Granada Hills High School, one of the highest-achieving schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is campaigning to become a charter school, a change that officials say could lead the way for other academically prestigious campuses.
The Los Angeles Board of Education, which has a majority supporting charter schools, is expected to review Granada Hills High's petition later this month. If approved, the 3,800-student school would become independent of the district in September for at least five years, free to pursue its own curriculum and policies while still receiving public funds.
Only two other district high schools -- both magnets with enrollments half the size of Granada Hills -- did better in state standardized tests last year. A Granada Hills conversion would represent major evidence, national charter advocates say, that such top-scoring schools are dissatisfied with constraints from their school districts and that charter status can benefit them, not just academically failing campuses.
"What's happening is an increase in recognition that even high-achieving schools aren't serving everyone as best they can," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that promotes charters. "Their ability to do well for everyone is hamstrung by district oversight."
According to the center's statistics, Granada Hills would be the largest school in the country to convert to a charter.
But whether the Los Angeles district is willing to let go of such a campus is complicated by other issues, including the effect the conversion would have on crowded conditions at other schools and the fate of 200 mainly minority students now bused from downtown and the East Valley into the suburban, West Valley setting. Granada Hills High has one of the district's largest enrollments of white students in a Los Angeles high school -- 43% -- with 25% Latino, 25% Asian and 6% black.
Charter advocates say they would continue to bus students and maintain the teachers union contract. Also possibly influencing the decision will be the results of national studies on charter schools' effects on student achievement, segregation and resources.
The movement at Granada Hills High began 1 1/2 years ago, spurred by disputes with the district over calendars, discipline and, not surprisingly, money.
Parents and teachers fear that the school, which is now on a traditional calendar, will have to switch to a year-round schedule as many other L.A. high schools already have because of overcrowding. Many believe that charter status could prevent a switch to year-round classes while allowing such changes as extending the school year.
Principal Brian Bauer, who is leading the campaign for charter status, said the effort gained steam last fall when the district ordered the school to drop an attendance rule that was stricter than the district's. That policy, established by a council of faculty members, parents and students, gave failing grades to students with 15 or more unexcused absences. Bauer said the rule had boosted grades, set record attendance rates and led to millions of dollars in extra funding based on attendance.
"We were frustrated with the decisions being made elsewhere and having successful programs taken away," Bauer said.
Another sore point, he and others said, is eligibility for federal Title I dollars aimed at helping low-income students. Under district guidelines, 40% of a school's enrollment must be Title I eligible for the school to receive that money. At Granada Hills, 30% of students meet the criterion. But Bauer said a charter status would nullify that threshold, gaining $1.2 million a year for the school.
Bauer said the extra funds would allow the hiring of more teachers and development of after-school programs.
To encourage experimentation, charters are absolved of much of the state's complicated education code, but must still adhere to state academic standards and tests. Charter status must be renewed every five years, and a campus can appeal to the county and state if a local district refuses charter status.
Los Angeles Unified has already approved 52 charter schools and has applications from 10 others, including Granada Hills High.
Granada Hills High could be "precedent setting," said Jim Konantz, an assistant district superintendent who oversees charters. "I'm not sure if it's going to open the floodgates, though."
Granada Hills High's sprawling campus in the 10500 block of Zelzah Avenue is surrounded by typical strip malls and tidy homes. Its enrollment includes about 420 students in the school's math, science and technology magnet.
Many students and parents said they support the proposed change, speaking with disdain of a downtown educational bureaucracy the way civic secessionists in the Valley spoke of City Hall last year.
"It's good, because the LAUSD is messed up so bad," said ninth-grader Harmony Larson. "I hope we don't feel the budget cuts."
Parent Sonja Eddings Brown, a member of the school's leadership council, said the district has failed to improve schools. "The only way we can change education is with one neighborhood school at a time," she said.
But other students are more skeptical about giving the school too much freedom.
"They can force more rules like the dress code and attendance policy," freshman Sydney Simons said. Principal Bauer "is strict and he'll go stricter if he has the power," Sydney added.
Though many teachers districtwide question job security and oversight at charters, 121 of 123 permanent teachers at Granada Hills High recently voted in favor of the petition.
A minority of Los Angeles charter schools receive funding and some oversight from the district. But Granada Hills High is petitioning to become an "independent charter" with funding directly from the state. Like a renter, the school would have to pay the district for using the campus and maintenance for the football field and plumbing.
Konantz estimated a $1.27-million annual fee but said that probably would be reduced. Bauer said the price was too high.
El Camino's Petition
To some extent, Granada Hills' attempt is similar to one at another high-performing suburban school: El Camino Real High in Woodland Hills. El Camino's principal is Bauer's father, Ron Bauer. There is no date set for El Camino High's petition to reach the board and the charter idea does not have the same teacher support that it does at the Granada Hills campus.
The district is also investigating accusations that the elder Bauer intimidated teachers into supporting a charter, an allegation he denies.
As a whole, the teachers union has not taken a position on charters. Union President John Perez says they should be considered case by case, adding he has no serious concerns about Granada Hills' petition. But he said most of the current trustees have not been critical enough of charter initiatives.
That worries some Granada Hills High activists, who hope to complete approval before changes occur July 1 on the school board.
Six of the current seven trustees are frequent charter supporters, but two of them -- Caprice Young and Genethia-Hudley Hayes -- lost recent reelection campaigns. Incoming board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, a union ally, said that she could support charters, but that she wanted to look more deeply into the issue.
Incoming trustee Jon Lauritzen, who also was backed by the union, called earlier this week for a moratorium on charters, but later withdrew his statement when he learned such a move posed legal problems. But he's still skeptical, he said.
"Charters are designed to give schools ways to innovate," Lauritzen said. "If the district finds ways to do it for them, they won't need a charter."