Near L.A. Live, parents press for downtown charter school

Residents of South Park have submitted plans for Metro Charter to L.A. Unified. They say a school that their kids can walk to is too important to give up.

If you ask young parents in downtown's South Park area near L.A. Live what their neighborhood needs, it's a decent elementary school, not a professional football team.

The city's revitalized historic core has become a way-station for up and comers, who move to downtown for the night life, the arts, the commute, the cachet … then move out when their children are born.

"You love it here," said Chinmaya Misra, who lives with her husband and daughter in an airy loft in a century-old building at 7th and Olive. "But you look around and realize, 'where am I going to educate my child?'"

For many the answer is somewhere else — Silver Lake, Mt. Washington, South Pasadena. "A lot of our friends have moved for one reason: the schools," Misra said.

Others have opted to commute, driving their children to the high-performing Solano Avenue Elementary near Dodger Stadium, three miles away.

But for a small corps of parents, whose friendships blossomed on weekend outings at their tiny neighborhood park, the idea of a good school their children can walk to is too important to give up.

They have the sort of skills you'd expect in a young, well-educated crew. There's a financial advisor, an urban development expert, a software designer, an educator and a couple of architects.

And they're marshaling those talents to try to launch a charter elementary school that would open in downtown next fall.

"It was sort of naive to begin with; just a couple of parents meeting at the park, bonding over our children," said Misra, who sits on the prospective charter's board with her husband, architect Apurva Pande.

In eight months of weekly play group/dinner party sessions, Metro Charter has evolved from a playground dream to a 150-page proposal, submitted for Los Angeles Unified School District approval two weeks ago. The school board will hold a public hearing in November and make its decision by early next year.

Even with approval, though, the school looks like a long shot. The parents have less than a year to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, recruit students, hire a teaching staff and find a location they can afford.

"We are really trying to make it work," said Misra. A September opening would mean a kindergarten spot for 4-year-old Anvaya.

But she wants more than a good education for her daughter; she wants to strengthen the bonds that neighborhood families have built through park outings and birthday parties over the years.

"If you asked me six years back, when we sold our house in Culver City and moved downtown, 'Do you think you'd stay in downtown after you had a child?' … I would have said no," Misra told me.

She's been surprised by the pull of neighborhood ties — and the revelation that friendships among children can make allies of parents.

There are two elementary schools within walking distance of South Park, serving a population that straddles skid row and the industrial garment district.

Para Los Ninos runs a charter school where achievement is rising. But 99% of its students are Latino,100% are "socio-economically disadvantaged" and two-thirds are not fluent in English. Nearby, on the edge of skid row, a rebuilt Ninth Street Elementary — once a collection of bungalows — will reopen in September, drawing many of its students from rundown residential motels and homeless shelters.

"The performance there has been frighteningly poor," said Mike McGalliard, who once headed the school reform group LA's Promise and now lives in South Park with his wife and young daughter and sits on the board of Metro Charter.

"None of us want to subject our children to that."

Does that make the South Park crowd snobs? I don't think so. But some people do.

"We've already been criticized in the Twitter-sphere" by people who suspect a new school would try to weed the "brown kids" out, McGalliard said.

Even some of the parents involved worry that their effort could veer into the sort of social redlining that will insulate their children from the realities of what they consider "urban living."

"Multiethnic is a draw for me," said Jared Birdsong, who has a 3 1/2-year-old daughter with wife Sonia Salinas. "I'm concerned that downtown could become a little bit of the Westside on the Eastside," he said. And the school could become "an enclave of affluence that shelters us and keeps us from connecting."

Part of the problem is that downtown is exceptionally fractionalized — the hip, middle-income loft and high-rise crowd versus the people trapped on skid row and the immigrants crammed into decrepit apartments.

The newcomers are driving development. They see a successful charter school as an investment — a way to push property values higher and attract long-term residents.

"Without it, this will always be a community in transition," said Misra, who works as a designer at a downtown architectural firm. "It will be the thing you do before 'real life' — move to downtown, have your fun, have a baby, and when your child turns 3, you move on.... That's not a sustainable model."

But it's a charged situation, the educational equivalent of gentrification of housing. Metro Charter families would be following the lead of parents in other mixed-income areas, like Hollywood and Larchmont, where disaffected parents launched their own charter schools, creating yuppie niches in largely immigrant neighborhoods.

Some see that as the downside of the charter movement; it siphons off progressive, moneyed, educated parents who create versions of diversity that they are comfortable with. But others see it as the salvation of public schools; a way to keep middle-class families from fleeing for private options.

McGalliard said Metro Charter is determined to reflect the diversity of downtown, which census figures show is now almost evenly divided between whites, blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans.

The school's founding board is a portrait of ethnic diversity. But the economic part of that equation may be harder to manage.

"It hasn't been easy, and it won't be," Misra acknowledged. But "this is about really belonging to this community and feeling that you gave something back."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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