L.A. groups bid to run 30 schools

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So you think you can run a Los Angeles school? Make your case. You’ve got 10 minutes.

Would-be school operators are taking part in a kind of Los Angeles Unified School District reality contest, presenting proposals this month at forums on campuses across the district.

It’s the next step in an unfolding process through which groups inside and outside the system are bidding to operate 12 low-performing schools and 18 new campuses, serving some 40,000 students.

The Board of Education approved the strategy in August, and the winners for each school will be chosen before March.

Amid intense competition, the bidders are determined to add popular support to their portfolios. Parents will vote for their favorite bidders, although their choices won’t be binding on district officials.

At Jefferson High south of downtown, at least 400 people braved last week’s storms to hear staff members offer their plans for revamping the campus. They are competing against L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s team.

And at Strathern Street Elementary in North Hollywood, five groups jousted before a standing-room-only crowd of 200 over the $62-million Julie Korenstein Elementary School, scheduled to open next fall in Sun Valley.

Three bidders want to run it as a charter school -- an irony, considering that retired school board member Korenstein was a critic of charters. Charters are independently managed and free from many of the restrictions that govern traditional schools, including union contracts.

Aprende Team Executive Director Rebeca Rodriguez presented her charter group as already expert in teaching the low-income minority students who will attend the school. She heads nearby Montague Charter Academy, a converted traditional school in Pacoima where teachers remain affiliated with the L.A. teachers union.

Magnolia Science brought a founder, a dean and a student to tout small classes, an engaging approach to math and science, daily computer work and strong test scores. And no sixth-grader would be allowed to graduate without being able to create a PowerPoint presentation.

The Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts in Hollywood plugged its arts focus; every child gets 40 minutes a week for drawing, dance and music, said Principal Karin Newlin. Her enrollment is two-thirds white; Newlin said she wants to take her school’s formula for high test scores to low-income minority students.

The Youth Policy Institute operates two L.A. charters and dozens of after-school programs. For Korenstein Elementary, its pitch is “wraparound” support to deal with all of a family’s needs: finding a home, getting a job, or acquiring language or parenting skills. The nonprofit isn’t seeking charter status for this school and said it would abide by district union contracts.

The last bidder was Local District 2, the regional L.A. Unified office overseeing that area’s traditional public schools. The district, which collaborated with area teachers, displayed the fanciest slides, complete with an acoustic guitar flourish. As go the slides, so go the schools, suggested Jack Bagwell, the local district’s director of school services.

He also noted that many high-performing elementary schools are in the Valley and said the district is striving as never before, reaching out to parents and developing partnerships with colleges, businesses and nonprofits, to provide opportunities for students and families.

Proposals by the district and teachers at these meetings were consistently popular: Employees turned out in large numbers, and high school students proved loyal to their teachers, as did scores of parents.

At the existing schools, many people perceived outside proposals as unwarranted attacks. Charter advocates have complained to L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, alleging a lack of district neutrality, such as a principal wearing a “no outsiders” button to a meeting.

“Charters have been serving the same communities for years and are a part of the community tapestry already -- we are not outsiders,” Ana F. Ponce, executive director of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, wrote to Cortines.

At the Jefferson meeting, a moderator from the nonprofit Families in Schools screened the most inflammatory comments submitted in writing. Still, the mayor’s team faced a challenge about faculty no-confidence votes last year that plagued the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the nonprofit that manages the 12 schools under Villaraigosa’s purview.

Partnership administrator Kennon Mitchell explained that the fledgling partnership took on many challenges in running historically low-performing schools. Its staff is now communicating better -- and already has accomplished academic gains, he said.

The mayor’s advocates avoided picking a fight, declining to dwell on Jefferson’s dropout rate or low test scores. Instead, they asserted that they could capture resources from the district and private entities. They pledged outreach to parents and flexibility and training for teachers.

The Jefferson contingent was asked to address why “bad teachers” keep their jobs and whether that would change.

Teacher Naomi White responded that Jefferson’s new small schools plan would allow teachers to hold one another accountable. And, Principal Michael Taft said that parents could visit any class, no appointment necessary -- which also would provide accountability, he said.

The mayor’s team also had points to make on parent involvement, citing “15,000 discrete incidents of parent involvement,” such as parent visits to a school, as well as new flat-screen TVs in the refurbished parent centers.

Most of the applause for the mayor’s proposal came from a portion of two rows near the front, where visitors from the partnership sat.

The nature of the event worked against them.

“We have a very competent staff, and they have helped our school improve,” said 17-year-old junior Felipe Villa after the forum.

“If the [mayor’s nonprofit] takes over, they will be credited with all our progress and improvements.”

“Jefferson is coming up on its own,” said parent Monica Trani, a legal assistant. She sees marked improvement in education and school safety since her sister graduated from Jefferson in the mid-1990s.

The next steps include separate and nonbinding votes by parents, school staffs, community members and, in high schools, students as well. Cortines will make recommendations to the school board for a final vote.