Collaboration with LMU would create a math and science pipeline from Playa Vista Elementary

By Gary Walker

Students can take coding classes at Playa Vista Elementary School, which emphasizes science and technology Photo by Shilah Montiel

Students can take coding classes at Playa Vista Elementary School, which emphasizes science and technology
Photo by Shilah Montiel

Nine years ago, parents in Westchester sought to break from the Los Angeles Unified School District in order to self-govern local schools with assistance from Loyola Marymount University.

That effort ultimately failed, but new plans to open a new middle school next year on the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets campus (formerly Westchester High School) would come with at least some degree of academic autonomy.

LAUSD and LMU administrators will discuss details about the middle school proposal — who can attend, why the WESM campus, how local governance could take shape — at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 29, on the 7400 Manchester Ave. campus.

For clues, look just down the hill to Playa Vista. The new middle school would continue the popular STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum at Playa Vista Elementary School, and LMU would provide teacher development, training and support, similar to what is already happening at Playa Vista Elementary.

“The school would serve as an LMU School of Education teaching demonstration site at the secondary level that creates an innovative and collaborative learning culture for students, teachers, parents, community members and researchers,” states an LAUSD document dated Nov. 15.

Grades six and seven would begin in 2017, with eighth grade classrooms coming online the following year.

Students who live in Playa Vista, Playa del Rey and Westchester and who live within the enrollment feeding program for Westchester schools would be recruited for the middle school, according to LAUSD.

“The enrollment procedures will be shared at the Nov. 29 community meeting. LAUSD Local District West is working collaboratively with our LMU partners and the school communities,” said Local District Superintendent Karen Long.

LAUSD Board of Education President Steve Zimmer emphasized that while the school would in many ways be a natural transition for Playa Vista students, enrollment would be open to all students.

“We do not create exclusive pathways. We do not have admission criteria. This will be a public middle school pathway in every way,” he asserted. “We are going to ensure that students who have been in this model can continue, but it will not be only them.”

One obstacle to opening a new Westside middle school could be United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s largest teachers union.

In order for the school to have autonomy from the district, UTLA would be required to waive some of the contractual obligations that it has with LAUSD.

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl did not return calls for comment.

Zimmer, who represents Westside communities, thinks what the union would be asked to relinquish is minimal.

“I think what we’ll be asking them to waive will be limited and only for teachers who opt into this mode. We shouldn’t be afraid of having the dexterity to see if several instructional models work,” said Zimmer, who has received support from the union in his prior elections.

Michele Cooley-Strickland, chair of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa Education Committee, said a local middle school could offset the exodus of area students to other school districts and to charter schools in recent years.

“We are hopeful that a new demonstration laboratory middle school partnership between LAUSD and LMU would serve not only the elementary students in the existing feeder schools but, importantly, attract, enroll and retain Westchester / Playa Del Rey / Playa Vista families who would otherwise send their children to private, parochial, independent and charter schools — or even move away because of perceived limited public school options,” she said.

Playa Vista resident Thomas Schulte is a big fan of the curriculum at Playa Vista Elementary, where his daughter attends second grade.

“The education that she receives is beyond anything else that I’ve seen. And to see that continued into middle school is a great opportunity for Playa Vista students and for the surrounding community as well,” Schulte said.

Cooley-Strickland acknowledged that there are two other middle schools that serve students near Westchester and Playa del Rey — Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester and Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey — but described both as under-enrolled.

“This is not due to an insufficiency of sixth- to eighth-grade children residing in Westchester-Playa,” she said.

Zimmer said the primary reason for a new middle school is to expand what the school district considers an exceptional academic model.

“We don’t necessarily need a third middle school. What we need is a way to continue the very creative instructional partnership that we have with LMU,”
he explained.