2011, in many respects, was a year like no other for Westside communities regarding the changing landscape of education.

The resurgence of neighborhood schools, charter schools asserting their rights to equal access in public education, a high school changing instructional gears in search of a new identity, budget cuts and a plan to lessen the tension brought on by schools sharing campus space were all front page news.

District 4, which encompasses Westchester, Del Rey, Playa del Rey, Venice and Mar Vista, is represented by Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Steve Zimmer, who was forced to tackle the abovementioned challenges and others last year.

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with The Argonaut, Zimmer talked in depth about the seminal events of 2011, the impressions that they left on him and the communities that he represents and how many of the same issues will influence 2012.

With respect to charters sharing campus facilities with neighborhood schools, known as colocation, Zimmer was confronted with a series of events last year during March and April dubbed “colocation spring,” when a number of charter schools sought classroom space in Venice, Westchester, Del Rey and Mar Vista.

Under Proposition 39, charters, which are public schools but have fewer regulations than LAUSD schools and typically are not unionized, are entitled to seek classrooms at public school campuses where there is available space. This led to animosity at certain schools among parents and some members of the faculties, and some at the traditional schools expressed the concern that the charter could threaten the academic progress that had been made.

Zimmer believes that choice, which is the mantra of the charter school movement, is critical to the future of public education. But he also feels that the concept can at times be at odds with other important components necessary for the creation of stable learning environments in some communities.

“In surveying the landscape of ‘colocation spring,’ I had to really weigh and balance some very strongly conflicting values around public education,” the school board member began. “Choice sometimes is in direct conflict with the dedication of resources to building strong neighborhood schools, so you have to make sure that you don’t so strongly distort your world view so that you lose sight of that.”

Green Dot Public Schools Executive Director Marco Petruzzi has often stated that school choice is an integral part of educating children.

Zimmer reiterated that he supports school choice, but added that it is not protected by “religious sanctity.”

“The idea that choice has risen to the same level of protection as quality or access (to education) is a misadjustment to an antiquated system to no choice,” he said. “The notion that choice has the level of sacred or constitutional protection of serving every child or the right to a free and appropriate education environment…. Until the federal government includes choice in those pillars, we have to balance and make the necessary adjustment to make sure that choice has its appropriate place and is not a radical adjustment.”

The school board member said this has not always been available to all of the families that he represents.

“Let’s be clear: Many families – not all – but many who are choosing charter schools always have had a choice,” Zimmer noted. “Now they just have to pay for it.”

A new and interesting dynamic in the charter movement, he continued, is that some charter schools, like Green Dot, have now expanded to areas where students did not have a choice.

“My critique of some of the loudest voices (on the need for more charter schools) is measured by understanding that choice is also very important to those who I am not hearing from,” Zimmer added.

Petruzzi could not be reached for comment regarding Zimmer’s interview.

Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice and Mar Vista and Grand View Boulevard elementary schools in Mar Vista successfully beat back efforts to colocate charter schools on their campuses and in the process triggered a resurgence in community participation and academic progress at the respective schools.

Grand View Boulevard Principal Alfredo Ortiz feels that was one of the most important events of last year, because his school was able to continue with a number of its scholastic initiatives that have helped raise its community and academic profile.

“What we saw was a resurgence of stakeholders taking a deeper interest in our local neighborhood schools,” said Ortiz, whose school’s Academic Performance Index test scores have risen 81 points in the last three years. “It also fostered a deeper and more collaborative relationship between teachers and administrators.”

Zimmer agrees. “In the wake of ‘colocation spring,’ I think that there was an interesting recharging of a kind of faith and importance of neighborhood schools,” the school board member said. “Nothing makes you appreciate the importance of a neighborhood school until it is threatened.

“The tragedy of ‘colocation spring’ is that you had the rights of children vs. the rights of children,” Zimmer continued. “And that made people very uncomfortable, and my goal is not to let that happen again.”

Venice resident Karen Wolfe’s son attended Marina Del Rey Middle School, which is involved in a colocation with Goethe International School. To her, one of the year’s most interesting developments was a shift in public sentiment about charter schools.

“I saw a deeper understanding of the charter school issue and how it negatively impacts neighborhood schools,” said Wolfe.

An uprising of parents who protested the lack of funding from Sacramento was one of 2011’s highlights, said Babak Nahid, a member of the Mar Vista Community Council.

“We saw more aggressive, statewide advocacy by parent-led organizations like Educate Our State to connect the dots between the failing classrooms and the slow, serpentine halls of Sacramento or Washington,” recalled Nahid, a co-chair of his council’s arts, education and culture committee.

Nahid, whose committee held an education summit to address the myriad of topics affecting Westside schools April 14, included the colocation fight as well as a new unity among local schools as major touchstones of 2011.

“As chairs of the Mar Vista Community Council Education Committee, (former co-chair Kate Anderson) and I witnessed strong grassroots resistance to colocation, in part charged by a perception that a loss of resources and autonomy always accompanies colocation under Proposition 39,” he said. “We saw the proud, diverse parents and teachers at Grand View, Mar Vista, Mark Twain (Middle School) and Venice High School unite against what they felt was a state of siege from every direction.

“And we saw local charter schools like Green Dot and others, like some of the parochial schools at our summit, demonstrate with their successes in academic performance and local outreach that they can be part of the solution,” Nahid added.

Venice resident Sue Kaplan had a front row seat on a controversial component of the federal law “No Child Left Behind.”

“I watched how ‘teaching to the test’ impacts the classroom and questioned whether that has any usefulness and benefit to teachers and students,” said Kaplan, a classroom volunteer at Westminster.

She also witnessed “colocation spring” up close and personal. Kaplan attended several meetings where she and the elementary school’s faculty and parents rallied against Green Dot coming to their campus and helped draft a resolution asking Green Dot not to adversely harm the progress that was approved by the Venice Neighborhood Council. Ten days later, the charter organization withdrew its petition to share the campus with the elementary school.

Nahid also mentioned a potentially collaborative working relationship forged between United Teachers Los Angeles and LAUSD.

“We saw LAUSD’s new (Superintendent) John Deasy show himself ready to work with everyone from (celebrity chef) Jamie Oliver to the labor unions, so long as kids got better schools out of the deal,” he said. “The unions also wised up to exploring a more inclusive, student-focused language rather than continuously banging on the drum of political self-interest.”

Out of all the developments of 2011, colocation had some of the more damaging effects on students, Zimmer said, and his response to “colocation spring” was to offer a charter school a 2-acre parcel of unoccupied land at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School. Green Dot and Ocean Charter School in Mar Vista, which colocates with Walgrove, are the only two schools that applied for the land lease.

Next week: Zimmer discusses his plan to avert another “colocation spring” and noteworthy events that transpired in Westchester schools.

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