2By Gary Walker
Once adrift among the sea of schools seeking refuge at one of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s campuses, Westchester Secondary Charter School ended its odyssey last month when it found a home at a Westchester church.
The charter’s co-founders, Ann Wexler and Janet Landon, have always wanted to be in Westchester as the students of the community are their target audience. They say they have received applications from students from the surrounding areas of Mar Vista, Playa del Rey and Del Rey but also from the student feeder pattern of Westchester schools, Ladera Heights and Windsor Hills.
The site of the new charter is at 8820 East Sepulveda Speedway near La Tijera Boulevard, the former location of WISH Charter.
They are planning to open their doors for the first time Sept. 3.
The school will serve middle school students as well as ninth graders and plans to eventually add 10th, 11th and 12th grades.
Thus far, Westchester Secondary has had 250 applicants to the school, which according to Landon, who previously taught at Orville Wright Elementary School in Westchester, is close to capacity for the school’s first year.
“The demand was for sixth grade, where we have 100 students,” said Landon, who will be the school’s principal. “We’ve actually gone to a waiting list for sixth grade.”
The road to getting the school open for students this year was not an easy one. Their initial petition to the Los Angeles Unified School District was turned down by the Board of Education last year. Undeterred, Wexler and Landon tuned to the county Office of Education, which approved the charter school’s petition.
Then there was the problem of acquiring a building. They petitioned LAUSD under Proposition 39 for space at one of the district schools, hoping for a place in Westchester or at Venice High School.
Prop. 39, a 2000 voter approved ballot measure, provides charter operators with the opportunity to have space on traditional school campuses where classrooms are considered underutilized or vacant. School districts tender offers to charters at schools where these classrooms exist and charters then determine whether they will accept or refuse them.
After the district offered Westchester Secondary 14 classrooms at Bret Hart Middle School in downtown Los Angeles on April 2, Landon and Wexler decided to sue LAUSD.
In court papers, they contended that under Proposition 39, school districts are required to “make reasonable efforts to provide the charter school with facilities near where the charter school wishes to locate.”
As part of a settlement, LAUSD offered them space at Venice High. But during that time, the church site became available.
“It’s was obviously better for us to be here because this is Westchester and it’s where we’re supposed to be,” said Wexler, whose son will attend ninth grade at Westchester Secondary.
Landon said her background in theater production will be an asset to overseeing a charter school.
“A lot of this is about project management and about being able to coordinate a lot of different things, from operations to instruction to fundraising,” she explained. “I think you do a lot of that as a producer/director, and a lot of this is about empowering people to do their jobs well and knowing what their jobs are.”
Asked why families should consider her school, Landon replied, “I think the children here are going to get a very rigorous program that is highly supported to achievement. “We have a smaller class size than a lot of traditional schools and we have teachers that I specifically hired who are bright, scholarly people who are passionate about their field but have a big heart for children and want them to be successful.”
A recent study by Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes showed students attending charter schools have made some gains in reading as compared to their traditional school peers in the last four years. The June 25 report also found that charter students perform at approximately the same level in mathematics as students who attend traditional schools.
“There’s been slow and steady progress in the charter schools, but there still remains more to be done,” said Devora Davis, a research manager at the center.
The study, which included 25 states, noted that there are significant numbers of charter schools that are “either substantially worse than the local alternative or are insufficient to give their students the academic preparation they need to continue their education or be successful in the workforce.”
Landon took issue with the Stanford study, but she pointed out that other educational studies show many high school-aged students are having difficulties with college level course work. She says some of the selling points for her charter are that it will have tutoring and support for struggling students as part of the school day instead of an after school initiative, as is the case in many traditional schools.
“Sometimes students need support at a specific time, for a limited amount of time,” she noted. “(Many) traditional schools aren’t set up to be that flexible and malleable, but we are.”
Another feature that Landon thinks will appeal to parents is her philosophy on educators sharing information among each other.
“That kind of communication does not happen in a typical school, and I’m saying that from 20 years experience,” the principal said.
Wexler, whose daughter attended what is now Westchester Enriched Science Magnets, never expected to be a co-founder of a charter school. She and several other Westchester parents were involved in an attempt to gain autonomy for Westchester schools five years ago. Although the district promised to give Westchester independence in guiding its own schools, the initiative soon died due to budget cuts and what many autonomy supporters felt was bad faith on the part of LAUSD.
“I was not a fan of charter schools,” Wexler admitted. “But schools need to be able to make (critical) decisions for themselves, and that’s what we see in charters.”
Asked what she would like to see on the first day of school, Landon responded with a laugh, “I hope that everyone enjoys their lunch and goes home really excited about coming back for the second day.”
Information on Westchester Secondary School, www.westchestersecondarycharterschool.org.