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The newest battlefield in L.A. Unified's enrollment war is a boys school

Christina Fuller was down to the wire.

With less than one week to go before the new school year, the Willowbrook mother who works in students services at Santa Monica College still didn’t know where her son would start sixth grade.

So one night last week, she brought Robert, a quiet 11-year-old wearing a Minecraft T-shirt, to an orientation she stumbled upon online for the district’s newest offering: the Boys Academic Leadership Academy.

The school, known as BALA, emphasizes science, technology, arts, engineering and math, or STEAM education. Classes at the Washington Prep campus in South L.A. begin Tuesday.

L.A. Unified opened a boys’ school in part to comply with its interpretation of a federal regulation after it launched the single-sex Girls Academic Leadership Academy in Mid-City last year. But it’s also the kind of unusual offering that the district hopes will help its ongoing fight to recapture enrollment — and revenue — lost to charter schools.

“The district is trying to give parents a unique opportunity they feel they can’t get through charter schools,” said Tyrone Howard, a professor and associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA’s education and information school. But, he said, “you can’t just say it, you have to ensure the quality of the school.”

You also have to get students to enroll, which so far is a problem. The school was slated to serve 200 students in the first year, in grades six and seven, with plans eventually to add eighth grade and a high school. By Friday, Principal Donald Moorer said, about 100 were enrolled.

Fuller was one of just three parents or guardians at BALA that night — though Moorer said that was because the school had already held many such sessions.

Moorer is BALA’s second principal. The district named the first one last year, promoting a career administrator, Jeremy McDavid. McDavid hired some teachers and designed the school’s program. In July, he was transferred to View Park Continuation School, on the campus of Dorsey High School in Crenshaw, to swap places with Moorer, its principal.

The leadership change has been noticed. At the orientation, Amber Banks, who attended on behalf of a foster child, asked for McDavid because she’d learned about the school from him at a presentation to a Boy Scouts troop.

McDavid declined to speak on the record. “He’s moved on to another school where he can lead a school that already has high enrollment,” said L.A. Unified spokesman Sam Gilstrap.

Moorer said he was glad to inherit a fully developed program. “Growing up, I would have benefited from this program,” he said.

When Moorer started at BALA, 30 students were enrolled, he said. “A lot of it has to do with marketing and getting information out,” he said. “I’ve been knocking on doors.”

For her part, Fuller said she was looking for a place where "Robert won't just pass through school."

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BALA is modeled after Eagle Academies, a group of all-boys schools in New York. Rosemary Salomone, a professor at St. John’s University law school who wrote the book “Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling,” said she was impressed by the Bronx site’s communal feel. It gave students, she said, “a positive image of what it means to be an African American male.”

Others question the need for the schools. Sarah Bradshaw, West Coast political director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said creating a STEM-focused all-boys school only widens the gap between males and females represented in those fields. “How do we catch up when extra resources are diverted to ... supporting boys’ education?” she said.

At the orientation, Moorer talked about the new school in a recently renovated classroom. Its eight desks had been set up in two groups to facilitate collaboration.

Each day at BALA, he said, will start with a schoolwide town hall in which a student would be chosen to pour “libations.” The boys will also recite the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.””

John Aquino, the school counselor, carried in a small potted tree and filled a black pitcher with water.

Students will state what they’re grateful for during the libation, which consists of watering the tree, Moorer said. “You’ll come in every day with a positive feeling.”

Only one young man, Robert, was present for the orientation, so Moorer asked him to come forward and say what made him grateful. “Come on, tell us what you’re interested in, I appreciate you,” the new principal said.

Robert slowly strolled forward and quietly said, “I’m thankful for my family.” Moorer clapped and thanked him for his courage.

He said he wanted to create a culture in which right answers are rewarded and students feel comfortable owning up to what they don’t know. Each classroom, he said, will have a “mistake board” on which a student can volunteer his “mistake of the day” so that other boys can learn from it.

The school, Moorer said, will be divided into four houses, which will compete for points and rewards based on character. Boys who misbehave or struggle won’t be suspended. They’ll face a tribunal or an “intervention circle” or a “harm circle” to discuss the root causes.

There will be a mentoring program, a digital portfolio of students’ work, an effort to teach students to be aware of how they think and process information. Every student will take music class, and contemplate college early by visiting USC on the first day of school. Eighth-graders, Moorer said, can earn college credits at nearby Middle City College.

As Moorer described a daily “wellness break,” an afternoon period in which the boys will recharge through tai chi, yoga or meditation, Fuller sat up taller and nodded. After his presentation, Moorer said he was confident about the school’s future.

“As the word gets out, as they really need us, it will grow,” he said.

Fuller was sold. She said she thought BALA would give Robert a well-rounded education — he was particularly jazzed about a potential robotics competition.

“I still want him to socialize with girls,” Fuller said. “It’s a cool idea to be with all boys learning these subjects. But maybe that’s just an idealized, romantic view of education.”

Joy.Resmovits@LATimes.com

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