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Oxnard Activists, Educators Slam Chief’s Proposal for Charter School

Times Staff Writer

Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez hit the road this week to lobby for a charter school for troubled children -- and immediately found himself on the defensive.

The chief took a verbal lashing Monday night from community educators and activists who complained that he did not consult with them before proposing the school. The fact that the chief is using a school in Los Angeles County as a model for his program didn’t help matters.

“When did the Police Department become involved [in education]?” asked Jaime Casillas, a dean at Oxnard College, during a meeting Lopez held with about 40 community members at a downtown Oxnard cafe. “I definitely don’t need anyone to come in here and tell me what to do.”

Lopez proposed the charter school last month at a news conference with Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, saying it would be sponsored and run by the Oxnard Police Department.

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Although Oxnard’s crime rate has decreased by nearly 60% since the mid-1990s, the city has been the site of about half the county’s 44 homicides this year. Police say that most of the local homicides were not gang-related, but they acknowledge that with about 2,500 known gang members and associates in a city of about 170,000, there is a problem.

The school would target high-risk students in the third through eighth grade who are having trouble in the city’s traditional schools, Lopez said. The idea is to gradually place them back into regular schools and prevent them from later becoming involved with the juvenile justice system.

Lopez stressed that professional educators would be in charge of teaching students, and the Police Department’s involvement would be limited to extracurricular activities, presentations and field trips.

“We see this as a real need in our community,” Lopez said. “I don’t think people recognize that we’re not going to get into the business of teaching kids.”

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The school, with a proposed enrollment of about 50, would stress personal attention from teachers, discipline and heavy parental involvement. Lopez said he would enlist the support of county social service agencies, which would offer classes for parents and counseling for the students.

Although Lopez hopes to open the school by fall of next year, he said the idea is in a very conceptual phase and many of the details have yet to be worked out. If he succeeds, the school would be the first charter school run by a police department in the state, according to California Charter Schools Assn. officials.

But the audience at Cafe on A on Monday had no interest in making state history. They were perturbed by the idea of law enforcement personnel becoming involved in education. And they did not understand why, with so many locals willing to help, Lopez felt the need to go to Paul White, a teacher who runs an L.A. County school for troubled high school students, for guidance.

“They have a problem and they go out to L.A. for some reason. Why didn’t you think about approaching some us instead of going to him?” asked Jess Gutierrez, a former parole officer and local activist. “We don’t need to go to L.A., chief. We got a lot of people right here.”

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Things became even more contentious and hostile when White theorized that trepidation about the program had to do with race.

“I know you’re thinking, ‘Who’s this [white person] coming in here telling us what to do?’ ” said White.

“It’s not about [white people],” a young person in the audience shouted. “It’s about cops, dude. People don’t trust cops.”

Charter schools are public institutions funded with tax dollars but freed from most state regulations and allowed to remain independent of a school district. That autonomy, supporters say, allows them to tailor programs to students’ needs and to reduce bureaucracy.

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There were 471 charter schools in California serving about 170,000 children as of July 2003, said Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Assn.

Before Lopez can open the school, he must get approval from the local school district, whose officials have been in contact with him. Although officially noncommittal, they seemed receptive to the idea.

“I believe that families should have an alternative, and if the Oxnard Police Department is able to bring together a lot of different resources, then parents should definitely have that choice,” said Oxnard Elementary School District Supt. Richard Duarte. “But this is all conceptual right now. I would have to be assured that these kids would have the same opportunities” and that a standard curriculum was in place.

If Lopez can’t secure approval from the elementary school district, he can go to the county or state. He must demonstrate a need in the community, have a project site and be able to present a sound educational plan, said Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools, which runs five charter schools in Los Angeles County.

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“Unless [Oxnard Elementary] gets perfect scores and everyone’s completely happy, there’s no reason for them to be turned down,” Barr said. “The issue is not about being an outsider. The issue is whether there is a demand there.”

Lopez said he will assemble a group of Police Department officials to conduct research and try to procure grants. And although he said he would not go ahead with his plan without the City Council’s blessing, he said he was not discouraged by Monday’s comments.

The audience, he said, was not representative of Oxnard as a whole, and he will work with the community to allay any concerns.

“I’ve listened to people talk about what needs to be done, but sometimes we talk an awful lot and we don’t get anything done,” Lopez said. “We need to do something.”

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