Lessons from a disadvantaged children's charter school

Para Los Niños Charter School in an industrial part of downtown Los Angeles turns out to be a model for what upscale parents say they want for their children.

It's not exactly where you might expect to find an example of public school success:

The campus is in a former flower mart, across the street from the Greyhound station and a short walk from skid row in an industrial area of downtown Los Angeles.

But inside the Para Los Niños Charter School, children defined by disadvantage are proving skeptics wrong.

I paid a visit to the school last month, after I'd mentioned it in a column about an effort by parents in nearby South Park to create a new Metro Charter school for children living in the upscale neighborhoods near LA Live downtown.

Some of those parents seem to have written off nearby Para Los Niños; it's too poor, too Latino, too linguistically deprived to offer their children enough of a challenge. They are business owners, architects, technology creators, accountants — not elitists, just upscale high-achievers worried that their dreams and the school's aspirations wouldn't be a good fit.

Those are the kinds of concerns on many middle-class minds. Para Los Niños is a magnified version of a city school system that gets less diverse and more economically challenged with every passing year.

Of the 410 students on Para Los Ninos' elementary campus, 99% are Latino and 96% hail from low-income families. More than two-thirds of the students are not fluent in English.

But the school is proving that demographics are not destiny.

Its test scores are on par with many suburban public schools. And its curriculum relies on the sort of child-centered approach favored by progressive private schools with five-figure tuition.

Admission is by lottery, and the school has twice as many applications as open spots some years. Most students live in the garment district, but others come from as far away as Lennox and Long Beach.

"If you had our parents in a room and asked how many want their kids to go to college, 100% would raise their hands," Principal Titus Campos told me.

Still, Campos knows that the school's student-body profile turns some parents off. "We hear it all the time," he said.

When they try to recruit in other neighborhoods to diversify enrollment, "the question asked most is 'Where do the children come from? Are they all Latino?'"

Does that matter?, I asked sixth-grader Ron Bellamy. He's biracial but looks black and didn't speak Spanish when he came to Para Los Niños four years ago.

"It was perplexing at first," Ron admitted. "But there was always somebody around to translate." Most of his classmates spoke both Spanish and English. Instruction after second grade is in English only.

What mattered most to Ron was not skin color or language but the well-stocked library, lively music classes and elaborate art projects, he said. "My other school didn't have any of that."

What would he say to parents worried that their non-Latino children wouldn't fit? "They'd get along just like all of us. We don't put people in groups," he said. "We don't judge by race."


Social issues are part of the calculus that parents use to choose. But what happens in the classroom is what matters most. And the reality of Para Los Niños seems to me surprisingly close to the prospective Metro Charter's goals:

The focus is on learning by doing and fostering personal growth. Teachers aren't required to "teach to the test" but to reward curiosity and nurture creative thinking.