Mar Vista group assails expansion of Mark Twain Middle School as disruptive for residents, unfair to some students

By Gary Walker

A political cartoon being circulated by Stop the Commuter School.

A political cartoon being circulated by Stop the Commuter School.

An increasingly vocal contingent of Mar Vista homeowners is vigorously pushing back against a $30-million LAUSD construction plan that would relocate a popular Mandarin Chinese language immersion program at Broadway Elementary School in Venice to brand-new classrooms at Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista.

A group calling itself Stop the Commuter School ( wants to halt construction on the Mark Twain campus, with members threatening organized opposition and even legal action.

Opponents say the brand-new elementary school campus within a middle school campus would exacerbate traffic gridlock on already congested Walgrove Avenue and be tantamount to favoring language immersion program students over those attending other area public schools.

Los Angeles Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer, who represents the area, counters that the new construction is needed to prevent growing language immersion enrollment from displacing other students.

District officials decided in 2013 that the 300-plus K-5 students in the Mandarin immersion program must move for lack of classroom space at Broadway Elementary, which also houses a growing Spanish language immersion program. Funding would come from school bonds that can only be used for building new facilities.

According to an environmental analysis released last month by LAUSD, the plan is to construct a two-story, 33,000-square-foot classroom building and 1.7-acre play area on 4.2 acres of open space at Mark Twain Middle School, including a designated student drop-off point, 70 parking stalls, a new multipurpose room and new food service facilities. The environmental approvals process is still under review by the district.

“We’re raising funds to support our public response to the EIR [environmental impact report]. This response includes our own independent traffic study, a neighborhood awareness campaign and, if it comes to it, hiring a CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] lawyer to fight the EIR in court,” states the Stop the Commuter School website.

A public meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Mark Twain Middle School will be the first opportunity for parents, faculty and residents to weigh in on the EIR since
its release.

During a March 26 community meeting at Mark Twain, Mar Vista resident Saeed Ali expressed concern about new elementary school classrooms being built so close to Beethoven Elementary School, a stone’s throw from Mark Twain.

“From what I know, we don’t have a surplus of kids in this neighborhood who can go [to the new Mandarin immersion program],” said Ali, who was chief of staff for former L.A. City Councilman Richard Alarcòn.

Ken Frees, who lives a block away from Mark Twain, is concerned about potentially hundreds of new cars on Walgrove during rush hour as well as what the neighborhood would be losing with a new school.

“This will take away the last bit of open space in the neighborhood. This is going to drastically alter our community,” he said.

In a widely circulated series of emails, Stop the Commuter School organizer Marcus Wagner has pointed to perceived socio-economic differences between language immersion program participants and other families.

“The brand-new state-of-the-art language school the LAUSD wants to build in our largely Hispanic neighborhood only teaches Mandarin,” Wagner wrote. “Mr. Zimmer is just trying to give his favorite program an expensive new building that will finally match the expensive cars that [will] park outside it.”

Ali said LAUSD documents show the district currently has enough vacant classroom space on the Westside to accommodate more than 4,000 students. He believes district officials should try moving Mandarin immersion students into excess classroom capacity before spending to build new classrooms.

“If the driver of this move is a lack of space, then these numbers should have been included in the EIR,” said Ali, whose children attended Mark Twain Middle School and Venice High School.

Zimmer said Ali’s 4,000-plus excess capacity figure counts classroom space throughout the Westside, not just Mar Vista and Venice, and that vacant space designed for elementary school students is actually in short supply.

“Those are overwhelmingly vacancies at the high school and middle school levels, which is precisely what these initiatives [such as language immersion programs designed to continue through high school] need to address. To somehow use the vacancies as a reason that we shouldn’t do this is difficult to understand,” he said.

Zimmer compared the empty classrooms argument to claims by charter schools, including the recently displaced Westchester Secondary Charter School, that LAUSD has an abundance of excess capacity that charters should be entitled to use.

“The use of this data in the abstract is as misleading as the lawsuit over [application of charter school law] Proposition 39. To imagine that public schools can be distilled to vacancy rates is just simply inaccurate, and it is simplistic when the situation demands a more comprehensive solution,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer did say, however, that he understands how those only recently learning about long-brewing plans for moving the Mandarin immersion program would have concerns.

“I recognize that we need to do a better job of reaching out to folks who aren’t immediate constituents to our schools,” he said.

He also acknowledged poor planning for declining enrollment by LAUSD at the conclusion of the district’s capacity adjustment program, known as CAP Receiver. CAP Receiver was implemented to relieve overcrowded schools by establishing school enrollment caps and busing students from neighborhoods where schools are overcrowded to schools in other areas.

“There was no plan after CAP Receiver busing ended for many schools on the Westside. So more than anything else, we’re living the consequences of that,” Zimmer said. “I’ve always been very explicit about this being part of a strategy to address declining enrollment. We’ve never been shy or secretive about that.”

Lily Chan, whose son is enrolled in the Mandarin immersion program, said that under the right circumstance the program can function in Mar Vista just as well as it has in Venice.

“All so many of us have ever wanted is a home — any home. I am completely committed to following the program to Mar Vista,” said Chan, a Playa Vista resident. “I can say with confidence that the parents that I know are also onboard with the move.”

Chan said she is disheartened by what she feels are “racist and xenophobic” comments on social media protesting the planned move to Mar Vista.

There is, however, a small group of Mandarin immersion parents who want the program to stay put at Broadway Elementary School. They contend that Zimmer should move the Spanish-language immersion students to another school in order to create more room for the growing Mandarin program.

Zimmer said that argument had been discussed ad nauseam and rejected.

“I have been explicit, direct and unapologetic that I am not willing to displace children. The only school where you could make an argument for fully accommodating the Mandarin program to its fully designed size is at Broadway — and we have been through and through that debate. I am not willing to displace children to make that happen when there are other alternatives,” he said.

Managing editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.