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She sat in, now she’s shut out?

Aurora Ponce is senior class president, boasts a near-perfect A average and is UC-bound with plans to study engineering.

But according to the 18-year-old and her supporters, officials at the Accelerated School, a collection of South Los Angeles charter schools, have barred Ponce from making her valedictory speech at Saturday’s graduation as punishment for participating in a student sit-in to protest increased class sizes and the elimination of college prep classes. They have also taken away a summer tutoring job and other honors, she said.

“I see it as retaliation,” said the South Los Angeles teen. “I just want to speak during graduation.”

Officials involved in the actions regarding Ponce did not return calls seeking comment. They include Patrick Judd, who is in charge of the umbrella organization that oversees the Accelerated Schools; Elizabeth Oberreiter, principal of the Wallis Annenberg High School, Ponce’s campus; and Sandra Phillips, principal of the Accelerated School’s K-8 school. At least one referred questions to school co-founder Johnathan Williams, who said he was not familiar with the matter and would not release student information to the media in any event.

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“All I’ll say is this school is doing wonderfully by the children and the families and all the rest,” he said. “There’s no story here. Everyone is treated fairly here at the Accelerated School and Wallis Annenberg High School.”

Dozens of parents and students who protested outside the school Wednesday, many carrying posters calling for Judd’s firing, disagreed.

“I’m so angry because they are abusing our kids and the parents and the teachers,” said Aurelia Teodoro, whose three children attend the schools. Teodoro said one of her children, an eighth-grader, was suspended for two days for participating in the sit-in.

The Accelerated School’s family of schools serves more than 1,300 students from preschool to 12th grade. They are charters, public schools that are run independently of a school district and free from some rules that govern traditional schools. Accelerated’s students perform better on state standardized tests than those of many other schools with similar demographics, but they are still well below the state average.

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The schools are popular, with long waiting lists for admission, but critics charge that in recent years, what was once a collaborative environment rich with teacher and parent input has given way to top-heavy management that is not responsive to parents and students and is no longer transparent in its decision-making.

These concerns, along with class sizes increasing, popular teachers departing and some college-prep offerings being eliminated, led scores of students to stage a silent sit-in May 15 outside the Annenberg auditorium.

“We, as students, we feel like we are not being heard,” Ponce said. “The administration treats us like we’re ignorant.”

It’s unclear how many students were punished, but Ponce said she was immediately escorted off campus without her parents being notified and was suspended for two days.

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Other punishments have dribbled out since. She said she was not allowed to attend grad night with her classmates at Disneyland. On Wednesday, she was scheduled to give a speech at the sixth-grade commencement ceremony. Her name and her title of senior class valedictorian were printed on the program, but the administrators running the program declined to recognize her, she said.

Before heading to UC Davis in August, Ponce had planned to spend the summer tutoring students at the Jaime Escalante Tutoring Program, which will be housed on the Accelerated School campus.

She volunteered with the program last year, and now that she has taken nearly a dozen college-level courses, she said she would have been paid to tutor 25 hours a week. But Ponce said a school official recently told her the job was no longer hers.

“I’m going to college, I’m going to be broke,” she said. “I was going to save that money for books. It’s going to be hard.”

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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