District Board OKs Pacoima School's Bid for Autonomy


With words of congratulation and encouragement, the Los Angeles Board of Education unanimously approved Vaughn Street School's charter petition Thursday, giving the go-ahead to an ambitious experiment that will allow the Pacoima elementary school to pursue its own educational goals and virtually run itself.

The board's 7-0 vote--completed without discussion in 30 seconds--sealed an arduous process that for months has enveloped a group of parents, teachers and administrators who laid out a vision of smaller class sizes, collaborative teaching and a $4.6-million budget for the newly dubbed "Vaughn Next Century Learning Center."

"I couldn't believe it was so fast--I almost missed it," Principal Yvonne Chan said of the board's action, which prompted cheers from two dozen parents and teachers who stood and hugged each other in elation. Children presented flowers to each of the board members, who congratulated school officials and promised assistance if needed.

With the vote, Vaughn Street became the Los Angeles Unified School District's second charter school. The school board approved a third charter petition later Monday by a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that teaches dropouts.

But of those already approved and of five pending petitions, Vaughn Street's charter is the most far-reaching, incorporating changes in everything from school curriculum to who administers the campus payroll.

"It's as far as I think you can go within the charter limits," said Joseph Rao of the district's office of instruction, which oversees charter applications.

The state Charter Schools Act was passed last fall to allow schools to try to improve student performance in ways now hindered by the voluminous state Education Code. Under the law, up to 100 schools in California and 10 in any one district can achieve charter status, which continues the schools' public funding but frees them from state and local education regulations to write their own rules.

Ten schools--most of them from Northern California--have already become charter campuses, and two more will probably join them this month. The charters last for five years and are subject to revocation by local school boards but only if the charter schools mishandle money or fail to meet their stated goals.

At Vaughn Street, teachers and parents plan to reduce class size, share decision-making powers and exercise control over nearly all funds. Some classrooms will cluster children of different ages rather than separate them by grade level. Teachers will be grouped into teams of four and will plan together under the supervision of an experienced lead instructor.

"It allows us to do what we need to do . . . and change things that maybe officials couldn't because the district is too big or bureaucratic," said Stephanie Moore, a fifth-grade teacher who helped write Vaughn Street's charter. "It's our chance to put our money where our mouth is."

The teachers first submitted the petition to the district in February after weeks of negotiation among themselves and with parents and other school employees.

Disagreements over union representation for non-teaching staff members threatened to delay ratification of the petition, but its authors were able to work out compromises with union leaders--one as recently as this week. The school also had to negotiate with district officials over such thorny issues as liability and fiscal powers.

The charter must still be ratified by the state Board of Education--usually a rubber-stamp approval. Chan said she hopes to take the school's 40-page charter up to Sacramento on Monday so the board can act on it at their June 10-11 meeting.

But preparations for implementing the charter will begin almost immediately, she said. Before the new school year begins July 1, school officials--through a process established in the charter--must hire new teachers, hire a payroll agency and accountant, ready two new portable classrooms and hold orientation meetings for parents, who by law are allowed to opt out of charter schools.

They must also make sure liability insurance plans, health benefits and other personnel matters are taken care of before the year begins. But many of the details have already been worked out in the time since teachers first submitted their petition.

"We're not treading water anymore just waiting to sink," said Chan. "We're going ashore."

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