Metro Charter school's vision coming into focus

Founded in 2013, Metro Charter has a promising future and is seeking to expand

What if you could create your dream school for your kids, one that's high-tech and hands-on; diverse and genteel; an urban beehive of creativity with a suburban sense of security?

That's what a group of young upscale parents in South Park set out to do three years ago. They loved their neighborhood's edgy feel, but wanted something for their children less gritty and more academically challenging than the local skid row-adjacent elementary school.

On park outings, during play dates and at dinner parties they drafted a 150-page charter school proposal, which was approved by the Los Angeles school board in 2013.

Their move to bypass local schools didn't sit well with some. Los Angeles has 264 publicly funded charter schools, more than any district in the country; their proliferation and loose oversight have been sore points.

Detractors see them as a tool of union-busting, corporate-driven reform. Supporters say they reflect parents' hunger for public school choice. And I wonder how a movement that was once considered a route to innovation has become such a divisive force.

Steve Zimmer, a teachers union ally, was the lone board member to vote against Metro Charter. He worried that allowing niche outlets for newcomers might deprive local schools of resources they need.

"When a neighborhood gentrifies, one of the potential great positives is getting a diverse group of parents engaged with our neighborhood public schools," he said then. "And I worry that if every time a neighborhood gentrifies, our response is to just create another charter school, we're missing a tremendous opportunity."

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I wrote about Metro Charter when it was just a vision. I visited last week to see the reality.

Its creators had six months to raise money, recruit students, hire teachers and find an empty space downtown that they could turn into a campus. The school opened in August 2013 in classrooms vacated by a preschool on the California Medical Center complex, just south of L.A. Live.

The founders had hoped for 100 students; 75 signed up. That made its L.A. Unified overseers a little concerned about financial stability. But in its second year, enrollment doubled to 150. Now there's a waiting list for kindergarten, plans to add fourth grade, and more than 60 new students enrolled for this fall.

The student body was more diverse than I expected. Half the students qualify for free- or reduced-priced lunches, a poverty indicator, and the school subsidizes after-school care for families who can't afford it.

District monitors now say that Metro Charter has a "promising future" as a downtown option. Its biggest problem may be finding a new space so it can keep growing.

Amenities are not a selling point. The lunch room and yard are so small that students eat and play in shifts. When first-graders were asked to write essays about what they would change on campus, the most common complaint was the cramped playground, followed by bathroom doors that don't lock and rules against candy and gum.

The school is bright and clean, and classrooms are humming with energy. Even kindergartners use laptops — but they also use paint and markers and glue sticks and sequins and beads.

"I had to educate parents, Principal Kim Clerx said. "We are not going to be traditional. [Students] are going be building and tinkering and creating. They're not going to be sitting nicely in rows."

The halls are lined with essays and art projects. First-graders conduct debates and poetry readings to practice logic and public speaking. Kindergartners study the abstract art of Kandinsky to prepare for geometry. Third-graders ride public buses to Chinatown and Olvera Street, then write essays comparing and contrasting the two cultures.

And parents get plenty of chances to volunteer.

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Metro Charter is on its second principal; the first one, campus board members told me, didn't work out.

That made the value of being an independent charter undeniably clear.

"If we were [part of] L.A. Unified, they would have just sent us somebody, anybody," said Mike McGalliard, one of the founders. Instead, the school's governing board was able to hire Clerx from the Lawndale school district, where her specialty was the project-based approach to learning that Metro Charter's curriculum is built around.

That sort of flexibility can make a lot of difference. Schools work better when everyone's pulling in the same direction.

That's what impressed me most on my visit to Metro Charter. Parents, teachers and school leaders seem to share a vision and a sense of enthusiasm that can't help but trickle into the classroom.

It hasn't been an easy two years; it's hard to create a school from scratch and keep it running smoothly. And what the Metro Charter founders seem to be most proud of is not the school's singular mission, but its broad diversity.

Some of them had wrestled with doubts during its early days. Were they closet elitists — or just committed parents doing the best thing for their children?

McGalliard had spent years at the helm of LA's Promise, a nonprofit that aims to improve inner-city schools. Now he sits comfortably on the board of Metro Charter, where his only child just finished first grade.

"I'd made a vow not to get into charter schools," he recalled. "That lasted until I had a daughter."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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