The Los Angeles Board of Education voted Tuesday to convert Granada Hills High School, which has among the best academic records in the school district, into an independent charter school.
By a 5-1 vote, with school board member Jose Huizar abstaining, Granada Hills was granted a one-year charter, allowing it to pursue its own curriculum and policies while still receiving public funds.
The charter was granted for one year instead of the requested five because the school board wants to develop a comprehensive strategy on creation and supervision of charters districtwide before granting Granada a longer leash.
The Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that promotes charter schools, has said that Granada Hills, with approximately 3,800 students, would be the largest school in the country to convert to a charter. Center officials said the change could lead the way for other prestigious campuses dissatisfied with the constraints of their school districts to seek similar independence.
Board President Caprice Young hailed the vote as a victory for the charter movement.
"I think Los Angeles is one of the most fertile places" for the charter movement, she said. "We have a major facilities crisis, which means that charter schools are not a threat to anybody from a perspective of space.... This is a region of people with dreams and drive and the capacity for innovation. And we can harness that spirit for our kids." But the vote on Granada Hills raised particularly difficult issues for the school board because it loosens district control over a high-performing campus.
Also, some board members were concerned about maintaining access for students currently bused to Granada from other parts of the city because of school overcrowding.
Two hundred students, mostly minorities, now travel to the suburban West Valley campus from downtown and the East Valley. Even so, Granada Hills has one of the district's highest enrollments of white students in a Los Angeles high school -- 43%. Just a quarter are Latino, a quarter Asian and 6% black.
"We are talking about lives of students in one of the most diverse school districts on the planet," said board member Genethia Hudley Hayes, who voted against the charter proposal. "I am not clear why we are rushing to do this," she said.
Granada Hills officials have said that they will continue to bus students from those areas.
Board members also questioned how the Granada Hills charter school would reimburse the district for use of the campus -- a cost that has been estimated at $1.27 million a year but is still under discussion. Principal Brian Bauer has said that price -- the equivalent of rent -- is too high.
Bauer, Granada teachers and parents saw the board's approval as a milestone, although they would have liked to see a full five-year charter.
"It's taken us 2 1/2 years to get to this point," said Sonja Eddings Brown, whose son, Ben Brown, 17, is a junior at Granada Hills. "We'll take what victory we can get."
One of the driving forces for parents and teachers in the campaign was their fear that the school, which is on a traditional calendar, would have to switch to a year-round schedule because of overcrowding. Many believed that the charter status could prevent the switch.
Bauer, who led the Granada Hills charter campaign, said that he and other school administrators will work with district officials to clarify what the school's goals should be for the coming year. He noted that because most test scores are released in August, there will be few test scores or other measures of the charter school's performance available next year at this time.
"We're accepting the year," said Bauer. "Would we have preferred five? Absolutely. Three? Sure. But the staff will continue to adhere to the ideas, philosophies and actions associated with the charter. That's not going to change."
Most of the school's teachers are behind the conversion of the school to an independent charter, said Granada Hills biology teacher and United Teachers Los Angeles representative Angela Thompson.
"We realize that not every school is ready for a leap like this one," she acknowledged. "We want to be your new laboratory. We know what is at stake and we are willing to take this challenge head-on."
In other action Tuesday, the school board voted to approve Palisades Charter High's petition to change from a "dependent" charter, with close district ties, to an independent charter, with more autonomy. It also approved a five-year charter for a start-up campus, Ocean School, a kindergarten through eighth-grade school on the Westside.
According to LAUSD statistics, there are approximately 33,000 students now attending charter schools in the district. The school board has approved more than 50 so far.