LAUSD board rejected their application to build their school.
The co-founders of Westchester Secondary Charter say they will consider colocation if their charter application is approved.
“We’re willing to consider all options,” Wexler said.
Like a number of parents who witnessed “colocation spring” last year, Wessels does not believe that charter schools should share campuses with traditional schools.
“I do not believe that charter schools should be placed on the same campus as that of a local public school, especially when the classes are distributed across different parts of the campus,” she said. “It is clearly a distraction for students and teachers since the two schools have different class schedules.
“I believe it takes away from school spirit and that impacts the school’s culture and environment. Charter schools should be at their own site, contrary to Prop. 39, which offers availability of classrooms at actual school sites.”
Wexler and Landon have a hearing in Norwalk Tuesday, May 8 with county officials, where they will again make their case to open a charter. The county board will vote on their petition in June.
“I don’t support all charters,” Kane concluded, “but I support this charter.”