Green Dot Public Schools CEO Marco Petruzzi at Animo Westside Middle School, which opens Monday

Green Dot Public Schools CEO Marco Petruzzi at Animo Westside Middle School, which opens Monday

After a $5-million investment, Animo Westside Middle School opens on Monday across from the incoming Playa Vista Whole Foods

By Gary Walker

It has been a long time coming for Green Dot Public Schools CEO Marco Petruzzi, but on Monday the charter school group will finally open its brand new Westside school.

The two-story, 21,000-square-foot Animo Westside Middle School stands at the northeastern corner of Jefferson Boulevard and McConnell Avenue, directly across from the future Whole Foods Market that will anchor the Runway at Playa Vista retail district.

Animo Westside has enrolled about 450 students evenly divided among the sixth, seventh and eighth grades and will be operated by 21 teachers and seven staff members, Petruzzi said.

Green Dot, he said, spent $5 million to renovate and reconfigure the former home of Mercury Air Group, which it is leasing. The site is positioned about a mile away from two K-5 schools — Playa Vista Elementary and Playa del Rey Elementary.

For the past three years, Green Dot middle schoolers have shared campus space with Cowan Elementary School in Westchester, where the charter enrolled 351 students last year, according to the California Dept. of Education.

“We finally have a school all to ourselves,” said Petruzzi, a Venice resident.

Though Green Dot students and teachers were treated cordially, “We were guests at Cowan in a very tight situation. With a co-location, you’re there on a year-to-year basis and you’re not on equal terms with the host school,” he continued. “We couldn’t continue in that same space, and we’re happy to have a home with our own space.”

Considering the large number of young families in Playa Vista and the 2,600 new homes currently under construction there, there may have been no better place to build a middle school than right across the street.

That, and the closeness to Playa del Rey Elementary, isn’t lost on Petruzzi.

“If a student is coming out of either school and their parents are looking for a quality education, I would imagine that we are a good option,” he said.

But that wasn’t the plan. Petruzzi, a Venice resident, said Green Dot had actually hoped to open Animo Westside in Venice or Mar Vista — where hundreds of parents petitioned for a Green Dot charter middle school several years ago — but couldn’t find a good fit.

“Our intention all along was to have a middle school near our [Animo Venice Charter] high school,  but finding land on the Westside that is big enough for a school and then purchasing it is not very easy,” he said.

Next year’s Animo Westside enrollment has been chosen via lottery, with about 80% to 90% expected to come from within a five-mile radius. Demographics aren’t available until students actually show up, but “we generally attract a high percentage of minority students,” Petruzzi said.

Venice parent Troy Takaki, a film and television editor, said the Playa Vista-adjacent middle school may be close enough.

“I’m very excited that we’re going to have our own campus, even if it’s not in Venice,” Takaki said.

The portion of LAUSD from El Segundo to north Venice and east to Culver City already contains a number of charter schools, some of them sharing space with public school campuses.

Animo Venice Charter High School, for example, is located on the campus of Broadway Elementary School.

While that arrangement has reportedly gone smoothly, several others have not. In 2011, Green Dot looked to co-locate with Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice, but the proposal ran into a buzz saw of opposition from elementary school parents who didn’t want their kids sharing space with much older students.

Many of the parents who complained had also signed the petition for a charter middle school, an irony that was not lost on Green Dot and caused the group to turn down LAUSD’s offer of classroom space at Westminster.

Two years later, Westside LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer proposed allowing charter schools to build on five acres at Walgrove Elementary School in Mar Vista, but the school board voted it down.

Zimmer said he is glad that Animo Westside Middle School has its own building.

“I’m always generally supportive of solutions that can relieve the tensions that have been created through co-location,” Zimmer said. ‘It’s actually a pretty good location.”

Coby Dahlstrom, a Westchester parent whose daughter is in the fourth grade at Cowan Elementary, said she would consider Green Dot for sixth grade now that it has its own campus.

“I’m a big fan of Green Dot. They do it the right way academically, and the best way for a charter to operate is when it has its own campus,” said Dahlstrom, who had signed the earlier petition for a Green Dot middle school and grappled with the co-location controversy while her children attended Westminster Elementary.

Petruzzi, meanwhile, is focused on the first day of school at Animo Westside.

“Now we can continue to do what we have always done — offer students a quality education — but in our own space,” he said.