Bolstered by an August 25th vote by the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education that will permit independent operators and charter schools to seek control of schools that are not performing at a high academic level, an organization with ties to a prominent nonprofit charter school operation is exploring the possibility of creating such a school in Venice.
Barbara Einstein, a Mar Vista resident who belongs to the Parent Revolution, sent a recent e-mail to parents in Venice, asking them to gather signatures in order to initiate a charter middle school.
“As you know, on August 25th the Public School Choice Resolution was passed by the LAUSD school board. If implemented correctly, this resolution is going to give parents like us better options and choices in our schools,” Einstein wrote.
“But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that we can no longer wait for LAUSD and their huge bureaucracy to take action. That’s why we are going to begin to collect parent signatures for a new charter middle school in Venice to serve our children.
“In order to make this charter school possible, we need over 100 signatures from parents of current fifth graders.”
The e-mail was directed to Coby Dahlstrom, the president of the Westminster Endowment Group, which functions as a booster club for the elementary school.
The Parent Revolution is a group of parents and residents concerned with how LAUSD is educating its students. Some of its organizers, like Ben Austin, have previous ties to Green Dot Charter School.
In June, several members of the Parent Revolution whose children attend Walgrove Elementary signed a petition demanding that LAUSD transform their schools from what some consider to be failing institutions into high quality schools. If their demands are not met, they pledged to explore the possibility of enrolling their children in a charter school.
Dahlstrom, whose son is a third-grader at Westminster Avenue Elementary School, has a very positive impression of Green Dot schools.
“I think its policies are outstanding,” Dahlstrom told The Argonaut. “There is a definite interest in charter schools.”
But she also sees merit in improving upon schools that some in LAUSD and others might see as “underperforming.”
“It’s disheartening to hear that some people want to split children up,” Dahlstrom said. “I think that Westminster is an amazing campus, and I’m not sure that all of us need to go around saying that the sky is falling.”
Dahlstrom said that this is not the first time that petitions to create a charter middle school in Venice have been circulated.
“We’ve signed two different petitions in the past,” she said.
Some in the parent organization have targeted Mark Twain Middle School as low performing, and that is in part why Green Dot and other charter schools are considering establishing a beachhead in Venice and Mar Vista.
Nonprofit charter schools like Green Dot and other independent operators may now file applications to take over the management of schools that are deemed underperforming or failing, following the school board’s vote last month.
The school district has designed criteria for the bidding process for which entities that wish to take control of a school must follow. In October, LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines will make available applications that each potential new school’s operators will be required to submit.
Applicants must also submit summary letters regarding their intentions of taking over a school, undergo an application review process, present their plan to each school community that they seek to take over and receive the approval of the superintendent and a select panel.
The school board will vote on all applications before the decisions are delivered to the entity that wishes to assume operation of a school.
“This is a road map to get people’s ideas,” Cortines said. “The fact that both (charters and union members) are uneasy over the plan lets me know the process is balanced.”
The superintendent has recommended that organizations that bid on the schools must be public, nonprofit charters with a proven track record for running successful schools.
There is some concern among parents, educators and United Teachers Los Angeles with respect to the term “failing or underperforming.” Mark Twain Middle School Principal Ra™l Fernandez believes that a school’s test scores are not the sole indicator of a school’s progress or failure.
The middle school’s Academic Performance Index score two years ago was 651, but the rating represented a 45-point jump. Last year, it increased six points.
“Our school would qualify under the district’s school choice plan (to be taken over by another operator),” Fernandez said.
The principal noted that in recent years, attendance has increased and suspensions are down, in addition to the API improvement. Yet, he acknowledged that his school would qualify as underperforming, according to the new school choice guidelines.
“I don’t consider our school to be failing,” Fernandez said.
Dahlstrom says that she has heard both good and bad stories about Mark Twain, and also worries that the term underperforming can be subjective.
“There are definite problems with the bureaucracy at LAUSD, but there are also some people who are very controlling who want more control of the schools,” she said.
Fernandez said that Cortines was at Mark Twain recently and seemed impressed by the improvements.
“That was very encouraging,” the principal said.
Parent Revolution officials say that they are merely exploring options on the Westside.
“Our goal is not to ‘charterize’ the district,’” Austin, a former board member with Green Dot Charter Schools, stated earlier this summer. “The two criteria that we would have for a charter school in the Venice-Mar Vista area would be that they are nonprofit and that they are high-performing.”
Parents at Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary School in Venice helped turn their neighborhood school around over the last five years by creating a booster club, raising money for special programs and a library, and working with a principal committed to improving the student’s academic performance.
Although she supports charter schools, Dahlstrom feels that if more parents and community members who view some schools as failing took more time to help improve them, there would be less students attending “underperforming” schools.
“I understand the frustration on the part of many parents and I think that having many options is always good,” she said. “But if everyone got involved instead of having fear about a particular school and sent their children to the neighborhood school, our schools would improve.
“You have to break down the fear barrier,” Dahlstrom added. “That is something that I find very distressing.”
Einstein and school board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Mar Vista and Venice schools, did not return calls for comment.