Charter Schools a Beacon of Hope

Times Staff Writer

Ana Alfaro had lost hope in the Los Angeles public school system. Her daughter was failing her middle school classes and didn’t feel safe on her overcrowded campus. Alfaro was ready to send her to relatives in Mexico to attend school.

But last summer, Alfaro received a flier advertising a new 200-student charter school in her South Los Angeles neighborhood. It did not offer a gym, an athletic program or extracurricular clubs. But an administrator with 12 years of success in the Los Angeles Unified School District was to run it, and Alfaro welcomed the chance to keep her daughter, Gabriela, home. So she turned to the College-Ready Academy High School, which opened last fall in a two-story building on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

“I’m so happy,” Alfaro said recently. “I don’t have to worry. I can leave my kid at the door and I can walk away.”


Thousands of low-income and middle-class minority parents like Alfaro, whose neighborhood campuses are low-performing, overcrowded and sometimes dangerous, are pinning their last hopes on the rapidly growing charter school movement, according to school leaders, parents and studies.

Publicly funded charter campuses are free from many state regulations, and offer a tailored and more innovative approach to learning than traditional public schools. They must be approved by their local school districts or by county or state boards of education.

Although their academic success and economic viability are mixed -- some have closed because of mismanagement -- charters offer tuition-free options for parents who are seeking smaller, more secure schools close to home.

A California legislative analyst’s office report last year based on Rand Corp. findings showed that charter schools statewide have a higher percentage of low-income students -- and twice the percentage of African American students -- than traditional public schools.

Charter schools are expanding in urban areas in large part because of a state-funded grant program created in 2001 that is available to schools serving mostly low-income students. More than 300 of the state’s 537 charter campuses serve predominantly minority and low-income students, twice as many charter schools as served that population four years ago.

Although that is still a fraction of the state’s 9,000-plus traditional public schools, such growth is particularly strong in Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and Fresno. There, the public schools “are not meeting the needs of the families,” said Caprice Young, a former Los Angeles Board of Education member and current president of the California Charter Schools Assn., a nonprofit group.


In California, charter schools in urban, predominantly minority areas claim waiting lists of hundreds and sometimes thousands of students.

Administrators talk of parents calling or showing up daily, begging to enroll their children even though the campuses have reached capacity through a lottery system.

One Inglewood charter school leader said parents showed up at 3 a.m. on registration day last fall and sat on the school steps waiting for applications. By daylight, the line stretched around the block.

Doris Alvarez, director of the Preuss School, a San Diego charter that serves predominantly minority students from low-income families, received 1,000 applications last year for 110 spots.

“We get tons of calls from disappointed parents,” she said. “They beg and plead. They say, ‘Our child is a really good student.’ ”

Demand has jumped considerably from several years ago, when few of these parents had ever heard of charter schools.


But critics say it is too early to conclude that charter schools are a panacea after decades of educational inequalities.

“The jury is still out as to whether charter schools are going to perform better than public schools,” said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy.

“But if you are a parent and your 12-year-old is going into a dangerous and distressing school every day, you do look for short-term hope. And charters do provide that.”

A study by Policy Analysis for California Education, directed by Fuller, found that charter schools serving predominantly African American students nationally hire more non-credentialed -- and less experienced -- teachers than regular public schools.

The report also found that although charter schools serve a higher percentage of low-income students, they receive less financial aid, including federal funds for instructional support.

Two other charter school studies in recent months offer conflicting research about students’ academic performance.


A U.S. Department of Education report found charter school students perform no better in reading and worse in math than students in traditional public schools.

A study by a Harvard University researcher found charter students ahead in both reading and math.

Charter advocates acknowledge spotty instability in the 13-year-old movement in California, including continuing battles over funding, facilities and oversight issues.

Despite the uncertainty, they say, a growing number of parents are willing to take a chance.

Angie Garcia seemingly had every reason to give up on charters. Two of her children were enrolled last year in an Inglewood charter that went out of business. She then enrolled her son in a charter school that, two months later, also was shuttered.

She called at least five others, but they were full. Her children are back in traditional public schools, and her son is complaining that his math teacher doesn’t take time to explain problems.


Garcia said she would try to enroll him in a charter next year.

“Charters are more like a private school atmosphere. That’s what I see,” she said. “Learning is better.”

When the state’s largest charter operator, the Victorville-based California Charter Academy, collapsed last year, nearly 60 campuses closed, including the one Garcia’s children attended. Most of the 3,300 kindergarten-through-12th-grade students who attended those schools enrolled in other charter campuses instead of going back to regular public schools, according to a report released by the California Charter Schools Assn.

Six years ago, Rochelle Mackabee, whose son attended a South Los Angeles public school, did not know what a charter school was. All she knew was that he would “never, ever again attend another public school.”

At the time, he was not learning to read. Bullies threatened him. One of his teachers, who was engaged to be married, talked more about wedding planning than essay writing, Mackabee said. Another teacher recommended that her son attend a junior college instead of aiming for a university. He was 8 years old.

Minority children, including her son, were the “kids they threw away,” Mackabee said. “African American children got kicked to the side.”

Home schooling seemed to be Mackabee’s only option, until she heard about charters. The idea reinvigorated her. She became a champion of the movement, educating other parents about charters.


Now she is director of operations at View Park Preparatory Accelerated Charter School in South Los Angeles.

Of its 600 kindergarten-through-12th-grade students, 95% are African American, and most of them live in the Crenshaw area of South Los Angeles.

Its test scores rank among the highest in the state, far outscoring elementary schools in the neighborhood.

More than 4,000 children are on its waiting list.

Anthony Kendrick, a South Los Angeles parent, said he feels lucky to have found the school.

Kendrick once visited his daughter’s science class at Horace Mann Middle School, where he watched students walk around freely, throw paper, pass notes and tell jokes during the lesson.

He dreaded the idea of sending her to Crenshaw High School the next year but, he said, “we didn’t have the money to take her to a private school.”


His wife heard about View Park from co-workers and church friends. It accepted his oldest daughter, and her three sisters followed.

“People who are gravitating to charter schools want their children to learn. Of course, it’s not perfect,” he said.

At View Park, classrooms flood when it rains. There is no gym for sports teams and no music room for the choir. But when it comes to safety and academics, he added, “there is a hunger for schools like this.”