In an effort to have more influence in decision-making in teacher hiring, financial matters and programming that will lure more students back to their school, Mark Twain Middle School’s governance council has taken the first step toward becoming an affiliated charter school. The council voted 5-0 in favor of the proposal with two abstentions.

Plans have been underway for several years to explore giving teachers more decision-making authority at the Mar Vista middle school, said the United Teachers of Los Angeles representative at Mark Twain.

“This will not be like an independent charter company,” Jean Caravella, the middle school’s UTLA chapter chair, explained. “This would be an affiliated charter school, which means that the Los Angeles Unified School District would still maintain the facilities, payroll and special education services the way that they are now.

“But the school site would have greater autonomy over curriculum and instruction, staff selection and budgeting.”

The petition has been brought before LAUSD’s Charter Division, which did not respond to inquiries about the proposal from The Argonaut.

Mark Twain Principal Rex Patton was one of the abstaining votes.

Caravella also touched on the teachers at the school having greater responsibility and freedom and staff selection with an affiliated charter.

“We want greater accountability for teachers (who) want to be here and really want to put their all into this school,” she said. “We believe that we should be more accountable.

“(The charter conversion) will also help us stabilize programs at the school, and allow us to focus on real quality, meaningful professional development.”

Mark Twain’s academic reputation, although it appeared to regain some of its scholastic footing in recent years, slid a bit on its Academic Performance Index (API) scores for 2010-11, and is still trying to win back local families, many who have decided to send their children to other schools.

In addition, the school will face increasing competition several blocks down at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School in approximately four years if the LAUSD Board of Education approves of a land lease proposal at the elementary school.

LAUSD is offering a 2-acre parcel of land to a charter school in order to ease the stress brought by colocations through Proposition 39, which allows charter organizations to share unused and underutilized classrooms at traditional schools.

Ocean Charter School, which is involved in a colocation at Walgrove, and Green Dot Public Schools have applied for the land lease, and many parents in the Venice and Mar Vista neighborhoods have expressed hope that the charter school has a middle school component because of a desire for a middle school alternative to Mark Twain.

Fred Ceballos, whose daughter attends Mark Twain and is a member of the school site council, questioned how much the proposal had been discussed among other interested parties at school.

“You’re not getting any input or feedback from (others),” he accused.

Caravella said the proposal had been discussed at several meetings with parents as well as teachers in prior community meetings.

Ceballos wanted to know if any teachers would be displaced in the process, to which Caravella assured him they would not.

“When you say charter, that’s the first thing that comes to mind,” Ceballos countered. He said he had been very vocal about opposing a charter at Mark Twain when the former principal, Raul Fernandez, was at the middle school.

Caravella said one of the benefits of a conversion charter as opposed to an independent charter like Ocean Charter or Green Dot is that Mark Twain, if its proposal is approved, can continue to entice local students.

“Element eight of the charter document deals with admissions and enrollment policies. Ours clearly states that all students living in the current attendance area of Mark Twain will automatically be admitted,” she explained. “They do not have to go through any sort of lottery process. We will then admit other students in much the same way we currently do through open enrollment.”

According to the charter proposal, once the school reaches capacity and cannot serve all students who wish to attend, a lottery system for students outside of the residential area would take place, but those students in Mark Twain’s attendance area would not have to participate in that lottery because they are guaranteed a spot.

Non-resident students wishing to apply who are not accepted through the lottery would then be placed on a waiting list.

Independent charters select students based on a citywide lottery.

Caravella, a history teacher in her seventh year at Mark Twain, said past experience played a large factor in the decision to apply as a converted charter.

“In the past, we have been faced with those who want to ‘take over’ our campus and turn it into an independent charter run by a charter management organization,” she said. “One of the many reasons that we did not believe that would be a good solution for our school is that we were afraid all of our current students might not be granted entry to such a school.”

After the vote, Patton discussed his thoughts on the charter plan with The Argonaut in his office.

“I think we need to be focused on instruction,” Patton said, noting that Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey had scored 50 percent and above in algebra in an adequate yearly progrees report, while his school has scored 13.

The principal, who came to the middle school last year, acknowledged that there were parts of the petition that he liked. “There are some good elements to the charter,” Patton conceded. “But I think that we need to be focused on instruction.

“When this school starts turning it around academically, then we’ll have a long waiting list of people to get in.”

Mark Twain is also in its first year with a new world languages magnet, and Patton says he does not anticipate any conflict with the new charter, if it is approved.

Caravella thinks including more faculty and parents in decision-making will help the school function in a more cohesive fashion.

“I realize that governance is not necessarily what turns test scores around,” the teacher acknowledged. “We feel that parents and teachers have a good idea of what is needed here.”

Patton, who helped engineer a turnaround at Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary School in Venice several years ago, said he will continue to do his best to shepherd his school in the right direction.

“I’ve always been about action, instruction and raising scores and moving things forward, and I think if I stay focused on that, that’s what’s going to want to make people knock down our doors and get on waiting lists,” he reiterated.

The LAUSD school board must approve the petition before it becomes official.a