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What happens to 116 high school students when their charter school closes a month into the year

City High School voted to close the charter school immediately, leaving 116 students scrambling to find new schools.

Outside a synagogue on Pico Boulevard, home to the independent charter City High School, signs beckoned families to join: “Now Enrolling! 9th and 10th grade.” 

But on Friday morning, the classrooms were mostly empty. Instead, the blue chairs on which students sat for the last month were arranged in a circle outside on the courtyard’s cracked asphalt. Parents, students and teachers passed around a palm-sized stuffed lion and mourned the loss of their school, just a month into its second year.

“It’s like a funeral,” said Tiffany Bowen, whose son Sudan was in 10th grade. “You know how I feel? You know on the iPhone, there’s an emoji with a bandage on its head? That’s me.”

The charter school’s board of directors voted Monday evening to close the high school, citing financial and facilities problems. L.A. School Report first reported the news Thursday. 

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Mother Tiffany Bowen says she is so attached to the school she is already planning a get-together for the parents.
Mother Tiffany Bowen says she is so attached to the school she is already planning a get-together for the parents.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times )

The shutdown left City High’s 116 students scrambling to make other arrangements. As of Friday morning, all but five to 10 students had other options, including other independent charters and campuses run by the Los Angeles Unified School District, Principal Sheri Werner said. 

The school closing is the latest high-drama episode for an organization that has won praise for its academic strength but generated controversy within the local community. 

The high school was part of City Charter Schools, a network that includes an elementary school and a middle school.  City High opened last year on the Los Angeles High School campus with about 60 ninth-grade students, Executive Director Valerie Braimah said The plan was to add a grade each year, building up to 12th grade.

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But, this year, City High was displaced by a new all-girls L.A. Unified-run school. 

So the school district offered City High space at Dorsey High School in the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw area, but the charter school turned it down. 

“It was too far away. They didn’t offer us enough classrooms,” Braimah said. “And there was a lot of…opposition in the community at Dorsey to us being there.”

The charter turned instead to rented space in a synagogue on Pico Boulevard. The added costs meant that about 40 more students were needed to stay afloat, Braimah said.

Werner said she expected 150 students, but about 25 of those who enrolled simply didn’t show up.

Families and teachers share their feelings about City High School closing.
Families and teachers share their feelings about City High School closing.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times )

And the facilities had problems, including the lack of a working air conditioning, which would take weeks, and be costly, to fix, Braimah said.

Sarit Rogers, a parent and yoga teacher at City High, said some Westside parents had a problem sending their kids east to L.A. High in Mid-Wilshire, as well as south to Dorsey. They preferred a Westside location.

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City High served a diverse student body, but that was less true of City’s middle school, located on the Westside, from which the high school had expected to build its enrollment. Last year the charter’s middle school was 57% white, among those who reported an ethnicity (and a third declined to do so). In its inaugural year, the high school was about 28% white.

In contrast, L.A. High was 78% Latino and about 13% black last year, and Dorsey was 45% Latino and 52% black.

Rogers said she didn’t think the resistance to Dorsey was racially motivated, but Dorsey is below the 10 Freeway — in a neighborhood that some parents associated with crime and poverty.

“The Westside families that were connected to City Middle...were attached to their idea of everything having to be on the Westside,” Rogers said. “It felt like it became about entitlement and privilege.”

L.A. High is in the heart of the area that City had promised to serve when it asked the school district to approve its petition to open. And Dorsey isn’t far from it. City’s middle school is outside the targeted Zip codes, although it is well-situated for the Westside families who helped start the charter network. 

Students Zoe Miles, 14, left, and Pearl Green, 15, appear somber as they mark the last day at City High School.
Students Zoe Miles, 14, left, and Pearl Green, 15, appear somber as they mark the last day at City High School.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times )

Critics have long accused City Charter of concealing its real role as a school founded for and by prosperous Westside parents. These critics included parents at the district-operated Emerson Middle School, which also is on the Westside. 

Those parents were trying to revive Emerson as a strong neighborhood campus and resented that City siphoned Emerson students, who were outside City’s target area. 

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In 2015, L.A. Unified staffers caused an uproar when they proposed putting City Charter’s new high school into underused classroom space at Emerson. Within a week, Emerson parents gathered 330 signatures for an anti-City petition. Community groups joined their cause.

L.A. Unified eventually withdrew the offer, saying the school couldn’t spare the space.

City’s leaders have insisted that increasing diversity remains a top priority.

City High still was technically open this week, and some students showed up, though little instruction took place. On Thursday, those who came were bused to other area schools for tours.

L.A. Unified assembled a transition team for students after City High informed the district on Tuesday that the school was ceasing operations, spokeswoman Shannon Haber said in an email Thursday.

“We will continue to monitor this situation closely,” Haber said.

The closure also leaves teachers in the lurch. They will receive severance through the end of October and school leaders are trying to help them find new jobs.

“I have a family, and I’m the main breadwinner,” science teacher Sara Laimon Luke said. “I was planning on teaching about macro-molecules today — not looking for a new job.”

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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UPDATES:

7:35 p.m. Sept. 16: This article was updated with additional details.

This article was originally published at 9:50 p.m. Sept. 15.


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