Citizens of the World Mar Vista elementary school bills itself as a place where students learn respect and an appreciation for different perspectives.
But those lessons haven’t moved much beyond the classroom, according to the school’s administrators, parents and teachers. The charter school became embroiled in a months-long dispute with neighbors and the Los Angeles Unified School District that ultimately ended with the announcement that the school must move.
For the last year, the independently managed charter school has shared the campus of Stoner Avenue Elementary in the Del Rey area. Depending on who’s talking, the reasons for the move vary. Either it’s the result of a paperwork snafu, clashes with neighbors, unfair treatment by Los Angeles Unified or some combination of all three.
Although tensions among schools sharing a campus aren’t new, the recent clash is particularly charged, with allegations of violence, bullying and an anti-charter school crusade.
As a result of the dispute, the charter has agreed to split classes between a pair of Westside campuses, Loyola Village and Kentwood elementary schools, which are about a mile and a half apart.
“We need to put the needs of our children first. All public schools should be treated fairly, and a traditional public school would never lose its space,” said principal Alison Kerr. “I’d like for a charter school to be equal to that and be treated in the same way.”
State law calls for public school campuses to be “shared fairly” among traditional schools and charters that are publicly funded. Proposition 39, approved by voters in 2000, requires “reasonably equivalent” conditions for charter schools and that they have the right to use empty classrooms at underused campuses.
These arrangements must be renewed annually, and charters risk having to change locations.
Citizens of the World Charter Schools, which have two other locations in Hollywood and two in New York City, opened in August, with about 160 students in three portable classroom buildings. The shared campus can accommodate about 600 students, and Stoner enrolls only 365, according to L.A. Unified.
The school’s first year was marred by clashes with neighbors, who were angered by traffic and parking issues that Kerr said the school tried to remedy as best it could, with little help from the district.
Several houses next to the school have campaign-style lawn signs that read “Citizens of the World Charter School Hurts Our Neighborhood!” Residents, parents and students from Stoner protested the school. A number of confrontations apparently occurred just outside school grounds; both factions contend that the other was the source of friction.
Still, L.A. Unified extended an offer for the charter to remain at the campus for the next school year. But the charter’s paperwork to accept the offer inadvertently wasn’t returned by the deadline, and the district informed the school that it had to move.
School administrators contend they had made their intention clear and that the district has shoved them off the campus on a technicality. The district countered that it could do nothing more after it failed to receive the legally required paperwork.
L.A. Unified officials declined to comment other than to say the Proposition 39 process wasn’t followed.
Aside from space at the two schools, the charter will need five additional classrooms to accommodate its growing enrollment, which is expected to be about 250 next year. It will also need to pay $50,000 to the district for the move.
Many school supporters contend that complaints about parking and traffic were motivated by neighbors with an anti-charter school agenda.
Zaid Gayle, who has two sons at Citizens of the World, said he was saddened that L.A. Unified wouldn’t support and protect a school that promotes diversity and academic excellence.
“I’m disappointed that district administration bowed down to folks who have an ideological difference when it comes to charter schools,” he said. “They are not looking after the children.”
Jose Benitez, a longtime resident whose house is a block from the school in the Del Rey neighborhood, helped organize the community in opposition. Although the traffic issues annoyed neighbors, he said, the school also wedged a divide in the community.
The school boasts the diversity of its enrollment. About half the students are white, a quarter are Latino and 15% are black. Nearly 40% are low-income.
Opponents, however, say that the school failed to bring in enough students from the area. At Stoner, 91% of students are Latino, and nearly 90% are low-income.
“They didn’t service the neighborhood,” said Benitez, an L.A. Unified teacher. “Now somewhere else is going to deal with the same issues. Are they going to treat their new neighbors the same way?”
After accepting the new arrangement, Citizens of the World executive director Amy Dresser Held sent parents a letter sharing the news.
“Given our tough year at Stoner Elementary,” the letter said, “this will be a chance to meet new friends and neighbors.”