LAUSD scraps plan to build $30-million home for popular language immersion program in Mar Vista

By Gary Walker

Mark Twain Middle School won’t be hosting elementary-level immersion students next year

Mark Twain Middle School won’t be hosting elementary-level immersion students next year

A decision last week by LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines to halt construction of a $30-million addition to the Mark Twain Middle School campus in Mar Vista has been met with elation by residents opposed to the project but drawn the ire of families enrolled in one of the Westside’s most popular public education initiatives.

On May 27, Cortines announced that he was rescinding a decision last year by the LAUSD board to build a two-story, 33,000-square-foot classroom building at Mark Twain for the expanding Mandarin Chinese dual-language immersion program currently based at Broadway Elementary School in Venice.

The plan sought to connect the program’s elementary-level students with the middle school’s world language magnet as part of LAUSD board member Steven Zimmer’s language immersion pipeline.

“I believe that Broadway should continue to offer a Mandarin foreign language immersion program for the long-term, it should not be relocated and the construction at Mark Twain should not move forward,” Cortines wrote in a letter to Broadway parents and Mar Vista residents.

The letter cites fierce local opposition to the project, including concerns about increased traffic and loss of open space.

Officials expect to house the Mandarin immersion students once bound for Mark Twain in bungalows on the Broadway Elementary campus in order to accommodate growth of Broadway’s Spanish immersion program.

Lily Chan, who has a son attending Mandarin immersion second-grade classes and a daughter heading into the program at the kindergarten level this fall, called Cortines’ decision “gut-wrenching.”

“We put our faith as a community in LAUSD and their decision to transition us to Mark Twain. We stood by their plan, even through months of public bullying by Mar Vista residents and unhappy Beethoven parents who unjustifiably felt that our gain equaled their loss. Our parents, staff, teachers, and principal have worked for countless hours figuring out a way to easily transition our program through the two years of existing on a split campus. Our faith in LAUSD has been destroyed, and our hard work has been for naught,” said Chan, a co-president of the Mandarin parent council.

Chan feels that Cortines caved to pressure from a grassroots opposition group called Stop the Commuter School and the West Mar Vista Homeowners Association, a campaign that saw some critics directing catcalls and insults toward Mandarin immersion parents at community meetings.

In addition to quality of life concerns, some opponents cast the Mandarin immersion parents as outsiders who were displacing area youth from their neighborhood school.

Zimmer, who represents Westside neighborhoods, was a strong supporter of moving Mandarin immersion students to Mark Twain.

“The last time that I looked I am the policymaker. And as the policy maker here, I’m going to push the administration to address this educational imperative,” Zimmer said. “If we lose the chance now to establish these changes rooted in instructional change, that change will eventually happen, but the collateral damage will be incalculable.”

Cortines is also reducing the number of planned Mandarin immersion kindergarten classes from four to two.

“This reversal significantly hinders our growth and our chance of creating a strong middle school pathway. Hell hath no fury like a parent whose children might be forced to stay on an unsafe, overcrowded campus,” said Mandarin immersion parent Lolly Ward.

Zimmer says the fight isn’t over.

“I expect a redesign of the proposed construction can address the aforementioned issues and that it remains the most appropriate instructional plan. If it cannot, I expect the superintendent to present an alternative plan to move forward that honors all the LAUSD programs in question and the families who chose these programs. For public education to work we must have dynamic choices for families, and we must be willing to invest in those choices,” Zimmer wrote in a letter to constituents last week.

Mar Vista resident Saeed Ali, concerned about traffic as well as spending taxpayer dollars on new construction while many Westside classrooms remain under-enrolled, praised Cortines.

“Dr. Cortines has made the right decision after a comprehensive review of analyses from LAUSD experts in instruction, administration, finance, facilities and environmental management as well as the views of parents, teachers, school principals and community,” he said.