Geography lesson

Roberson squeezes in one more lesson before her students leave for the day. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Over the last decade, a quiet revolution took root in the nation's second-largest school district.

Fueled by money and emboldened by clout from some of the city's most powerful figures, charter schools began a period of explosive growth that has challenged the status quo in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Today, Los Angeles is home to more than 160 charter schools, far more than any other U.S. city. Charter enrollment is up nearly 19% this year from last, while enrollment in traditional L.A. public schools is down. And a once-hostile school board has become increasingly charter-friendly, despite resistance from the teachers union. In September, the board agreed to let charters bid on potentially hundreds of existing campuses and on all 50 of its planned new schools.

Charter schools now are challenging L.A. Unified from without and within. Not only are charter school operators such as Green Dot Public Schools and ICEF Public Schools opening new schools that compete head-to-head with L.A. Unified, but the district's own schools are showing increasing interest in jumping ship by converting to charter status.

In the most recent example, Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Lake Balboa broke free from the district last summer after a wrenching battle among members of its teaching staff. Under state law, a school can apply for charter conversion if a majority of its tenured teachers petition for the change.

Charters are taking students not just from traditional public schools but also from private schools. Particularly as the economy has soured, many parents see no reason to pay for school if they believe that a charter might offer a similar education without tuition.

"I am very happy," said Ninet Ramirez, whose daughter had attended Catholic schools before enrolling in the Los Angeles International Charter High School near Highland Park. "They challenge her more," Ramirez said. "That's what I wanted."

Key reform strategy

The charter movement amounts to a tectonic shift in the educational landscape, the most far-reaching effort to reform Los Angeles schools in recent history. It puts L.A. Unified in sync with the Obama administration, which champions charters as a key reform strategy.

Yet the change was largely unplanned and unorganized, scarcely noticed for years outside of small circles of parents and educators, and it remains widely misunderstood.

Even now, there are those who believe that charter schools are private (they aren't), that they are run by for-profit companies (rarely in California), that they primarily serve affluent communities (the opposite is true) and that they are better than traditional public schools.

This last idea is driving desperate parents to charters in droves, people such as Katrina Calvert of Compton, who yanked her daughter out of their neighborhood school and took her to the Fernando Pullum Performing Arts High School, a new charter in the South Park neighborhood in South L.A.

"Thank God we're here!" she declared. "It's a breath of fresh air compared to where we came from."

Overall, L.A. charter students score significantly higher on standardized tests than their counterparts in traditional schools. But even some of the most strenuous charter advocates are wary of a blanket assumption that charters are superior, in part because they are so different from traditional schools and from one another.

Citywide, charter performance is so mixed that speaking broadly about it is like talking about the quality of fish. What kind of fish? Salmon? Goldfish?

Nearly 9% of Los Angeles public school students now attend charters, which offer great variety. Ocean Charter, a predominantly white, middle-class school on the Westside, emphasizes "experiential learning" based on the Waldorf model. The Alliance for College Ready Schools, whose 16 schools south and east of downtown mostly serve low-income black and Latino students, use a strict and structured adherence to state curriculum standards.

They include small, scrappy operations like New Los Angeles Charter, a 150-student middle school that carved space out of a church in the mid-Wilshire area, and institutional behemoths like Granada Hills Charter High School, a former L.A. Unified school that is probably the largest charter school in the nation, with more than 4,000 students.

There are charters dedicated to learning through dance, through science, even through German language and culture. Most, however, offer a fairly traditional curriculum -- more traditional, in many ways, than regular public schools.

Critics of charters tend to focus on three main arguments: Charters "cherry pick" the best students from traditional schools; kick out students who do poorly; and serve far fewer special education students and non-English speakers than traditional schools. Such practices could give charters a boost in standardized test scores, the primary gauge by which schools are judged.