Discouraged and disenchanted with the way that the Los Angeles Unified School District has managed their vision of academic freedom, a group of Westchester parents is exploring the possibility of establishing a local charter high school.
Frustrated with years of seeing Westchester High School languish near the bottom tier in the state in test scores and what they feel is a betrayal by LAUSD regarding the autonomies that Westchester parents and teachers were granted two years ago after their entry into the district’s iDesign Division, the parent group is now considering other educational opportunities that will keep their children local but without interacting with LAUSD.
“I think what many find attractive about charter is that they make choice available,” Ann Wexler, whose daughter graduated from the high school last week, told The Argonaut.
Terry Marcellus, a Westchester native and former chair of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa’s education committee, has been a charter school proponent for many years and is happy to hear about the possibility of a charter in his hometown.
“There is a much-intensified charter movement growing on the Westside that is gaining momentum,” says Marcellus, a graduate of Westchester High, as are his three daughters. “I think charters coming to Westchester are inevitable.”
There are two different paths that charter supporters can take to pursue such a school: through approval by the majority of a school’s faculty or by conversion, which has occurred at two San Fernando Valley schools, as well as at Palisades Charter High School. That is the model that Marcellus and Wexler favor.
All charter schools must be authorized through one of the following entities: a local school district, the county office of education or the state board of education.
“We have always liked the Palisades High School model,” Wexler said. “I personally like comprehensive high schools, because I don’t think you should have to go to a ‘specialty’ school to be in a musical or have a decent orchestra teacher or physics class.”
Marcellus said ideally he would like to see a charter high school at Westchester with a maximum of 500 students.
“That’s a very manageable number,” he said. “Schools with smaller populations and smaller class sizes tend to produce better results.”
Dr. Matthew Wunder, the chief executive officer at the Da Vinci Science and Da Vinci Design School, two charter high schools in Hawthorne, said several students from the Westchester/Playa del Rey area are enrolled at both schools and a “friend of Da Vinci” has had conversations with someone affiliated with the Westchester group.
Andrew Terranova, who teaches social studies at Westchester High, believes that the school district is subtly opening the door to outside organizations like Da Vinci or Green Dot by not fulfilling its commitment to autonomy.
“Charter schools are biting on the heels of LAUSD and they are encouraging it,” said Terranova. “They’re giving away new schools to charter groups.”
Terranova was referring to the Public Schools Choice initiative that the LAUSD Board of Education approved last fall, which allows outside operators-including charters-to petition to manage 36 new schools that will be opening over the next few years.
Green Dot Charter Schools has made no secret of its desire to establish a beachhead on the Westside. They currently have Animo Venice High School on the campus of Broadway Elementary School in Venice. An organization called the Parent Revolution, which is affiliated with Green Dot, began a signature gathering campaign last year in an effort to pursue a charter middle school.
A.J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, is aware of the discussions about starting a charter in Westchester.
“That is (the parent group’s) right to explore a charter school,” said Duffy.
The constant changes at iDesign, once known as the iDivision, has both teachers and parents frustrated, particularly since this is the department at LAUSD that is charged with facilitating the move towards autonomy. The division, which will close officially on Wednesday, June 30th due to the school district’s budget crisis, has had three leaders since its inception in 2007.
“The leadership at the iDesign has been a revolving door,” Terranova said. “There was a lack of defined commitment on the part of LAUSD that caused a lot of frustration.”
An autonomy leader says she is not discouraged about the potential to have true autonomy from the school district and would like to see Westchester schools take a path other than the charter route.
“What we need is to start our own school district,” proposed Kelly Kane, the president of the Westchester/Playa Education Foundation. “LAUSD has proven that they aren’t a good fit for our schools or for autonomy.”
Neither proposition would be easy. Starting or converting to a charter and creating a new school district requires approval from a government entity, and the latter would likely take longer than creating a charter school, which could be one to three years.
“There is an extensive petition that needs to be written that addresses all of the elements that go into creating a charter school,” Wunder said.
Kane said she realizes that her preference for Westchester schools will not be easy.
“This community needs to have a high school, and so we need to have a structure in place for our own school district,” she said.
Wexler wants to have a great deal of flexibility in choosing the model for a potential charter high school.
“I currently don’t have a preference for a particular provider like Green Dot,” Wexler said. “I prefer that we decide what we want rather than necessarily having a canned program.
“We don’t need to replace LAUSD with another master.”
Talk about creating a charter school at Westchester High is uncomfortable for Terranova.
“It makes me nervous,” he admitted.
And independent schools are not always the panacea that some parents often think, Terranova added.
“Look at the Stanford study,” he said.
The Stanford study, as reported in The Argonaut last July, was conducted by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University. It found that in the aggregate, the academic performance of charter school students is on par or in some cases below that of their traditional school peers.
According to the study, 46 percent of the charter schools surveyed showed no significant difference in academic improvement versus their public school peers. Thirty-seven percent fared worse than their academic counterparts and 17 percent demonstrated academic gains that surpassed those in traditional schools.
“A lot of well-intentioned people are behind charters and a lot of them are frustrated with LAUSD,” Terranova said.
Kane says she is not anti-charter.
“I don’t oppose charter actively, but I don’t think that it’s the solution in Westchester,” the education foundation president said. “Not only Westchester High needs to be rescued. We need to help all of our schools.”
Wexler said despite the results of the Stanford study, there are other reasons to consider a charter school.
“We’re not looking at averages, we are one school,” she pointed out. “Westchester has successfully managed its community organizations for 50-plus years and has the ability to manage a school. We are smart enough to learn from the successes and failures, and we have the resources to make it work.
“The truth is charters are a reality now,” Wexler continued. “The regular neighborhood school has competition. Parents didn’t always have this option, and now they do.”
Wunder reiterated the importance of having a sound plan before asking for authority for a charter school.
“If you know where you’re going, you’re more likely to end up there,” he said.
Frank Gonzales of the California Charter School Association did not return calls for comment.