Officials from the First AME Church in Los Angeles are planning to close their 12-year-old school in June and hope to open a charter campus next year, prompting objections from parents and teachers.
Officials from the city's oldest black church said the move to restructure the school was long overdue and that they were looking to improve academic achievement.
"We are transitioning the way we do education," said the Rev. John J. Hunter, pastor at First African Methodist Episcopal Church. "Our main objective is to provide the best education that we possibly can."
But Hunter, along with several of the Cecil L. Murray Education Center's board members who support converting the school to a charter campus, could face a rather large obstacle: California's education code.
Under the state's education laws, private schools cannot convert to charter schools, said Carol Barkley, a consultant in the charter school division of the California Department of Education.
The private school must be dissolved, and its charter replacement cannot serve the same students, employ the same teachers and staff or remain in the same location. Some schools in the state have taken these steps. In addition, California law prohibits state charter schools from teaching religion in any form.
Hunter, who succeeded the Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray in November, said he was aware of the charter law and was receiving advice from an Inglewood charter operator on how to close a private school and open a charter campus.
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run campuses that are intended to raise student achievement with innovative programs. More than 500 charter schools are operating in California, and there have been 300 new applications since June 2003.
Talks about restructuring the church's school have been underway for at least two years, Hunter said.
Last month, concerned parents met with the pastor and his wife, Denise Hunter, to discuss a variety of school issues, issues they said Hunter now uses to support his decision.
Their complaints included understaffing that has led to administrators performing multiple duties and working 10-hour days without breaks, the lack of office and playground equipment and the school's need to be repainted. They also requested a quarterly financial report to track the use of funds.
About three weeks later, the decision to close the school in June -- which parents say they did not see coming -- was made at a board meeting.
"It was voted in front of us. There was so much hustle and bustle that we didn't know what happened," said Alvarette Valley, whose two sons attend the school. "We wanted to put the board on the spot so they could be accountable for what's going on. We had no idea that we were going to fight for our school."
"I was shocked, devastated, hurt and blindsided," she added.
Parents are concerned that they will not be able to enroll their children in other private schools because admissions deadlines have passed, so their children may have no choice other than public schools.
Members of the faculty, meanwhile, are worried about finding work.
Tears streamed down Wendy Lemle's face during a meeting earlier this month that parents organized in reaction to the news of the school's impending closure. Not only will her son be without a school, her husband will be without a job.
Her son, 11, has attended the pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school since he was 2 1/2 and knew only one word: "ball."
"He's only known Cecil Murray Education Center," Lemle said. "To put him abruptly into a public school scares me."
Her husband, who does not have a teaching credential, has taught middle school science since the school opened 10 years ago.
Hunter said he would help place the students and staff in other schools. California's charter school law requires teachers to have credentials in such core subjects as English, math and science.
"The easiest decision for me would be to keep doing what we're doing, which is not working," Hunter told the group of nearly 70 people. "Running this school is not something the church has done well, and we want to do things right."
"We are a walking lawsuit," he added.
Although he would not give specifics about the problems that could attract legal action, Hunter said that not everything in the school was up to code and that there were problems with the structure, curriculum, management and administration that affect students' achievement.
"The school is not operating on par with the expectations the church would have," he said, adding that low test scores were among his main concerns.
The parents said they also were concerned about multiple grades being taught in the same classroom and a teacher shortage that led some instructors to run back and forth between classrooms.
"We don't have to be a lawsuit waiting to happen if [the board] would just give our bosses what we need," said Ephanel Andrews-Armstrong, a preschool and kindergarten teacher.
Parents spoke at the recent meeting and in interviews of a family atmosphere in which their children were finding peace and building self-esteem. They said they cherish the teachers who love and nurture their children -- teachers like Andrews-Armstrong, who ensures that any child who forgets his lunch receives food and who takes children home when their parents can't get to the school to pick them up.
They also spoke of working multiple jobs and long hours to pay the tuition so their children could have access to people who have become extended family.
Those things would not be easily found at a charter school or a regular public school, Valley said.
Hunter is undeterred.
"I know that hugs and love are important, but education is primary at the school," Hunter said.
Dessie Roberts, a member of First AME since 1945 and one of the 15 board members who voted to restructure the school, said low enrollment contributed to their decision.
The school was doing well financially when it had more than 200 students; now it has 75. Although annual tuition is $8,000, parents pay $4,000 and the other half is paid by the church.
"We need more students -- period," Roberts said. More students would allow administrators to bring back computer and music centers, dance and art instruction and a swimming pool.
"I think [the parents] are not seeing the big picture," Roberts said. "It's wrong to create this type of confusion when it's a nonissue."
Hunter envisions a charter school opening in the fall of 2006 with a challenging curriculum taught by a credentialed faculty. He sees an environment that is conducive to artistic creativity and extracurricular activities.
"We not only want a great name, we want a great institution to go with the great name," Hunter said.
The school would have to be renamed if it opened as a charter school, but the name would be changed back at some point to continue honoring the legacy of former pastor Murray, Roberts said.
Church officials plan to continue supporting the school through a foundation. The money would be used to supplement the $26 the school would receive per student per day from the state.
Although First AME supports the school, Hunter said it was nondenominational and would remain that way as a charter school.
"The primary focus of the school is not to evangelize but to train the mind," Hunter said. "The school is sponsored by the church, but it is not a seminary."
Because it is early in the process, Hunter said, he doesn't have all the details worked out for starting the new school.
The board has looked to Raymond Wilder, the founder of Inglewood Preparatory Academy Charter School, for help.
Wilder said administrators should hire teachers who share the vision of the school and ensure that parents are involved in their children's education.
School officials "must be for real because this is something very, very, very serious," Wilder said. "They need to be prepared to work. It's not easy, but it's worth every minute of it."