Two L.A. schools get grants to clone their success. The amount is small, but the symbolism is huge

L.A. Unified Supt. Michelle King, pictured at Garfield High School in August, said Monday that new school planning grants from an outside group would help "increase the number of high-quality choices" for families.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. Unified and a pro-charter school group have taken the next step in an unlikely and controversial collaboration to clone successful education programs.

Two South Los Angeles schools — Public Service Community School and King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science — have won planning grants to re-create themselves in another location. The amount of money, $20,000, is small, but not the symbolism.

“These planning grants are another opportunity to increase the number of high-quality choices for … families within the existing framework of successful district schools,” L.A. Unified Supt. Michelle King said Monday in announcing the grants.


If it works, this effort will check off a major goal the Board of Education set for King: Compete with charter schools and reverse declining enrollment caused by the rapid growth of charters and other factors.

Charters are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. L.A. Unified has more charters than any other school system and enrolls about 16% of district students. Because education money follows the students, some officials have cited rapid charter growth as a major factor threatening the district’s financial stability.

The planning grants are coming Great Public Schools Now, a nonprofit organization that grew out of a proposal to more than double the number of local students in charters.

“Our goal is to increase the number of students enrolled in high-quality programs, and to do so quickly,” said Myrna Castrejón, executive director of Great Public Schools Now. “We believe there are many ways to find success, and these [L.A. Unified] schools have a model that works.”

The district proposals envision re-creating the two successful schools at two other South L.A.-area campuses that have surplus space due to declining enrollment. The schools are Gompers Middle School and Charles Drew Middle School, both of which rate as failing under the nonprofit’s test-score criteria.

About a month ago, the teachers union got wind of it and asked faculties at these schools whether they wanted to weigh in.


They did: Teachers voted overwhelming to reject any potential funding from Great Public Schools Now.

But so far, L.A. Unified hasn’t been much interested in the involvement or the approval of teachers at Gompers and Drew. Development of the district proposal was overseen away from the schools, by Christopher Downing, the senior administrator in the region.

Downing said he isn’t sure yet whether the new programs should be at high schools or middle schools. He hopes to set up meetings for public — and teacher — input early in December. The principals at King Drew and Public Service schools already have signed on to be involved, he added.

The district submitted only two applications for planning grants, and both got the money. They won’t automatically get the bigger sums for carrying out a plan, and other applications still can be submitted for that round. The deadline is March 8. Winners will be announced in early April.

Great Public Schools Now is willing to fund up to five proposals for grants ranging from $50,000 to $250,000 annually for up to three years.

Critics, such as local teachers union President Alex Caputo-Pearl, look skeptically at the dollar amounts and the pro-charter history of the group’s board of directors, which includes Gregory McGinity, executive director for the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and Marc Sternberg, K-12 education program director at the Walton Family Foundation.


Caputo-Pearl called the $20,000 grants a “cheap-as-you-can-get publicity stunt” compared with the many millions poured into local charter-school expansion.

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Editor’s note: Education Matters, The Times digital initiative, receives funding from a number of foundations, including one or more mentioned in this article. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Baxter Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the California Endowment and the Wasserman Foundation. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.