L.A. charter schools learn it’s hard to find a place to call home
For students at Synergy Academy, Friday afternoons bring a lesson in nomadic teaching.
Classroom rugs are rolled up and pushed against the wall. Collapsible bookshelves are folded down and a mobile computer lab is whisked away. Cleaning supplies get tucked into one corner, a portable nursing station into another. That’s life when you’re a charter school renting from a Catholic Church that needs the space for weekend catechism classes.
“Everything we have is on wheels,” said Synergy co-founder Meg Palisoc, without a hint of sarcasm. “We’ve had to get creative.”
Despite a state law that calls for public school campuses to be “shared fairly” between traditional schools and independently run charter schools, Synergy and dozens of other charters in Los Angeles Unified School District have nothing like a regular school to call their own.
Charter schools operate out of churches, high-rises, warehouses and portable buildings slapped down on parking lots. Just this month, the operator of the CityLife Downtown Charter told the school board she’s held some classes in a park. She’s also described her current building as a “dump.” District officials may shut down her school partly because of its substandard “campus.”
The district, beset with overcrowded schools, typically puts charter schools on waiting lists or offers classroom space that is far away, too small or both. For the most part, district policy provides first for non-charter school students, then looks at what is left over to make available to charter schools.
Charters are funded with taxpayer money but are free from many restrictions imposed on traditional schools.
Tensions have spiked as the number of charter schools has exploded, with 40 new ones in the last two years alone. Few have been offered space on the many new campuses the district is building.
Within the boundaries of L.A. Unified, there are 103 charter schools. Of the 35 that applied for classroom space for the next school year, 21 were turned down or received what they consider untenable offers, three have acceptable offers and the rest are under review, as tallied by the California Charter Schools Assn.
“Charter school students have an equal call on classroom seats,” said Caprice Young, who heads the charter association. “The school district finds every way it possibly can to not give space to charter schools. The school district’s policy is explicitly illegal.”
Top district officials adamantly reject claims that L.A. Unified has violated Proposition 39, the referendum passed in 2000 that requires “reasonably equivalent” conditions for charter school students.
To date, the school district has provided more than 11,000 new and refurbished classroom seats (at a cost of nearly $103 million) to charters, and that’s not counting the 15 district schools that converted to charter status. About 43,200 students attend charter schools within L.A. Unified, which has about 708,000 students overall.
District officials say they will not and should not create new hardships for students in traditional schools in the interests of offering equity to those in charter schools.
“What am I supposed to do, supplant 300 kids at a district school and bus them out to another one in order to make room for a charter? I’m not going to do that,” said Supt. David Brewer. “All hell would break loose, quite frankly, if we started doing that.”
But is it fair to tell South Los Angeles charter school students that their classroom is on the Westside or even in the west San Fernando Valley?
“We do that to 7,000 high school kids in regular schools every year,” said Kevin Reed, the district’s general counsel. Reed was referring to the district’s long-standing practice of busing students from crowded neighborhood schools to campuses with space. The district’s offers to charter schools do not include transportation.
L.A. Unified may be “technically in compliance” with Proposition 39, but it is still not honoring the law’s intent, said Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, who helped write Proposition 39 and once headed the state Board of Education.
Synergy’s experience with L.A. Unified is typical.
Former L.A. Unified teachers Randy and Meg Palisoc quit the district to join the growing ranks of charter operators in 2004. They were determined to open Synergy amid the poor, mostly Latino neighborhoods of South L.A., but they struggled to find a suitable location.
The school spends around 11% of its annual budget -- about $100,000 -- on rent to St. Patrick’s, for its old schoolhouse building off East 34th Street, said Randy Palisoc. Because there is no cafeteria, a catering company delivers lunch each day, which the school’s 140 students, in grades kindergarten through five, eat under a canopy in a fenced parking lot that doubles as a playground.
Synergy has posted impressive early results, with test scores higher than nearby L.A. Unified schools.
Ideally, Meg Palisoc said, the school would serve about three times its current enrollment, but it cannot grow until it finds more space.
The school district has offered classrooms on a Westside campus 16 miles away. The Palisocs look longingly at a nearby site where a new L.A. Unified school is under construction.
There are many accounts of similar frustrations. Lincoln Heights Value School didn’t open as planned near downtown because it couldn’t find space on its own; the district offered classrooms in San Pedro, about 25 miles away.
California Academy for Liberal Studies operates in classrooms in trailers on a former used-car lot in Glassell Park. Having outgrown the trailers, the school last year applied to L.A. Unified but was offered half the needed space on a Westchester campus close to Los Angeles International Airport.
“There was no real intent to do anything for us,” said Ref Rodriguez, co-CEO of Partnerships to Uplift Communities, the group that runs the academy. “Our students are the second-class citizens of the public school system.”
The city’s largest charter operator, Steve Barr, received school board approval April 12 for eight more of his Green Dot charter schools in the Locke High School neighborhood. But it’s up to Barr to find locations and create classrooms. Green Dot applied for space for next fall to house five existing charters and received two denials and three conditional offers the group finds unacceptable.
Some of this year’s offers to charter schools are conditional because many district schools will receive new state funds to decrease class size. The effect is that schools will need more classrooms to house their own students.
Barr frequently laments the money and effort needed to find usable space, saying real estate problems pose, by far, the greatest barrier to Green Dot’s growth. Using a mix of negotiation and public pressure, Barr has tried unsuccessfully to persuade district leaders to simply hand over Locke and Jefferson High, two of the city’s most troubled high schools.
District officials acknowledge shortcomings in their work with charter schools. The district’s charter school office, for example, has only one person to help charters find space. And that’s not enough, said Gregory NcNair, who heads that division.
The legal boundaries of Proposition 39 have been tested in the courts. Two cases in other districts upheld the basic duty of a school system to make a good-faith effort to provide facilities. School districts must give “the same degree of consideration to the needs of charter school students,” one of the rulings said.
Charter schools were once pitched as a way to help L.A. Unified reduce overcrowding because they could create their own classrooms in nontraditional settings. Now, to some degree, they are competing for limited campus space.
Regardless, the number of charters will continue to rise, said Young, head of the charter schools association. Therefore, she said, the school district should integrate charter schools into its long-term planning, especially making them a bigger part of L.A. Unified’s construction effort, the largest in the nation.
Recent L.A. Unified bond issues set aside $120 million for charter schools, of which $85 million has not yet been allocated. Overall, the allotment for charters is a small piece of the district’s $20.2-billion construction program.
In one project, the charter group Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools was able to claim district-owned office space in South L.A. for one of its schools after L.A. Unified spent $3 million to move its own staff from the one-acre site.
The charter school association has decried the use of charter bond money to move district staff, but Judy Burton, Alliance’s chief executive, focuses on the upside of the deal.
She was able to negotiate a 25-year lease on the property even though under Proposition 39, a charter school is guaranteed only one year at a particular location, making long-term planning almost impossible.
On the downside, the property was supposed to be available to Burton’s school last fall. It wasn’t, forcing the school to move twice since the start of the school year. Amid the uncertainty, student enrollment dropped from 200 to 160.
For another of its charter schools, Alliance was allowed to use part of a district elementary campus, where it removed dilapidated buildings and invested $350,000 in new portable classrooms, bathrooms and water lines.
“Now that we’ve replaced the buildings and it’s all brand new,” said Burton, “the school district wants to use it.”
Burton persuaded officials to give her one more year while she seeks permanent space elsewhere.
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Charter schools claim the same right to space as regular public schools, but most have little access to campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District. How the district’s 103 charter schools break down:
15 converted to charter*
10 new schools use district property
78 are off district property
These are traditional schools that converted to charter status and remain on the same campus.
Source: Los Angeles Unified School District
Space to innovate
Charter schools are free from many restrictions imposed on traditional public schools. They don’t, for example, have to use credentialed teachers in nonacademic subjects, such as dance, and they are not bound by a school system’s union contracts. This leeway is intended to promote innovation that enhances student achievement. Some regular schools convert to charter status, and continue to operate on their district-owned campus. But start-up charters face the difficult hurdle of finding a location. Charter school supporters say the Los Angeles Unified School District is not working hard enough to find classroom space for these schools on existing campuses.
Source: Times reporting
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