By Gary Walker
A pilot school seeking to colocate at Venice High School was given the green light by the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education March 19, but its supporters will now be forced to wait and see where they will call home for the academic year 2013-14.
An amendment by LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer, whose district includes Venice High, allowed for the approval of the Incubator School but does not automatically allow it to establish itself at the high school, which its proponents had selected as their preferred location.
Zimmer, who has watched in recent weeks as parents and teachers from the high school have lobbied his office as well as the school district to keep the pilot school off of its campus, said the amendment would permit the Incubator School to be approved but also give “Venice stakeholders input into the (site selection) process.”
The high school’s existing school-based management groups would be required to vote on allowing the Incubator School to set up shop at Venice High, along with district approval.
Opponents of the pilot school were hoping to convince the board to postpone the matter until a deeper discussion could be held with a larger segment of the school community.
Sujata Bhatt, a fifth grade teacher at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista, is the architect of the Incubator School.
Pilot schools are somewhat of a hybrid of charter schools and traditional public schools. They have the freedoms – or some charter opponents say the lack of accountability – of charter schools but are under direct district control. Unlike most charters, instructors at these schools usually belong to United Teachers Los Angeles.
Their attraction comes in the way of flexibility and autonomy with hiring, governance and school curriculum. Pilots also tend to have a particular theme, and the Incubator School is geared toward entrepreneurship.
Bhatt describes pilot schools as “teacher-driven” models that are “the district’s answer to charter schools.”
Proponents of the school, which was approved by the pilot school steering committee last year, have hundreds of signed letters from families supporting the Incubator School, which hoped to begin sixth and seventh grades in Venice next year.
James Encinas, a fourth grade teacher on leave from Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice, pleaded with the board to approve the school.
“If you vote in favor of (the Incubator School), you will be validating the work of highly valued teachers,” he said. “A vote in favor is a vote for change and reform from within (LAUSD).”
Karen Wolfe, a parent at Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey, said very little was known about the school and an engaged group of parents and faculty members in Venice were unsure how it would affect their campus.
“We don’t know if this is a good idea or a bad idea,” she told the board. “We ask you to please slow down the process.”
At a community meeting at the high school days before the board vote, LAUSD officials were met with angry protests about the pilot school coming to their campus.
While a few people in the audience did not appear to take issue with the notion of another school colocating with them, the majority of parents and faculty from the high school questioned the lateness of the notification of the date of the board’s vote as well as what many feel is LAUSD’s lack of respect for its magnet program, which they say has not been given sufficient resources in order to grow.
Many complained that they learned of the meeting on the same day, March 15.
LAUSD officials Rachel Bonkovsky and Cheryl Hildreth sought to explain that there had been a miscommunication between the district and the Venice High administration that led to the delay in notice.
Health and swimming teacher Sophie Sabbah said having middle school students on the campus with high school teenagers could lead to trouble. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” the teacher told the district representatives.
Others stated that they did not want a school made up of an “elitist and entitled group of parents” who would not give their school a second look after they graduated from middle school.
Bonkovsky, LAUSD’s executive director of division of intensive and intervention support, in a previous interview said the pilot schools are a reform approach that the district likes. “This is a model that we’re very excited about,” she said.
Venice High School Parent Teacher and Student Association President Kristin Duerr, like many at the community meeting, had a sense that LAUSD had a plan that did not take the views of those who opposed the pilot school into account.
“The whole thing feels like a conspiracy, like they were hoping to get through with the vote and discuss later,” she asserted. “I think (LAUSD officials) weren’t banking on Zimmer winning (his election against challenger Kate Anderson), so with Anderson on board, the vote would have gone through without any notice.”
Zimmer said having a new, innovative teacher-led school and allowing the existing magnet school to grow were competing and difficult choices for the school board.
“I am struggling with how to deal with change and questions of space within the Venice complex,” he said.
Before the meeting, Bhatt, a nationally certified teacher, said her school was not a threat to Venice High and she is seeking to create a new paradigm within LAUSD.
“I have a deep connection to teaching and a passion for advocating for kids,” she said. “The world is changing and it’s time to take some risks and explore new possibilities.”
The Grand View elementary teacher said she will look for other locations if Venice High is no longer a viable option.
Bhatt is being assisted by Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr, who is no longer with the charter organization.