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Activist Tries to Start Second Charter School

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Less than six months after opening Animo Leadership High School for Lennox students, political activist Steve Barr has set his sights on starting a second charter school for the neighboring city of Inglewood.

It was an easy sell for Barr, with support from Loyola Marymount University, to open Animo for the tightknit, unincorporated Los Angeles County community of Lennox last summer. The mostly immigrant Latino community, which had sent its students to other towns for high school, was desperate for its own senior high school. Barr has found doors opening more slowly in the larger, more diverse city of Inglewood, which already has two high schools.

The Inglewood district’s new superintendent, James Harris, said he plans to start an alternative school next year. He wants Barr to wait a year and give the district a chance to demonstrate its own reforms.

On Wednesday night, the five-member Inglewood school board is expected to decide whether to approve the new charter school.

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Like other charter schools, the Inglewood one would be a public institution but independent from the district, receiving funding directly from the state and from outside grants. Charter schools’ goals are to reduce bureaucracy and increase flexibility in meeting students’ needs.

If the board votes against it, Barr could appeal to the state, but he probably would miss deadlines for state grants that would be needed to open the school by September. Start-up costs are expected to be $500,000 and a location has not been finalized.

Some school board members have expressed worries that the new school would skim off the best students. Members also want to ensure that a charter reflects Inglewood’s school district population, which is 56% Latino and 41% African American. They also questioned whether the new school would compete against the district for grants.

While Inglewood’s elementary schools are nationally acclaimed, no one disputes the need to improve the city’s two high schools and its small continuation school. Inglewood and Morningside high schools scored the lowest possible ranking--a one out of 10--on last year’s Academic Performance Index, the state’s new accountability program for schools.

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Both schools were sued by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1999 on charges of failing to provide students with enough Advanced Placement classes. That lawsuit has not been settled, but since it was filed the schools have more than doubled their Advanced Placement courses, from three to seven.

Nearly 30% of Inglewood’s high school-age students go to private schools or other school districts.

Senior Zoila Juarez, 17 said she had tried everything to get out of going to Morningside but was unable to afford private schools or get into neighboring districts. “There’s just too many kids to handle. Some teachers don’t even try anymore,” she said of her school. In the end, Juarez, who wants to be a pediatrician, did some home study and took supplementary classes at El Camino College.

“A small alternative school--that would have been nice,” she said.

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But senior Gennay Banks, 17, a top student taking two Advanced Placement courses, said she has noticed the physical and educational improvements at Inglewood High. “We don’t have leaks, and the teachers are getting much, much better at their jobs,” she said.

Harris cites steady improvements as evidence of change.

Harris won’t say outright that he is against the charter school. He says that he is not interested in collaborating with Barr and is concentrating on the district’s own proposals.

Barr, who helped found the national Rock the Vote organization in 1990 to get youths involved in politics, says that the goal of his fledgling nonprofit Green Dot Public Schools is to build as many charter schools in urban Los Angeles County as possible. Barr is working full-time for the Green Dot agency but says he is not drawing a salary and has invested his savings in the projects.

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Selecting Students With a Lottery

Barr rejected criticism that a charter school would skim off the district’s best and brightest students. “The students will be selected through a lottery. We can’t pick and choose. That would be illegal,” he said.

Leaders of the Inglewood community say that they want to see how well the first Animo for Lennox does before they sign on. The new school has 140 students and is at the University of West Los Angeles Law School, which is in Inglewood, just north of Lennox but serves mainly Lennox students.

As with the first school, Barr plans to have a computer for every Inglewood charter student, and a small, academically rigorous atmosphere to prepare students for competitive colleges. Harris’ vision for the district’s college preparatory school also includes a laptop computer for every student and similar classes.

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Harris, who was superintendent of the Buffalo, N.Y., public schools for 10 years before coming to Inglewood in July, plans to convert one of the existing high schools into an arts academy, the other into a math and science academy.

But Nancy Ichinaga, former principal of Inglewood’s Bennett/Kew Elementary School, who was confirmed last week as a state Board of Education member, supports the charter concept. Ichinaga said that, in the 25 years she worked in the district, every superintendent promised to turn around the high schools. She believes more dramatic change is needed.

John Rogers, associate director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy Education, who has worked with Inglewood, is concerned that a charter would “take some of the students who are now at Inglewood High School and Morningside High School in the most rigorous classes, thus leaving the school with less academic strength,” he said.

Barr insists that a new charter would provide competition for the existing high schools and the proposed alternative school. “Inglewood needs two, it needs five, it needs 10 good schools,” he said.

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