Some Schools Quietly Cut Their Ties to L.A. District : Reform: Board will consider Palisades High and feeder facilities' bid to become nation's first charter complex.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Without resorting to petitions or politics, a group of Westside schools has quietly begun breaking away from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In a move that some say signals a trend and others consider largely symbolic, Palisades High School and the middle and elementary schools that feed into it are on the brink of becoming the nation's first complete charter complex.

"This is the best of both worlds: local control without the legal and political difficulties of a breakup," said school board President Mark Slavkin, who represents the Westside. "It's the logical next step for the Palisades and I think the logical next step for other high school complexes."

Administrators and teachers in the San Fernando cluster--a group of elementary and middle schools that feed into San Fernando High School--are also considering the charter district concept as one of several options for attaining autonomy.

"We've been discussing our future and where we are all going," said Joe Lucent, co-director at Fenton Avenue Elementary School in Lake View Terrace. "It's not going to be anything that's accomplished overnight. We just want to get everyone involved and talking about it."

The charter effort is also being watched by parents and teachers in three other high school regions--Bell, Belmont and Crenshaw--that also are considering seeking independence from Los Angeles Unified.

Many of the same frustrations fueling the current campaign to dismantle the district drove the Palisades group toward the autonomy afforded by charter school status.

"We felt the district didn't understand a lot of what was going on way out here," said Katie Braude, director of the Palisades Charter School Foundation, which includes Canyon, Kenter Canyon, Marquez, Palisades and Topanga elementary schools as well as Revere Middle School and Temescal Canyon Continuation School.

"We could see there were solutions to problems that we didn't feel the district was addressing," Braude said.

So they turned to the California charter law, passed in 1992, which allows individual schools to request freedom from most local and state regulations in return for proof of students' progress. It requires schools and districts to develop a contract spelling out how the charter will be run.

In the Palisades, what began as parents' panic eight years ago over declining enrollment and unpredictable busing into the schools has evolved into a coordinated plan for nurturing and tracking students from their first day of kindergarten to their high school graduation.

The Palisades plan, which comes before the Board of Education for the first time Monday, would give the complex far-reaching powers, such as the right to accept students from anywhere--including outside Los Angeles Unified--and the ability to transfer teachers within the complex at will.

But it would not allow the schools to operate financially independent of the district, as some charters do. Instead, it calls for them to join the district's LEARN reform program, which gives campuses more authority each year, easing them gradually toward fiscal autonomy.

"This separates out the decisions that count--the ones affecting students--but lets the district exist and provide services on kind of a contract basis," said Slavkin, who supports the charter bid.

The district staff considers the proposal a logical extension of Los Angeles Unified's own cluster reorganization, which divided the 640-school system into 27 families of schools in 1994 in response to an earlier breakup threat.

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The only lingering concern about the Palisades proposal is that it could result in more segregation, as the new independent complex draws more local--primarily white--children back from private schools, and pushes out minority students now bused there.

The charter contract, written by Palisades parents, teachers and administrators, addresses diversity, promising to maintain the current "ethnic balance as nearly as possible."

That balance includes some schools with the highest white enrollment in the district, but also reflects concerted efforts by the suburban schools to recruit minority students through such actions as meetings with parents in inner-city neighborhoods.

Those approaches were developed out of necessity as well as a sense of responsibility. The Palisades area could never produce enough children to fill its high school, where enrollment has risen from fewer than 1,500 students in the late-1980s--when it faced possible closure--to a near-capacity 2,300 today.

That growth has come largely through recruitment, from in and outside the neighborhood. As its reform effort moved into high gear during the last three years, the student population of the Palisades complex grew by a third, but became more diverse--its percentage of white students dropping from 46% in 1992 to 40% last year.

Joyce Baron transferred her son to Palisades High after three years at a private school, partly because the diversity of public schools more closely reflected Los Angeles as a whole. But what sold her were the innovations and higher standards she attributes to Palisades' growing independence.

"It's attracting students who are looking for something in education," Baron said. "They're there because their parents want them to be there."

Maintaining diversity will depend in part on whether the district continues to provide busing to the more than 900 minority students who travel from outside the area to attend Palisades High.

Agustin Gonzalez of South-Central made the decision to begin busing his two daughters an hour across the city to the Palisades 11 years ago, when they were in elementary school.

He backs the charter quest as being likely to provide students with creative class choices, but his decision was based on more elemental concerns.

"The Palisades is cleaner than the schools over here," he said. "It's safer for them."

Individual school board members may be motivated to approve the Palisades charter complex request--on which they must make a decision in the next two months under state law--because it will open up opportunities for other school complexes in their districts.

By law, Los Angeles may grant 10 charters. It has only one slot open, a result of last year's failure of Edutrain Charter School. But four of the Palisades complex schools are already charters, so combining them into one would create three more openings.

The concern for board members is Edutrain's financial downfall, which left a trail of bad feelings and debt. But Joe Rao, the district's charter chief, said Palisades' decision not to immediately seek fiscal control may ease those fears.

Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this report.

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