Its Academic Index Performance Index scores, which measure academic performance and prowess, have increased 43 points in recent years. Parents rave about the teachers and how a current of community spirit on campus flows from the surrounding neighborhoods, translating into a variety of school improvements and projects.
And its garden is a source of pride among faculty, students and their parents who see Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice as an example of a neighborhood school that is charting its own unique path to success.
But now some parents and classroom volunteers feel that a decision by the Los Angeles Unified School District granting Green Dot Charter School the right to use part of their campus could jeopardize many of the improvements at the elementary school.
Parents and teachers at Westminster held a rally Feb. 4 at the school’s auditorium to seek answers about Green Dot Charter School’s apparent imminent arrival on their campus. The district informed the charter school Feb. 1 that they would be allotting them space at Westminster, which also has a magnet program, for a middle school.
Green Dot representatives sought to convince faculty and parents at the meeting that they could share the campus amicably and, in their own words, “be a good neighbor” to the school.
“We have a long history of being a good neighbor,” Douglas Weston, Green Dot’s director of communications and campaigns, told The Argonaut after the meeting.
Weston cited the coexistence between Animo Venice High School, a Green Dot high school, and Broadway Elementary School in Venice as an example of how the charter organization can get along with a host school.
Under Proposition 39, a 2000 ballot measure, charter schools can be given space on a traditional school’s campus if there are existing classrooms and bungalows that are not being used or are underused.
Securing space has been a challenge for charter schools, even in the wake of Prop. 39.
“Everyone wants good schools in their neighborhood, but where are they going to go?” Weston asked. “We’re working with Mississippi resources with New York-style real estate.”
Charter operators have accused LAUSD of conspiring to keep them off of district campuses, and last year the California Charter School Association sued the school district, claiming that LAUSD was improperly denying district charter school operators the campus space that they are entitled to under Proposition 39.
Green Dot wants to use five of what some consider “non-instructional” classrooms: a room that has been used as a parents center and English as a Second Language room; a music room, a science laboratory, a technology laboratory and an arts room.
Several parents were concerned about a popular after-school program, L.A.’s Best, becoming a casualty of the middle school’s arrival, but the school’s administrators assured them that it would remain in place.
Past President of the Westminster Elementary Parent-Teachers Association Coby Dahlstrom wanted to know if the learning garden for kindergartners that parents and volunteers take a great deal of pride in will continue to be accessible if Green Dot takes over some classrooms.
“(The garden) was created for our teeny tots and our special needs children, and we’re worried that it will not be accessible by our kindergartners,” she said.
Charter schools have not been shy about their desire to open a middle school in the Venice/Mar Vista area for years. Barbara Einstein, a board member of the Parent Revolution, circulated an e-mail in 2008 to parents of elementary school children, asking them to sign a petition to create a local charter middle school.
The Parent Revolution, a parental education reform organization, is affiliated with Green Dot and many of the charter operator’s board members are now with the parent group.
James Encinas, a teachers union representative at the school, invited Green Dot representatives to come to Westminster Elementary to explain to parents, faculty and administrators about their organization’s plans.
“I appreciate the work that you guys do,” he said. “I’m not against charters, just so you know.”
Dahlstrom, whose fourth-grade son attends the magnet school, was one of the parents who helped get Einstein’s petition for a charter middle school signed.
“I think a lot of us are very much on the fence about (Green Dot coming to Westminster), very much ‘we want that, but not in our backyard,’” she said.
LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer, who represents Venice schools, attended the assembly and made it clear that while he has nothing against Green Dot, he was not in favor of a charter middle school setting up shop on a traditional school campus.
“I do believe in choice and options, and I do believe that there should be a charter middle school choice for Venice,” Zimmer told the audience. “But I do not believe that the choice for some parents should be at the expense, or the cost, for parents in the home school,” he added.
Zimmer also disagrees with setting aside the classrooms that have been targeted for use by Green Dot, as did many of the teachers at the meeting.
“I do not believe that computer labs, parents centers and science centers should be considered non-instructional,” he said.
Sue Kaplan, a classroom volunteer at Westminster, challenged Green Dot officials and Zimmer about the possible loss of the five classrooms.
“If you care so much about education, if you care so much about these children, why do you give half the school away and compromise what these students and teachers and principals have given these kids?” Kaplan asked.
Weston said Green Dot officials were planning to do a walk-through of the campus beginning Feb. 12 to see what their options might be regarding classrooms.
“We can’t make any determinations until we’ve done our walk-through,” he said. “What we were hearing about this and other things that came up during the conversation was a lot of fear and quite frankly, some NIMBYism (an acronym for ‘not in my backyard’).”
Questioned about that charge, Dahlstrom responded, “I had to speak up for some of the parents who signed (the Parent Revolution’s) petition. I am thrilled with the Green Dot charter having been approved, and I am not displeased with it being here.”
Dahlstrom, who signed the petitions, says she respects Green Dot’s reputation for educating students. “I would rather have signed those petitions and have that be an option, and have to deal with putting them here than not. So I stand by my decision,” she asserted.
Zimmer said there is land in other areas of District 4, which includes Westchester, Venice, Del Rey, Marina del Rey and Mar Vista, where a charter school could be established, but did not identify where they were.
Weston said reform-minded parents can no longer wait for LAUSD to reform itself and the need for a charter middle school is stronger than ever. “How many more grades are going to be lost before we get a school?” he asked. “That’s why there’s this urgency.”
After the meeting, Zimmer said that parents and teachers who are uneasy about the charter school’s impending arrival at Westminster still have options that they can pursue, but did not elaborate on them.
“I say that it’s not a done deal because it’s not final until April 1, but the offer has been made, so that part of it is done,” the school board member told The Argonaut. “One of my problems with Proposition 39 is that it doesn’t allow people to raise their voice, but there is still a process.”