About 200 people attended a special school board meeting Monday night at which about 40 people addressed school officials with concerns about the potential opening of a charter school later this year, with many of them fearing the school would focus on Armenian students.
Burbank resident Jennifer Anderson asked Burbank Unified officials how many non-Armenian parents would send their children to the school if it’s too Armenian-centric.
“I wouldn’t enroll my child simply because I wouldn’t want him to be an outcast or an outsider,” she said. “Although we can say this whole evening, ‘It’s not an Armenian school,’ I believe all indications are the student body is primarily Armenian… I don’t think that we should have a public charter school made up mostly of one demographic, and I think basically that’s the main concern here — that it’s just one demographic and what does that mean for the rest of us?”
However, the school’s lead petitioner, Julia Yeranossian-Aghishian, said the school would be open to all students.
It plans to teach its main curriculum in English, while offering students foreign-language classes in Armenian and Spanish, according to the petition.
Yeranossian-Aghishian said she has a personal motive for opening the school.
After moving from Armenia to the United States as a girl, she said she was bullied by other students in school, and with Giligia Charter Academy, she hopes to bridge the cultural gap for immigrants new to the area.
“I didn’t understand the culture. I needed somebody to explain to me what I was doing wrong. Why was I always being picked on?” she said. “I am trying to undo the harm that was done to me, personally,” she said, adding: “Our intent is to educate. Our intent is to bring about good citizens… productive citizens of the United States. I am so proud and so lucky to have been given the opportunity to live in this land…This is a land of freedom. And if that freedom is applicable to everybody, education is not a cookie cutter assembly line. Every need is different. What we’re trying to do is recognize that need and address that issue.”
Some residents were also concerned about whether the charter school would drain Burbank Unified’s resources.
Burbank Unified officials said the district could lose up to $840,000 annually in state funds should it lose about 120 students to the new school in the fall.
However, according to the petition, parents interested in sending their students to the school reside across the Los Angeles area in communities such as Granada Hills, Tujunga, Glendale, Woodland Hills, Reseda and Van Nuys, so the local impact may not be so high.
Still, other residents questioned whether the new charter school would set a precedent for charters to operate in Burbank, where there is currently one charter school, Options for Youth.
“I’m here because I really think Burbank is going down a slippery slope,” said local resident Vincent Precht. “Charters lure students away… It leaves the public schools gutted…The flood gates are going to be open. More and more charters are going to appear.”
Also, residents repeatedly raised concerns about why they only recently learned about the petition.
“It does feel like it was slid in, and we weren’t told,” said Burbank resident Lori Little.
Barbara Miller, immediate past president of the Burbank Council PTA, also denounced school officials for not notifying residents about the charter school earlier.
“This approval process has not been transparent and inclusive. Bringing this issue to light after the school year has ended and having the charter school open for the 2014-15 school year is a narrow window for a thoughtful process,” she said, then dozens of people in the audience applauded.
“I’m the first to admit that we’re not being as transparent as we probably could be,” said school board member Larry Applebaum. “But the process is not designed to be transparent and [state legislators are] the ones who designed the process. We didn’t. We’re following what the law says what we can and we cannot do.”
Burbank Unified Supt. Jan Britz said officials worked with the charter school petitioners for nearly four months leading up to the board’s conditional approval on June 5. Applebaum said he knew the district had received a charter petition, but board members did not obtain a copy until a few days prior to June 5.
At the June 5 meeting, school board members also learned for the first time the charter school’s proposed location. Although officials said initially it would open on Burbank Boulevard near Hollywood Way, the charter’s founders have since said the landlord of that property wants to keep the building a production studio.
Yeranossian-Aghishian said she is now looking to open the school in a business district and not in a residential area, although she declined to disclose names of cross streets on Monday.
The attorney representing the charter school, Janelle Ruley, said the school’s new address would not be announced until an agreement with the landlord is official. Yeranossian-Aghishian must give the district notice of its new address by July 7.
School officials said they have reviewed the petition on its legal and educational merits, and they could only deny the charter if it fails to meet certain standards, such as it does not appear to offer a sound educational program, it lacks the required 60 signatures of support or it appears to discriminate.
After reviewing the school’s curriculum and mission, school officials have not found any reason to deny it.
“The district is bound by the provisions and the education code… to grant a charter unless the board makes written, factual findings as to why the charter should be denied,” Britz said.
The Burbank school board will vote on granting Giligia Charter Academy final approval at its July 17 meeting.
Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.